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March 2, 2011

On the Beat

Can Bautista Repeat?

by John Perrotto

DUNEDIN, Florida—If Malcolm Gladwell had waited two more years to write his best-selling book Outliers, he could have included a chapter on Jose Bautista.

Bautista had the outlier season of all outlier seasons last year, when he led the major leagues in home runs with 54. He had never hit more than 16 in any of his previous six major-league seasons, reaching that mark with the 2006 Pirates.

Things have certainly changed dramatically for Bautista in the last year. The third baseman has gone from anonymity to a home run champ and an All-Star. He's also now a building block for the Blue Jays, who signed him to a five-year, $65 million contract extension last month.

Bautista understands that many observers feel his 2010 season was an outlier, if not a fluke. And those who remain cynical in the aftermath of baseball's Steroids Era believe Bautista must have used performance-enhancing drugs last season. So, what does the relatively quiet and unassuming Bautista have to say about where his career will head next?

"I don't think you've seen the best of me yet," he said at the Blue Jays' spring training camp. "I'm not saying I'm going to hit 54 home runs again. That's only happened a few times in baseball history. At the same time, I'm not going to go into this season putting any limits on myself. There is nothing that says I can't hit 54 again, maybe more. I'm not satisfied with what I did last year. I don't want it to be my best season. I want to achieve much more in my career than having one really good year."

In addition to the 54 homers, Bautista put up a .331 TAv and 6.6 WARP last season. He was one of the biggest reasons why the Blue Jays went 85-77, a 10-game improvement over 2009.

PECOTA doesn't see Bautista matching last year's numbers in 2011, projecting him for 36 home runs but just a .264 TAv and 3.4 WARP. However, Bautista counters that he is not the typical 30-year-old who has settled into being the player he will always be. He believes he is a late bloomer because of an adjustment he and Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy made to his swing in spring training last year. Murphy had Bautista get his front foot down faster, which led to a quicker weight shift, more speed, and ultimately more power.

"I know people think it's hard to believe that something so simple can make such a difference," Bautista said. "Hitting is hard, though. You need everything [in the swing] to be just right. I spent years looking for the right swing and now I've found it. I'm just a different hitter than I used to be, and that's why you can't really put too much stock into the statistics from earlier in my career."

Bautista saw the speculation in a Toronto newspaper last year that he was using performance-enhancing drugs. However, he brushed that assertion aside.

"I've been tested just like every player in the major leagues and I’m clean," Bautista said. "Unfortunately, anyone who has a big season, something different than normal, is going to get asked about steroids. That's just the way it is now in baseball. It doesn't bother me. I understand."

Bautista's body certainly looks no different than it did two years ago, and his listed measurements of 6 feet and 190 pounds seem accurate.

The Pirates selected Bautista in the 20th round in 2000 from Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Florida, as a draft-and-follow; they signed him the next spring after he was the national junior college player of the year. Mickey White, who was the the Pirates' scouting director, always believed Bautista had big-time power that could play at the major-league level.

"It was never been a question of whether Jose had talent, because he did," said White, now a scout with the Rangers. "It was just a matter of when it would all come together, and it did last year. Sometimes, it takes longer for some guys than others."

Bautista had the reputation of being a hothead when he was younger and, like a lot of young players, took a while to develop a proper work ethic. However, Bautista's attitude this spring has quickly gotten the attention of first-year Blue Jays manager John Farrell.

"Not only is he a gifted player but he's a hard worker," Farrell said. "He gets into the weight room and into the batting cages and puts in a lot of hard work. When you have a player who had the type of season that Jose had last year, it adds so much when the whole team to can see that kind of work ethic. It makes everyone want to work harder to keep up with him."

Bautista, for his part, said the only downside to his breakthrough season was that the Blue Jays still finished fourth in the AL East, 11 games behind the division-winning Rays. Though the division again looks loaded in 2011, Bautista believes the Blue Jays can improve on last year's win total.

"The division is really tough and everyone knows that," Bautista said. "We have a good team, though. A lot of people don't know a lot about us because we play in Canada and don't get on television much in the States. But we've got the type of lineup that can score runs, and we've got a good, deep pitching staff. I don't see any reason why we can't be in the race this year."

Rumors and rumblings:

Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has yet to prove he was worth the $103 million the Red Sox spent to bring him from Japan four years ago, says he's in his best physical and mental state since coming to the major leagues and believes he will have his best season. … Here's one scout's early report on another Japanese import, Twins infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka: "Big-league pitchers are going to continually jam him with fastballs until he proves he can hit that pitch, and I'm not sure he can." … While no one can predict what will happen between now and October, new Rays designated hitter Manny Ramirez has been drawing raves for his work ethic and assimilation into a new clubhouse. … Orioles right-hander Justin Duchscherer, despite some early spring problems with his surgically repaired hip, says he is confident that he will get through this season unscathed after missing the entire 2009 season and pitching just 29 innings last year for the Athletics. … The Mets' low ticket sales, coupled with their financial problems stemming from the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, put them in danger of falling below the MLB-required ratio of 60 percent equity to 40 percent debt.

The Reds' latest target for a long-term contract extension is second baseman Brandon Phillips, who can become a free agent at the end of the season. … Michael Cuddyer and Cody Ross would like to talk to their clubs about multi-year contract extensions, but the Twins and Giants are not in a hurry to lock up either beyond this season. … The Rockies plan to use four-corner player Ty Wigginton extensively in right field this season, though he has made just five starts there in his career. … The Cubs plan to give outfielder Tyler Colvin some spring action at first base to see if he could be Carlos Pena's backup. … Happy retirement to Garret Anderson, who may not have been a sabermetric favorite with his .324 lifetime on-base percentage, but did play in 2,228 games and amass 2,529 hits in 17 seasons.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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