Wither Amazing
May 23, 2011

Much has been written about Jose Bautista's amazing start to this season.  As a baseline to begin the discussion, he's currently hitting .353/.500/.816 with an OPS of 1.316 and lapping the field in home runs with 18 (19 if you count tonight's games).  He's on pace to follow-up his career best 54-homer season with one of 60-65 homers.  And just so we understand the kind of transformation we're dealing with here, after his age 29 season in 2009, he was a career .238 hitter, with an on base of .329 and a slugging percentage of .400 over 1754 at bats in the majors, and his line in the minors was .285/.375/.467 over 1471 at bats.  He had never hit more than 16 homers in any season in the majors, and only once as a 24-year old in Double A did he ever hit more than 20 in a single season (23).  And it wasn't for lack of playing time - he topped 500 at bats in 2005, 2006 and 2007. 

That's not to say he was viewed as a player with limited talent, though.  True, he was a 20th round draft pick.  But that's a bit misleading as he was a draft-and-follow player, meaning a player who was drafted with the intention of letting him play out an additional year under the draft rules to see if he would improve dramatically, but without the team having to commit resources commensurate with a higher pick for his reputed talent.  That said, 30 teams passed on him for 19 rounds, so he was never viewed as a sure thing to make the majors.  When he did finally sign he was given a bonus more in line with being drafted in the 2nd round than the 20th.  Nevertheless, he spent three years in A-ball and not as a very young player for the level and was never considered particularly young for the league at any level in the minors.

However, in the interest of fullest disclosure, even prospect evaluators were not overly enthusiastic with his chances of making an impact once he reached the majors.  After his first exposure to professional pitching in A-ball, Baseball America rated him as the Pirates' 14th best prospect.  The same Pirates who have not had a winning season since 1992.  After his 2003 season he moved up 7th on their list of top Pirate prospects.  In BA's 2004 rating guide he dropped completely out of their top 30. 

And that is when the Pirates left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft whereupon he was selected by the Orioles.  Just two months into that subsequent season, the Orioles waived him and he was picked up by the Rays, who are not exactly slouches when it comes to evaluating other team's talent or talent available on the waiver wire.  They waived him less than a month later whereupon he was signed by the Royals, who thought so much of him that they traded him to the Mets for Justin Huber a month after acquiring him.  On the same day, the Mets included him in a deal along with Ty Wigginton to Pittsburgh to acquire Kris Benson.  Four years and 1300 or so major league at bats later, he was traded to Toronto for Robinson Diaz.  The reason few if any of those names he was traded for ring any bells is because almost all of them were highly replaceable talents.  So four teams either traded him for roster filler or ended up dumping him outright trying to send him back to the minors.  Even through his first 300 or so at bats in Toronto he hit just .223 with 6 homers. 

And that is when it all changed.  The story is that hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and Jays manager Cito Gaston got him to start his swing earlier and had him stand a couple inches closer to the plate.  They also suggested a few minor tweaks to his hand positioning and opening up his stance on the leg kick.  That September and October he hit .257 with 10 homers and the rest, as they say is history.  He followed his September surge with a 54-homer season, batting .260/.378/.617 in 2010 and has improved by leaps and bounds beyond that in 2011.  Even the scout who wrote the article defining the changes he made stated emphatically "it's nearly impossible to be a consistent hitter for average using this approach".  And yet here he is hitting .350.   And riddle me this: if it was just a matter of better synch-ing his timing with the pitcher's motion, why don't pitchers just throw him an occasional eephus pitch to mess up his timing?  Sandy Koufax said that hitting is about timing and pitching is about upsetting that timing.  So why are pitchers decreasingly successful at disrupting his timing, particularly when his mechanism is so blatantly obvious?

So the question is this: how often has this kind of improvement happened in the history of baseball.  That's an interesting question because there have been dramatic late-career surges before.  The names that have most frequently been thrown out there, the hitters whose late career surges most resemble that of Bautista's and lasted longer than a single "fluke" season are Bret Boone, David Ortiz and Barry Bonds.  Luis Gonzalez' name has been offered as well but I'm not sure he fits because his 57-homer season dwarfs anything else he ever did.  I have not heard convincing arguments for any other comparables, at least in terms of percentage increase.  However, there is a very big difference between Bautista and the others: Boone, Bonds and Ortiz were all getting regular at bats for several years before their surprise blossoming.  Bautista, on the other hand, averaged a little more than 400 at bats per season in 2008 and 2009.  The other 800-pound gorilla in the room is this: the hitters Bautista is being compared to were all closely associated with steroid use.

To put what Bautista is doing in perspective, the only two men in history who have posted a 1.300 OPS over a full season are Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth.  His current 265 adjusted OPS (OPS+) is only bettered by Barry Bonds' 2002 season when he hit .370 with 46 homers and walked 198 times.  Bonds' greatest seasons, the ones in which he topped 1.300 OPS and/or 200 OPS+ occurred under the cloud of steroid use. 

So to answer the question as to whether this kind of improvement has ever happened in baseball, that would be a big resounding "NO".   No part-time player has ever suddenly developed into the greatest hitter in history at an age when many players are beginning to show signs of a decline.  If that last part sounds familiar, it's because I was saying that exact same thing back in 2002 about Barry Bonds.  Not only has this never happened in baseball, but I can't think of a single instance in any sport where a guy comes off the bench and in the span of a year suddenly becomes the best player in his profession.  The only approximate example I can think of is Roy Hobbs, and he of course, is a fictional character.

One writer on a very popular stats-oriented website posited that both Ben Zobrist and Jose Bautista showed an above average walk rate and not an excessive strikeout rate earlier in their careers.  He went on to suggest that the combination could be responsible for their late career surges.  By that rationale, however, we might expect a similar breakouts from Luke Scott or Daric Barton or Lyle Overbay, who posted similar rates to Bautista while in the minors and their first few years in the bigs.  In fact, there are literally dozens of hitters currently in the majors, nevermind in history, who have the kind of discipline Bautista demonstrated before the last two years yet none of them have developed like this.  And what about the guys who have been consistently better in both respects?  Why aren't they suddenly hitting 70, 80 or even 100 homers?  Are all other hitting coaches just that incompetent?

Here's another puzzle: why weren't Cito Gaston and Dwayne Murphy even remotely as successful developing hitters on their own team with percieved much higher ceilings than Bautsita.  Travis Snider and Adam Lind were both gems of the Toronto system, viewed as potential 40-homer sluggers yet with the exception of one year from Lind, neither has come remotely close to the kind of production they are getting from a cast-off like Bautista.  One would imagine they've tinkered with those guy's mechanics as well yet the their results are mixed at best.  Aaron Hill had a surprisingly good year in the power department under the dynamic duo in 2009 (36 homers, .499 slugging), but that was preceded by a very solid 2007 season (before Murphy became hitting coach) in which he hit 17 homers and 46 doubles, good for a .459 slugging percentage.  Why aren't teams offering tens of millions of dollars to Murphy and Gaston on the off-chance that they could become miracle roving hitting instructors in their fam systems?  If they can work this kind of magic on a retread, who knows what monster they might create with a kid with real talent.  The mind boggles and the eyes glaze over with the thought of combining Murphy and Gaston's instruction with the tools of Bryce Harper.

Some have noted that the distance he is hitting home runs this year is less than it was three or four years ago.  And this is true.  However, the distance he was hitting them last year was the longest of his career and to be fair, this season has not yet reached the hot months when the ball travels much further.  This has also been an unusually damp year with the extreme weather conditions experienced through the first two months of the season which would naturally lead to a decline in distance.  Perhaps we should wait until the end of the year before drawing any conclusions about the distances Bautitsta is hitting the ball in 2011.  (Editor's update: As of September 18, 2011, Baustista's average home run distance is 406.1 feet, almost four feet further than in 2010.)

So the question from the opposite end is this: since his only comparables in history are guys who used steroids, how could it be that Bautista is the only one who found this magic elixir?  Doesn't it stand to reason that other guys would be using the same stuff as well and we'd see similar explosions of offense?  Actually, no, not necessarily.  It's certainly within the realm of possibility that Bautista is the only guy with a magic potion.  When Jose Canseco came on the scene, he was one of the few using steroids because conventional wisdom stated that bulking up would have a negative effect on baseball performance.  When Barry Bonds career had its historic second act, he was the only one who had a chemical lab designing his performance enhancing cocktails.  Bartolo Colon has resurrected his career two years after it was all but over and the credit is being given to a heretofore unknown operation and treatment that used stem cells in his elbow and shoulder.  And since MLB does not use any blood tests in their testing for PEDs, and testing in general lags behind the innovators in performance technology, it is absolutely possible that Bautista has a magic genie that no one yet knows about.  I was at a conference several years ago where the primary topic was performance enhancing drugs and techniques, and one of the ones discussed was a method whereby Insulin Growth Factor (IGF) was implanted once and the athlete would enjoy the performance benefits (and ultimately the side-effects) for the rest of his life.  It was and is undetectable and the benefits could be gained from just one treatment.  And this was three years ago.  One doesn't need a great deal of imagination to conclude that the state of the art has advanced since then. 

The blogoshere is filled with commentators (as well as a horde of their followers) who have insisted that it is ridiculous to draw the conclusion that the primary reason Jose Bautista is doing what he is doing is due to steroids (or more accurately, PEDs).   There is some irony in this because all of the examples they cite for previous occurrences for this kind of out-of-nowhere explosion also happened to be steroid users.  I would also venture a guess that before this season began every single one of them said that last year's performance was a fluke and that no one should count on a repeat of his power output.  It was a one-and-done performance and that he would revert to a sub-.250 hitter with moderate power, maybe 25-30 homers.  I can make that guess because I have not seen one article that predicted what we're seeing, or that we should expect an improvement on last season.  And I have looked diligently.  If you know of one, please forward the URL because I would love to read it.  But I digress... suggesting steroids as the cause is ridiculous?  After 14 of the last 30 MVPs have been linked to steroid use?  After 16 of the last 30 home run leaders have been linked as well?  And knowing the fact that PED designers are always ahead of the testers and that MLB does not test for numerous PEDs including HGH?  Yet suggesting PEDs as a probable cause for the most unlikely hitting performance in the history of the game is ridiculous?  To believe that is to believe that everyone at every level of baseball was wrong about Jose Bautista's potential.  To me, for someone to believe that is more amazing than Bautista's performance.