To truly gauge the strength of Jose Bautista’s surgically repaired left wrist look beyond his six spring home runs, though they do make a compelling case, and consider that day after day after day he took dozens of swings, each with the same trademark force and violence for which they’re known.
The way the Toronto Blue Jays slugger unleashes the bat is a sight to behold, his high leg kick the trigger for his hands to whip a 34-inch, 33-ounce bat at the ball, the remarkable flexibility in his hips allowing his torso to twist 120 degrees with an action figure’s ease, multiplying the torque on his path through the zone.
That throughout training camp the power that generated 134 home runs since September 2009 was back, without issue in the tendon sheath torn during an awkward swing last July 16 at Yankee Stadium, is arguably the most important development of the pre-season for the Blue Jays.
As they embark upon a 2013 season filled with expectations and anticipation unlike any in two decades, the focus has frequently and understandably been on the shiny new additions acquired by GM Alex Anthopoulos over the winter — Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera.
But while they may very well tip the scales from collaborative failure to success, Bautista remains the Blue Jays’ dominant figure on and off the field, the most fearsome presence in an intimidating and diverse lineup, the team’s pulse and conscience inside what feels like a healthy clubhouse.
They need the 32-year-old to tie the whole new package together, and a fast start to 2013 would certainly help in that regard.
While the health of Bautista’s wrist is one reason to believe he’s ready to deliver, the self-analysis behind his poor start in 2012 — when he batted .177/.319/.336 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 32 games out of the gate, following up on a slow finish to 2011 — may be an even more important indicator.
Fully cognizant of what led to his slide at the plate, and the changes he made in his approach to turn things around, leading him to bat .279/.383/.637 with 22 homers and 50 RBIs in the following 58 games until the injury, Bautista’s mind appears to be just as ready as his body to do some big-time damage.
“For me, the thing was I knew teams were trying to pitch around me or not give me a pitch to hit, and when they did throw a ball over the plate, it was most likely an off-speed pitch,” he explains one spring morning while sitting at his locker. “When I saw a fastball that was in the vicinity, I was just trying to swing at it, no matter if it was a ball or strike, if I felt like I could hit it. Not necessarily because I was too amped up, it was just my personal situation because I knew I wasn’t getting much, so I was trying to take advantage of whatever it was if it was a decent-looking pitch.
“I was trying to stay productive.”
In the process, Bautista was anything but through the first six weeks of the season, and after taking an 0-for-3 in a 6-2 win over Minnesota Twins on May 10, he finally kicked into gear. In a 7-6 loss the next day at Target Field, Bautista ripped a pair of solo shots, both to left field, and he went deep again in a 2-1 victory May 12, pulling another one over the wall.
Preceding the breakout was a steady diet of work in the cage with then hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, who remembers focusing on getting Bautista “back to the middle of the field because that’s where it’s going to work, get his swing going back in the right direction and that’s when he started turning it around.”
“I felt he tried to do something that he’s not good at anymore and that’s use the whole field,” adds Murphy, now the Blue Jays first base coach. “Everybody gets on him about right field, and everybody thinks I want guys to pull, pull, pull, and it’s not true. You look at a guy’s swing, Bautista is a pull hitter, and last year, to me, all of a sudden he was missing his pitch middle in. He came up with this thing that if the pitchers are going to try and stay away and throw breaking balls away, he’s going to adjust instead of staying with his strength and make them come to him, he’s going to go to them.”
Though Bautista says he wasn’t consciously trying to go to right field — of his 80 hits last year, eight were to centre field and 15 to right — he admits that “I was attacking a lot of pitches that are not my strength, swinging at a lot of pitches on the outer half, even some that I knew were balls just because I thought they were going to be the only ones close enough to swing at. I was getting myself out.”
While a handful of batters, most notably in recent memory Vladimir Guerrero, can make a career of hitting pitches out of the strike zone, most, Bautista included, cannot. Only five of his hits came on balls, while 50 of his hits, and 22 of his 27 home runs, came on pitches middle-in.
Straying got him into trouble in more ways than one.
“Jose may totally disagree but this is just what I see, when you change your sights you do something else different,” says Murphy. “In years before, you didn’t see Jose chase that pitch down and away, and if you’re looking down and away, you’re going to chase the ball down and away. When he was looking middle away to in for the ball to get his pitch, he’d lay off the breaking balls and the pitches outside.
“To me, that’s when he was chasing the really bad pitches.”
None of that would have come as much of a surprise to Bautista, who’s as analytical a hitter as they come. While the refinements he made to his swing with Murphy and former manager Cito Gaston in 2009 are well documented as the catalyst for his ascension from underachieving journeyman to superstar, the way he studies pitchers is just as important.
Bautista starts thinking about the next day’s starter the night before, watches video of his past five-10 starts to try and track sequences and tendencies, and devises a plan of attack. He keeps a binder filled with notes in his locker, sometimes referring to it or making a quick trip to the video room in-game if needed.
The success he’s experienced is no accident, which is what made his funk all the more puzzling.
“I was trying to make too much out of that particular pitch or opportunity, I was trying to swing at a pitch that I can drive as if I was in a good hitter’s count, when maybe it was the first pitch of an at-bat and it was a couple of inches away,” says Bautista. “I know my strength is letting those pitches go, and getting myself hopefully in a good hitting count and maybe cause some damage later in the at-bat when they do throw a ball over the plate.”
Another factor, Murphy believes, is that as Bautista’s struggles mounted, his frustrations grew and at times he may have vented a little too openly at umpires. Few hitters judge the strike zone as well as he does, but he began to regularly dispute calls, and things spiralled from there.
“It hurt him because the umpires get upset at him and when something is close, they were ringing him up,” says Murphy. “Me and Jose talked about it quite a bit, you’re going to just hurt yourself. You’ve got to, not be friends with them, but you’ve got to understand these are the guys making the calls. We had meetings about it (as a team) because there were other guys, (Yunel) Escobar did it, there were other guys doing it. I told them, you guys are going to have problems if you keep doing this stuff. I think it played a big factor, because when you worried about the first pitch, you still have two more. That first pitch stayed with him, he let the umpires take him out of his game sometimes.”
Complicating things further, Bautista started finding that pitchers changed their methods of attack more regularly, to the point that even from at-bat to at-bat within a game, he needed to make adjustments.
“I didn’t change during the game that often — now it’s different,” says Bautista. “They don’t stay within one frame for a long period of time. So if they’re going away, they’ll stay away for a little bit and as soon as I get one or two hits, they’ll switch to something else, so I keep having to chase them.”
Asked if that made it difficult to maintain a rhythm at the plate given the constant adjustments, Bautista shakes his head.
“Well, pitchers aren’t perfect, they don’t hit their spot every time, they miss and they fall behind in the count and then they have to throw a strike,” he counters. “That’s what I have to be good at, when I get those chances I have to capitalize and I shouldn’t miss my pitch very often. For guys in the middle of the lineup for every team around the league it’s the same way, I’m not special by any means, I’m sure it’s the same with Miguel Cabrera. They give you maybe one pitch to hit per at-bat.”
If they don’t, Bautista is intent on not helping his opponents out by trying to hit what they want him to hit, instead of the pitches he wants to swing at.
The additions of Reyes and Cabrera batting in front of him, with a break-out Encarnacion behind him should provide Bautista protection from both in front and behind in, meaning more often now pitchers won’t be able to avoid him intentionally.
Still, he insists it’s a recognition of what he needs to do as opposed to the depth of the batting order that will prevent him from expanding his zone and coming out of his approach.
“That’s what I was doing then, hopefully I’m more disciplined this year and it’s not about being more simple to pass the baton just because I think our team is better,” says Bautista. “It’s about each player on this team having individual success, and for me to be successful, I have to swing at strikes.
“When I’m swinging at pitches over the plate I can do what I do best, which is use my pull side, which in turn will allow me to contribute more to the team effort, and then make our team better as a whole.”
With his wrist ready and mind right, Bautista is in position to lift the Blue Jays up once again, a task that should be easier now that he’ll have so much more help.