For six seasons, Jose Bautista was the best power hitter in baseball. From 2010 through 2015, he slammed 227 home runs for the Toronto Blue Jays. Nobody else in the majors had 200.
That is not the version of Bautista that signed with the Mets on Tuesday and rushed to Citi Field to claim a spot in the lineup against the Miami Marlins. This Bautista is 37 years old and brought with him a .199 average since the start of last season, with 182 strikeouts.
“A lot of people have been striking out a ton over the last year and a half,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said, dryly, outside the Mets clubhouse before the game. “I think what we do is, we start with a little bit narrower focus — what he has done well, at least recently, and then build off of that. We’ll just see where it goes.”
On the first night, it went like this: a double, a run scored, and two strikeouts in a 5-1 Mets loss. When Bautista’s spot came up again with two out in the bottom of the ninth, against the right-handed Brad Ziegler, Manager Mickey Callaway replaced him with the left-handed Jay Bruce, who flied out.
You won’t find pricey superstars at home on the couch in late May, so this counts as another low-risk move for an extremely risk-averse franchise. While Bautista is worth a try, the Mets are basing their guarded optimism only on a whiff of a sample. In 20 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers for the Atlanta Braves this month, Bautista had two home runs, a single, and four walks. The on-base and slugging percentages add up to .913.
“The thing I focused on, if there was a statistic to focus on, was his O.P.S. against left-handed pitching,” Alderson said. “At a time when he was hitting .150, his O.P.S. against left-handers was still over .900. Given the way we expect he will be used initially, that fits pretty well with what we need.”
Bautista finished last among the 144 major leaguers who qualified for the batting title last season, hitting a meager .203 for Toronto. His O.P.S. against left-handers was just .629, which was actually worse than it was against right-handers (.688).
Callaway said he wants Brandon Nimmo, who has a team-high .410 on-base percentage, to stay in the leadoff spot. Michael Conforto batted cleanup on Tuesday, so Bruce sat against Smith. Callaway plans to put Bautista to work.
“We had three outfielders on the roster before we got him,” he said. “We’re going to use him to spell guys, and get in there and hopefully do some damage. We’re going to need consistent days off for three of those guys, so it’s probably three times a week, at least, he’s going to get in there.”
Bautista is the third Met on the roster well into his mid-30s, joining Adrian Gonzalez, 36, and Jose Reyes, 34, who made two errors on Tuesday and is batting .145. The Mets are not the Nationals, who just called up the 19-year-old Juan Soto, or the Braves, who recently promoted the 20-year-old Ronald Acuna Jr. They are not the Phillies, who have nobody on their active roster over 32 years old.
They are the Mets — old in some places, and flawed. But they are also still over .500, at 24-20, with two truly elite starters in Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. They are 18-3 when scoring at least four runs, so taking a chance to improve their offense was an easy and obvious move.
The Mets’ hopes hinge much more on the progress of their other three starters — Steven Matz, Jason Vargas and Zack Wheeler — than on complementary pieces like Bautista. Vargas looked good on Monday and Wheeler was solid in defeat on Tuesday, but collectively, those three are 4-10 with a 5.79 earned run average.
Bautista might not be finished as a productive player, but even if he is, he will not hurt the Mets very much. If the Mets cannot count on Matz, Vargas and Wheeler, though, their playoff chances may be irreparable.