Jose Bautista is one home run shy of becoming just the 26th man in major league history to hit 50 home runs in a season. It's safe to say no one saw that coming. Taking a quick peek at some of the leading player projection systems, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA thought Bautista would hit 18 home runs. Sean Smith's CHONE had him at 15. Tom Tango's Marcel and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS both had him at 14. The highest expected home run total you can find for Bautista is PECOTA's 90th percentile projection of 25 home runs, which roughly means that PECOTA gave Bautista a 10 percent chance of producing a home run total that high. In reality, he's about to double it.
How did no one see this coming? Simple: it had never happened before. The 29-year-old Bautista's single-season high in home runs entering this season was 16. Prior to this season, only one player had ever hit 50 home runs without having previously hit at least 20 in a season. That player was Cecil Fielder, who had never hit more than 14 in a major league season before hitting 51 in 1990, but Fielder hit 38 round trippers for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan's Central League in 1989.
Still, Bautista did fire a warning shot last year when, after having hit just three home runs through September 5, he went deep 10 times over the final month of the 2009 season including six in the last eight games of the season. With that in mind, one wonders if the 2011 version of Bautista might be announcing himself right now.
Well, Troy Tulowitzki is the only man to hit more than seven home runs thus far this month, and he already has two 20-home run seasons and one 30-homer season under his belt. If you reach back over the last 30 days, the only man who joins Tulo in double digit home runs is . . . Jose Bautista. Russell Branyan has nine over that stretch, but Branyan has a 30-homer season and a trio of 20-home run seasons to his name. Looking back over the season as a whole, the players who have hit 10 or more home runs in any given calendar month are Paul Konerko (11 in April), Bautista (12 in May, 11 both July and August), Corey Hart, David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero (all with 10 in May), Prince Fielder (10 in June), Albert Pujols (11 in August), and Tulowitzki. With the exception of Bautista, every one of those players had multiple 20-home run seasons prior to this year, all but Hart and Bautista had multiple 30-home run seasons prior to this year and Ortiz and Fielder have both already hit 50 home runs in a season.
If you look below 10 home runs, however, you do find a few players who do fit the profile of next year's Jose Bautista. I'm not saying any of these players are going to hit 50 home runs next year -- the odds are overwhelming that they won't -- but if they do, you can say you saw it coming. In the meantime, they serve as a reminder of just how out-of-the-blue Bautista's season really has been:
Raburn is actually a surprisingly good comparison for Bautista. Both are right-handed utility players who have been used primarily as outfielders the last two seasons. Both are average in size (roughly 6-foot, 190 pounds), and Raburn is just six months younger than Bautista. Like Bautista prior to this season, Raburn's career high in home runs is 16, and he has hit just 38 in his career to this point (Bautista, who stuck in the majors at a younger age, hit 59 prior to this year). The difference between Raburn and Bautista is that Bautista hit his 16 homers in something close to a full season with the Pirates in 2006, while Raburn hit them in just 291 plate appearances for the Tigers last year, posting a .533 slugging percentage along the way. Given regular playing time in the wake of Magglio Ordoñez's season-ending broken ankle, Raburn hit eight home runs in August, and with Ordoñez and Johnny Damon free agents this winter, he could find himself as a starter in the Tiger outfield next year.
Another utility man, though one largely confined to the infield, Betemit is a year younger than Bautista and has just 54 major league home runs to his name with a single-season high of 18, set, like Bautista's, in 2006. Once a highly-regarded shortstop prospect with the Braves, Betemit proved to be more of a third baseman by the time he reached the majors and thus wound up blocked in Atlanta by Chipper Jones. Having never gotten a proper chance to establish himself as a young player, Betemit saw his production decline as he passed through the Dodgers, Yankees and White Sox before landing with the Royals as a non-roster invitee to spring training this year. Installed as the team's primary third baseman after Alberto Callaspo was traded to the Angels near the non-waiver deadline, Betemit has hit .304/.385/.500 since July 22, including an outburst of six home runs in 12 games in late August. A switch-hitter always known for his pop, particularly from the left side, Betemit could parlay his strong finish into a starting job for a second-division team next year, though if that team is the Royals, he'll need a 50-home run season to keep 2007 first-round pick Mike Moustakas from taking his job mid-season.
Drew isn't a perfect fit because he hit 21 home runs in 2008, but he hasn't topped 12 in any other season and has just 62 in his career. Big things were expected from Drew, the younger brother of J.D., when he was a first-round pick in 2004, but with his age-27 season now mostly in the books, those expectations have mostly been dashed. However, that could allow him to sneak up on everyone with a breakout season in 2011. Like Rayburn, Drew hit eight home runs in August and has the added advantage of playing his home games in a ballpark that serves as a launching pad for left-handed hitters like himself. According to The Bill James Handbook, Chase Field's park factor for left-handed home runs from 2007 to 2009 was 115 (with 100 being neutral and 120 being the new Yankee Stadium).
Hall hit 35 home runs for the Brewers in 2006, but, honestly, who other than his mother and Ned Yost remembers that? He hasn't topped 17 in any other season, but he hit eight between July 15 and August 15 and after almost hitting his way out of the majors the last two seasons (.214/.277/.370 combined), has rejuvenated his career as a valuable utility player for the injury-riddled Red Sox. The Brewers signed Hall to a four-year deal after that 35-homer season. That deal will expire this winter when Boston declines his $9.25 million option, giving Hall a chance to sign with a team foolish enough to start a 31-year-old with a .308 career on-base percentage.
No, I'm not really serious about this, but Betancourt did hit six home runs in a 12-game span in August and has hit nine home runs since August 4 after never before having hit more than nine in a full season. Betancourt, who is a little more than a year younger than Bautista, has 47 career home runs including a career-high of 16 this year and has a year left his contract, which makes him the incumbent shortstop in Kansas City heading into the winter and thus gives him a platform from which to launch his absurdly unlikely assault on the record books.