He has been traded three times—once for a player to be named later. He has been plucked off waivers and picked up in the Rule 5 draft and never spent more than three years with one organization. And now Jose Bautista, a utility player who before this year had never hit more than 16 home runs in any of his six major league seasons, is on his way to becoming one of history's most unlikely home run champs. At week's end the Blue Jays' slugger had 42 bombs, nine more than the next closest hitter in the American League, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera. It's perhaps the most shocking home run breakout since Brady Anderson hit 50 in 1996, but Bautista, 29, insists, "I always knew I was capable of hitting this many home runs." He pauses, then adds with a smile, "O.K., maybe not this many."
Only three hitters since 1947—Cecil Fielder in '90, Mark McGwire in '87 and Harmon Killebrew in '59—have led their league in home runs after hitting as few the previous season as Bautista did last year (13). Bautista's stunning power surge made him the subject of trade rumors in July, but the Blue Jays held on to their number 3 hitter, convinced that they have a late bloomer in the mold of Rays first baseman Carlos Pe√±a. "It's no fluke," says hitting coach Dwayne Murphy. "Jose has reinvented himself as a hitter."
Before this season Bautista was a career backup who often joked to teammates that he led the league in foul balls. "At least two or three per at bat," he says. "If anyone kept that stat, they would tell you I was the leader." Bautista didn't understand why he struggled to make solid contact, particularly on fastballs inside, until one day last season when Murphy showed him how he was almost always late with his swing. They broke down Bautista's mechanics in front of a mirror in the Blue Jays' weight room. "A lightbulb went on that day," says Bautista, who learned to start his swing sooner, "and suddenly I was able to square up on a lot more balls than I used to."
Toronto's midseason trades last year of outfielder Alex Rios and third baseman Scott Rolen opened up regular playing time for Bautista, and this year his new swing has given him more loft (his 61.1% fly ball rate was fifth highest in baseball) and turned him into a dead pull hitter (none of his home runs had gone the opposite way). "You could beat him with inside fastballs in the past," says an AL advance scout, "but now he hits everything."
Bautista's versatility—he has played all three outfield and both corner infield positions for the Jays—adds to his rising value. He is arbitration eligible this winter and due to become a free agent after 2011, but Toronto hopes to sign him to a long-term deal.
In other words Bautista finally may have found a home. "Maybe if I were put in the right position and had the right coaching, I would have been able to do this earlier," he says. "It just shows, once you get in a groove, you never know what can happen."
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DARREN CALABRESE/CP/AP (BAUTISTA)
EARLY BIRD SPECIAL Solid contact is easy for Bautista now that he's not late on fastballs.