Be very afraid of Jose Bautista

We know more about baseball than we could dissect in a thousand lifetimes. Every pitch is tracked, every ball in play analyzed, every number computerized. Every player is rated, projected and graded.

We know everything.

Except we don’t. Which brings us to the amazing Jose Bautista ... the most feared hitter in baseball. There, I said it. Yes, more feared than Albert Pujols or Joey Votto or Josh Hamilton.

Bautista’s transformation from middling utility guy with a little pop to monster masher was well-documented last season, when he crushed 54 home runs, leading the majors by 12 over Pujols -- the largest difference by the No. 1 guy over the No. 2 guy since Willie Mays hit 13 more than Willie McCovey in 1965. Bautista credited a tip from hitting coach Dwayne Murphy to start his swing earlier, which resulted in a higher percentage of fly balls and more home runs. He began annihilating inside fastballs, hitting 53 of his 54 home runs to left or left-center.

Obviously, nobody predicted before last season that Bautista would turn into one of the game’s elite hitters. Not after his strange career path.

Bautista, now 30, was originally drafted by the Pirates out of a Florida community college, but the Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft before the 2004 season. In its “2004 Prospect Handbook,” Baseball America rated Bautista as Baltimore’s No. 12 prospect but did see some potential, writing, “Bautista has a quick bat and can catch up to the best fastballs. His power potential is his best tool.”

Because he was a Rule 5 pick, the Orioles had to keep him on their roster all season or waive him. Which they did. Tampa Bay picked him up. They sold him a few weeks later to the Royals. The Royals traded him to the Mets, who shipped him back to the Pirates. He ended up getting just 96 plate appearances all season. He spent most of 2005 in the minors and then served as Pittsburgh’s jack-of-all-trades and starting third baseman for two-plus seasons before he fell out of favor (the team had acquired Andy LaRoche to play third), was sent back to the minors in August 2008 and then was traded to the Blue Jays for Robinson Diaz. Let’s just say that one didn’t work out for the Pirates.

Anyway, back to my bold statement: After going 1-for-3 with a double and two more walks in Toronto’s 10-3 victory over Texas on Tuesday, Bautista has an insane .362/.522/.783 (BA/OBP/SLG) line, including an AL-leading eight home runs. If that seems Barry Bonds-esque, it’s because it is. Bautista has 23 walks in 20 games, something I’ll call the fear factor ratio. When pitchers are afraid to pitch to you, they walk you. Only seven hitters have played 100 games and had more walks than games played -- including Bonds five times (others are Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, Mickey Mantle, Jack Clark and Eddie Joost).

Tuesday’s game was a good example of how carefully pitchers are working Bautista. In the top of the first against Matt Harrison, Bautista came up with runners at first and second and no outs. (A rare occurrence for Bautista this season, considering Toronto’s black hole in the leadoff spot so far.) Yet Harrison worked Bautista carefully, walking him on five pitches, setting up an Adam Lind RBI single and a five-run inning.

In the second, Bautista came up with two outs and nobody on base and popped out. In the fourth, he came up against Brett Tomko with Corey Patterson on second and one out. Tomko walked him on five pitches, and Lind followed with a three-run blast. In the sixth, he came up again with two outs and nobody on. So Tomko challenged him, and Bautista drilled a double to deep left on the first pitch. In the eighth, he struck out swinging.

Sure, you can argue that it’s easier to pitch around Bautista since nobody else in the Toronto lineup is hitting much right now. Or that pitchers have to challenge Pujols with the likes of Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman tearing it up behind him. FanGraphs lists data via Baseball Info Solutions on how many pitches in the strike zone each batter sees. Here are the 2010 and 2011 numbers (through Monday) for Bautista, Votto and Pujols:

Bautista: 45.3 percent in 2010, 34.7 percent in 2011.

Votto: 41.8 percent in 2010, 42.6 percent in 2011.

Pujols: 44.2 percent in 2010, 48.7 percent in 2011.

Now, I told you we had data for everything. Bautista’s percentage does lead the majors in 2011. But it’s just a data point, and you can analyze it any number of ways.

In the end, this is really a feel thing. And right now -- April 2011 -- Bautista feels like the most feared, most dominating hitter in the majors.