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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Jose Bautista’s Incredible Start Raises Questions; Are You a Believer?

Jose Bautista’s success was perhaps the most surprising development in baseball last season. Bautista, a 30-year-old utility player who had never hit more than 16 home runs in a season, astonishingly blasted 54 big bombs for the Blue Jays. The 54 home runs were enough to lead baseball and they tied him for the 19th most in a single season alltime. No longer were Jack Howell and Dan Pasqua his company, Bautista’s big season put him in the same class as Ruth, Mantle, Kiner, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez. How Bautista had done it was a mystery for which there was no clear answer.

Some people argued that Bautista had a fluke season and managed to stay hot the entire year. Others say he’s always been good but never had an opportunity to play consistently. Some suggested that a tweak to his swing put him on another level. Nobody really knows why Jose Bautista became so good so quickly, but we do know this: the guy has swiftly become the most productive hitter in baseball.

Bautista clubbed three more home runs for the Blue Jays Sunday, capping off a five home run weekend in Minnesota where he made the spacious Target Field look like a batting practice session at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Ponder this for a moment: the Twins had only hit six home runs at Target Field all season — SIX — and Bautista came in there and bashed out five in the same weekend. Known as a dead pull home run hitter, he even took a fastball away and sent it to the upper concourse in right field, a blast that could make powerful left hander Justin Morneau jealous. He’s making opposing players wonder in amazement, opposing managers look foolish, and he’s cementing himself as the top hitter in the game right now. The question is, are you a believer?

At the moment, I believe that Bautista is the most productive hitter in the game. His current level of offense puts him in the same class of Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 73 home run season in 2001. He’ll have to keep producing at his prolific one home run per 7.1 at-bats pace to remain in the same grouping with Bonds, but it’s extremely difficult to see him slug at the plate and not think he’s going to plow his way to at least 40 home runs this year. I still consider Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera to be the best hitters in baseball (as I have the past five or so years), but Bautista is outshining everyone right now.

Looking at Bautista’s historical numbers — a guy who is a career .249 hitter who never slugged over .420 prior to his monstrous season last year — it is still hard for me to complete buy into him as one of the best hitters in baseball. That his success has continued into this year suggests he is legit, but I still have to see him slug for another three years before we can put him in the category as one of the best hitters in the game.

If I had to explain Bautista’s sudden prowess at the plate, I’d liken it most to Andruw Jones who hit in the .260s for the Braves with 30-home-run power for most of his career. Then in 2005, he exploded for 51 home runs and followed it up with 41 the next year. Bautista’s 54 homer season was better than Jones’ 51 season across the board, and his follow-up season is also better than Jones’. But because of Jose’s lack of previous success, I have a hard time believing that this is who he is. I think he’s a guy who’s become a really good hitter, and someone who’s just seeing the ball incredibly well. But sometimes you enter a year and you’re not seeing it quite as well, so you end up not having as good of a season.

The two hitters in the game who seem to be able to avoid having down years are Pujols and Cabrera, and that’s why I’ve deemed them the best hitters in baseball. They hardly slump, and they almost always hit. Bautista is blowing them away right now, and it’s obvious he’s hot. But is he that good where he can keep doing this year-after-year the way they have for nearly a decade? Only time will tell, and I know I’m not the only one wondering how he’s getting it done.

In fact, Bautista’s incredible series at Target Field prompted a lot of questions in the Twins clubhouse Sunday. ESPN 1500 reporter Tom Pelissero tweeted “Lot of questions in Twins clubhouse about Jose Bautista. Read between the lines and it’s almost as if someone wants to float the “S” word.” Michael Cuddyer said of Bautista “He’s turned himself into the best hitter in the game, as far as I’m concerned. It’s pretty amazing.”

Look, given the recent history in the game where we’ve learned many of the top hitters were aided by performance-enhancing drugs, it’s fair to suspect anyone who’s crushing the ball. But with the drug testing in place and pitching dominating everywhere Bautista’s not, I don’t think he’s using. Instead, I just think we’re looking at a guy who’s refined his swing and is clearly locked in. Will he keep it up at this pace for the entire season? No way. Will he have a really good year? Absolutely. But the real question is in five years, will we be talking about Jose Bautista as the top hitter in the game, or that guy who had two great seasons muscling out 100 home runs? I don’t have that answer for you, but I’m not putting him in the class of great hitters just yet.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jim Mone



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