Jose Bautista is one of the great power hitters in baseball. He is the centerpiece of the Blue Jays offence and one the game’s most patient, lethal bats. He is also one of its greatest stories. His journey to stardom may be the most unconventional in major league history. Let’s examine the path he took before arriving in Toronto and his chances to get even better.
Incredibly, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Jose Bautista out of Chipola junior college in northern Florida in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, 599th overall. Bautista is from the Dominican Republic and attended a private high school there (the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Reds tried unsuccessfully to sign him), becoming fluent in English by the time he arrived stateside to enroll in school and enter the Amateur Draft. In college he played centre field but Pittsburgh converted him to third base.
He debuted professionally in 2001 with the short-season Williamsport Crosscutters and hit .286/.364/.427 with 5 HR and an acceptable 41/21 SO/BB ratio. He handled the transition to third well and showed enough with the bat to enter 2002 as a quality sleeper.
In 2002, he graduated to full-season ball with the Hickory Crawdads, hitting an impressive .301/.402/.470 with 26 doubles, 14 home runs and a good 104/67 SO/BB ratio. The performance was very good for the league (+27 OPS) and put Bautista squarely on the Pirates’ prospect map. He made 24 errors, sometimes letting throws sail into the stands, but reports were still positive about his glove, arm strength and overall athleticism. More growth seemed forthcoming.
But most of Bautista’s gains were erased in 2003. He slumped early for the high-A Lynchburg Hillcats and hit just .242/.359/.424 with 4 home runs and a 48/27 SO/BB rate. His plate discipline was improving but he was asked to split time between second and third and struggled with the transition, making 10 errors. His frustration boiled over in May and he punched a dugout garbage can, breaking his right hand. He missed two months and finished the season rehabbing with the rookie level Gulf Coast League Pirates before heading back to the Dominican to play winter ball. During the offseason, Pittsburgh General Manager Dave Littlefield left a number of intriguing Pirates prospects unprotected in the Rule 5 draft (5 of the first 6 picks were Pittsburgh players). Bautista was one of them and he was selected 6th by the Baltimore Orioles, kickstarting one of the strangest transaction chains in league history.
Per baseball rules, Bautista had to stay on the Orioles roster all season in order for Baltimore to keep him in the organization. He was only 22 and hadn’t played above A ball. He was obviously very raw and, worse, attempting to rebound from a season ruined by injury. Still, Bautista showed enough in spring training to make the team. But Baltimore had visions of competing in the AL East and, with Melvin Mora established at third, Bautista barely played; only 16 games and 11 at bats in two months before Baltimore mercifully waived him. He was claimed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays but only played 12 games for them (receiving only 12 at bats) and was sold to the Kansas City Royals. His career there lasted 13 games and 25 measly at bats. By July, Bautista had just 48 at bats in 4 months with three organizations. At the trade deadline, Kansas City traded him to the New York Mets for Justin Huber. The very same day the Mets also traded him – back to, yes, Pittsburgh with Ty Wigginton and Matt Peterson for Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger. Bautista got into 23 more games and 40 at bats but struck out in nearly half of them and batted only .200/.238/.250. All told, he hit .205/.263/.239 in 64 games and 88 at-bats in six months. The season was a complete write-off. He remains the only player to be on five different rosters in one season. Some rookie season.
Pittsburgh knew Bautista needed regular playing time and assigned him to the AA Altoona Curve in 2005. He regained his hitting lustre, knocking a .283/.364/.503 slash line with 27 doubles, 23 home runs and a 101/48 SO/BB rate. He also led the team with 90 RBI and earned a late promotion to AAA Indianapolis where he got into 13 games (.255/.309/.373) before finishing the season in Pittsburgh. He struggled badly (only 4 hits in 28 at bats), but he had made it back to the majors. The Pirates hung with Bautista at 3B all season, too, even though he did make 25 errors between the three levels. Still, the flashes of power inspired optimism, his discipline was playable and his arm now rated among the best in the minors. He played in the AA All-Star Game, the FuturesGame and Pittsburgh named him their Minor League Player of the Year. Despite two seasons of stalled development, his career was back on track and he was still only 24.
Bautista’s game needed more seasoning at AAA but he played only 29 games for Indianapolis before Pittsburgh summoned him to replace injured starter Joe Randa. At AAA, Bautista hit a quality .277/.370/.426 but could manage only .235/.335/.420 in the bigs. Still, he swatted hitting 16 home runs and showed patience with a 110/46 SO/BB rate. Pittsburgh’s hitting coach, Jeff Manto, guessed Bautista was capable of 25 home runs within four years. How right he’d end up being. For now, though, Bautista was asked to play all three outfield positions in addition to second and third and never did settle in defensively. His production was strong for a super-utility player, particularly his walk rate and pop. He’d earned a place on the roster entering 2007 – the question was where he would play. Bautista again played winter ball, winning the Caribbean Series with Tigres del Licey.
Pittsburgh made him their Opening Day third baseman in 2007 and Bautista spent the entire season in the majors, sometimes filling an outfield position but mostly improving his defense at third, reducing his errors there to 15. He hit .254/.339/.414 with 36 doubles, 15 home runs and101/68 SO/BB, showing subtle improvements but disappointing overall. He had proven himself a capable super-sub but didn’t show enough to be seen as a core piece and, by now, the Pirates’ brain trust was becoming restless. If another opportunity came Bautista needed to seize it. Statistically, quiet signs showed he was capable of more. He grew more patient, struck out less (despite receiving 150 more at bats than in 2006) , showed impressive doubles power and an abnormally low HR/FB ratio (7.9%) – tough luck given the spacious power alley in PNC Park’s left field. He also missed time in July after slicing his hand on Chipper Jones’ cleats attempting to steal third.
In 2008, Pittsburgh played Bautista exclusively at third but remained highly streaky and his overall output again disappointed: .242/.325/.404 in 107 games with 15 doubles, 12 home runs and a declining 77/38 SO/BB ratio. Far from contention again, Pittsburgh traded Jason Bay to Boston in a three-way blockbuster that sent Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles and brought perpetual prospect Andy LaRoche to Pittsburgh. The Pirates immediately dubbed LaRoche their third baseman of the future. Bautista was told he would be demoted to AAA and asked to be put on waivers. He was quickly dealt to Toronto for Robinson Diaz. Since the traded happened in August every team in baseball had a chance to submit a free claim on Bautista before the deal went through. No one did. He slumped in Toronto initially and only managed a .214/.237/.411 line in 21 games, completely losing his plate discipline (14/2 SO/BB) in the new league. Still, Toronto liked his versatility and track record and re-signed him. He played in the World Baseball Classic and entered 2009 part of Toronto’s bench.
He remained a part-time player until early August when the Blue Jays released Alex Rios and his $69.35M contract to the Chicago White Sox. A straight salary dump. But also the start of something truly remarkable. Bautista got the first crack at regular playing time but scuffled, hitting only .175 with one home run in his first 21 games, as a starter. But he continued to work tirelessly with Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy on his swing mechanics. Together they discovered he was starting his swing late, forcing his shoulders to open too quickly to get his hands through the hitting zone and causing him to roll over on pitches he ought to drive. The changes, they hoped, would enable Bautista to utilize his quick hands and natural uppercut swing to get in front of pitches with the tremendous pull power generated in his hips.
The Blue Jays coaching staff stuck with him and Bautista applied the refinements, still utilizing his good pitch recognition, but now starting much earlier. The results were immediate and incredible. He hit .270 with 9 HR in the final 23 games boosting his final line to .235/.349/.408 with 13 home runs. But in September alone it was: .257/.339/.606 with 10 HRs. He showed very strong discipline (85/56 SO/BB) all year, too, despite erratic playing time, torching left-handed pitchers (.293/.382/.537) but struggling against righties (.202/.331/.333). He was reliable in right field and Toronto vowed to start him there to begin 2010. Buoyed by the power spike, Bautista eased off weight training and concentrated his offseason workouts on plyometrics and cardio.
Bautista began 2010 as the Jays’ leadoff hitter, showing great patience but little power. But when the calendar turned to May, he absolutely exploded – hitting 12 home runs – and by the end of June he was up to 20 and leading the league. The Giants, Phillies, White Sox and Tigers all inquired about his availability but Alex Anthopoulos kept him in Toronto. Bautista made his first All-Star appearance and finished the year with an astounding .260/.378/.617 slash line, 35 doubles, 54 home runs, 125 RBIs and an amazing116/100 SO/BB ratio. An unbelievably impressive season. He hit countless memorable home runs, setting the Blue Jays’ all-time record, and was hailed for his defense, netting 12 outfield assists – a figure made even more giant by the fact that he also played 48 games at third base. His isolated power more than doubled (.357, up from .173 in 2009) and his fly ball rate went through the roof (54.5%). He earned the Silver Slugger, the Hank Aaron Award as the AL’s top power hitter and finished 4th in MVP voting. He also earned Toronto’s John Cerutti humanitarian award. Observers were nearly universal in declaring it a career year. But the Blue Jays believed he could sustain, or at least approximate, his performance and rewarded him with a daring 5-year, $65-million contract. He had surgery to repair a nagging sports hernia in October.
Of course, in 2011, he did better than repeat his breakthrough. He started even hotter, leading the AL in home runs in April, May and June, thus becoming the first player to lead a league in 5 straight months (dating back to 2010) since Jimmy Foxx in 1934. He also hit .363 in April & May, set a major league record by receiving 7.4 million All-Star votes and volunteered to shift back to third base again to boost Toronto’s offense. He suffered a couple of freak injuries (a twisted ankle and a Jake Arrieta beanball to the head) and slumped mildly in the second half but it couldn’t diminish the strength of his tremendous overall line: .302/.447/.608 with 43 home runs and an astonishing 111/132 SO/BB rate – an incredibly well rounded statistical line. His HR/FB ratio actually increased (to 22.5% from 21.7% in 2010) and he hit more line drives (16% to 14.4%). He again won the Silver Slugger and Aaron awards. Bautista even stole home during a double-steal. How many 40-HR hitters do that? He notched 13 more assists in right but also had six errors and some advanced defensive metrics weren’t kind in evaluating his range. But his arm strength remained impressive and, anecdotally, the errors seemed more the result of aggressive attempts to gun down runners than any physical problem. He enters 2012 as the face of the Blue Jays (not to mention the Canadian edition of Sony’s “MLB 12 The Show” video game) and one of the most feared hitters in the game.
There is little Bautista can do to statistically improve on his performance. We can quibble about his range and future position. At this point, Blue Jays fans – hell, baseball fans – should just enjoy him. In Jose Bautista we find the best parts of the sport. His example shows us that redemption is available to all and that perseverance and hard work can be rewarded.
The key to his future success is health. The Blue Jays are deeper now than at any point since Bautista joined the team and he will not have to switch positions midseason. If his history is any indication, eliminating that distraction should bode well for his offence. Yes, Bautista may eventually move to first base. But at 31 he should be capable of handling the outfield for a few more seasons. Expect Bautista to play in 150+ games and again be among the league leaders in most offensive categories. While he may not hit .300 this year, he will get on base a ton and hit close to 40 home runs. And if, the Blue Jays make a run at the new Wildcard, which I think they will, Bautista will again receive heavy consideration for MVP.
It’s fascinating to think what he might have achieved with a normal career trajectory. He always possessed strong tools and above-average control of the strike zone. Who knows what could have been had he not lost two seasons to injury and roster shuffling. Players with Bautista’s arc are typically fortunate to turn out as journeymen. Most wash out. Very few become something more. He is one of baseball’s rare homemade superstars.
He has also grown into the leader of the Blue Jays clubhouse, demanding accountability of his teammates, taking Yunel Escobar under his wing after the shortstop played his way out of Atlanta, and openly discussing his participation in baseball’s drug-testing program.
However unconventional Bautista’s rise has been he is precisely the type of player you want to build a rising team around. That his contract rewards both him and the Blue Jays for the faith they showed in each other signing it when they did is just icing on the cake.
Jose Bautista, RF
10/19/80 Bats: R Throws: R HT: 6-0 WT: 195
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic College: Chipola JC (Florida)
Drafted by Pittsburgh in the 20th round, 599th overall, of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft.
Acquired: Traded to Toronto in July 2008.
Contract Status: Signed through 2016.
Salary: 12: $14M 13: $14M 14: $14M 15: $14M 16: $14M club option/$1M buyout)
Service Time: 6.165