Virtually with each home run he hit this year, Jose Bautista surprised somebody.
I’m thinking he never managed to do so with Jeff Manto. Manto is now the minor league hitting instructor for the White Sox, the latest stop in one of baseball’s ultimate peripatetic careers: 16 minor league playing seasons, 15 minor league teams; nine major league playing seasons, nine minor league teams.
I saw Manto last on a raw Saturday afternoon in Tampa, Florida – March 3, 2007 to be exact – long enough ago that Brett Gardner was wearing uniform number 91 for the Yankees, and Manto was still the batting coach of Jim Tracy’s Pittsburgh Pirates. We got to talking about his hitters, few and far between as par of Pittsburgh’s perennial tradition, but he brightened up with the mention of one name.
“If we can get him to replicate his swing three days in a row, Jose Bautista could hit 25 homers a year,” Manto gushed. “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.”
As the numbers have piled up for Bautista, each day I have gotten a comment, or a tweet, or an email, from somebody about how his homer explosion required a nefarious explanation. I am the first to be suspicious, but there is some data that really should be considered. Normalize Bautista’s first four full big league seasons to the 562 AB campaign he’s had this year, and you produce a line of 20 homers, 73 RBI, and a .238 average. It’s not much in comparison to 54-124-.263 he’s actually managed, but it suggests the power is hardly made out of whole cloth.
Then consider a player who finished his sixth full big league seasons with personal highs of 29 homers, 121 RBI, and a .306 mark. His name was George Foster and the next year he hit 52 homers and nobody thought there was anything amiss there, even when he stepped quickly back down to 40 blasts in 1978 and 30 in 1979.
Lastly in the cascade of numbers, there were a couple of prescient ones that nobody outside of Toronto or your nearest rotisserie league noticed. Last August, when the Blue Jays shipped Scott Rolen to the Reds, a spot in the line-up opened for Bautista. In the last 27 games of 2009, he blasted 10 homers and drove in 21 runs. That production, extrapolated to a full campaign, is 60 homers and 126 RBI.
So maybe we should be about as surprised as Jeff Manto might be: Not very.