Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria, Joe Mauer, Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, etc. There are a lot of talented hitters in the AL right now. I would take Bautista over any of them, at least if the only criteria was offensive production. Obviously what a guy like Longoria can bring to the defensive side of the game probably trumps the difference between he and any other AL stud, so I still think he’s the most valuable player in that league, but personally I would greatly prefer Jose Bautista to any other hitter. Here’s why.
When evaluating hitters, a logical place to start is the numbers since they provide a basis and serve as a reminder of what our eyes see over the course of hundreds of at-bats. Bautista is currently slashing a .354/.519/.781 line with 11 jacks and as many extra base hits as strikeouts. He is walking nearly twice as many times as he is striking out, and he is almost on pace to steal 20 bags in 2011. Everyone remembers his bombs from 2010, but what most people don’t realize is that he hit only .260. According to many models that calculate what a player’s average should be given league average BABIP and G/L/F, a batting average over .330 was within reach if only he had posted a league average amount of luck. What’s more, he jumped up nearly .200 points in OPS from the first half to the second. All this means that at least mathematically, there is plenty of reason to suspect that Bautista might be even better than he was in 2010.
How did this happen? How could a player in his late 20’s blow up in the way that Bautista did last year? What changed? Prior to 2010 he had never slugged over .420 or had an OBP over .349. Could it really be as simple as everyday playing time or the fact that Toronto is such a nice place to swing the bat? No. There’s more. A lot more. Jose Bautista has always had the talent to annihilate pitches. A lot of Major Leaguers do. What Bautista discovered when he moved from Pittsburgh to Toronto is how to lift from the front of his swing. “Discovered” is probably not the correct term. “Was told” is more appropriate. Dwayne Murphy is an exceptional hitting coach, and, after transforming Bautista into the hitter he is today, probably deserves at least a cameo on the next season of Eastbound.
Let’s get back to Bautista’s mechanics at the plate. He begins his swing somewhat pre-loaded with his hands high and heavily crowds the plate. As he loads his hands stay relatively high and slide back into a very customary hitting position. He strides high, but lands softly and practically never leaks. Very little about what Bautista does pre-pitch sets him apart aside from how well he stays behind his front side in terms of weight distribution. A case can be made that through crowding the plate as much as he does that he sets himself up to be perpetually exposed to high and tight fastballs, but he practically never gets jammed. The difference mechanically is that Bautista’s bat track is beyond textbook. He enters the hitting zone from above the ball every single pitch. This is more than just a feat of excellent mechanics. This is perhaps the most impressive display of athleticism in baseball today.
Last night, on a pitch that might have beaned him, Bautista hit a Max Scherzer fastball off the wall in CENTER! I am not even sure how something like that is possible, but it is highly exemplary of what makes Bautista great. An example of the contrary is Ian Kinsler’s cut. Kinsler is a below-the-ball hitter on every pitch that is not a down and away fastball. He is very athletic, so he still has some success with this track, but he never really generates long drives with any carry middle-pull either. Bautista, on the other hand, essentially only hits the ball with tremendous carry.
Perhaps the single component of his game, though, that really sets him apart is his utter refusal to be cheated swings. He only swings as hard as he can every cut. It takes a great deal of discipline to do this at-bat after at-bat, game after game.
Bautista is going to win the MVP award this year if he can reach 600 plate appearances. I will be very surprised if anyone is within .050 OPS points of him as well, including Miguel Cabrera. Just watch.