How the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista pulled himself to prominence
Toronto's Jose Bautista leads the major leagues with 33 home runs this season
He hit 0 HRs his first three years and his previous single-season high was 16
Bautista is a dead pull-hitter; none of his 33 homers have been hit to right field
NEW YORK -- "Pull hitter" hardly begins to describe Jose Bautista.
The right-handed-hitting Blue Jays third baseman and outfielder hit his major-league-leading 33rd home run on Tuesday night -- a line drive tattooed over Yankee Stadium's left field fence -- and not one of them has gone to the opposite field.
A dozen have come since Bautista settled into the No. 3 hole of the lineup in late June, affording cleanup hitter Vernon Wells a close view of his teammate's homers.
"It's been fun standing on deck," Wells said, "and watching him launch balls left and right -- or I guess just left."
His exclusive use of center field and left field for his home runs is almost enough to suggest that Bautista has a natural aversion to the right field bleachers, particularly since none of his previous 59 career homers went there either.
But banking on Bautista to pull the ball has been about the only thing safely expected from his 2010 season. Even though he waited until his 80th major league game in his third season to hit his first home run and even though he had never belted more than 16 in any of his first six years in the bigs, he is 2010's unlikely home run king. His 33 homers this year are seven more than his closest American League competitor, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, and six more than the National League leader, Joey Votto of the Reds.
"I figured if I got in there 162 [games], I was going to have a pretty solid year," said Bautista, who is on pace for 50 homers this year, "but I never expected this many home runs and not this early either."
Bautista's 30th birthday looms in October, making such a power surge even more unlikely. Since 1951 only four players -- Harmon Killebrew in 1959, Mike Schmidt in 1974, Mark McGwire in 1987 and Cecil Fielder in 1990 -- have led their respective league in home runs after not having hit at least 20 in a prior season; only Fielder was older than 24 and he was just 26.
Sure, there had been glimpses of Bautista's latent power along the way -- a nine-game stretch in which he hit five homers in 2008, for instance -- but nothing that suggested he could bash like this with consistency.
Then again, he didn't get in the lineup with any consistency, either. He made his major-league debut in 2004 and until this season he had had only one season (2007) in which he exceeded 400 at bats or started more than 101 games. When he was dealt to Toronto in '08 was stuck behind Scott Rolen at third base and Alex Rios in right field until both were traded late last season.
Bautista struggled in his part-time role. In May 2009 then Blue Jays first-base coach Dwayne Murphy, now the club's hitting coach, approached him in the weight room with a suggestion. As the two looked into one of the room's mirrored walls, Murphy demonstrated how Bautista was late on nearly every pitch, which forced his shoulders to turn through the zone too quickly while playing catch up. He'd end up getting jammed or rolling his hands over the ball.
"I was getting ready way too late and the ball was beating me to the strike zone," Bautista said. "When I wasn't playing every day, making the adjustments was really tough because I wasn't seeing the results."
When Bautista finally cemented his place in the starting lineup in late August, the improvement started to come, capped off by a September and October in which he hit 10 home runs and posted a .944 OPS. In the offseason, Bautista, a native of Santo Domingo, returned to the Dominican Republic and played in the winter league playoffs. That helped solidify the mechanical changes he had made in turning his swing into an attack more than a reaction.
"That was the confidence booster, not necessarily the 10 home runs," Bautista said. "I wanted to reinforce the changes I made to my approach and made sure I came into spring training ready to go. Even though I signed a guaranteed deal, my spot in the starting lineup was not in the writing."
Bautista earned that spot by batting .439 with five home runs in 57 at bats during spring training. "You could see in spring training that it was more natural for him," Murphy said. "He had a tremendous spring training. He hit it on a line everywhere."
That success didn't immediately carry over into the season. Bautista hitting only .213 with four homers in April, before exploding in May with 12 bombs. He hit just four home runs again in June, but rebounded in July with 11.
The potential frustrations of his April and June slumps could have gotten the best of him, had it not been for his personal development in the minor leagues. By his own admission, Bautista was stubborn while coming up in the Pirates' farm system. After not getting suitable offers to sign as an international free agent out of the D.R., Bautista enrolled at Chipola Junior College in Florida for a year, and Pittsburgh selected him in the 20th round of the 2000 amateur draft.
Tony Beasley was his manager each of his first two minor-league seasons with Williamsport of the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League in 2001 and with Hickory of the full-year Single-A South Atlantic League in '02. He oversaw Bautista's raw early days as a pro.
"One thing with Jose is that he would get frustrated a lot because he was a perfectionist," said Beasley, now the third-base coach for the Pirates. "Even if he had two hits but made an out in his third at bat, he allowed that to affect him mentally. That would get him out of whack more than anything else."
In one game with Hickory, Bautista had three hits but grew so upset about making an out in his fourth at bat that his warmup throws from third base before the next inning kept sailing over the first baseman's head. Beasley pulled Bautista out of the game, one of several times that happened.
"Oh yeah, plenty of times," Bautista said of being removed from games. "There was discipline enforced on me by him a lot of times. And sometimes maybe a little equipment damage here and there. The main thing between me and him was that there was always good communication so I knew why he was doing it."
Before the 2004 season, Bautista was selected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft, beginning a year in which he was on five major-league rosters. He debuted for Baltimore but was later claimed off waivers by the Rays, then traded to the Royals, then to the Mets and then back to the Pirates.
By 2005 he found himself back in the minors and back playing for Beasley. At Double-A Altoona, he hit 23 home runs in 117 games, the closest he would come to a slugging season that foreshadowed his production this year.
"When he came back to me, you could see some maturity," Beasley said. "He'd grown up as a man more. He wasn't overwhelmed by anything he saw at Double-A. He was more relaxed and more confident that he could come there and dominate the level, which he did."
Now he's dominating at the highest level, leading the way for the power-hitting Blue Jays who rank first in the majors with 167 home runs. He says he never fancied himself a power hitter, even though he has what others have described to him as a "violent swing." Before this season he ditched a lot of his weightlifting regimen in favor of a power circuit training routine -- mostly plyometrics and cardio work -- under the supervision of a Dominican trainer named Kelvin Terrero.
And he switched his uniform number from 23 to 19, which became available when Marco Scutaro departed. Bautista noted that his mother, brother and himself all have birthdays on the 19th of three consecutive months (August, September and October) and that 19 inevitably appears in his phone number.
It's been a season of change for Bautista in nearly every way -- especially the power and his role as a fulltime starter -- except for the direction of his hits. If ever there were a compelling argument for an exaggerated pull shift on a righty hitter, he is it.
Bautista shows a pronounced bias even on balls that stay in the park. Only five of his 98 hits have been to the opposite field. He is batting .522 on balls pulled to left and only .161 when he hits it to the opposite field. (The league averages for right-handed batters has a much narrower gap: .427 on balls to left-field and .280 to right field.)
There's no premeditated strategy for avoiding right field, Bautista explains. It's just how things have played out.
"Any power hitter is going to have more power to his pull side except Adrian Gonzalez," he said of the Padres' star first baseman. "I'm having good results so I'm not going to change a thing."
So far pitchers haven't changed their approach much either. On Tuesday, the Yankees' Sergio Mitre challenged Bautista with an inside fastball that became his 33rd home run.
For Bautista this season, nearly everything has gone right -- except, of course, for that home run, which, like all the others, went left.
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