It’s safe to say that over the first 18 games of the season, a lot of the sheen has been rubbed off what was supposed to be one of Toronto’s strong suits this year – the offence.
Of course there have been some pleasant surprises, such as Edwin Encarnacion’s early emergence as a threatening hitter and Kelly Johnson’s good plate discipline that makes him a great hitter at the top of the lineup.
However for every bright spot there have been equally and exceeding frustrations and perhaps none are greater than that of number 19, Jose Bautista.
I hate to say it, but we’ve been spoiled as fans of his in the past two seasons. In 2010 he broke out with 54 homeruns. Was it an aberration? Many thought so, but he went on to arguably have an even better season in 2011, with fewer homeruns, but a much higher average, OBP and OPS.
Now he finds himself in a slump in the worst possible time – the beginning of the season – when small sample sizes are all fans and player alike have to look at and mediocre stretches that might go relatively unnoticed if they occurred in August are all of a sudden reason for the fanbase to divulge into mass hysteria and question each and every detail of every game.
Am I here to provide the voice of reason, to say everything will be OK and by season’s end the month of April will be long forgotten and our bearded hero will be in line to collect another Silver Slugger? Unfortunately, no I’m not.
Baseball is an extremely difficult game. There are only 750 men in the entire universe who are good enough to hold jobs in the top league in the world. As difficult as professional baseball is at the top level, it’s exceedingly more difficult to be the absolute best in the game. It’s even more difficult than that to be the very best in the game for a sustained period of time. In 2010 and 2011, Jose Bautista was amongst the very best players in the game and it’s something that more or less came out of nowhere, as in the previous six seasons of his career his name would never garner attention amongst the game’s elite.
Things change, players fade, talents erode. This is a fact of not only baseball, but life in general. It’s entirely possible, even at age 31, that Bautista has slowed down a bit and has passed his physical peak as a professional baseball player. Baseball is a game of inches and it would only take a slight slow down for him to no longer be at that elitest of the elite level. It will happen eventually, I don’t think there are any fans naive enough to think he’s going go on hitting 45+ homeruns and OPS-ing over 950 every year until he decides to retire.
It’s also entirely possible it is only a timing issue and once he gets it sorted out he will get back on track. It’s also probably more possible that American League pitchers – tired of getting whiplash from turning over their shoulders the past two seasons after pitching to him – have started pitching him more intelligently and now Bautista is having a tough time adjusting.
That being said, I have noticed in the early going of this season, that Bautista has missed a lot of pitches he would have crushed in the past two years, he’s taken a lot of pitches he should be crushing and he has even seen his nearly perfect plate discipline erode a bit as he has chased some bad pitches out of the zone.
Unfortunately, as Buck Martinez so creepily stated after Bautista’s second homerun of the season, at this point, it doesn’t seem that HE’S BAAAACK quite yet.
Am I saying Bautista that the Joey Bats era is now over and he will now forever and ever go back to being the relative scrub he was before his breakout season in 2010? No.
Am I saying it might be a good idea to temper your expectations a bit if you simply expect him to be the best hitter in the world for the duration of his contract? Yes.
I know it’s only 60 at bats, which is a tiny sample size in the grand scheme of things. But I just think it’s short sighted to put on rose coloured glasses and accept the fact that everything will be OK because he’s Jose Bautista. Truthfully, no one really knows who Jose Bautista is in the grand scheme of things. His career arc isn’t one that crops up very often and he was still Jose Bautista in 2004 through 2009, so what if he returns to a slightly improved version of that level?
I can’t say I followed his career all that closely before he was with the Jays but if I had to guess what it looked like, I would suggest it looked a lot like it has in the first 18 games of the season – a lot of inconsistent at bats, a tough time making solid contact, but decent power that allows him to run into one once in a while. The only difference is that back then he was a virtually anonymous player in Pittsburgh, whereas now he is probably the most well-known baseball player in all of Canada, who also gets a ton of attention south of the border and essentially has the future of an entire franchise on his back.
You can’t tell me there’s not more pressure to succeed and expectation to perform with those circumstances in place.It’s also painfully obvious that he is in his own head right now, heaping added pressure on an already tense situation.
I hope he breaks out of it because let’s be honest here, any and all plans the Blue Jays have of contention have always just had a productive Jose Bautista as a foregone conclusion to the plans for success.
Also some food for thought, is that despite his struggles, Bautista is still managing to get on base at a decent clip and is still on pace for 27 homeruns. You know what, it could be worse when it comes to a slumping slugger.
Of course, the real reason behind Bautista’s struggles could have nothing to do with what I’ve mentioned above. Maybe it’s just simply the dreaded cover curse, a la Madden?
I do wonder though, what if Bautista isn’t OK? What if he doesn’t bounce back? Is there even really a contingency plan in the organization for such a thing? Would he end up like Vernon Wells who got booed even by his home fans? Would the Jays be able to offload his contract if he does have a down season or two? Will he get sent down to AAA, finally freeing Travis Snider? Alright, that last one is a joke.
I might be stretching into mass hysteria a bit here, so I’ll cut it off now. The beautiful thing about baseball – there’s another game tomorrow and another chance for Joey Bats to turn this thing around and get back to being the hitter that we all love to watch.