*Editor’s Note: This piece is a featured guest appearance from “Wes Kepstro” with a few thoughts on the loss of Joey Bats.
I remember watching Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and the rest of ‘Our Gang’ years ago. A friend of mine and I got a kick out of the old-time kids’ show, repeating lines to one another and laughing hysterically the whole time. In this particular episode the Gang was in another impossible jam and the camera focused on Buckwheat, who shrugged his shoulders and with eyes as big as plates, and palms turned upwards, asked “what do I do now?” That one got a lot of mileage with us.
As Jose Bautista goes under the knife for recurring wrist problems, the Jays have their own impossible jam. How is so valuable a player replaced? The tangibles are splashed all over baseball websites; the intangibles are familiar to Jays’ brass, teammates, and fans. He’s the potent bat in the third slot, whose specialties include walks and home runs. He’s the leader on the field, in the clubhouse, and he mentors young players. But the young players have been called up to replace him instead of learn from him. No more potent bat, and no more leading by example. At least, not in the way we hope. Now, by the process of elimination, his only leadership will be verbal.
Mercifully, it’s rare to have such a solid example of the value of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in a season. It’s not just a theoretical value: it’s taken a very practical turn. Typically, the player in view when WAR is used is a solid AAA or better (i.e. ‘AAAA’) player. The Jays, partly driven by necessity, have used prospects to replace Jose Bautista.
The past three years have seen the debut of ‘The Jose Bautista Show’. He emerged from obscurity in a way that set the baseball world abuzz, especially Blue Jays fans. His production has kept Jays’ fans mindful of franchise icons George Bell, Fred McGriff, Carlos Delgado, and others. His Triple Crown stats are impressive (124 HR, 292 RBI, .271 BA), but nothing that you wouldn’t find in a typical three-year stretch from a player like Adam Dunn. In that time he’s accumulated 18.3 fWAR, which includes a slow finish in ’11 and a slow start in ’12. His ISO has been .357, .306, and .286. Most Jays’ fans are aware that he finished fourth (’10), and third (’11) in MVP voting, won Silver Sluggers both seasons, and has been selected to represent the Jays on the American League All Star team each of those three seasons.
His impact isn’t limited to offense; he’s also been solid defensively. This is what sets him apart from players like Adam Dunn. It’s a facet to his game that makes replacing him so difficult. However, with 11 errors and declining range, he’s not great defensively. His UZR (-4.3, -8.6, and 0.5 the last three seasons) is unimpressive, suggesting that if he has any positive defensive value, it lies elsewhere. First he’s versatile, meaning that, while his defense at 1B/3B (28.0 innings total) or 3B (602.0 innings), isn’t remarkable, his bat remains in the line-up. Second, his strong arm in RF is a difference-maker. His 36 assists offer the obvious (outs; fewer base runners), as well as the not-so-obvious (a reputation; fewer extra bases taken). It’s not great defense but it needs to be replaced because at the tail end of a frustrating season, Jose will be recovering and recuperating from wrist surgery. As Buckwheat asked, “What do I do now?” Enter Anthony Gose and Moises Sierra, two promising young players in the Jays’ system.
In limited time, these two players with no previous MLB experience have underwhelmed. Anthony Gose has been pretty solid in the field, but overmatched at the plate. Sierra has looked shaky in the field, but has been solid at the plate. To be fair (and reasonable), neither player was expected to step in and deliver Bautista-esque numbers. This makes it a solid example of the practical side of WAR. In very limited action, Gose and Sierra have produced -0.2 WAR each. This means that their production could be replaced with relative ease by another player from the farm, a waiver-wire pick up, etc. The question for the Jays, in the midst of an injury-plagued season, is ‘who gets the call?’
Not surprisingly, then, since his injury on July 16 the Jays have faltered badly. This isn’t happening in a vacuum, though. Other Jays have missed time since July 16, notably: JP Arencibia and Brett Lawrie. Others have seen time on the DL, or missed several games (e.g. Yunel Escobar). But Jose’s the best of the bunch, making him the most significant loss. They were 45-45 when he was injured; they’re 57-71 now. There’s no simple one-to-one correspondence, of course, but in the 37 games (including his brief return) the Jays are 12-26 with losing streaks of five, six, and seven games.
How is so valuable a player replaced? He isn’t. And in a season when the Jays were unlikely to contend, it’s not crucial to replace him with a player of similar value. This is amplified by the several other injuries that have occurred. Replacing Bautista with a player like Justin Upton doesn’t preclude the necessity to replace Arencibia, Lawrie, and all the others who have been injured. It’s been a struggle for the Jays to win without Bautista, but the page needs to be turned. No longer is WAR the key interpretive metric: now it’s simply an opportunity for young players like Sierra and Gose to get their feet wet. The most important question now is, ‘when will Jose Bautista be back?’ The second is related to it: ‘will he be the same player?’