When Kris Bryant, Jose Martinez, Cameron Maybin, and Steven Souza, Jr. enter the Cubs locker room (as soon as today for all four of them), they come as a direct threat to the playing time of David Bote.
Only Bryant directly plays a position that Bote has otherwise occupied, but the sudden addition of four capable righty bats is necessarily going to reduce the time available to a guy who’d otherwise been one of the few regularly-available righties.
The question is: should we be worried about the loss of at bats coming for Bote? Overall this year, Bote is hitting .228/.322/.443 with a 106 wRC+. Since August 12, when Bote has essentially been an everyday player, with the usual sorts of highs and lows that he provides, the line is a still unspectacular .236/.323/.418. There have been these little pockets in Bote’s career where he’s briefly been handed the keys to a consistent role, and he’s not yet delivered enough in those times to warrant starter status.
But when I look at the underlying numbers, when I see the steps forward he’s taking on past weaknesses, I can’t help but view him as one of the Cubs’ best nine options on the majority of days.
Broadly speaking, Bote’s batted ball numbers outpace his results so far. This is a guy in the 93rd percentile of baseball in Exit Velocity, and 92nd in Hart Hit Percentage, but someone who is seeing hits fall in less than they ever have. Even after a nice road trip, Bote’s BABIP is just .260 this year after marks of .333 and .314 in his first two seasons. His exit velocities should give him a number in the three hundreds.
That’s not the problem with Bote, however, never has been. The issue is always the strikeout column, and it’s not one that looks any better this season. I want to see Bote’s recent work, and this chart, and believe some progress is being made. He’s swinging at pitches outside of the zone eight percent less often, he’s making contact on pitches in the zone four percent more often. But honestly, it’s a tiny sample that I can’t in good faith argue means anything substantial just yet.
However, there is one area in the swing-and-miss department that I think we’ve seen a huge advancement in Bote’s game: fastballs. It’s no secret that the book came out on Bote after his hot start in 2018 that you could beat him with high heat. He’s a fantastic low ball hitter – you might recall a certain pitch I’m thinking of – but when he played more often in 2019, it seemed all he faced was an endless barrage of fastballs upstairs. We can all see the strikeouts on those pitches in our minds, can’t we? (Last night, Bert texted me: That’s the Bote hole!)
This is where we see the real change in Bote’s game. If I look only at Gameday zones in the top third of the strike zone and above, using Statcast data, last season Bote whiffed on 34 of 113 high two-strike fastballs he was thrown. A staggering number, and one that made him a fairly easy guy to gameplan against.
Ready for the improvement? In 2020, Bote has missed just 3 of 42 high two-strike fastballs he’s been thrown. Holy. Cow. These charts are against all pitches in all counts (and still a small sample), but look at the difference in expected wOBA in 2019 (top) and 2020 (bottom) on pitches up in the zone:
Query what to make of the reductions down in the zone, but I’d guess that’s part of the development process.
Attacking that hole in his swing is a subtle thing that Bote has changed, but I think it might just be the thing that puts him over the hump of being a worthy mostly-everyday player. Bote pinch hit appearances are generally nothing to complain about, but I’d like to see the 27-year-old continue to get rewarded for the consistent improvements he makes under the hood.
With a big group of righties joining the club this week, we’ll just have to see how David Ross coordinates his players and constructs his lineups. Bote may well merit more time than he actually gets.