May 2011

Bautista a 1-man show — & no 1-hit wonder

NEW YORK – Somehow, Jose Bautista has become a bit of a traveling one-man show.

That show marched into the Bronx this week, where Bautista and the team he is now the unquestioned face of – the Toronto Blue Jays – arrived at Yankee Stadium for a three-game set. It was there that a mob of New York reporters greeted the slugger that has emerged as one of baseball’s best hitters after about a decade of obscurity, and it was there that a packed Yankee Stadium mercilessly booed him each time he walked to the plate.

That’s what happens when you arrive in the kind of way Bautista has.

The native Dominican burst onto the scene last year in his age-30 season with 54 homers and a fourth-place finish in American League Most Valuable Player voting. This year, the right-fielder – who was signed by the Blue Jays to a heavily-debated five-year, $65 million contract this past offseason — has essentially erased any skepticism about being a one-hit wonder.

Now, everywhere Bautista goes, fans are coming out to see him, reporters are flocking to interview him and opposing managers are wondering how to stop him.

Is he the best hitter going?

“I would argue that,” Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill said. “But I get to see him on a day-to-day basis, so I’m a little biased. … It’s not necessarily the home runs or the hits that he gets, but his whole game; the whole way he approaches baseball, or the hitting side of it. It’s by far the best I’ve seen.”

It’d be pretty easy to make the case that Bautista has been baseball’s best hitter since the start of the 2010 season, as he’s at the top of the leader boards in many statistical categories.

This year, he has taken his game to a whole new level, including bumping up his batting average which was a major deterrent for him in MVP voting last year.

It’d be pretty easy to make the case that Bautista has been baseball’s best hitter since the start of the 2010 season, considering his Major League-leading 1.055 OPS and 73 homers. This year, he has taken his game to a whole new level, leading the Majors with 19 homers and a 1.269 OPS while adding a .342 batting average — a category that was a major deterrent for him in MVP voting last year.

“To me, it tells me it’s for real,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “In our league, you might have a one-month period or a two-month period, but if there’s weaknesses, with all the video people can watch, they’re going to find it. You’re not finding it on Bautista. He’s making people pay at an alarming rate. It’s good at-bats; you don’t see him chase a ton of pitches, and he’s patient. He’s doing what it takes to be a great player.”

To say Bautista’s recent success came out of nowhere may be an understatement.

He was drafted in the 20th round in 2000, played for four organizations in his first big-league season in ’04, then hit just .254 with 15 homers with the Pirates in ’07 — his only year topping 500 plate appearances from 2004-09.

Bautista was always confident that he could thrive in the Majors … but as the league’s premier slugger?

“I never thought about that because, to be honest with you, I never thought I was going to get the chance again to be an everyday player, and even if I did, I didn’t expect to hit 50 home runs. At one point in the game to be the leader in home runs you had to hit not 50, you had to hit 60 and 70,” Bautista said. “I definitely didn’t think about that too much, but it’s something that’s obviously very gratifying.”

The treatment of Bautista with men on base seems similar to that of Pujols, or perhaps of home run king Barry Bonds in his heyday. The Blue Jays’ right fielder paces baseball in free passes with 43 and has already tripled his intentional-walk total from last year.

It’s a tribute to his patience, but perhaps also to the lack of protection around him.

Adam Lind is the Blue Jays’ de facto cleanup hitter, but he has been out since May 7 due to lower back tightness. So, against Bartolo Colon in the series opener on May 23, manager John Farrell had shortstop Yunel Escobar hitting behind Bautista in the No. 4 spot — making him his fourth cleanup hitter since Lind went on the DL.

In his first at-bat against the Yankees that Monday, Bautista deposited a Colon fastball over the left-center field wall to put him one homer away from 20. Then, in the sixth, he was intentionally walked with none out and a man on second in a 1-1 game.

“They’re taking the bat out of his hand,” Farrell said before the game. “Just from a sheer strategy standpoint, they’re not putting him in a position where he could affect the outcome of the game, particularly late in the game.”

Bautista’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider his lack of chances. But perhaps most impressive is that his emergence as a star hitter has began in the “Year of the Pitcher.”

After a torrid start, Bautista is on pace to finish with 66 homers and become the first player to even reach 60 since ’01.

“I don’t think even think about that,” he scoffed. “I could care less.”

What Bautista does care about is helping the usually under-the-radar Blue Jays win – something he’ll do with defense, demeanor and discipline.

Last year, Bautista opened eyes. So far this year, he has shown the second-guessers he’s here to stay.

“I expected myself to perform well, just because now I know I did it once, and knowing that if I kept my focus on the approach and what led me to the success, that I was going to be able to repeat it,” Bautista said. “It is somewhat gratifying knowing that a lot of people are skeptical about what happened last year, and I guess I’m proving them wrong.”

– Alden 

** What I wrote this week: Some thoughts on the Buster Posey-Scott Cousins collision; the Marlins are thriving, and hardly anyone has noticed; Rafael Soriano could miss up to two more months

Some thoughts on Interleague Play

NEW YORK — The first batch of 2011 Interleague Play is wrapping up now, and still fresh is that question that seems to come up every year at around this time: Is it still worth it?

To that, I’ve always said: Why not? Besides the fair point raised by Tigers manager Jim Leyland recently — who called it silly for an American League team to play in a National League city with no designated hitter for six straight days — I can’t think of another reason why Interleague Play shouldn’t be taking place right now.

Sure, it creates a bit of an unbalanced schedule, but that’s already the case with teams playing 18 games against each club in their division and far less against everybody else. Besides, Interleague Play was created for the fans, and I think they still get a kick out of cross-town rivalries like Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox and Angels-Dodgers. (And how cool is it to have the Cubs visiting Fenway?)

Yes, for many teams, the cross-town rivalry thing doesn’t really apply. But Interleague Play still gives any fan base a chance to see some teams they never do (and, in some cases, helps boost attendance). And it gives NL teams the opportunity to use the DH, giving more at-bats to guys they’d like to get in the lineup more often.

Here’s what some members of the Yankees said about the subject on Friday, just before the start of the Subway Series against the Mets …

Shortstop Derek Jeter: “I think it’s great for the fans. I like it the old way where you get to the World Series and there’s a chance that you’ve never seen that team before until the World Series. But I think it’s great for the fans. They get a chance to see players they don’t normally get a chance to see.”

Manager Joe Girardi: “I think it brought a lot of excitement to baseball [when it was adopted in 1997]. You know, there’s some really intriguing crosstown rivalries in this, and then there’s some that there’s no natural rival, and they become somewhat of a natural rival. In saying that, sometimes the schedules aren’t the same for the teams in each division, and I think that’s kind of strange, that you might be one team that plays four games against the Central and you might be another team that plays four different teams from the Central. Last year, we played teams from, I believe, three different divisions. So it is kind of strange, but I think it’s been good for baseball, I think it’s brought a lot of excitement to cities, cities that don’t normally get to see players, superstars. And overall I think it’s been a success.

“If you have a Wild Card, the schedule should completely be the same. You shouldn’t play teams necessarily in your division more than you play another team in a different division, because obviously everyone who’s not a division winner is fighting for that fourth spot. But that’s not how it works, and we all know that going in, too. You live with it. But if you want to … be completely fair, it has to be a completely balanced schedule.”

Catcher Jorge Posada: “I would love to go back to the regular schedule, everybody playing the same amount of teams and the same amount of – just back ot the normal, balanced schedule. If you’re going to bring in two more Wild Cards, I think it’s fair for everybody to be playing the same amount of teams and the same amount of games with each team so everybody has the same opportunity to make the Wild Card.”

Posada makes a good point. If the new Collective Bargaining Agreement — which will be negotiated upon for next season — brings playoff expansion, adding two additional Wild Card teams to each league, then I believe it would be time to go to a completely balanced schedule because the element of one’s division will become even less relevant.

For now, though, I don’t see a problem with Interleague Play. Is it not as exciting as it was when the concept began 14 years ago? Of course not. But nothing is after that long.

My question remains: Why not?

Alden

** What I wrote recently: Subway Series just seems to mean more to the Mets; a look at the most surprising storylines of the 2011 season’s first quarter; pitchers thriving with faster fastballs, more K’s. 

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