Fellow baseball nerds will appreciate this article. Jose Bernstein and I have spent the majority of the 2010 MLB season mocking another Jose B – Bautista – and his seemingly ephemeral shot at baseball lore. Joe Posnanski (there he is again) breaks down baseball’s Jose B., his surprisingly forseeable run at 50 homers, and his outpacing some of the all-time HR hitters. Best of all? An astute and informational Kirby Puckett anecdote. Enjoy.
Entering this season Bautista’s career high for home runs was 16. (Getty Images)
The thing that stands out about the 50-homer season, I think, is not so much who has done it but who has not. You probably know that Hank Aaron never hit 50 home runs in a season — that’s a rather famous trivia reference point. Aaron hit between 40 and 47 eight different times. Heck, he hit right on his number, 44, four times, which is one of the more artistic statistical anomalies in baseball history. But he never hit 50.
Harmon Killebrew never had a 50-home run season. Five times, Killer hit between 45 and 49 homers — and he hit 49 twice — but he never quite got to the half dollar.
Albert Pujols has not hit 50 homers in a season. Mike Schmidt… Willie Stargell… Willie McCovey… Reggie Jackson… Ernie Banks… Eddie Mathews… Frank Howard… Ted Williams… Frank Thomas… Frank Robinson… none of these great players and great home run hitters hit 50 home runs in a season.
And this year, Jose Bautista will do it. How does that figure?
Baseball is not the only American sport where a great player competes against both the best players in the world today and the ghosts of the past. Now and again, a running back tries to live up to Walter Payton. Kobe Bryant tries to surpass Michael Jordan. Tiger chases Jack Nicklaus, not Steve Stricker.
But in baseball, it is different, I think. These tangos with yesterday are ever present. People don’t seem especially bothered when, say, Priest Holmes scores more touchdowns in a season than Emmitt Smith, who scored more touchdowns than John Riggins, who scored more touchdowns than O.J. Simpson, who scored more touchdowns than Jim Brown. We seem to understand. The seasons get longer. The game of football shifts pretty wildly between offense and defense, between running and passing, the musical notes of the game stretch and contract. The context changes. Between 2000 and 2006, seven years, the touchdown record was broken FOUR times, first by Marshall Faulk, then by Holmes, then by Shaun Alexander and finally by LaDainian Tomlinson. This seemed to spark only mild interest in football (though dramatic interest for fantasy football owners).
But baseball connects in a different way — which is at least part of the reason why the McGwire-Sosa chase of 1998 enraptured America, and why when they both hit more than 61 home runs AGAIN the next year, it began to lose some of its charm, and why, when Barry Bonds broke the record two years after (during the mourning period of 9/11), it seemed mostly like overkill, and part of the reason why when steroid accusations began to go public there was an outcry unlike anything pro football had ever felt during its own, ongoing, steroid dance.
And this is part of the reason why what Jose Bautista is doing feels momentous… and oddly unnerving. Other players in other sports have had seasons or games that did not seem to fit into the context of their careers. Backup NBA forward Darius Miles once scored 47 points in an April game at Denver. Rick Kehoe was a perfectly likable and competent NHL player who almost never got penalized, when suddenly in 1980-81 he scored 55 goals, which tied him for fourth in the league with someone named Wayne Gretzky (Kehoe won the Lady Byng Trophy that year). Before 1990, only three NFL quarterbacks had thrown for more than 4,500 yards. One was Dan Marino. Check. Two was Dan Fouts. Check. Three was… right, Neil Lomax. That would be Neil Lomax.*
*Lomax would never again throw for even 3,400 yards in the NFL, though in 1987, during the strike season, he did lead the NFL in passing yards with 3,387. Two years later, he badly hurt his hip and he was out of pro football.
But baseball is the sport where 61 means Maris and .400 means Williams and 300 means Seaver and Carlton and Maddux and Spahn. Even individual teams inspire this sort of looking back — in New York they celebrate Derek Jeter for getting more hits than Lou Gehrig and in Kansas City people wait impatiently for someone, anyone, to hit 37 home runs and finally wipe Steve Balboni off the record books.
So, when Jose Bautista hits his 50th home run — he enters Wednesday night’s game with 49 — he will not only be putting the final makeover touch on one of the more shocking seasons in baseball history, he will also be doing something that Lou Gehrig never did. And so the conversation goes quickly from “Jose Bautista is going to hit to 50 home runs?” to “FRANK ROBINSON never hit 50 home runs” to “The game has changed. Home runs used to mean something. How can Jose Bautista do something that FRANK ROBINSON never did?”
Just how fluky is Jose Bautista’s home run season? Well, it seems to me that there are a couple of different answers to that. One is we don’t know, not really, not yet. The reason we don’t know is that while Bautista is not exactly young — he turns 30 next month and already has played in parts of seven big league seasons — this is only his second with 500-plus plate appearances. We simply don’t know yet how his career will turn out.
When David Ortiz hit 31 homers in 2003 — 15 of them in his last 34 games — it felt kind of fluky. Ortiz had enough of a muddled career in Minnesota that the Twins released him rather than pay him arbitration money. The Red Sox had an in-house battle about keeping him on the team. The sudden rash of home runs felt fluky, and Ortiz was turning 28 that year so he wasn’t exactly a kid. The next year, though, he hit 41 home runs. Then 47. Then 54. And it was clear that Papi was no fluke.
When Kirby Puckett’s power emerged out of nowhere — 31 homers in 1986 after hitting four the year before — that was viewed as a fluke. But it wasn’t. It was a career-high, but Puckett had other years when he hit 28, 24, 23, 22 homers… 31 is not wildly out of line with those numbers.
Right now, Bautista’s year seems bizarre, but if he hits 41 homers next year, 38 the following, 46 the year after that, well, then this season will suddenly feel right in line with his talent. And that could happen. Yes, developing sudden power like this at 29 is uncommon, no doubt about it. But it’s not unprecedented.
• Ted Kluszewski suddenly hit 40 home runs when he was 28 (his career high up that point was 25, and he hit 16 the year before). He then followed with years of 49, 47 and 35.
• Carlos Pena bounced around, Texas to Oakland to Detroit to Boston, and flashed some occasional power. But he suddenly crushed 46 homers when he was 29 (his career high up to that point was 27, and he hit one in just a few at-bats the year before). He has since proven to be a terrific power hitter.
• Hank Sauer was practically a rookie when he got the call at 31 years old in 1948. He had gotten a few at-bats during the World War II, but that was about it. He hit 35 home runs, and that certainly could have been viewed as a fluke. But over the next decade he would turn out to be one of the more durable home run hitters in the game, leading the league with 37 homers in 1952 and crushing 41 homers in 1954.
And so on. So, that’s the first answer: We don’t REALLY know the fluke-quotient of Bautista’s season because his true home run value is still to be determined.
The second answer is: Yes, it seems incredibly fluky. I have run a formula (inspired by and partly designed by Bill James) to pick my 32 flukiest home run seasons, which I also posted today. And no matter how I tried to even out the numbers, Bautista’s season shot to the top of the charts. There’s simply no way to see a 50-home run season emerge from a man who had hit his career high of 16 homers back in 2006.
Still: A lot of people around the game thought that Jose Bautista had a chance to be a good big league hitter long before now. As ironic as it may sound, that’s exactly why he has played for seven different teams already. He has been a Rule 5 draft pick, he has been picked up on waivers, he has been purchased and he has been traded three times. He is one of those guys who has always looked better to other teams than to the team he was actually playing for at the time… and that signifies a measure of talent.
I remember when the Kansas City Royals got Bautista (that was the straight purchase). Then Royals GM Allard Baird talked at length about Bautista’s hitting potential. Allard could not turn around the Royals fortunes, but he had (and still has) a knack for scouting hitting talent. He stuck with Johnny Damon when many people around baseball turned off to him. He gave Raul Ibanez* a chance when he seemed like one of those possibly apocryphal Quad-A hitters.
*Ibanez would be another guy you could include in the you-have-to-wait category… he did not play his first full season until he was 30, and he posted a 122 OPS+. At the time that was viewed as a fluke. But his OPS+ in the eight years following has been 118, so that is obviously his true value.
Allard felt certain that Bautista was going to hit at some point. But — then he decided that “at some point” did not mean “now,” and 13 games later Baird used Bautista to horn in on a three-way deal with the Mets and Pirates (the Royals got a very friendly prospect from Australia named Justin Huber, who never panned out, though he did play in something like 43 Futures Games because he was from Australia).
Anyway, with Bautista, there was talent that people did see. But, obviously, nobody saw this season coming. Even the most optimistic of scouts projected Bautista as a line-drive hitter with some patience who might hit 20-to-25 homers. “The ball always did seem to jump off his bat when he made contact,” one scout says. “But contact was an issue for him.” When Bautista smashed two savage home runs against the Royals on April 19 (giving him three for the year) it felt like one of those things than just happens to the Royals. When he hit home runs in back-to-back games in Cleveland on May 3 and May 4 — giving him six for the year — he was still hitting .221 and it felt like he was just going to have a typical Jose Bautista year, flashing talent now and again but mostly making outs. When he hit eight home runs in 11 games from May 15 to May 25, it caught people’s attention, especially people scouting the waiver wire in their rotisserie leagues.
He had a two-homer game against the Yankees on June 4, and another two-homer game against St. Louis on June 22. He had 24 homers at the break, which earned him a spot on the All-Star team. And he kept hitting. When he had his sixth multiple homer game of the season on August 23 — this one against Boston — he became the first American Leaguer since 2007 to hit 40 homers in a season (Paul Konerko, with 37, has a chance to do it this year, too). And by then everyone around baseball had come to realize that no matter what had happened before, you were not going to throw pretty much anything by Jose Bautista in 2010. And, of course, he has kept on hitting home runs since then. He had his seventh multiple-homer game on Sept. 10 against Tampa Bay. A-Rod had eight in 2007 — the last American Leaguer with more in a season.
Is Bautista’s season a fluke? People may point out that the Rogers Centre has been a nice home run ballpark in 2010, for whatever reason (or maybe no reason at all), and Bautista has hit 30 of his 49 homers at home. People may point out that Bautista snuck up on the league and everyone will go to school on him during the off-season and he will have to make all sorts of adjustments next year.* People may point out that Jose Bautista — like Greg Vaughn, like Brady Anderson, like Luis Gonzalez — has no business hitting 50 home runs, the number that Hank Aaron never even reached.
*According to the indescribably wonderful Fangraphs Web site, Bautista has been:
• Third most productive in the league against fastballs (behind only Paul Konerko and Josh Hamilton)
• Second in the league against sliders (behind Robinson Cano)
• Second in the league against curveballs (behind Vlad Guerrero)
That’s a pretty tough combination. Bautista has struggled against changeups, split-fingered fastballs, knucklers — stuff that throws off the timing. After this season, you can bet he’ll get a healthy dose of those kinds of pitches. Trouble is, there aren’t many pitchers in the AL who throw great changeups, splitters or knucklers.
Well, we’ll see. That scout I mentioned above, we were talking about Bautista, and I asked him if he thought the guy could ever repeat this season. He said, “Well, I’m not saying he’s going to hit 50 home runs in a season again. But he will hit 30 or 40 against next year.”
I said, “So you think he’s for real?”
And he said: “Those aren’t imaginary home runs he’s hitting.”