The Man Who Came From Nowhere

No doubt the biggest surprise of 2010, as individual performance goes, is the sudden power surge of Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. Here’s a guy who I barely heard of before this season, a journeyman with a career total of 59 home runs, never more than 16 in one year. He leads the majors with 52 homers and looks primed to hit a few more before the week is up.   

Naturally (or maybe unnaturally), the steroid rumors have swirled around Bautista. After what we witnessed during much of the past 15 years, it’s only reasonable to suspect that the guy must be taking more than Flintstone Vitamins with his OJ in the morning.  But I’ll give Bautista the benefit of the doubt — if for no other reason than I’ve exhausted my supply of negativity and cynicism on the Mets and have no place else to direct my dark thoughts. Personal feelings aside,  MLB may not have rid the game entirely of PED’s, but the numbers support the fact that the testing program is working to a large degree. Besides, Bautista is listed at 6-0, 195, and that might be generous.  I have to believe that after six mediocre years in baseball, Bautista finally figured it out.

What makes Bautista’s accomplishment so astounding (and for some, hard to believe) is the distance he created from the game’s other top sluggers. Hitting 40 homers was no easy feat this year, let alone 50.   Albert Pujols has 42, an average year for him, with Miguel Cabrera and Paul Konerko at 38. Let’s assume Bautista finishes with 10 more round-trippers than Pujols. Ryan Howard hit 11 more homers than Cabrera in 2008, but Howard’s well on his way to being one of the all-time great sluggers, if he can stay healthy. Before that, the last time someone held that large  a margin in the major league home run race,  other than a player who admitted to or was suspected of using PED’s  (it’s sad how I have to throw in that qualifying remark), was Cecil Fielder in 1990, when his 51 homers eclipsed Ryne Sandberg’s National League-leading total of 40. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1977 when  George Foster smacked 52 to Jim Rice’s 39.

Will Bautista remain one of the game’s top power hitters over the next decade, or is he a one-shot wonder? Maybe next year he will lose whatever swing he discovered. Maybe they’ll figure out to pitch to him or around him.  There have been other successful ball players who had outlier home runs years — Roger Maris, Davey Johnson, Brady Anderson, to name three of the more noteworthy. Bautista, however, went from journeyman to slugger of historic proportions in one year. If he falls off the radar next year, he’ll leave people scratching their heads for many years to come.

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