The Toronto Blue Jays have played 35 games in 2014. To the surprise of some (and disappointment of others), the Blue Jays have won 18 of those games. Among teams in the American League East, only Toronto scored more runs than they allowed.
How can a club with a pitching staff charitably described as "yikes" pulling off such a feat? Obviously through a lot of offense. Curiously, that offense missed one of its key players until very recently, as Edwin Encarnacion struggled through the early going.
While his teammates slumped and surge, one thing remained consistent: Jose Bautista. Over 35 Blue Jays games, Jose Bautista reached base safely...in all 35 of them?
Wait, that can't be right.
It can't be right but it is. The Blue Jays slugger managed to get on base every game this year, powering a .295/.450/.573 slash line, good enough for a 182 wRC+. That's the second highest mark in baseball, eclipsed only by Troy Tulowitzki.
The hot start to 2014 reminds fans just how great Jose Bautista was in 2010 and 2011. Last week, Bautista's Jays traveled to Pittsburgh, the city where those great seasons have a different kind of resonance. The Pirates traded Bautista to Toronto for a catching "prospect" who never stuck at the big league level.
Bautista admitted even he didn't realize a hitter of this magnitude lurked inside of him. From John Lott and the National Post:
“I had no idea I could hit 50 or 40 home runs, but I knew I could chip in every day and be in the lineup and be an everyday above-average major-league baseball player.”
Jose Bautista went from utility player to superstar after the Blue Jays gave him a chance to play every day. Never a top prospect, Bautista cashed in his 50 homer year and signed a five-year deal with Toronto, a risk for them given his track record. A risk for him, as well, coming off a record-setting season just one year away from free agency.
Two years limited by injuries not only cut into his playing time, it appeared to hamper his production as well. While 2012 and 2013 were good seasons by most measures, Bautista looked every bit a player in his early thirties, putting up numbers that were more “very good” than “top three power hitter in the game.”
Bautista's numbers are back in line with 2011, when he was one of the best hitters on the planet the year after he launched 54 home runs. His walk rate is over 20% while his strikeouts are way down. In 160 plate appearances, Bautista has 35 walks and just 25 strikeouts to go with his nine home runs.
Like all players, health is paramount for Jose Bautista. Though he missed more than 100 games over the last two years, a healthy body isn’t the only factor working in his favor. He made adjustments to both his approach and his temperament. This year, a more serene Bautista takes it easier on the umpires, long a sticking point among some fans.
He's unafraid to beat the shift, dumping singles into right field as teams deploy three infielders on the third base side of the diamond. Bautista already has six singles to right field (compared to 10 all of last year) and is hitting .360 on balls going the other way.
Not that he's Rod Carew or anything. He still smashes anything thrown on the inside half of the plate and, as a delightful bonus, when he hits them, they stay hit.
The Blue Jays right fielder (who also took a turn as the center fielder earlier this season) is a cerebral hitter who does his homework as well as any in the game. He studies opposing pitchers and profiles as a player who might age very well. Over the past five years, no player hit more home runs than Jose Bautista. Only three players were more productive hitters by wRC+, only two by weighted-on base average.
Bautista is also quickly racing up the Blue Jays all-time leaderboards for home runs, walks, OPS, on base percentage, and Wins Above Replacement. A spot on the Jays' "Level Of Excellence" is not out of the question.
The best way to grease those wheels is with some team success. One game above .500 is hardly success but in the flagging AL East, it puts them in the conversation. Without Bautista, they’d be lost as Colby Ramsus, Brett Lawrie and Encarnacion floundered through an April and May that began with a series of bullpen implosions. Though it all, Jose Bautista kept getting on base and kept hitting the ball out of the park.
With his supporting cast finally picking up some slack, Toronto are winners of five straight games in a wide open AL East. Maybe this is the year Bautista and his Blue Jays cement their legend in October.
Feature photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports/Dan Hamilton