By Nick Craddock
If you had asked me this time last year whether or not Jose “Joey Bats” Bautista was worth a five-year, $65 million guaranteed contract, I would have been skeptical.
Fast forward to the present and I think Bautista, third baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays and one of the game’s relatively unknown sluggers, not only deserves his contract, but every single one of the record 7.4 million fan votes he received to be selected to the MLB All-Star Game.
To say the 2009-2010 campaign was a breakout campaign for Bautista would be an understatement. After failing to hit more than 16 home runs in any of his previous six Major League seasons, Bautista went yard an astonishing 54 times last season.
Most people would have given Bautista the same odds of reaching the 50-homer plateau last year as they would’ve given me, a career .000 hitter with zero home runs, zero RBI and one stolen base**
“Anomaly,” “fluke” and “performance-enhanced” were adjectives most commonly associated with Bautista’s rise from ambiguity as a 29-year-old journeyman whose career looked as if it would only further decline.
Well, 28 home runs and a substantially improved batting average into this season (Bautista hit .260 last year and is currently sitting at .331) and I’m sold on Bautista being the real deal — without the aid of HGH injected into his buttocks from one of his closest teammates.
Understandably, baseball’s tarnished reputation over the past 15-20 years and the number of sluggers who were cheating by using steroids, automatically casts a shadow of doubt on Bautista’s sudden and surprising success.
However, it is important to note that Bautista’s body has remained the same during his time in Toronto and he hasn’t undergone a Barry Bonds-like transformation — from Twiggy to Michelin Man — in a span of a Big League career.
I’m inclined to believe that Bautista was simply a late bloomer, who failed to find the right mechanics and situation earlier in his career.
In his first season alone, Bautista played for four teams and then ultimately latched on with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a franchise that doesn’t ring synonymous with success, in 2005, in a backup role.
As a backup, Bautista wasn’t getting the same number of at-bats one would expect from an everyday player and prior to last season’s career-high 569 appearances at the plate, Bautista eclipsed the 500 at-bat mark only one other time in his career.
Naturally, fewer at-bats means fewer chances to rack up big numbers. And when former Pirate Jason Bay is the only offensive threat in your lineup, it also makes it difficult to record gaudier statistics.
Most importantly, when the Pirates traded Bautista to the Jays for xxx, who has hit one career home run (way to not suck, Pirates) Bautista found the right situation.
Upon arriving in Toronto, a team known for its home-run hitting in recent seasons, Bautista received pointers from Vernon Wells on revamping his swing: swing hard, swing early was the message.
And everything just clicked from that point onward.
Thanks to the subsequent departure of Alex Rios and the incapacity of Edwin Encarnacion, Bautista has managed to carve out a niche as a starter on a team. The Dominican is not only filling his starter’s role admirably, but is acting as the franchise player of a team desperately in need of one.
Bias aside as a Jays fan, I hope that as the spotlight brightens on Bautista, that he can be seen as one of baseball’s feel-good stories as opposed to yet another player whose success is thought of in terms of the amount of time spent on PEDs rather than time spent in the batting cage and gaining confidence.
Bautista may play for a perennially middle-of-the-road team in the American League East, unquestionably baseball’s toughest division, but he is proving that he’s more than a one-hit wonder that you should get to know better.
Because he keeps cranking out the hits and there’s no indication that he’ll stop anytime soon.
**If baseball can add an asterisk for statistics inflated as a result of players using steroids, surely I’m entitled to an asterisk for statistics accumulated during my dreams.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.