Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista went to New York this past weekend, and an awards festival broke out.
During a three-game series between the Blue Jays and Yankees, Bautista went 1-for-9 and got tossed by plate umpire Ed Hickox for arguing a questionable called third strike from Joba Chamberlain. But those rough patches couldn't dampen his spirits. He shared a hug with MLB official Phyllis Merhige behind the batting cage, signed some autographs, posed for a few photos and generally behaved like a man living life to the fullest.
Because the MLB Players Association offices are located in Manhattan, Bautista also enjoyed a visit from a friendly union rep bearing gifts. He received a big box filled with his 2010 player of the month and player of the week awards, not to mention some souvenirs from his first career All-Star appearance in July.
"I don't always get a haul," Bautista said, "but I did this time. It's pretty nice."
In this, the year of the pitcher, Bautista ranks on a short, illustrious list with Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton -- players who are making news by swinging bats rather than missing them. A year ago, his name barely registered on the Major League Baseball map. Now he's churning across the landscape with the force of Hurricane Earl.
• Bautista leads the majors with 43 home runs and ranks second to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera with 103 RBIs. He's obliterated his previous career highs of 16 homers and 53 RBIs with 25 games left to play.
• From the start of September 2009 through Toronto's final game in August, Bautista hit 53 homers. During the past decade, only three other American League players went deep that often in one September-to-September calendar year. Alex Rodriguez launched 60 homers for Texas in 2001 and 2002, and Boston's David Ortiz (58 homers) and Cleveland's Travis Hafner (53) did it in 2005 and '06.
• According to hittrackeronline.com, which tracks and estimates the distance of home runs, Bautista leads the majors with 17 "no doubt" homers. That's four more than Washington's Adam Dunn and six more than the Yankees' Mark Teixeira and Baltimore's Luke Scott. Bautista is averaging an estimated 404.2 feet per long ball, and amazingly, all 43 of his homers have been to left-center field or straight pull shots to left.
Bautista has enjoyed quite the coming-out party at age 29. You'd never believe that entering this season, his closest statistical comparisons on Baseball-reference.com were Jim Hickman, Wayne Gross, Adolfo Phillips and Eric Anthony.
"It's been amazing watching him," Toronto second baseman Aaron Hill said. "They stuck him out there and said, 'You're the everyday guy, go get 'em,' and he hasn't turned back. His power is ridiculous."
A long, hard road
Before Bautista became a late bloomer, he could be filed under "journeyman." He grew up in the Dominican Republic and hoped to sign with a major league team as a free agent out of high school. After generating little interest, he attended Chipola Junior College in Florida, playing third base and pitching on the same team with future Dodgers catcher Russell Martin.
Bautista won two early converts in Pittsburgh scouts Jack Powell and Mark McKnight, and the Pirates chose him in the 20th round as a "draft and follow." The plan was to track his progress the next spring and see whether he was worth signing before he re-entered the draft. Then the Pirates invited him to PNC Park for a workout and saw a 70-grade arm and 70-plus power on the 20-80 scouts scale. It was enough to persuade then-scouting director Mickey White to recommend giving Bautista a $500,000 bonus: second-round money.
"Everybody was talking about David Wright being this great offensive third baseman," White said, "but we thought our guy [Bautista] was every bit as good. We looked at him as being a middle-of-the-order hitter over time. Maybe it was going to be doubles and triples power, because he was a gap-to-gap hitter. But we always thought he would have power. Just look at the beauty of that swing. He generates a lot of bat speed."
During the next few years, Bautista became a classic case of how not to handle a prospect. He logged fewer than 1,000 at-bats in the minor leagues before Baltimore picked him in the Rule 5 draft and had to carry him on the major league roster. According to White -- who had since gone to work for the Orioles -- the Baltimore front office received orders from owner Peter Angelos to dump Bautista after he botched a ball in right field. Before the 2004 season was through, Bautista drifted to Tampa Bay, then Kansas City and the New York Mets, who traded him back to Pittsburgh in a package for Kris Benson.
Bautista was stagnating in the Pirates organization in 2008 when he fell into Toronto's lap. Scott Rolen was injured, Bautista was on the waiver wire, and the Jays had seen enough of him in the Grapefruit League to think he could help them with his versatility as both an infielder and outfielder. Bautista later earned a leg up on a regular job this season when he busted loose for 10 homers, 21 RBIs and a .606 slugging percentage in September 2009.
"Coming out of spring training, we felt in all likelihood that he would be an everyday player," Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. "But anybody who tells you they were expecting this would be lying."
Bautista has benefited from the tutelage of Toronto hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, who assessed his approach and determined that he needed a timing mechanism to start his swing earlier. After so many years of part-time duty, Bautista also found an advocate in Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who showed enough faith to put his name in the lineup card every day.
"People feed off each other," Bautista said. "When the front office believes in the manager and the manager believes in the players, it builds a chain of confidence. You go out there and focus on the things you need to focus on -- just seeing the ball and hitting it hard, instead of trying to get three hits one day so you can play the next. That's tough to do, especially when you're young. It's a little bit of what happened to me."
Bautista has been a perfect fit in one of baseball's most aggressive lineups. The Blue Jays lead the majors with 211 home runs -- a whopping 30 more than second-place Boston -- and they're 27th with a .314 on-base percentage. When Toronto's hitters see a pitch they like, they let the bat head fly.
"They preach, 'Get your pitch and don't get cheated,"' Hill said. "It's a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the sword type of thing. As much as it helps us be successful with extra-base hits and homers, we get ourselves out, too. Obviously the approach has been great for Jose. He's been unbelievable."
Bautista isn't the first player in history to enjoy a pronounced midcareer home run spike. Check out the portfolios for Roger Maris, Davey Johnson, Bert Campaneris and 1950s-era Kansas City A's outfielder Bob Cerv, and each has an outlier season that looks like a typographical error. In more recent years, Baltimore's Brady Anderson and Arizona's Luis Gonzalez posted 50-homer seasons that seemingly came out of nowhere.
The difference, of course, is that statistical blips were permissible in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when a big power number might be attributed to a new stance, a vigorous offseason workout regimen or a fresh mental approach resulting from a change of scenery. Now the debate invariably comes back to a man's character and the contents of his medicine cabinet. Fans have grown cynical, baseball writers have a guilt trip from their complacency during the Mark McGwire-Barry Bonds years, and any stat line that defies explanation arouses suspicion.
I've never used steroids, and it's proven. ... Players mature and learn how to hit and make adjustments. That's the key to my success right now.
”-- Jose Bautista
Damien Cox, a hockey columnist and associate sports editor for the Toronto Star, caused a stir in late August when he raised the possibility of performance-enhancing drugs playing a role in Bautista's breakthrough season. His story was headlined, "Gotta At Least Ask the Question." That led to a debate over whether Cox's piece was different from the 2009 analysis by blogger Jerod Morris, who was vilified in the mainstream media for raising questions about Philadelphia outfielder Raul Ibanez's home run total.
It's a no-win proposition for Bautista, who attracted so little attention and is now the focus of so much. He is neither defensive nor skittish when the PED issue is raised, but he wonders where the debate is heading. When the dialogue keeps shifting between steroids and HGH, urine tests, blood tests and the schedule for Roger Clemens' next court appearance, subtler and more thoughtful explanations for a player's personal growth are destined to get lost in the hysteria.
"I've never used steroids, and it's proven," Bautista said. "Everybody gets tested multiple times every year. I've gone through the program just like everybody, and I've gotten tested at least four times this season. My name should not have been on that article to begin with.
"Like I've said, it's a combination of things. People might not realize it, but you're not going to see the same pitches as an 8-hole hitter for the Pirates that you're going to see as the 3-hole hitter for the Blue Jays. If people really think you can produce at the same level in those two lineups in those positions in the order, then they don't know about baseball. Also, players mature and learn how to hit and make adjustments. That's the key to my success right now."
Baseball people who knew Bautista in his Chipola days wouldn't have foreseen his hitting 45 to 50 home runs someday. But White, who previously signed Manny Ramirez in Cleveland in 1991 and now works as a scout for the Florida Marlins, isn't surprised that Bautista has become a significant run producer in the majors.
White still remembers a scouting trip to North Carolina in 2002. John Maine was pitching for Baltimore's Class A Delmarva club, and Bautista was with Pittsburgh's Hickory affiliate. Maine caught too much of the plate with a fastball, and Bautista hit it off the left-center-field scoreboard.
"It's just like he's hitting them now," White said. "It looked like a 3-wood. When he hit it, it was like the wind got sucked out of my lungs. It was like watching Dave Winfield hit a ball -- one of those low line drives that just kept going."
White has a theory: Bautista is so athletically gifted -- such a pure "baseball player" -- that he has the rare ability to pick up a glove and play anywhere on the field. That prompted a lot of teams to put him in a nice, convenient box as a utility player. The power numbers may differ, but some parallels exist between Bautista and Omar Infante, who was widely regarded as a bench player until this season in Atlanta.
When Bautista won a starting job in Toronto out of spring training, the old scouts in Pittsburgh were pulling for him. White sent him a text with the message, "Play like the All-Star we all thought you were when we signed you."
Bautista has certainly lived up to that request. He has a box full of plaques and trophies to prove it.
"Whatever people want to believe, they can believe," White said. "But Jose Bautista is the real deal. Without a doubt, he's one of the best kids and eager-to-play baseball players I've ever been around. [Forget] the skeptics."
Is there room in baseball for an out-of-the-blue home run feel-good story? Jose Bautista is testing that proposition one swing and home run trot at a time. Ready or not, here he comes.