The story of the 2011 season isn't lowered offense or great pitching. It's the man whose performance mocks those overall trends: Jose Bautista. The 30-year-old outfielder, whose 54-homer season seemed like a stone fluke in the vein of Davey Johnson's 43-homer 1973, has started 2011 with a rush separating himself from the great one-year wonders in baseball history. His six weeks of slugging dominance puts his name in in a group few players have ever joined.
Bautista hit two more homers Saturday, running his planet-leading total to 18 in a bit more than a quarter of the season. With Toronto having played 46 games thus far, that means Bautista projects to hit 63 over a full season (he had 14 in his, and the team's first 46 games a year ago).
Yet Bautista's start is actually a little more impressive than even that, because he has played in just 38 of the Blue Jays' 46 games. Yes, he's been the most valuable player in baseball by more than a win's worth of value (his WAR of 4.3 is a third better than Matt Joyce's 3.0) and he's sat out nearly 20 percent of the season. He's not quite the crazy dead-pull hitter he was a year ago, already with one homer to center and one to right this season, after hitting 53 of his 54 to left a year ago. (Data courtesy Hit Tracker Online.)
Bautista leads the AL in all three slash categories and in two of the three Triple Crown ones, though his 31 RBIs trail Boston's Adrian Gonzalez by 10. Bautista has driven in just 13 teammates this season, a mix of limited opportunities (he has batted with 108 runners on base, just 94th in MLB), fear (he has drawn walks in 40 percent of his PAs with runners in scoring position) and performance (he is batting .207 and slugging "just" .552 with RISP, compared to .364/.467/.909 with the bases empty and .538/.586/.962 with a runner on first).
It's hard to know what to do with those numbers. On one hand, it's a stark split. On the other, the sample sizes are so small as to be almost meaningless. It's less that I see an unclutch player and more that I wonder if there's some substantial difference in how Bautista is being worked in different situations. He does seem willing -- as players such as Frank Thomas and Barry Bonds were at their power peaks -- to let bad pitches go by and take his walks if he's being pitched around. That's a key step, and it will be interesting to see if that continues should the league stop pitching to him entirely.
This is already happening, to some extent. No player in MLB is seeing a fewer percentage of pitches in the strike zone than is Bautista, at 36.7 percent. Just four players are under 40 percent, none of the others below 39 percent. (At his most dominant, from 2002-2004, Bonds never saw fewer than 40 percent strikes in leading the league each year.) He's adjusted by being that much more selective, dropping to the bottom 15 in pitches offered at (37.2 percent). The 18 homers, the 30 other hits? Picked up on fewer than 300 swings. What Bautista does when he swings gets most of the attention, but it's his willingness to wait for something hittable -- the silences between the roars -- that are making it all possible.
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Bautista isn't Bonds. He's Joe Hardy. He's Roy Hobbs. He's come out of, if not nowhere, a shadowy past we don't completely understand -- "the Pirates," as they're known -- to do something completely unprecedented in baseball history. Players have made leaps before, as the great sluggers of the 1990s did. Players have come into the league and played at Bautista's level, as Thomas and Albert Pujols did. Players have even had one completely insane season, like Bautista's 2010, then regressed to a lower level of performance.
For someone to be a non-entity through six seasons and 2,000 plate appearances, then become the most dangerous hitter in baseball? We have no precedent for that, which is why I spent the winter -- from November in Phoenix to March in print -- insisting that he couldn't repeat his '10 season. This is watching Babe Ruth throw a shutout in 1918 and knowing he'd become the all-time leading home-run hitter, or watching the Boston Braves get swept in a July 4 doubleheader and seeing the 1914 world championship team forming. Jose Bautista couldn't have gotten arrested two years ago, and now he's the biggest story in baseball. Forget analysis, breakdowns, your favorite team, your fantasy team, who said what about whom back in January. When Jose Bautista comes to the plate, people stop and they watch. He's making the 2011 season for baseball fans.