Who’s this season’s air force, the guys delivering the highest ratio of home runs to fly balls? It’s not a hugely significant thing, but it is interesting because it’s a reflection of power, generally among a subset of hitters who aim for the fences -- and reach beyond them.
Like the levels of scoring, majors-wide HR/FB ratios have gone down over the past six years, although it hasn’t been an inexorable slide -- the major-league average was 7.9 percent in 2006 and even 7.8 percent in 2009 before tumbling to 7.3 percent last year and then to 7.2 percent in 2011. To look at the leaders from the past several seasons, perhaps consistent with what you might expect homering on 20 percent of fly balls has become less frequent:
Looking at that, Bautista has a very good shot at being the first back-to-back champ in homers per fly ball since Barry Bonds did it in 2003-2004. Whether he does or doesn’t do it, the fact that you see several of the same people popping up again and again over the past few years should provide a handy reminder that this is a repeatable skill. Ryan Howard hasn’t regressed toward the mean (between 14-17 percent in the past three seasons) because it’s his statistical destiny; perhaps beyond any normal age-related decline, Jayson Stark identified the most significant systemic reason why; armed with better information and better tools, people learn and adapt.
Which brings us back to Bautista, the man who has essentially doubled his previously established standard for his HR/FB ratio in the past two seasons. After more than a 1,000 at-bats powering pitches into the wild blue bleachers at this level of production, it should be very clear that Bautista isn’t just some Brady Anderson knockoff. If you’re so inclined, you can blame the man in white, some variation of the breakfast of champions, climate change in Toronto or decide that Dwayne Murphy just must be the best hitting coach ever.
Maybe there’s even something to the last bit when you can consider the things that combined to hold Bautista back early on, like arrested development -- getting summoned up to the majors from High-A in 2004 as a Rule 5 pick would put a dent in anyone’s future, and history’s littered with A-ball hitters whose careers were stunted or ruined by being selected and then retained. Bautista had to follow that experience with years spent playing for several poorly run organizations before he finally arrived in Toronto in 2008. There, Bautista changed his approach, proving that in this day and age it isn’t just the men on the mound who can learn, adapt and succeed.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.