September 20, 2010

Meaningful At-Bats

We continue, in Toronto, to wait for meaningful baseball. Patiently, I might add. And as the Blue Jays were officially -- mathematically -- eliminated from post-season play Sunday afternoon in Boston, I reverted to the old adage, tried, tested, and true: maybe next year.

But 2010 has far from been a lost cause. (Unless you're Travis Snider, or J.P. Arencibia, but that's a whole other story.) Toronto hasn't lost 100 games. They won't end up anywhere near the dreaded century mark. And they certainly won't finish below the Baltimore Orioles in the standings. Shame on those of you who even thought of such a fortune. No, we weren't treated to meaningful baseball this season, even though it's clear the franchise is headed towards the light. But, thanks to Jose Bautista, we were treated to that which we haven't seen around these parts since Carlos Delgado's heyday: meaningful at-bats.

Forty-nine home runs. One every 10.65 at-bats. And counting. A violent assault not only on fastballs, but on Toronto's, and baseball's, record books. History. Bautista will become the first Blue Jay to hit 50 home runs in a season. It's going to happen, and, no, I don't believe in jinxes. And when it does, when number 50 does clear the left field wall (hopefully at the SkyDome), the feat will have been accomplished for only the 42nd time in baseball history.

The Toronto Blue Jays have been around since 1977. The Steroid Era has come and gone. Bautista will be the first to hit 50 for the good guys, and he could very well be the last. That's the beauty of baseball. You just never know. I'm convinced the franchise will one day return the post-season. Will add a pennant, or two, to their collection. But I'm not so sure I'll ever see another no-hitter. Perhaps Dave Stieb's effort was Toronto's pitching performance of my lifetime. And, in that same light, perhaps Bautista's exploits in the batter's box have been Toronto's home run hitting performance of my lifetime.

Post-All Star break, there's been a buzz everytime Bautista has stepped up to the plate. It's palpable. At home, on the road, and even on television. Bautista excites; Bautista has people talking baseball. (And beards.) There's an expectation that regardless of who's throwing the ball, and how fast it's traveling, and how much it's moving, Bautista can murder it. The situation hardly matters, either. Nobody could be on base. Actually, nobody usually is. The Blue Jays could be down by five. Yet each Bautista at-bat matters. Each Bautista at-bat means more than any other.

The only comparable seasons to Bautista's are John Olerud's 1993 campaign, and Carlos Delgado's 2000 and 2003 seasons. Olerud flirted with .400 that magical summer, and finished with a Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) of .453, and a Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) of 181. In 2000, Delgado hit 41 home runs, and put up an incredible wOBA of .471. King Carlos bested Olerud's wRC+ by one, finishing with a rating of 182. Delgado finished fourth in MVP voting that season, which still completely blows my mind. In 2003, Delgado hit 42 home runs, and tallied a wOBA of .423, and a wRC+ of 160.

Bautista, with 49 home runs to his name, and 12 games left on the schedule, today sports a wOBA of .423, and a wRC+ of 170. Like I said: historic. One of the finer offensive seasons Toronto has ever seen. Delgado-esque. And who could ever have imagined saying that about the journeyman outfielder-slash-third baseman?

I get it, now. I get why Damien Cox, and others in his wake, had to ask the question. We're talking history, and in Bautista, a player who has come out of nowhere. Literally. Pittsburgh: baseball's nowhere. What I wish I'd see less of, though, in the Toronto media landscape, is "But you've got to at least ask the question ..." masquerading as reporting. Because I'd put money on the fact that Bautista is indeed clean. He's been tested. And he does not physically look the part of a juicer. If the Steroid Era taught us anything, it's that the human eye does not deceive. There's more: Bautista hasn't hit a cheap home run to opposite field all season. He's pulled one through 49 to the left side. The proof in Bautista's changed mechanics alibi -- he's closer to the plate with his back foot, his hands are higher, and he starts his leg kick, and swing, earlier -- can be found in the fact he's hitting fastballs 32.8 runs above average this season, compared to only 4.2 runs above average in 2009. Bautista essentially owns the inner-half of the plate. He's made a conscious decision to pull the ball. If he doesn't get a pitch to pull, he'll gladly take a walk, his on-base percentage a career-high .382, far above his .342 career average. Instead of wondering whether Bautista is on steroids, where are the columns applauding Bautista's patience at the plate? Where are the columns asking an even more important question: why the hell is he still being pitched to inside?

It's pointless, defending Jose Bautista's honour. I know that. And, at the end of the day, he doesn't need my help. His urine has done, and will continue to do, the talking.

Instead, I'm going to enjoy Bautista's final meaningful, and hopefully violent, at-bats this season. I'm going to be at the SkyDome on Tuesday night, and Wednesday night, and maybe even Thursday afternoon. Perhaps I'll be there on the weekend, too. And maybe next week, when the Yankees are in town. Bautista's got nine games to hit number 50 at home, in Toronto. And I'm not going to miss it.

Beautiful image via daylife.


Ian H. said...

Navin, just like Bautista himself, you've been killing it - great post!

I hope that this season stands as one of the best in franchise history and that folks don't forget how Jose Bautista has rewritten the history books.

It took 23 years for George Bell's record to be broken - the next to challenge Bautista's eventual club record will be another diamond in the rough, for sure.

kidkawartha said...

Pic needs a caption- "GTFO!!!!!1"

Navin Vaswani (@eyebleaf) said...

@ Ian: Thanks, mate. I've been looking at Bautista's season more ... poetically, I guess. It's been truly magical. It's hard to believe that, as you point out, 23 years have passed since George Bell set the standard, and that we've seen Carlos come and go, and the Steroid Era come and go. And then, out of nowhere, comes Bautista. The same guy who was a topic of discussion over the off-season because some people wanted him to return, and others didn't. And he goes and puts up one of the finer offensive seasons our fine city has ever witnessed. What are the odds? Baseball is amazing.

@ kidk: For real. That's another picture I'm thinking about having printed black and white, framed, and put on my wall. Absolutely love it.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I lived in New Hampshire (USA) during Olerud's seasons in Toronto and because the Blue Jays' games were the only ones available to us at the time, I saw Olerud a lot. His swing was perfect. I mean P-E-R-F-E-C-T! And I believe his defense was a big part of those championship years both in Toronto and as a Met.

I can't ever see Delgado's name without thinking of those early ESPN SportCenter days when that one show host always said, "Del-Gaaat-it" whenever a home run highlight was revealed. Great memory.

Bautista sure has thrilled this season and 50 is in the bag (I hope). I also hope that he's wearing a Blue Jay uniform next year.