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Appreciating Jose Bautista, And The Largest Single-Season Home Run Leaps Of All-Time

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Blue Jay Jose Bautista currently leads the league in home runs by a very significant margin. Here, we review the biggest single-season home run increases in baseball history in an effort to truly appreciate his transition from nobody to elite-level slugger.

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There are a lot of things to like about the 162-game regular season, but perhaps its greatest drawback is the speed with which it nearly forces the fan to take for granted what's consistently outstanding.

It's not really the fault of the fan himself. It's only natural. When you're confronted by the same storyline on a near-daily basis for six consecutive months, you can't help but get used to it. The alternative is six consecutive months of shock and amazement, and the human brain is conditioned to be taken by surprise as infrequently as possible. Evolutionarily, it makes sense. If you're accustomed to one thing, and you get another, you shift your expectations. You learn. You familiarize.

But as you learn, you become less apt to truly appreciate what's extraordinary. In life, those who live by the coast get used to the water. Those who live by the mountains get used to the snow-covered peaks. Those who live by the woods get used to the wildlife, and those who live by downtown get used to the bustle.

And it carries over to baseball. I don't know if 2010 has been an exceptional season. That's a difficult subject to tackle. But a lot of things have happened - interesting things, gripping things - and it's striking to look back on them and realize how quickly you adapt.

The San Diego Padres currently occupy a playoff slot, and are a half-game back of the NL West lead. After homering in his first big league at bat, Jason Heyward owns a near-.400 OBP as a newly-turned 21-year-old. Rookie Buster Posey has exceeded the hype and been perhaps San Francisco's best bat. Josh Hamilton has hit .361. Carlos Pena has hit .199. The Mariners are the worst team in the American League. Josh Johnson leads baseball in ERA. The Red Sox are going to miss the playoffs. The Rays have the league's best record.

All of these things are true, right now, but none of them still come as surprises. We've acclimated. We can say that the Padres are one of the greatest Cinderella stories in recent baseball history, but we don't really feel it. And we don't feel it because we got used to the idea that the Padres were good about three or four months ago.

It's normal, and it's a shame. We become familiar with the game's most compelling stories. We become familiar with the game's most talented players. There's not a superstar out there - a true superstar - who's properly appreciated by the people who watch him every day. Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Roy Halladay, Ichiro, Joey Votto - you could argue that any of these guys, and any of a number of others, is the most underrated player in baseball, because once their baselines are established, they're no longer held to the same standard as anyone else. They're held to a higher one, and high standards are difficult to exceed.

Human nature causes us to adapt to what's happening with such speed that sometimes we have to force ourselves to take a step back to examine the current landscape. Otherwise, you'll quickly lose sight of what's incredible. I don't want to lose sight of what's incredible. We watch sports so we can see incredible things. The more incredible things you get used to, the fewer incredible things you allow for to come out of nowhere and really grab you by the balls.

Here, then, I'm going to take a step back. I don't know how well this is going to work, but I'm going to try to break myself out of the day-to-day routine and take a look at the bigger picture so that maybe I - and maybe you - can begin to understand what might be 2010's greatest story. 2010, of course, has had some great stories. The Padres have come out of nowhere to succeed. Some rookies have made a huge difference in the pennant race. But Jose Bautista leads the league in home runs. He leads the league in home runs by ten.

I think a lot of people know what Jose Bautista has been doing. At the very least, they have some idea. It helps that he plays in the AL East against the Red Sox and the Yankees. Jose Bautista isn't a secret. He's turned into one of the league's better-known sluggers.

But what I wonder is how many people get how truly bizarre and amazing this is. Prior to 2010, Jose Bautista was just some guy. Worse than that - Jose Bautista was just some Pirate-turned-Blue-Jay, some 29 year old with a career .238 average and .729 OPS. People had little reason to know Jose Bautista, and Jose Bautista gave people little reason to learn. Like Chris Duffy or Larry Bigbie, he seemed destined to end up an underachieving young player who appeared and went away without leaving a mark.

And then he erupted. There were warning signs. Bautista hit ten home runs last September, which, looking back, one could have taken as an indicator of big things to come. But few people cared, and Bautista took his time heating up in 2010, slugging just four home runs through his first full month. It wasn't until May 3rd, in the Jays' 27th game of the season, that Bautista really started making his charge, and since then, he hasn't slowed down.

Now he's in the league lead, by ten. The gap between Bautista and second place is as big as the gap between second and eighth. He has more home runs than Ryan Braun and Ryan Zimmerman combined. He has more than half as many home runs as the Mariners. Jose Bautista has 52 home runs. Jose Bautista. The season isn't even over.

I want to appreciate what Jose Bautista has been able to do. I can't allow myself to let a year like this go by with little more than a tacit acknowledgment that, yeah, that happened, good job. It's all been nothing short of astonishing, and I want to feel astonished. I need to feel astonished. I feel it's my duty as a baseball fan to be shocked by what's shocking. Shocked again. Shocked more.

And so to try to put this all in perspective, what follows is a list of the six biggest single-season home run increases in baseball history, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau. Jose Bautista went deep 13 times a year ago. He's up to 52 this season, for a jump of +39. How does this measure up against every other player to ever wear a uniform? I can't promise that looking this list up and down will have the desired effect in the end, but it's worth a shot. I have to do something. As a Mariners fan, I already know I take Ichiro for granted. I already know I take Felix Hernandez for granted. I won't be able to sleep easy until I can consider Jose Bautista's 2010 and think, yeah, I appreciated the hell out of that. It is so fit to be appreciated.

Onward. Let's see if this works.

No. 6: Sammy Sosa, 1998, +30 home runs

Barry Bonds doesn't appear on this list. Neither does Mark McGwire. They each, of course, had their leaps - Bonds gained 24 in 2001, and McGwire gained 20 in 1992 - but one could argue they were a little more consistent, their jumps less pronounced. It's Sosa who stands out as perhaps the greatest example of the average fan's perception of a PED abuser.

Sosa always had power. That much is for sure, and any Cubs fan from the mid-90s would tell you that Sosa could do big things if he could just make contact with the ball half the time he swung. At the same time, I don't think anyone expected him to do what he did. Sosa hit 170 homers between 1993-1997, one per 17.4 trips to the plate. He then hit 292 between 1998-2002, one per 12.0 trips to the plate for a near 50 percent improvement.

After going deep 36 times in 1997, Sosa made headlines the next year when he got caught up with McGwire in the race said to save the sport. We now reflect on the 1998 season with raised eyebrows, but it was an absolute treat at the time, and if people had questions about the legitimacy of the record run, by and large they kept quiet. There were dingers, and people wanted dingers.

What's crazy is that Sosa followed up his 66-homer 1998 with a 63-homer 1999, and then a 64-homer 2001. These days, his peak is all but forgotten. It's the leap that sticks out in everyone's mind. It was a leap that made us love the game, and a leap that made us question it.

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No. 5: Lou Gehrig, 1927, +31 home runs

Though 83 years gone, this is an important season for fans to keep in mind. Why?

-In 1926, the average American League hitter went deep once per 113 plate appearances.

-In 1927, the average American League hitter went deep once per 110 plate appearances.

-Between 1925-1926, Lou Gehrig hit 36 home runs over 1193 trips to the plate.

-In 1927, Lou Gehrig went deep 47 times over 717 trips to the plate.

Lou Gehrig, at the age of 24, took a massive step forward. He was already an accomplished player, a star who'd batted .313 the year before and led the league in triples, but it was in 1927 that he blew up, batting .373 with 47 homers, 175 RBI, and a slugging percentage nearly double that of the league. Lou Gehrig hit a major peak, and he hit it out of nowhere.

Gehrig's home run total would then drop to 27 in 1928, and though he'd go on to be one of the league's premier power hitters the rest of his career, 1927 still stands as his greatest offensive season. And it was a season preceded by one that, while good, was much much worse.

If Lou Gehrig had his 1927 season now, he'd be questioned. He'd be questioned by everyone. It's only human nature to cast a suspicious eye at anyone who suddenly sees such a dramatic statistical gain. And, you know, that's fine. That's certainly warranted, given what we've learned about some of the game's more recent mashers. Nowadays, superior accomplishments are too often aided by factors seen to in some way tarnish the achievement.

But Lou Gehrig's 1927 serves as a reminder that, sometimes, players just blossom. Sometimes numbers spike. Gains don't have to be gradual. Gains can be sudden, and gains can be enormous. Fans these days have every right to wonder about unexpected improvements, but they have no right at all to assume.

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No. 4: Greg Vaughn, 1998, +32 home runs

In 1998, the league leader in home runs finished with 70. Second place finished with 66. Third place finished with 50. If you'd forgotten all about Greg Vaughn, it's hard to blame you. His breakthrough season came on a team few people noticed, with the individual player spotlights locked firmly in middle America.

In retrospect, it's hard to know what to make of Vaughn. On the one hand, he'd shown power through his entire career, smacked 41 homers in 1996, and was the fourth overall pick in 1986. There was obviously a lot of natural talent in there, just waiting to come out. On the other, he didn't reach 50 home runs until after his 33rd birthday, and he did it on a team with Ken Caminiti. Though to my knowledge Vaughn has never been strongly linked to steroid use, there's reason to be suspicious.

We don't know, though, and so it isn't fair to condemn. Rather, it's more fun to simply look back and observe some of the forgotten hitters of yore. This is the 1998 Padres' most common lineup. Read these names and you'll be floored by the utter 1998ness of it all.

Quilvio Veras
Steve Finley
Tony Gwynn
Ken Caminiti
Greg Vaughn
Wally Joyner
Ramon Hernandez
Chris Gomez

Worth noting that Vaughn doesn't quite belong with the other players on this single-season home run increase list. The other players each blew up all of a sudden. Vaughn went from 41 homers to 18 to 50, struggling in the middle season due to injury. Still, here he is. Maybe he isn't the Vaughn you were expecting.

No. 3: Brady Anderson, 1996, +34 home runs

Pity poor Brady Anderson, who - after 15 years in the Major Leagues - retired and became America's most referred-to offensive fluke. Though Anderson was a very good all-around player for the bulk of his career, few remember what he was for more than a decade. Many remember what he was for a year. Anderson, they say, is the biggest fluke of all time, and perhaps the #1 steroid suspect who's never been strongly linked to steroids.

For his part, this is what Anderson had to say following certain remarks by Jim Palmer years back:

 "Because I only hit 50 home runs once, it was, in fact, an aberration. However, it was not a fluke," he told The Sun yesterday. "Nothing can be considered a fluke that takes six months to accomplish. Rather it was a culmination of all my athleticism and baseball skills and years of training peaking simultaneously. This was my athletic opus."

Anderson, as many know, hit 50 home runs once, in 1996. He never in any other season hit more than 24, and ended his career with 210. He would never again even approach what he did in his most successful season, instead playing out his days as an on-base threat at the top of the order.

That 1996, then, was a clear aberration, as Anderson said. And it's Brady Anderson who now gets to serve as the cautionary example advanced by anyone skeptical of any breakthrough season. He's now the cautionary examine advanced by those skeptical of Jose Bautista. "We've seen this before," they say. "Remember Brady Anderson?"

That's just the reality. It sucks for Anderson that people don't remember how good he was when he wasn't mashing dingers. And it sucks for players now who just want to get some respect for their improvements on the field. But for Anderson, this was unavoidable. And for players like Bautista now, it takes a lot of consistent hard work to earn the right to be taken for granted.

No. 2: Davey Johnson, 1973, +38 home runs

Brady Anderson before there was Brady Anderson, Johnson was already a three-time All-Star by the time he turned 28. He was a solid defensive second baseman who did a good job of making contact and getting on base. He was not, however, known for power, hitting ten in 1970 and then peaking with 18 in 1971. He then dropped all the way to five in a miserable 1972 before getting traded with Johnny Oates to Atlanta and mashing 43 the next year.

Those 1973 Atlanta Braves went just 76-85 and finished fifth in the NL West, but they led the league with 206 home runs, beating second-place San Francisco by 45. Mike Lum hit 16. Ralph Garr hit 11. Dusty Baker hit 21. More notably, Johnson hit 43, while Hank Aaron hit 40 and Darrell Evans hit 41. The Braves became the first team in baseball history ever to have three players reach the 40-homer plateau, and they would hold on to that record until being matched by the Colorado Rockies in 1996 and again in 1997. The Braves, one could say, were ahead of their time, even if they weren't very good.

Aaron, of course, hit a lot of home runs, all the time. And Evans would hit 414 over a 21-year career. But though Evans didn't reach 30 again until 1983, it was Davey Johnson who stood out as the anomaly, sandwiching his 43-homer season with five the year before and 15 the year after. The Braves would actually go so far as to release Johnson four games into the 1975 season, seeing him end up playing for Yomiuri in Japan.

So Johnson's career didn't exactly flourish after reaching its peak. Looking at it now, Johnson's 1973 seems even weirder than Anderson's 1996. Anderson had, at least, shown considerable power in other years. Imagining a guy like Johnson going deep 43 times is like imagining Orlando Hudson going deep 43 times. I haven't a clue how what happened happened, but it's one of those statistical fluctuations that makes baseball history so damned captivating.

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No. 1: Jose Bautista, 2010, +39 home runs

And here we are. Last Friday night, Bautista hit two home runs in Toronto against Orioles starter Chris Tillman. The first saw him equal Davey Johnson's gain, and the second saw him surpass it. And with still another seven games left to go, Bautista stands an excellent chance of being the first player in baseball history to ever exceed his previous season's home run total by 40 or more.

Perhaps the most incredible thing about Bautista's 2010 isn't that he leads the league in home runs. It's that he's hitting no-doubter after no-doubter. When you see a guy take this kind of unexpected leap forward, what you suspect is that he's getting lucky. That a lot of balls he might've hit to the track before are just narrowly getting out. Baseball's a game of inches, after all, and sometimes an inch can mean the difference between an out or a dinger.

That's not the case with Bautista. 32 of his 52 home runs have gone at least 400 feet. Albert Pujols has also hit 32 home runs at least 400 feet. Joey Votto, however, has 22. Miguel Cabrera has 19. Paul Konerko has 12.

Bautista's been killing the ball. His average home run has a distance of 403 feet, and an average speed off the bat of 107 miles per hour. The league averages, meanwhile, are 397 and 103. While those may seem like small differences, they aren't, and at last check, Bautista's average speed off the bat on his home runs led the bigs.

It's appropriate that Jose Bautista hit his 50th home run of the year in a Thursday matinee off Cy Young contender Felix Hernandez. Bautista has earned his homers. They haven't come easy. And he's done all this with few people outside of Toronto really paying attention. There were 12,590 people in attendance to watch his 50th longball, and some thousands more following on TV or radio. The audience was low. The feat was grand.

Bautista's pulling off the unimaginable. As such, he's drawn comparisons to players like Brady Anderson and Davey Johnson - players who have done this kind of thing before. Bautista turns 30 next month. He was never supposed to be able to sustain this kind of performance, and so few people are willing to take him seriously.

Because he's doing this when he's doing it, though, we can analyze his performance. We can analyze what he's doing and realize that what he's doing is spectacular. Bautista isn't getting lucky. His homers aren't cheap. They're legitimate. They're long, they're fast, and they're powerful. For six months, Jose Bautista has been the premier slugger in the world.

That's incredible. That, by itself, adds to the uncertainty surrounding player projections you see floating around every offseason.  

Man 1: Says here Clint Barmes is supposed to OPS around .675 next year.
Man 2:
Sure, but remember Jose Bautista?

Performances like Jose Bautista's aren't supposed to happen. Players aren't supposed to go from being traded for a PTBNL to being the top home run hitter in the league. We expect players to go from average to good, or from good to great, but we don't expect players to go from mediocre to outstanding. That's jumping too many levels.

Maybe it's that simple. Thinking about all this, I don't know if I properly appreciate what Bautista's been able to do. But maybe the big hurdle is that we just aren't equipped with the capacity to understand an improvement of this magnitude.

Jose Bautista has broken my brain.

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