As a rookie, Bautista was waived by the Baltimore Orioles, and subsequently claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Less than a month later, he was sold to the Kansas City Royals. A month after that, he was involved in a deal that sent his rights to the Mets so they could package him in a deal for Pittsburgh's Kris Benson.
Basically, Bautista was cut, sold and traded before ending up back in Pittsburgh.
Although he was a regular with the Pirates by 2006, he wasn't doing much. Over nearly 1,100 plate appearances in '06-'07, Bautista posted a .329 wOBA—good for last place among qualifying NL third basemen over that time span.
In the middle of the 2008 season, Bautista was optioned to AAA after losing his job to new arrival Andy LaRoche. Soon thereafter, he was dealt to Toronto for catcher Robinzon Díaz.
Bautista struggled throughout the rest of the season in Toronto. 2009 saw some improvements in his defense and plate discipline, but for the most part, he was the same player. At that point in his career, he was a 28-year-old journeyman without much to offer.
Then 2010 happened.
By the end of May, Bautista had equalled his career high of 16 home runs. Between July and September, he posted double digit home run totals for three straight months. His .357 isolated slugging percentage nearly doubled his previous career high.
All told, 29-year-old Jose Bautista hit 54 home runs, outpacing the American League by 15—just one shy of his previous career total.
In one season, a player who had spent four full seasons toiling just below league-level mediocrity had turned into a legitimate MVP candidate.
While the huge power surge was the obvious area of improvement in Bautista's game, it wasn't the only one. He cut his strikeout rates down nearly five percent from his career average while posting the highest walk rate of his career.
He also became more aggressive at the plate. He became more confident in his ability to hit breaking pitches as his swing rates outside the strike zone skyrocketed.
This isn't always a good thing, but in Bautista's case, it was.
Prior to last season, he had never posted positive run values hitting sliders or curves. In 2010, however, he absolutely crushed sliders, and did an excellent job handling curveballs.
Whatever the reason, Bautista just became a better hitter.
Despite his success, I immediately expected a decline in 2011. I'm not going to delve into my immediate explanations for his sudden onset of power, but in any case, I didn't think any player could sustain such a rapid uphill trend in his production.
Even if he had legitimately become that much better, the more likely scenario would be production somewhere between his formative replacement-level years and a home run king.
I was wrong.
As of May 23, 2011, Bautista is making the rest of Major League Baseball look like a developmental league. His .549 wOBA outpaces the league by nearly .100. He already has eighteen home runs.
*Actually, while writing that last sentence, he just hit another. That really just happened. His season total is now 19.
Not only is Bautista crushing the ball, but he's also turning half of his plate appearances into scoring opportunities with a .500 OBP. His walk rate is up to an excellent 22 percent, while his strikeout rate (16.9) is below 20 for the first time in his career.
While obviously contributing offensively, Bautista has also made a positive impact with his glove. While UZR isn't a great evaluator of only 333 innings, his UZR per 150 games is 3.5 and he's plus-2 in defensive runs saved.
Because of these improvements in all areas of his game, Bautista will most likely enter June with nearly five wins above replacement value. He's played in 38 games so far, and his WAR is currently 4.3.
If we prorate his current performance for the entire season, he's pacing for a 17.2 WAR year.
For a point of reference, the highest single season WAR total of Barry Bonds' career was 13.0 in 2002. Babe Ruth's best performance was 15.4 in 1923.
I know Bautista has proven me wrong before, but I think it's fairly safe to say he won't maintain this level of performance all season. While he's made me a firm believer of his talent, it's irresponsible to suggest he'll continue to turn 31 percent of his fly balls into home runs.
Also, he's currently reaching base on more than 31 percent of the balls he puts in play. While this doesn't suggest anything terribly abnormal, it's worth noting that over the course of his career, that number has only been 27 percent. He could very well maintain his current BABIP level, but there's also some room for regression there.
So, even with an expected downturn in his power numbers, it's still within reason to think Bautista will continue his reign as baseball's best home run hitter.
However, it's most notable that he's now turned into an extraordinary all-around hitter and his peripheral stats suggest he's here to stay.
It seems insane, but the improvement he's made from last year to this season is nearly as impressive as his leap from 2009 to 2010.
I'm not going to discuss any accusations about how he's made this kind of progress. I will say, though, that baseball has taken great strides to monitor performance-enhancing drug use since 2006.
Until we hear of any evidence regarding Bautista and steroids, I'm going to believe he's clean.
As more people begin paying attention to Bautista's success, there will be more and more accusatory journalism and pessimism surrounding his production. I hope people choose to ignore this and give him the benefit of the doubt until he gives us a reason not to.
We're watching a player make a run at one of baseball's greatest seasons, and we need to enjoy it.
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