Somewhere in the annals of Blue Jay History, Jose Bautista became Elevated. Many of you just read that sentence and thought “I know, it was when he did The Bat Flip!” and I respect that. I will challenge you, though, to take yourself back in time to that moment. The one just before The Bat Flip. When the Blue Jays were down, at home, in an elimination playoff game. What were you hoping for? The lineup that night included the deadly Edwin Encarnacion, playoff veteran Russell Martin, Rockies legend Troy Tulowitzki, and AL MVP Josh Donaldson. But if you had really thought about it, considered what would make for the best story to tell years later, you would have wanted Jose Bautista at the plate with a chance to break it open. He was already Elevated when he hit that home run off of Sam Dyson. It’s just that everybody woke up to it when he flipped the bat. The lights were finally bright enough, but the show had been going on for years.
I have limited contact with those outside the Blue Jays baseball universe, but what contact I have had has taught me a lot about the impact of Jose Bautista. He evokes the strongest response, emotionally, of any player in Blue Jays history. Roy Halladay is the only other man in a Blue Jays uniform who stood and delivered with such consistency against all comers. Halladay doesn’t dredge up the opposing fan’s bile like Jose does. Of course not. It’s hard to hate a robot, and Doc was the cyborg to whom we turned every five days for the win.
Even inside my Blue Jays bubble, Jose elicits an emotional response first, and then that might give way to a discussion of the facts surrounding his tenure in Toronto. Some still hate the way he goes about his business, even though it has benefited this team in unquestionable ways. They love the Bautista’s results, but they don’t like the way he revels in them. They like the ends, but won’t justify the means.
I, on the other hand, can’t get enough. Because Jose Bautista, when he’s in the zone, when he’s on… is pure entertainment. When his game is elevated, the drama is as attention grabbing and as satisfying as any movie I’ve ever watched, or any book I’ve ever read. Jose Bautista is just like a well written comic book. The themes are familiar, the enemies repeat, the hero is often in peril, and sometimes over-matched. Jose can fall down, stagger, and look lost and alone. Like any great comic book character though, he stands back up to face the bad guys again.
Jose knows the negativity being beamed at him by thousands of opposing fans every night, every one of them feeding his drive to win. Jose wants every at bat and every play in the field to be a page turner, a panel by panel, edge of your seat experience. When a game turns on one swing of Jose’s bat, there is nothing more sure in my mind that he can’t wait to be in that situation again.
Jose Bautista is an aging hero, as baseball heroes go. His bones ache, his arm is fading, and he was literally felled for weeks by a stubbed toe. All of that should make him less exciting, less appealing, even make us pine for a younger, hipper replacement. Comic book heroes, though, even though they lament about being “too old for this s#@t” never really stop writing great stories. So, this last week, Jose reminded us, on five different occasions, why our hearts should pound in our chests when he comes to bat.
On September 21st, Jose came up against Edwin Diaz, the fireballing phenom who had just struck out Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion. Bautista took a 98mph fastball on the edge for a ball, then a slider in the zone for a strike. After swinging through another slider, Jose started to zero in on an incredibly nasty 98mph heater. On pitch number seven, he timed it right and knocked an inside pitch out 393 feet to left field. That shot broke a shutout and tied the game, and increased the Jays’ chance of winning by 36.4 percent. That would have been epic, and it would have been enough. Jose Bautista knew, though, that it wouldn’t be a story. That home run is worth retelling right now, and forever, because of the over the top, backwards-moonwalk-pimp-trot that Joey Bats indulged in before dropping his head and entering his home run jog in earnest.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 21, 2016
That’s why there’s an emotional response to him, negative in Seattle or Boston or Texas, but positive in Toronto. Jose soaks up the moment, he loves being in the story, he is, in a very real sense, a character in the game.
It’s Jose Bautista’s job to get on base. That’s not different from any other position player on any other MLB team. If we didn’t know Jose, though, we would assume it was only a job, a way to get paid. What the past tells us about him informs our present perceptions. If that wasn’t true, the next story this week wouldn’t even be worth noting.
The Blue Jays, on September 23rd, were already leading the Yankees 3-0 in the bottom of the 7th inning. Their win probability was 96%, and Blake Parker was in the game, performing as though he only wanted to improve those chances. Having worked himself into a second and third, one-out jam, Joe Girardi showed a lot of respect for Edwin Encarnacion by intentionally wlking him to get to Bautista with the bases loaded. Of course, respect to EE is also disrespect to Joey Bats. As we’ve found out through several examples, starting with the post-over-the head staredown of Ivan Nova, and extending through the time when Darren O’Day threw behind his head, or when a young Jamie Garcia put one behind his back, an angry Jose Bautista is the most dangerous Jose Bautista you can find (not unlike a certain comic book superhero.)
With the intentional walk stuck in his craw, and having grounded into a double play earlier when given a similar opportunity, Jose was looking to do damage. Three pitches later, Jose found an 81mph splitter he could handle and ripped the ball into the left field corner for a double. In context, it was worth only 2.7 percent of a win, but it sent a message about whether you want to put the man in front of him on base. He kept his swing under control, and his hands close to his body, carefully containing his swing and his “rage” to maximum effect.
On Saturday, September 24th, Jose faced off against Tyler Clippard in the bottom of the 8th. With two men on, the score was 0-0, as the neither team had been able to break through all day. This would be his last plate appearance before the game went into extra innings, if the Jays were once again held scoreless. There were two outs, so no awards for a medium depth fly ball or a ground ball to the right side. If there was going to be a time to make waves, this was it. Of course, after two pitches missed the zone, Bautista likely knew what he was hunting for…. a pitch he could drive. And drive it he did, once again, into the right field seats. That blast put the Jays up 3-0 – that one swing was worth .380 WPA – making for an easy 9th inning for Roberto Osuna to shut the door. In the post game interview, he told Hazel Mae “I know you don’t have to hit a home run there, just hit the ball hard to score some runs,” but of course, he did so much more that that. He elevated his game. He gave us drama. He cleared the fence.
On Sunday, September 25th, Bautista started against Michael Pineda. In the fourth inning, Jose did the only damage the Jays could muster all day against the Yankee starter, hitting a solo home run to give his team the lead. In context, that was a 13 percent jump in the Jays chances of winning the game. He wasn’t done though. After walking twice during the game, he came to the plate again in the eight inning against Dellin Betances, who Joe Girardi specifically brought in before the ninth to face the heart of the order. With two outs and Josh Donaldson on third, Bautista ripped the ball back up the middle against Dellin for a single, giving the Jays the lead for the second time in the game and once again adding .13 WPA for his troubles. That game ended in a walkoff after a lot more drama in the ninth, but for the first eight innings, the only reason the Jays could say they were in a position to win…was Joey Bats.
If you take all those appearances together, they add up to just over 1.03 WPA. In the course of a four games, Jose put together enough good swings that he won an entire game on his own. Given that there are eight other fellows in the lineup, this is indeed a triumph of will and skill. This is the player who we turn on the TV to see, whether we love him or hate him. His effect is undeniable.
Sure he might do a great heel-turn after the sun has set on 2016. We might see him as the supervillan as he switches uniforms (or is it costumes?) and plays on our darkest fears of our hero turning bad. But this issue of the Amazing Jose Bautista finished with our hero still on top, still the Greatest Blue Jay of All Time, and there isn’t time to stop and think about it for too long. Every day brings another episode, another chance for the bad guys to fall beneath the sweet swing of Joey Bats.
Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports