Now, some 21 years later, Jose Bautista is closing in on both those feats, and he’s set to break some club records along the way.
In the first inning Wednesday evening against the Orioles, Bautista hit his 47th home run, off of Brad Bergesen, tying him with George Bell for the franchise season-record.
Coming into the game, the right fielder was seven ahead of National League leader Albert Pujols (39) overall, and 10 ahead of his nearest American League competitor, Paul Konerko (36).
However, at the beginning of the year, numbers like these did not seem possible for the journeyman. Bautista had never hit more than 16 in a season, and was coming off a 2009 where he hit only 13.
The 29-year-old, who has been traded three times, was once picked off waivers, and had never played longer than three years with one organization, was penciled in as a utility player heading into Jays’ training camp.
Nevertheless, he batted his way into the lineup, and as of June 20 he led the majors with 18 homers. Yet, the critics did not believe all the hype.
In the June 21 edition of Sports Illustrated, writer Joe Sheehan commented on the slugger in his “The Numbers” feature, that he titled “Fluke Flies”.
“After a career in which about one in nine of his flies went for homers, Bautista is going deep on one in five,” Sheehan said. “Home runs per fly ball tends to be a long-term skill for hitters, though, so Bautista’s “extra” power is likely due to good fortune.”
Sheehan went on to describe Bautista as a “one-trick pony,” and pegged him as a high strike out and fly ball producing hitter, with limited power.
“Bautista is bound to be a power disappointment in the second half,” said Sheehan.
What he failed to mention was the dramatic change in Bautista’s swing this season that he now credits for his emergence as one of the games best power-hitters.
When Bautista became the first player to reach 40 home runs in August, he told USA Today writer Peter Barzilai precisely what changed in his mechanics at the plate.
“I didn’t reinvent the wheel,” Bautista said. “It’s as simple as getting [my swing] started earlier, and I’ve got Cito [Gaston] and [hitting coach] Dwayne Murphy to thank for that.
They kind of brought it to my attention and they worked with me extensively and it’s sort of the renaissance of my hitting.”
Bautista’s emergence a rarity
Bautista is now on the verge of history, and he may be joining some elite company in the record books. Only three hitters since 1947 have led their league in homers, after producing such a low total the previous year.
Bautista would not be the first late-bloomer to produce later in his career.
Carlos Pena of the Rays did not hit 30 home runs until he turned 29 in 2007. He has since hit 30-plus every year, and is on his way to reaching that plateau this season with 27.
So when will Bautista finally get the praise he really deserves? In the Sept. 6 edition of Sports Illustrated, writer Albert Chen made amends for the magazine’s earlier impression of the Jays’ all-star.
He wrote an “Inside Baseball” feature titled “Rise to Power”, in which he talked to AL scouts, as well Jays’ hitting coach Dwayne Murphy regarding Bautista’s progression.
The scouts agreed that Bautista is no longer getting burned by fastballs on the inside like in the past.
“It’s no fluke,” Murphy told Chen. “Jose has re-invented himself as a hitter.”
Some two and a half months after his first appearance, the magazine has now labelled him “this year’s breakout slugger.” Nevertheless, Bautista appears to be taking it all in stride.
“I always knew I was capable of hitting this many home runs,” he told Chen with a pause and a smile. “Okay, maybe not this many.”