Some guys never pause in their ascent to the top of baseball. Jose Bautista is not one of those guys.
When, in 2004, he played in 64 games wearing the jersey of four different teams, he probably didn’t think he’d become one of the best known and most popular Blue Jays players in franchise history.
He couldn’t have imagined dashing up the franchise leaderboard in home runs, walks, RBI and just about every other offensive category. He never considered there would be a day when he’d be the captain of the American League’s home run derby team and the leading vote-getter for the Midsummer Classic.
Jose Bautista has become all those things, a great player that followed an unconventional path to reach that greatness.
As a young man, Bautista became adept at adjusting to his surrounding and adapting on the fly.
“We learn how to adapt easily. I came from the Dominican and went to college, that’s a big change. Then I moved from college to the minor leagues, that’s a huge change. And then, before I was even comfortable in the minor leagues, I got Rule 5’d up to the big leagues.”
(The Rule 5 draft allows teams to select prospects who are not yet on their club’s 40 man roster but have been in their minor league system for 4+ years.)
Not many players make the jump from the Dominican Republic to college baseball in the United States, but for Bautista it was the first step in his journey to the majors.
The minor leagues are gruelling as Bautista explains:
“The minor leagues are tough but you’re young so you can deal with a lot of things. Overnight bus trips, 12-13 hours long. Staying in bad hotels, bad salaries, eating junk food. That’s what you do in the minor leagues.
You play a lot of games but you’re 18 or 21 years old so you can take it. There’s no way Major Leaguers could survive with that type of environment but things get better as you move up. “
The Rule 5 draft selection brought Jose to the big leagues and kept him there, but bouncing from team to team, and through different levels of the minor leagues helped him recognize who he was and where his strengths lie.
“I was lucky in that I was never forced to have a certain style. I was trying to be coached to become a different type of player when I was up in the big leagues with the Pirates, a style I didn’t feel fit my skillset too well. I’m not going to make any excuses for myself — I should have played better when I was there but I didn’t.”
It wasn’t until Bautista joined the Toronto Blue Jays that he hit his stride as a big leaguer. He cites both the opportunity and the fit in Toronto as key factors. But it wasn’t as though he hit the ground running. A key change to the timing of his swing finally unlocked his big league power — one that didn’t come easily.
It wasn’t a big change physically as much as mentally. More like timing and mental preparation and knowing when to get ready in your head — it can have drastic changes in the outcomes at the plate.
Even as Bautista became one of the most fearsome power hitters in baseball, clubbing 54 home runs in 2010 and then putting up even better numbers in 2011, he had to keep adjusting and working to stay on top of his game.
Pitchers change how they attack him, on top of the bigger changes in the game itself.
The style of the game changes from year to year. As hitters, we’ve had to make adjustments with the shifts and different ways of pitching. More guys that are power pitchers throwing a lot of breaking balls. People don’t rely on the fastball any more.
Bautista became a little easier to pitch against and easier for teams to defend. His pull-hitting home run tendencies starting working against him, as teams stacked infielders on the left side of the field while also pitching him on the outside part of the plate, daring him to try to go the other way.
After seeing his numbers suffer for two years, Bautista made some changes and began going the other way, beating shifting teams at their own game.
I’m not going to be stubborn and hard-headed and try to hit home runs when all the circumstances around are pointing toward a different path.
It’s a conscious effort that I discussed with my hitting coach and he agreed with me — I’m not going to become an opposite field singles hitter but in certain situations I’m going to try to take advantage of it.
With nobody on, two outs, early in the game or late in the game when all we need is a base runner instead of an extra base hit, or of if I’m facing a good pitcher and I’m behind in the count or they’re purposely pitching me away and I have a big hole over there, I’ll take advantage.
Not every player goes straight from the draft to the minors and on to big league stardom. He might be one of the game’s brightest stars now, but Jose Bautista followed a very winding road to get there and, more importantly, stay at the top of the game. The are always new challenges to overcome.