The Tragic Evolution Of Jose Bautista

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 19: Jose Bautista #19 (L) of the Toronto Blue Jays celebrates with coach Brian Butterfield #55 after Bautista's first inning home run during their game against the New York Yankees at Rogers Centre on April 19, 2011 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

It started in September of 2009. So gradually, few noticed.

Sick of being average and under-productive, Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista woke up on September 7, 2009 and committed to making a change. Believing anything is possible if you just do the work, Bautista dedicated himself to the pursuit of becoming the greatest hitter the world has ever seen.

Bautista's efforts paid off almost immediately. That day, he launched a two-run homer to left off Twins starter Jeff Manship. Over the rest of the season, Bautista would bat 111 times over 26 games and blast ten home runs. Bautista finished the year pleased with his progress. He still wasn't where he wanted to be. But he was getting getting closer.

In 2010, Jose Bautista started drawing widespread attention. It's rare for a player in Toronto to capture America's focus, but Bautista couldn't be ignored, especially given his history. After a slow April, he hit 12 home runs in May. He hit 11 home runs in July. He hit 12 home runs in August, and 11 home runs in September, and he finished the year with 54 home runs, 12 ahead of second-place Albert Pujols. In what many were calling the Year of the Pitcher, Jose Bautista bucked the trend and became one of the game's most fearsome sluggers.

But Bautista wasn't satisfied. For all of his work, he was almost a dead-pull hitter. Hit Tracker Online shows that only one of his 54 home runs went the opposite way, to right field.

Bautista2010_medium

Aware of this hole in his game, Bautista kept on training. He worked on pulling pitches he could pull, and going the other way with pitches he couldn't. It wasn't long into 2011 before his work started showing up in the results. A key point came on May 15, again against the Twins. Already having homered twice to left field, Bautista stood in against Kevin Slowey in the top of the sixth and ripped a fastball out to right-center. It was the second opposite-field home run Bautista had hit in a month and a half, doubling his previous year's total.

Bautista2011_medium

At that point, it would've been enough. Bautista had 16 home runs in 32 games. His average stood at .368, and his OPS stood at 1.388. Gone were any notions that Bautista's 2010 season had been a fluke. Bautista wasn't just a power hitter - he had become a premier power hitter, capable of hitting the ball out to all fields. There was little doubt that Jose Bautista had turned into the greatest hitter in baseball.

But what nobody realized was that Bautista would only get better still. Bautista had gotten a taste of what he wanted to be, and he decided he wanted the whole dish. His first four-homer game came on May 22, against the Astros. His first five-homer game - and the first five-homer game in Major League history - followed a few days later, on May 26 against the White Sox. Two of the home runs went to left. One of the home runs went to center. Two of the home runs went to right, with one of them measured at 576 feet.

Before long, Jose Bautista was hitting a home run every single time he came to the plate. And still determined to get better, as much better as possible, it wasn't long after that that Jose Bautista was hitting a home run on every pitch. Every first pitch of every at-bat would fly in the other direction at 120 miles per hour.

Aware of the pattern, some pitchers tried to pitch around him. Some would throw pitches well high and out of the zone. Some would throw breaking balls that bounced in the dirt. No matter. Despite their best efforts, every first pitch ended up a souvenir.

The intentional walks began on June 28. Or at least, the intentional walk efforts began on June 28. On June 28, the Pirates attempted to intentionally walk Jose Bautista all five times he came to the plate, but each time he reached over and launched the intentional balls out to right field for home runs.

The same thing happened again on June 29, and so on June 30, the Pirates threw intentional balls as wide as they possibly could. Catcher Ryan Doumit took 20 steps to his right before receiving the pitches that put Bautista on first base, and given the success, the Pirates repeated the move each time Bautista came up.

The Phillies picked up the strategy where the Pirates left off on July 1, and every single one of Bautista's opponents subsequently did the same thing. Every time Bautista came up, the catcher would take 20 steps to his right and catch four intentional balls. Every so often a team would test Bautista in a blowout, just to see if he was still doing what he had been doing. Every so often, a hotshot rookie would take the mound and try to be the first guy to get Bautista out in months. It never worked. Every attempt resulted in a first-pitch home run, and so the attempts stopped. Bautista would only get walked.

In late July, a frustrated Arthur Rhodes aimed a pitch at Bautista's head, but Bautista stepped back and pulled it for a home run.

And so the world's greatest home-run hitter was no longer a home-run hitter. The world's greatest home-run hitter became the world's greatest walker. At first, there was resentment towards the Blue Jays' opponents. The Rogers Centre was selling small rubber chickens by the thousands. Boos would cascade down from the stands every time a catcher would stand out of his crouch and begin the slow pace to his right when Bautista walked up to the box.

But the boos grew quieter, and the resentment shifted paradoxically to Bautista. Fans and teammates alike just wanted to see Bautista swing away, but they couldn't blame the Jays' opponents for denying him the opportunity, since he hit home runs on every pitch near the plate that he saw. There was no sense in ever throwing him a pitch. There was no rational reason to be mad at the opposing teams, and so people grew mad at Bautista instead. Mad because he'd become too good. Mad because he's gotten so good that he'd broken baseball.

Bautista heard the talk, and though he kept quiet, it was on September 8 in a game against the Red Sox that he decided to step into the batter's box without a bat. He meant well, but the first pitch hit him square in the back, and the entire Red Sox infield shouted at him as he walked to first base. Adrian Gonzalez sneered at Bautista as he stood on the bag, and after it was all over, the chatter was about Bautista having made a mockery of the game with his stunt. Red Sox players and coaches ripped him in the press, and his teammates very conspicuously did not come to his defense.

By the time the offseason rolled around, the Blue Jays realized they were facing a dilemma. On the one hand, they had a player who would get on base every single time he batted, making him the most productive batter of all time. On the other hand, Bautista was a source of clubhouse discontent, and the feeling among the players was that Bautista wasn't worth it. That he was ruining things for everybody. And so, after much deliberation, the Blue Jays elected to trade Bautista and the four years remaining on his contract to the Nationals for Stephen Strasburg and Henry Rodriguez.

Thinking they'd found just the guy to put their team over the top, the Nationals made Bautista the primary subject of their offseason promotional efforts. Bautista banners were placed around Nationals Park. His face was on every season ticket. He starred in every commercial. Jose Bautista would put the Nationals in the playoffs, and manager Jim Riggleman was excited to have Bautista lead off every game.

But though the setting was different, Bautista ultimately wound up causing the same problems in Washington that he had in Toronto. It was on May 3 that Ian Desmond famously told the Post, "This isn't baseball." Riggleman tried to support Bautista in the clubhouse, but in time he, too, turned against the non-slugging slugger, and a meeting of the organizational minds towards the end of June arrived at the dramatic, but by no means surprising, decision that the Nationals would be better off if they simply cut bait.

And so the next morning, the Nationals made headlines when they announced that Jose Bautista had been designated for assignment. And as no other team was interested anymore in adding the productive but controversial and widely unpopular player to their lineup, ten days later Bautista was released. The player with the highest on-base percentage in the history of baseball was a free agent, and he wasn't getting any offers.

Bautista did film one PSA during his downtime, encouraging people to go outside and take walks for exercise. The commercial polled poorly and was removed from the air. And so Bautista sat at home mulling over what to do next until his agent finally told him he'd gotten an offer from the independent Long Island Ducks. As it was the only baseball job on the table, Bautista took it.

As a Duck, Bautista wasn't treated any differently than he had been in the bigs. He was intentionally walked in the top of the first in his first-ever appearance, and it only continued from there. The crowds that showed up early on to see if he'd be able to hit dwindled in the coming weeks, and by the end of the year the Ducks, too, declined to renew Bautista's contract, and he ended his brief independent career with a batting line of -/1.000/-.

Bautista returned home for the offseason and, at the age of 32, announced his official retirement from baseball. With no offers on the table and none expected, he decided he'd rather go out on his own terms than sit at home and wait by the phone. It was a bold and difficult decision on his part, but it was received with nods and waves of the hand within baseball circles. While nobody wanted to say it outright, everybody was glad that the Jose Bautista Era had come to a close.

Rich enough to get by for the rest of his life and still getting paid by the Nationals, Bautista recently bought a large Connecticut estate and constructed a full, operational baseball field in his backyard. There is a pitching machine on the mound - a pitching machine set to mix up its pitches but throw only strikes - and it is on that field that Bautista passes the time for a few hours every afternoon by swinging away. Swinging away as the greatest hitter the world has ever seen.

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