December 30, 2010
As this final week brings 2010 to a close, the five main Big League Stew staffers will take a look at the stories that captured their fancy the most.
This isn't necessarily a rundown of the biggest moments, mind you — our own Jeff Passan already did that here — just a recollection of the interesting moments that made up the year.
When the Toronto Blue Jays slugger emerged from obscurity to lead the major leagues in home runs, producing the highest total in three years, many people said he "came out of nowhere." But that isn't really true. Before 2010, he had played six seasons in the majors, four of them relatively full seasons, and all were relatively ineffective, as he'd made forgettable whistle stops with the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates. He had more than 2,000 plate appearances in the major leagues, and he was 29 years old when the season started. There was no reason to think that he was anything more than a journeyman outfielder.
Needless to say, Jose Bautista was not who we thought he was.
Let's clear the elephant out of the room right now — he hit a ton of homers last season after hanging around for most of a decade and never doing much of anything, and I believe there is no way that steroids caused his leap. It's a sad fact that playing in the 2000s guarantees that the question will be asked — and it was — and there is admittedly no way to know whether or not he used anything, but PEDs alone simply do not account for what happened to Jose Bautista. The notion that simply taking a drug could turn a man from a career journeyman to a 50-homer behemoth is nothing more than an urban legend unsupported by any known evidence.
Let's put it another way: Jose Bautista's story is simply too improbable for steroids alone to have been able to explain it. Hundreds of players are known to have used performance-enhancing drugs, and none of them had a career like Bautista has had.
Bautista also served me a slice of humble pie, as he was the subject of perhaps my worst prediction of the year:
"Jose Bautista will hit 35 homers this year, a career high he will never again come close to matching."
He had 24 when I wrote that on July 16, and he took less than a month to hit his 36th, ultimately dwarfing my prediction by almost 20 taters. (Nearly as marvelous as his 54 homers? His 100 walks, fourth in all of baseball and second in the American League to Daric Barton's(notes) 110. His previous career high in walks was merely 68.) Bautista's success this year gives me a good reason to doubt the second half of my prediction, that he would "never again come close" to 35 jacks. Frankly, I'm not ready to bet against Joey Bats in 2011.
Bautista's story isn't completely unparallelled. Hank Sauer missed time in World War II and only got a couple of cups of coffee before turning 31. The moment he became a regular, though, he was one of the best players in the league, hitting at least 30 home runs in each of his first five seasons, winning the MVP as a 35-year-old in 1952. David Ortiz(notes), instructed by Tom Kelly's Twins not to pull the ball or hit for power, was unleashed as a monster as soon as he reached Fenway Park's friendly confines. A bit like Sauer, Raul Ibanez(notes) didn't become a regular player until he was 30, and then became one of the better left-handed hitters in baseball for most of the past decade.
But none of those guys emerged from obscurity to hit 50 homers.
Certainly, there was some magic in the air at Toronto's Rogers Centre this year. Toronto led the majors in home runs by 46 — the distance between Toronto and second-place Boston was greater than the distance between Boston and ninth-place Philadelphia. Bautista had a career year, but so did catcher John Buck(notes) and shortstop Alex Gonzalez(notes) (before he was traded), and centerfielder Vernon Wells(notes) had his best season since 2006, when he signed his mammoth extension. Even the team's biggest disappointments, Aaron Hill(notes) and Adam Lind(notes), both hit over 20 home runs, so while their batting average collapsed their power stayed impressive. So while Bautista is alone in history, his booming bat wasn't alone on his own team.
Will there be any pixie dust left for 2011? Can I write this same story next year? Many assumed that GM Alex Anthopoulos traded Shaun Marcum(notes) for Brewers top prospect Brett Lawrie in order to make a push for Zack Greinke(notes), but Greinke went to the Brew Crew too, and the Jays still play in the world's toughest division. But no one in Toronto can say they don't believe in miracles.
They just witnessed one.