It seems like every week Jose Bautista has another multi-homer game. If Jason Giambi can still hit three in one sitting then I guess Bautista should be capable of doing it on the regular, but as his homer total swells for the second straight year you still have to wonder how this happened? Certainly there are guys that peak a little later than others do to various circumstances. In Philly we had the late-blooming Jayson Werth. A platoon player in his late twenties who eventually turned into a 100 million dollar player (at least according to the Nationals). Like with Werth you hear baseball people talking about how they always liked Bautista, and his emergence gets written off as, “someone finally figuring it out.” Whatever it is.
When Bautista played against the Phillies last year I saw a guy who looked like he was trying to hit a home run every single time he came up to the plate. Just ferocious and at times uncontrolled hacking. There are guys that do this, and plenty hit a lot of homers that way. Think of Mark Reynolds, or someone of that ilk. Bautista was especially good at it last year, hitting 54 homers, but you had to think it was a bit of an anomaly. He came out of nowhere, the Jays aren’t exactly a contender so he’s getting pitches to hit all year, and in the end he was hitting just .260. He only had 56 singles last year. He was all or nothing. I think a lot of people thought Bautista would still flash power, but as the league adjusted he might backslide a little bit in both homers and batting average. After all, aside from a 16 game bit with the Orioles in ’04, his .260 average was also a career high.
Fast forward to this season and Bautista is hitting home runs at an even greater rate. He’s on pace to crack sixty in a year when pitching has again made a big step ahead of lagging offense. Still, it’s easy to say that it is only May and he could easily slow down. He’s still 42 homers away from 60. That’s an enormous undertaking, and that’s true, but I think what gets people this year even more than the power is that Bautista is hitting .353, which is 103 points higher than his career average. He’s getting far more base hits (already 22 singles this year), he’s striking out less, and it has had absolutely no impact on his power numbers. He did have a stretch like this last year, hitting 23 homers and batting over .300 during July and August, but that came after a robust .179 average in June.
The question is whether we’re just seeing another hot two months from Bautista and he will level back out into the .260 range, or if he’s made another step in his progression and is going to threaten the triple crown. What I don’t understand is why teams continue to give this guy pitches to hit. I know the Blue Jays aren’t a great team, but still you’d think opposing pitchers would make an adjustment. Adam Lind is really the only other legitimate threat in the lineup and yet every time you see a Bautista highlight he’s whaling away on something middle-in. It’s like the Cody Ross NLCS nightmare.
Of course the story right below the surface is that a good portion of baseball fans assume Bautista is cheating in some way. I’d guess easily 1 in 3 and maybe closer to 1/2 of the people I encounter speculate about Bautista juicing. It’s your natural response having lived through the era where guys turned into power hitters overnight. We innocently cheered them all on last time around, but now the first response is often to wonder about PEDs. You can’t help but notice the parallels to Luis Gonzalez’s career when looking at Bautista. Through the age of 29 Gonzo never hit more than 15 homers, he was a solid performer, but nothing spectacular. Then, in 1999 he hits .336 virtually out of nowhere and a couple of years after that it is .325 with 57 homers at the age of 33.
I think we all know what was happening there, and that’s the stigma that Bautista will have to deal with for the rest of his career, or at least as long as he keeps producing. A week back an SI writer said he thought that steroids were pretty much out of baseball. He cited the stats (where Bautista is the lone exception to the rule this year), and he could be right for the most part, or he could be incredibly naive. I’m not sure what I think yet. Bautista’s numbers are suspicious, but I think we at least have to see if he can keep it up for another full year. What does everyone else think? I think I know what the answers are going to be…