September 24, 2020

19 to 21…Jose?

June 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Volume 9, #15

Jose Bautista has become such a big name in baseball that, before every game, everyone in the park stands up and asks in unison how he was following the ball in BP. “Jose, can you see…?”

Alright, so that’s a lousy joke. The more important issue is, what’s up with Jose Bautista, and is his hitting a joke, or a fluke, or maybe he’ll flounder soon? Or is he the real deal? The why of Jose Bautista’s power surge over the past season-and-a-third has already been speculated on, ad infinitum, and will probably be speculated on as long as he keeps hitting at a pace that, so far in 2011, has him leading the American League in home runs, and on pace to again smite in excess of 50 long balls in a single season. None of us being psychic, it’s probably best to leave the “why” alone, although explanations from PEDs to being “allowed” (if that’s the right word) to try and pull every pitch he sees, have been put forth by pundits to explain why he’s the only player anymore who really looks like a threat to the 50-home run barrier.

No, it’s better, and probably more satisfying, to try and find past examples of hitters suddenly becoming major power threats in their late 20s, for whatever reason. This seemingly inexplicable phenomenon does not include single fluke seasons, like those enjoyed by Brady Anderson, Norm Cash and Davey Johnson. Anderson, you’ll recall, was a 15 home run, mid 400s slugging outfielder for the Orioles up until 1996, when, at the age of 32, he went berserk, hitting 50 home runs with a .637 slugging percentage. And then, he went right back to where he had been for the next four years; his second-highest home run total was 24, in 1999. There was (and still is) much speculation on how Anderson did it, however, there has been no speculation on Cash’s monster 1961 season. While the dilution of pitching thanks to the 1961 AL expansion may have helped the Tigers’ star (and he was a fine player; his career OPS+ was 139) he later admitted that he owed it all to his corked (or hollow, the quote appears both ways) bats. (Although hardly a scientific study, this is probably the best proof extant that corking bats does help.) Whatever it was, it was some year, a 201 OPS+, a 1.148 OPS, a .361 batting average – numbers he never came close to otherwise. Johnson, who hit 136 home runs in his entire career, went from a total of five in 1972 for the Orioles to 43 in 1973 for the Braves. He never hit more than 18 in any other season, although, like Anderson, he was at least a better than average hitter for his career, with an OPS+ of 110. Maybe the move to the Launching Pad in 1973 helped.

We’re not talking about players like Anderson or Cash or Johnson… all established major league hitters who had a single, really big year. With Bautista apparently on his way to a second really big year, we need to look elsewhere, to Gorman Thomas, Ken Phelps, Jack Cust and, to a certain extent, Raul Ibanez; guys who struggled mightily in the majors, AND spent a lot of time in the minors, before suddenly becoming offensive threats for several years, starting in their late 20s.

Stormin’ Gorman Thomas, possibly the most scrofulous major league player of the latter part of the 20th Century (yes, even worse than Lenny Dykstra or Ross “Scuzz” Grimsley), spent significant time in the minors from 1969 (age 18) to 1974 (age 23). Even when he first made the majors, he didn’t exactly burn up the basepaths. From 1973 to 1976, he played a total of 296 games for the Brewers, and put up a less than sterling slash line, .193/.288/.355; an OPS+ of just 83. Because of that, he spent 1977 back in the minors. He was 26 years old, and his future job prospects didn’t look too good, since he wasn’t going to model for “GQ” in his spare time. Then, in 1978, at the age of 27, he became a force in the AL, maybe not a classic offensive force, but a force nonetheless. He hit for .246/.351/.515 (a 142 OPS+) that year and then led the American League in home runs the next year with 45. After not scaring anybody from 1973 to 1977, he went on to put up five big years in a row, 1978 to 1982, ages 27 to 31, with OPS+ figures of 142, 138, 112, 146, and 137. His slash line for those five seasons was .245/.339/.504. He may not have hit for much of an average, but he got a lot of walks and he was one of the premier power hitters in the league.

At about the same time Thomas was hitting it big, Ken Phelps was trying to get established in the bigs. Another classic case of a low average power hitter, Phelps had just as much power as Thomas, and walked even more. He was, in fact, the epitome of the overlooked hitter, so much so that Bill James once did an article titled the “Ken Phelps All-Stars,” that is, a team of players like Phelps, who he said deserved a shot in the majors. Phelps spent significant minor league time from 1976 to 1983, ages 21 to 28, before he got his chance in Seattle in 1984. Whereas he had played a little (just 84 games) in the bigs from 1980 to 1983, and had hit .217/.279/.398 (also an 83 OPS+), he absolutely blitzed the AL in ’84, at the advanced age of 29, hitting .241/.378/.521 for a 149 OPS+. This started a string of six good years (through the 1989 season), during which Phelps aged from 29 to 34, and aged AL pitchers to the tune of .248/.389/.510 and 149, 120, 152, 147, 162, 103. James was right about him.

Years later, another one of these types broke in with the A’s. The pride of Flemington, NJ, Jack Cust didn’t get his chance in the majors until he’d spent large parts of 10 seasons in the bushes, from 1997 to 2006, ages 18 to 27. However, he didn’t give up, and it finally took Billy Beane to make use of Cust’s skills — power and a lot of walks, even though he strikes out a million times. Cust had previously spent 70 games (from 2001 to 2006) in the majors, hitting .222/.331/.389 (an 85 OPS+), before he got his shot at the age of 28, and hit .258/.408/.504 for the 2007 A’s. He then proceeded to put together four good years (2007-2010), hitting .247/.381/.457 for 146, 129, 104, 126 OPS+ figures.

Note that all three of these guys were similar type hitters… power hitters who walk and strike out a lot, and who don’t hit for much of an average. Also note that, while they became good major league hitters relatively late in life, their success did not last very long; and it wasn’t because they were sent back to the minors without a couple of additional years to bounce back. However, there were six good years in Phelps’ case, and five for Thomas. Cust has only two home runs so far this year, although he does have 39 walks in 52 games for the Mariners.

As for Ibanez, he didn’t break through until he was 29 (in 2001), but he’s had 10 pretty good years since then. His slash line since 2001 reads .287/.351/.484, a good, though not remarkable, 118 OPS+. However, he doesn’t have quite the power, or get as many walks as the other three, although he does hit for a higher average. So, he doesn’t really fit the pattern quite as well.

Jose Bautista, thus far, does fit the pattern. He spent significant time in the minors from 2001 (age 20) to 2006 (age 25). Although he played a fair amount in the majors from 2004 (age 23) to 2009 (age 28), he wasn’t exactly brilliant; his slash line was .238/.329/.400, a 91 OPS+. Then, for 2010 with the Blue Jays, at the age of 29, he became Babe Ruth, or something; 54 home runs, 92 extra base hits, a .260/.378/.617 slash line. An OPS+ of 164. And, so far in 2011, he’s been even better. His current OPS+ is an absurd 224 (if he could keep that up, it would rank 13th in single season figures in major league history – just behind Ruth’s amazing 1926 and ’27 seasons) and he’s leading the AL in home runs, walks, on base and slugging, and is second in runs and batting average.

Can he keep it up? If so, for how long? Another three or four years? That seems like a reasonable possibility. Maybe even more than reasonable, since his current batting average is 78 points higher than he hit last year. Maybe he is more than Ken Phelps or Gorman Thomas. That’s a judgment for the future. Still, past experiences of this type of hitter would seem to preclude a Hall of Fame career for Bautista, and would likely make a big ticket, long term contract a mistake for whatever team might want to sign him in the future. He’s currently signed through 2015, it would seem unlikely that his next contract should be for the $14 million/year he’ll be getting in 2012. On the other hand, no one could have imagined before the 2010 season that he’d ever get that kind of contract. He must be seeing the ball pretty well.

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