What to Make of Jose Bautista

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJuly 5, 2011

We’re just past the half-way mark of the 2011 season, and Toronto’s Jose Bautista is still third in the AL with a .329 batting average. Bautista’s lusty batting average I find a lot stranger than the sudden power surge.

Bautista always had power, and he was always willing to take a walk.  Those are skills that typically continue to improve after age 27.  Batting average is not.

Last year, when Bautista hit 54 HRs, he still only hit .260, which is well in line for a career year for a player who was 29 years old, and who’d hit between .235 and .254 in the five previous seasons in which he’d had at least 350 plate appearances.

Also, it isn’t completely bizarre for a player to have one extreme power year in a career.  Davey Johnson hit 43 HRs for the Braves in 1973 (his 2nd and 3rd best HR years were 18 and 15 in the eight other seasons he played regularly); Brady Anderson hit 50 for the O’s in 1996, but was good for only 8 to 24 HRs in the nine other seasons he played regularly); and Luis Gonzalez’s 57 in 2001 (but hit between 23 and 31 HRs in the best six of 16 other seasons in which he had at least 400 plate appearances.)

Anderson and Gonzalez were playing at the height of the steroids era, but if they were juicing, why didn’t they continue to put up huge HR numbers, like Bonds, McGwire and Sosa (the known users) did?

Going into this season, the previous player who most reminded me of Bautista’s 2010 season is Carlos Pena’s 2007.  In the five previous seasons in which Pena had recorded at least 295 plate appearances, he’d hit between .235 and .253, and had top HR seasons of 27, 19 and 18 twice.

At age 29, the same age as Bautista’s 2010, Pena hit .282 with 46 HRs.  After that, Pena continued to hit with power, but he’s steadily regressed towards his mean performance, hitting .247 with 31 HRs in 2008 and .227 with 39 HRs in 2009.  The last year and half, Pena has continued to regress, at least when you take into account the added offensive numbers moving his home games from Tampa Bay to Wrigley Field.

Going into the 2011 season, I fully expected Bautista to hit something less than .260 and slug somewhere between 31 and 40 HRs.  Bautista is currently on pace to slug 51 HRs, and the way he’s hit through the first half, it’s hard to imagine him going so cold in the second that he doesn’t hit at least .300, 40 points better than last year’s career high.

Here’s a recent article which attributes Jose Bautista’s miraculous improvement to his brains, his work ethic, a new hitting coach and resulting adjustments to his swing, prior bad luck and outlier theory.  It’s possible, but after my experience with giving Barry Bonds the benefit of the doubt (I’m a wanton Giants fan), I can’t help but be suspicious.

Until some real evidence surfaces that Bautista has been wrongfully supplementing, he has to get the benefit of the doubt.  All I can say is, I can’t remember too many other players who suddenly learned to hit for average at age 30.  I invite readers to remind me of a few.