For six years, Jose Bautista was among the most feared sluggers in the game - a status that would have seemed preposterous a year before his reign of power began.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Bautista was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 20th round of the 2000 draft out of Chipola College in Florida. After the 2003 season, the Baltimore Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft which set-off a sojourn that saw him spend time with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Kansas City Royals and New York Mets before ending up back with the Pirates within an eight-month timespan.
It was quite the whirlwind for the 23-year-old whose 64 games played that season saw him hit only .205/.263/.239 while playing in 16 games for Baltimore, 12 games for Tampa Bay, 13 games for Kansas City and 23 games with Pittsburgh. Although a member of the Mets, he didn’t get into a game with the team during his brief time with them in 2004.
He’d only see action in 11 games in 2005 with the Pirates before getting his first extended look with the organization that drafted him in 2006. Playing in 117 games while playing in the infield and outfield, Bautista showed some power in hitting 20 doubles and 16 home runs in 469 at bats.
The 2007 season saw another uptick in playing time for the then 26-year-old but despite getting more than 600 plate appearances, he hit only 15 home runs although that was paired with 36 doubles, offering similar value to the year before with a 96 OPS+ that was slightly below average.
Struggling with the Pirates in 2008, Bautista ended up being optioned to Triple-A after Pittsburgh traded for Andy LaRoche to be their new third baseman. After an injury to starting third baseman Scott Rolen, the Toronto Blue Jays picked up Bautista in late-August 2008 deal with Pittsburgh.
Getting regular playing time due to injuries and roster moves in 2009, Bautista again showed flashes of power but was plagued with offensive inconstancy while working to redevelop his approach at the plate. Late in the 2009 season, Bautista began seeing improvements as he focused on pulling the ball with a high leg kick in his swing that was implemented by Blue Jays coach Dwayne Murphy.
That change launched Bautista into a new stratosphere as a player. In 161 games during the 2010 season, “Joey Bats” pounded a league-leading 54 home runs and 351 total bases while being voted an All-Star starter, winning a Silver Slugger Award and finishing fourth in the American League MVP race. His stat line included 109 runs scored, 35 doubles, 124 RBI and 100 walks which was good for a 164 OPS+ and 165 wRC+ and 7.0 bWAR/6.5 fWAR that was only that low due to his below average defensive ratings.
At age 30, Bautista followed-up his out-of-the-blue 2010 season with an even better one in 2011. Although his home run total fell to 43 in 149 games, that was still enough to lead the AL for a second-consecutive season while his walks increased to an AL-best 132 while pairing that with a .302 batting average. Those factors came together to see him lead the AL in slugging percentage, OPS and OPS+ at 182.
He ended his second All-Star season - one in which he was the overall time vote-getter - with another Silver Slugger Award and a career-best third-place finish for AL MVP. FanGraphs credited him with 8.1 fWAR while Baseball-Reference gave him 8.3 bWAR for the season - both career highs.
During his career, Bautista had seen constant playing time in the outfield and infield - playing more than 100 games as both a third baseman and rightfield in single seasons. He was providing his current team with that same defensive flexibility - seeing significant playing time on the dirt and the turf each season while with Toronto - but now as an offensive juggernaut and not just a useful utility player.
That changed heading into 2012 when Bautista became the team’s primary right fielder. An All-Star for the third-straight season, Bautista hit 27 home runs before All-Star break but an injury to his wrist sidelined him for all but two games after July 16. He ended the injury-shortened season with a 138 OPS+.
Bautista posted similar numbers in 2013, to the prior season, but was again limited to less than a full season as he missed time with a hip issue. In 118 games he hit 27 home runs with a 132 OPS+.
After back-to-back injury-shortened season, Bautista returned to a form similar to his 2010 season in 2014 when he was awarded the Silver Slugger for the final time in his career and finished sixth in the AL MVP voting. He scored more than 100 runs and drove in more than 100 for the third time in his career while hitting 35 home runs and drawing 104 walks.
His 2015 season would be the last of his six-consecutive All-Star seasons when he led the AL in walks and hit 40 home runs while playing in 153 games. He again exceeded 100 runs and RBIs and finished eighth for AL MVP. It also marked the first season in his career that he saw action in the post-season.
Although Bautista missed time in 2016 due to a toe injury, he still managed 22 home runs in 116 games but saw his OPS+ fall to 118 - his lowest since 2009. He returned to Toronto for the 2017 season, after declining the team’s qualifying offer, but struggled with his worst offensive season as a regular posting a 79 OPS+ by slashing only .203/.308/.366 while seeing his strikeouts skyrocket to a career worst 170 in 157 games. Prior to that season, he had never struck out more than 116 times in a single season.
The Blue Jays declined a contract option for the 2018 season. Given his age and his immense struggles, Bautista signed a minor league deal with the re-building Atlanta Braves in mid-April.
Without an established third baseman, Bautista was summoned by the Braves in early May as a possible option as the team’s starting third baseman. Bautista started eight games for Atlanta at third base and saw action in four more games before the team released him on May 20 after hitting .143/.250/.343 in 40 plate appearances, although he did slug two home runs for the team.
The Mets brought Bautista back to the organization and he played in 83 games as a utility player, collecting more than 300 plate appearances for the team. In late August, the Mets traded him to the Philidelphia Phillies where he’d get in 27 games, mainly as a pinch-hitter.
The 2018 season marked Bautista’s last in the big leagues despite expressing a desire to continue playing. During his final season hit a combined .203/.348/.378 good for a 102 OPS+ with 18 home runs.
Bautista did continue to play with the Dominican Republic after the conclusion of his MLB career. Playing first base for the national team, the Dominican Republic won the bronze medal in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
For his career, Bautista slugged 344 home runs, scored 1,022 runs and drove in 975. He collected 1,496 hits and walked 1,032 times. He managed a career 124 OPS+ and 126 wRC+ with a slash line of .247/.361/.475 in 1,798 career games good for 36.7 bWAR/35.3 fWAR.
He finished his career as a six-time All-Star - four times as a starter - three Silver Sluggers and two AL Hank Aaron Awards (2010, 2011).
Bautista’s surge from a replacement-level starter to one of the best offensive players in the American League was one of the more unexpected stories of the early 2010s.
Although he will not be voted into the Hall of Fame and will likely fall-off the ballot after his first voting cycle, Bautista is one of the of the legendary position players for the Toronto Blue Jays with whom he played in more than 1,200 games and put him in position to be an Atlanta Brave - albeit briefly - thanks to former Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopoulos.