Jose Bautista, a gem? With his .222 batting average? This is just another case where a player’s “headline” number is rather misleading.

It’s true that Bautista has “only” 52 hits in 234 at bats. But 18 of those, or more than one-third of the total, are home runs. Another 15 have gone for two or three bases. Meaning that when he does hit, it’s usually not a single.

Bautista does get on first base a lot—through walks. In fact, he has almost as many walks (49) as hits (counting both bases on balls and hit by pitches as walks). Put another way, his on base percentage (OBP) is .350.

Bautista is not as “athletic” as the average Pirate. And he affected an “economy of effort” that led people to confuse him with a genuinely lazy player, Ronnie Paulino. But what Bautista may or may not lack in arm strength, he makes up with a sharp eye. He doesn’t hit often because he takes his walks. But he “crushes” the pitches that he can.

An extreme example of this kind of talent was Jason Giambi of the Oakland As (and later New York Yankees), who was endowed, with a “one in a million” level of eyesight. Like Bautista, he batted around .225, but took pitches and walks to the point where he got on base on just under half of his plate appearances.

Like Bautista, his sharp eye eventually led to home runs (although some of his power was ill-gotten through steroids). But factor out his steroids and power, by assuming  that every extra base hit was a single, and he’d still have been a highly valuable hitter.

So how does Bautista stack up against Andy LaRoche, his replacement. LaRoche does have a slightly better batting average, .233. But LaRoche also has 15 fewer home runs, and 10 fewer extra base hits. Counting walks, his on base percentage is only 296. Bautista is a slight liability as a fielder, but so, nowadays, is the error-prone LaRoche, after a stellar 2009.

The last set of facts is analogous to how LaRoche typically gets to a .250 average. That’s in an unusual, Charlie Morton-like way, by hugging extremes. He’ll have stretches, for nearly half a season, of hitting about .300, and other stretches where his average is more like .200. Netting them against each other gives him about .250. History suggests that he’ll “improve,” slightly,from here.

When they traded for him, the Pirates saw LaRoche put up a .300 stretch and (wrongly) thought that was typical of his performance. They also saw Bautista’s anemic batting average, and overlooked his other virtues.

If the Pirates had traded Bautista for LaRoche “straight up,” it would have been a bad deal. But they did worse than that. They traded for LaRoche (plus two busted prospects, Craig Hansen and Brandon Moss, and injury-hobbled Bryan Morris) using star outfielder Jason Bay.

Then they turned around and dumped Bautista for a backup catcher, Jason Jaramillo. Netting Bautista against LaRoche (which is being kind to the Pirates) they traded Bay for three mediocre “advanced” prospects, plus Morris.

In some regards, Bautista can be compared with Nate McLouth. The latter hit 25 home runs in 2008 and 20 in 2009. With 18 home runs and less than half the season gone, Bautista is on track to outslug McLouth. Batista’s OBP approximates McLouth’s 2009 tally of .352. (Forget about McLouth’s terrible 2010.) Like LaRoche, McLouth does have a slightly better batting average than Bautista, and like LaRoche, McLouth is a liability on the field, (his “golden glove” given for his HITTING reputation not withstanding).

Many Pirate fans groaned when we traded Nate McLouth. Few (other than yours truly) felt the same way about Jose Bautista. But we got far more for McLouth (a mixed performance from Charlie Morton plus two other prospects) than for Jose Bautista (Jaramillo). Even though Bautista is now the more valuable player.


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