I first told this story last fall as Jose Bautista crossed the 50-home run plateau and was victimized by assumptions about PED’s or corked bats or, I don’t know, deals with the devils. With the Jays’ slugger now having crossed the 20-home run plateau before the first of June I think I should tell it again.
I used to run into Jeff “Mickey” Manto all the time when he was the journeyman infielder (he played in 11 major league seasons and changed teams 10 times; he once went from Boston to Seattle and back to Boston in one season; he played for 15 minor league teams). Manto averaged 26 games per stint in his big league career, so whenever I’d see him on a field somewhere one of us would say “uh-oh – about to change uniforms again.”
So on March 3, 2007, I stepped off a flight from New York and went directly to the Pirates-Yankees exhibition game in Tampa and who’s the first person I see? Pirates batting coach Jeff Manto (naturally, it was his last year on the job). I asked him what he could tell me about his Pirate hitters that I didn’t know; who I should watch for; who might surprise me.
He pointed at the guy in the batting cage. “If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year. In fact, I think he could hit 40. He is just so easily frustrated when it doesn’t go right that he blames himself and forgets what he’s learned. Or ignores it. But of all these guys I have, if you want one of them who will eventually do something special in this game, I’d pick him. I wouldn’t be very surprised.”
Bautista had 569 at bats last year in Toronto and ended at 54-124-.260. If you took his rates of production during his first four full seasons and gave him 569 at bats each year, he’d have averaged 20-73-.238 – so the power was there; this was not Brady Anderson coming out of nowhere. As I noted last year, until George Foster suddenly hit 52 homers for the 1977 Reds, his career high for blasts was 29 – and he was already in his seventh season in the National League. Cecil Fielder spent four years unable to crack the line-up of the Blue Jays, topped out at 14 homers, went to Japan for one year, and came back to hit 51 for the 1990 Tigers.
It is a rare thing to see a slugger grow from good to great – but it’s not impossible. So lay off Bautista. And if you see Jeff Manto (now the minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox) say hi for me, and congratulate him on his prescience (oh and the other kid he really liked back when he was his first manager in the minors, some guy named Ryan Howard), and tell him the Pirates shouldn’t have dumped him as battng coach, nor should they have dealt Bautista for catcher Robinzon Diaz.