Back in 2008, after a half-decade of great hitting, David Ortiz slumped a bit, recording “only” a 124 wRC+. At 32, it was fair to expect some decline in performance. An offensive line 24% better than league average — as opposed to the 45-75% he’d been sustaining — seemed like a reasonable indicator of that decline. The next season, Ortiz slumped even more, posting just a 100 wRC+, essentially becoming a replacement-level player in the process. It made sense to wonder if he were finished. He wasn’t, of course. Ortiz proceeded to put up a 148 wRC+ over the next seven years, retiring after this past year following his age-40 season.
At 36, free agent Jose Bautista is a few years older than Ortiz was back in 2008, but similar questions apply. From 2010 to 2015, the former Jays outfielder put up a 156 wRC+, establishing himself as one of the best hitters in the game. He entered spring training this year thinking big in free agency, hoping for a contract well above $100 million. Following his 2016 season, that seems less likely. Bautista produced “only” a 122 wRC+ — and, for the first time during his tenure with the Blue Jays, Bautista was a below average player, putting up just a 1.4 WAR.
Despite a disappointing season at the plate, though — and questions about his arm holding up in the outfield — the projections expect a rebound for Bautista. Our Depth Chart forecast calls for a 128 wRC+ and 2.8 WAR from Baustita, which would still make him a valuable player next season.
A survey of the crowd this offseason produced an estimate of three years and $65 million for Bautista’s next contract. Ranking the top-50 free agents, Dave Cameron guessed Bautista would receive three years and $75 million. Power is always in demand in free agency and Bautista has it, producing a .217 ISO this past season even in what amounts to a down year. Even with a bounce-back season, like the projections suggest, it will be hard for Bautista to produce wins at a rate commensurate with the sort of contract he’s likely to receive. The table below documents Bautista’s estimated value over three years based on his 2.8 WAR projection for 2017 plus a standard aging curve.
|2017||36||2.8||$8.5 M||$23.8 M|
|2018||37||2.3||$8.9 M||$20.5 M|
|2019||38||1.5||$9.4 M||$14.5 M|
Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)
That projection places Bautista’s value below both Cameron’s estimate and also the crowd’s. To be worth $75 million over the course of three years, and assuming a standard aging curve, Bautista would need to start at 3.4 WAR in 2017. It’s not impossible that he could hit that mark — Nelson Cruz did it this past year at age 36, for example — but it would probably take a 140 wRC+ or higher with Bautista’s defense, and that would be a big step up from this past season.
To determine how likely that might be, I took a look at all age-35 seasons from the past 50 years, identifying non-catchers who had recorded a wRC+ within 10 points of Bautista’s 122 and then went on to play at age 36, as well. At age 35, Bautista’s group of historical comparables put up a 2.3 WAR and 122 wRC+, pretty close to what Bautista himself did this past season. At age 36, the group declined just like we’d expect, producing 1.7 WAR and 111 wRC+. Of the 21 players, nine posted a wRC+ decline of more than 20 points. Fifteen of 21 players declined, and of the six players who got better, only five played in a full season. Three players (Andres Galarraga, Torii Hunter, and Billy Williams) saw modest increases like the one Bautista would need to hit his projections next year, and just two players (Darrell Evans, Dave Winfield) saw the big type of increases that would make Bautista worth $75 million.
That last group is simply a bunch of players who played at a similar level to Bautista at age 35 without accounting for just how good Bautista has been over the last half-decade. To find a group of players who might reflect Bautista’s excellence, I looked at non-catchers between ages 33 and 35 over the last 50 years who recorded (a) a WAR within 3.0 of Bautista’s 12.0 mark, (b) a wRC+ within 10 points of Bautista’s 145 figure, (c) a plate-appearance total within 20% of Bautista’s 1,856, (d) an ISO above .150, and (e) an age-35 wRC+ within 20 points of Bautista’s 122 mark. That collection of five criteria yields the following group:
We have a pretty good group of players, here. That these players were generally good through their mid-30s was no assurance that they’d continue playing well past that point, however. At age 36, for example this group — which averaged four wins per season from age 33 through 35 — recorded just a 1.7 WAR, declining to a 115 wRC+.
That’s not to say there’s a call for total pessimism. Because it’s a pretty small group, Sammy Sosa’s collapse hurts the overall figures quite a bit. Plus, Bagwell, Molitor, and Ordonez all put up above-average seasons, so it’s not as if Bautista doesn’t have a decent chance at a good season. Unfortunately, time isn’t very forgiving. The group averaged just 3.3 WAR from age 36 through age 38, and only Molitor’s 9.2 WAR during that span keeps the average that high. Jeff Bagwell’s (at 3.6 WAR) is the only other player to have exceeded three wins. The overall numbers are also hurt due to some players failing to reach their age-38 season. Playing into the late 30s is hardly a guarantee, even for players still performing at a high level a few years before.
We can take a different look by tossing out Bautista’s 2016 season and pretending it is some weird anomaly due to injuries that won’t affect him in the future. The outlook still isn’t helped much. I ran another set of comps, this time only looking for players similar to Bautista from age 32 through age 34, when Bautista was performing at a high level. The nine players who fit that criteria put up a 124 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR at age 36. That’s a little bit better than the comps above, but from age 36 through age 38, they averaged just 3.9 WAR, nowhere near justifying a $75 million deal. And those nine players averaged a 126 wRC+ and 3.4 WAR at age 35, exceeding Bautista at that age.
It’s possible that Bautista goes through an Ortiz-like renaissance, but the odds are stacked against him simply due to his age. To be worth a $75 million contract, Bautista would need to exceed eight wins over the next three years, and this century, only 10 players have done that. (That group of 10, in order of WAR: Barry Bonds, Moises Alou, Chipper Jones, Rafael Palmeiro, Adrian Beltre, Edgar Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jeff Kent, Steve Finley, and David Ortiz.) Only 25 players have even been worth five wins at that age since 2000. It’s not fun going around telling everyone not to sign players, but this is the free-agent class we were dealt. Bautista might come back and have a great year, but the odds are against him.