There would always be a place for Jose Bautista in baseball. It just wouldn’t be a very hospitable place. As the decade of the 2000s wound down, he was in his late 20s, and whatever slight value he had was tied into the fact he could hit 15 homers in a season and play a bunch of different positions, and he wouldn’t ever complain about being a super-utility man. He could survive in this place, but his existence would be year to year, at-bat to at-bat, contract to contract.
But this place Bautista finds himself in now — well, how would you even begin to describe it? It is a lonely place, just him and a few dead guys, and a few retired guys, and maybe Albert Pujols: the best hitters in the game. And if you take out all the ones whose careers followed predictable, time-tested trajectories — enormous, youthful potential followed by a sustained period of absolute greatness — and the ones whose illogical trajectories were chemically enhanced, then, well, it’s just him.
Just Jose Bautista.
That’s why it is so hard to get your head around what Bautista, the Toronto Blue Jays’ right fielder, is doing right now. Simply put, it is unprecedented in baseball history.
There have been late-bloomers and 50-homer flukes and, during the steroid era, good hitters who became great, and great ones who became historic. But nobody has gone from what Bautista was from 2004 to 2009 — a player who, over the course of some 2,000 plate appearances across five organizations, proved himself to be wholly unremarkable, a dime-a-dozen commodity, a journeyman, what the stats geeks would call a “replacement-level” player — to what he is now, which is simply the best player in the game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody go from a bounce-around guy, getting traded and sold and let go more than once, to become the most prolific player in the game,” said former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who gave up a backup catcher to acquire Bautista from Pittsburgh in August 2008. “You see guys going from okay players to getting a chance and playing better. But to do this, you’d have to say it’s unbelievable, to be honest.”
Last season, Bautista, now 30, seemingly came out of nowhere and hit 54 homers — 12 more than anyone else in baseball — to shock everyone in the game. This year, he has made another leap perhaps just as significant, slugging a major-league-leading 20 homers (through Monday), but combining it with a .356 batting average, .502 on-base percentage and .791 slugging percentage. Those are Babe Ruth numbers, circa 1927. Barry Bonds numbers, circa 2003.
“It is somewhat gratifying, knowing that a lot of people were skeptical about what happened last year,” Bautista, a solid but not towering figure, at 6 feet, 195 pounds, said before a recent series at Yankee Stadium. “I guess I’m proving them wrong.”
Lots of people, apparently, have been wrong about Bautista for a lot of years, beginning with the five teams that found him unworthy of a roster spot in a dizzying eight-month period between December 2003 and July 2004. He was plucked from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ roster in the Rule 5 draft by the Baltimore Orioles, waived by the Orioles, claimed by the Tampa Bay Rays, purchased from the Rays by the Kansas City Royals, traded by the Royals to the New York Mets, then traded from the Mets back to the Pirates.
Even the Blue Jays didn’t realize what they had on their hands for at least the first 12 months they had him. Bautista bounced around the outfield and the corner infield spots — much as he had done the previous four years in Pittsburgh — until Alex Rios’s departure in August 2009 opened an everyday lineup spot.
And right around then, something began to happen that can only be called magical — in the sense that it is not entirely explainable by the visible world, or within the context of a century and a half of baseball history. Bautista hit 10 homers in the month of September 2009, then those 54 in 2010, and those 20 more so far this season — 84 home runs in roughly nine months’ worth of games, or 27 more in that span than the next-highest guy, who is merely Albert Pujols.
“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.’”
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.