“I’d be lying to you if I said I thought he’d be a 50-home run guy,” Ricciardi said. “I thought he’d bounce around [the field], maybe hit 15 or 20.”
Perhaps the only man who doesn’t seem shocked at Bautista’s rise, the only man able to get his mind around this phenomenon, is Texas Rangers scout Mickey White, who, in 2000, was the Pirates’ scouting director when that organization picked Bautista, of Chipola (Fla.) Junior College, in the 20th round of the amateur draft.
“I gotta be honest: Our whole scouting group loved him. We loved him,” White said. “We saw him hit some balls that were just classic power-hitter drives. I remember I saw him hit one [homer] three-quarters up the light pole in left field. I immediately said, ‘Oh, we’re definitely taking this guy.’”
Unlocking his ability
No, the magic didn’t just appear out of thin air in September 2009. Nor, given the strides baseball has made in steroid testing, is it fair to suggest Bautista’s rise must have been chemically aided — a suggestion that appears with increasing frequency in the media, and which Bautista has steadfastly denied when anyone has had the stomach to ask him.
The ability, according to the Bautista camp, was always there. And toward the end of the 2009 season — in the midst of an intensive swing overhaul that was overseen by a pair of hitting gurus, former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston and current hitting coach Dwayne Murphy — it was suddenly unlocked.
The new swing is no secret. You can see the changes by viewing videos of Bautista in 2008 alongside videos of him in 2011. He is closer to the plate now. His hands are higher. His leg kick is more pronounced. His swing is more “wristy.”
As Bautista explains it, the leg kick — more specifically, the ability to time its launch and its drop — is the key to his reinvention.
“It’s the timing of everything,” he said. “I start [the swing] way earlier. It’s created a night-and-day difference, because I can get myself to that good hitting position consistently. I can see the ball better and attack the ball before it gets too deep in the strike zone.”
Though Bautista starts his swing earlier than before, by keeping his front leg high, he has been able to keep the core of his body back, then time the dropping of his foot with the explosion of his powerful hips.
“His swing is like a gun that’s always cocked,” said former Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez, now a television analyst for the team. “All he has to do is decide when to fire.”
It is quite possible Bautista’s hips rotate quicker than anyone’s — a “super explosion” of the hips, Murphy called it — since Bonds’s.
Where previous hitting coaches, always meaning well, had tried to get Bautista to “stay patient” and “try to go the opposite way,” Gaston and Murphy, recognizing his natural power, told him to be aggressive and look to pull pitches. According to Murphy, Bautista basically ignores anything on the outer half of the plate, looking instead for something “middle-in” to yank. Amazingly, of Bautista’s 54 homers in 2010, only one was to the opposite field.
There have been tens of thousands of hitters in baseball, and millions of hitting tips dispensed by coaches sage and foolish. And yet here, something clicked, and an otherwise unremarkable hitter soared into that “zone” that every hitter seeks, in hopes of having a hot week or month. Except this hitter got there and never left.
Is that magic? Is that perseverance? Is that great coaching? Is that dumb luck? Since logic provides no answers, and history no precedent, the questions hang out there, open-ended and awestruck, until this phenomenon runs its course.