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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Illumination of Jose Bautista

I can’t say for certain what it was, but sometime in early September, 2009, something seemed to click for Jose Bautista that hadn’t before. Prior to that time Bautista was at best an average utility man who was rapidly approaching 30 years of age. Drafted in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, he also never had a top prospect label dangling around his neck.  He was simply a nondescript Major League baseball player who made it with little fanfare. He never topped more than a .254 batting average or 16 home runs in any of his five Big League seasons with five different teams, leading up until his late 2009 illumination. 

On September 9, 2009, Bautista came off the Toronto Blue Jay bench and hit a home run against Jeff Manship of the Minnesota Twins, in a 6-3 loss. In the 25 games after that to finish the season, Bautista hit .286 with 9 home runs and 19 RBI. Although it was the hottest stretch of his career, nobody gave much thought to the way he ended the season. Even though he played multiple positions, there was no guarantee that Bautista was going to be a Blue Jay in 2010, given his veteran salary and the cost conscious team. Luckily for Toronto, he was still on the roster when they broke camp the following season.

Bautista absolutely crushed the ball all season long in 2010. Shocking the baseball world, he led the American League with 54 home runs, and came in third with 124 RBI. He also contributed a personal best .260 batting average and 100 walks. It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest surprise season in the history of baseball.

Throughout 2010 baseball experts seemed to be at a loss to explain Bautista’s otherworldly success. There was a story that he had been instructed to put a little more loft in his swing by a hitting instructor. There was another that’s aid he tried to hit a home run every time he came to bat. Every effort seemed to be made to label Bautista as nothing better than a one year wonder. Then there were those, who despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever, whispered about possible performance enhancers. Fortunately that theory never gained any steam and quickly dissipated. 

The Blue Jays made a long term commitment on Bautista before most others did, evidenced by the multi-year, big money contract they worked out with him prior to 2011. I have to admit that I was one of the people who thought that Bautista was going to come back to earth. Naturally, I was wrong. Not only has Bautista kept up his torrid pace, he has actually been even better in 2011. In 85 games thus far, he has hit .335 with 31 home runs and 65 RBI. If you project those numbers out over the rest of the season, he would end up with 53 home runs and 111 RBI. Oh, by the way, he is also on pace for 128 walks and 126 runs scored, showing he is not all about hitting homers.

Other than Roy Hobbs from The Natural, it is hard to come up with another player from the past, who compares to Bautista. The only person who pops into my head is Dave Stewart, who never won more than 10 games in a season during his first seven Major League seasons, before becoming an annual 20 game winner at age thirty for the Oakland Athletics in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Examples from other sports are sparse as well. There is Kurt Warner and Priest Holmes in football, and then after that I am at a loss to think of other comparable athletes.

We should all simply enjoy Jose Bautista, who has an excellent case for being the best player in baseball. He doesn’t demand the spotlight as much as he earns it. Yes, his late rise to super stardom defies baseball logic, but by all appearances, he is one of the hardest working and most well spoken players in the game. He is a refreshing change in a sports media culture dominated by negativity and scandal. It is impossible to not root for somebody like him. 

Bautista also represents the first baseball player since the height of the steroid controversy to put up obscene numbers and not have his every at bat negatively scrutinized. Yes, when he first started his metamorphosis, there were some ugly doubters, but it was pleasantly surprising to see how quickly that negativity melted away. Now in year three of his unexpected rise, it remains unclear as to what new feats Bautista may achieve. What is clear is that in late 2009, a light bulb went on for Jose Bautista, and it has continued to shine brightly on him, and shows no signs of fading.

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