The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2024 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
2024 BBWAA Candidate: José Bautista
For a seven-season period from 2010–16, nobody in baseball hit more home runs than José Bautista. The Blue Jays slugger led the American League in dingers in back-to-back seasons, with 54 in 2010 and 43 a year later, and with those soaring totals began a streak of six straight All-Star selections. Remarkably that run didn’t begin until Bautista was in his age-29 season, after he spent most of the first six years of his major league career (2004–09) barely hanging on to a roster spot while passing through the hands of five different teams. He turned the page on that difficult stretch of his career thanks to a swing change, one that prefigured the launch angle revolution that would come into vogue a few year later. With it, “Joey Bats” helped drive the Blue Jays back to relevance, an effort capped by one of the most memorable postseason home runs of the era.
José Antonio Bautista was born on October 19, 1980 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His father, Americo Bautista, was an agricultural engineer who ran a poultry farm while his mother, Sandra Bautista, was an accountant and financial officer. Both had graduate degrees, and so theirs was a middle-class family that could afford to send José and his younger brother Luis to a private Catholic school. A good student, José excelled at math and science, and took extra classes to learn English beginning when he was eight years old. In the evenings, he played baseball with friends, and though undersized — he was nicknamed “The Rat” because he was small and had big ears — he excelled.
The Diamondbacks and Yankees both showed interest in signing Bautista, but the former offered just $50,000, the latter even less. Bautista wouldn’t bite. “I got offers from $5,000 to $50,000,” he told SportsNet’s Stephen Brunt in 2012, “but that’s not something that I wanted to drop out of school for. I was in a position where $5,000 was just not going to make it, not only because I didn’t need the money but because I valued my education at a higher amount than that.”
Bautista accepted a $300,000 offer from the Reds, but it was withdrawn when Marge Schott sold the franchise to Carl Lindner in 1999. A man named Oscar Pérez, whom Bautista knew from one of his youth leagues, connected him to a program in the U.S. called the Latin Athletes Education Fund, for players from Latin America aspiring to play college baseball in the U.S. Bautista landed a spot at Chipola College, a junior college in Marianna, Florida. After one year, he was draft-eligible, and the Pirates selected him in the 20th round, but they only offered him a small bonus, and so he turned it down and returned to Chipola. Future Blue Jays teammate Russell Martin, who was drafted out of high school by the Expos in the 35th round in 2000, joined him as a teammate.
At Chipola, Bautista pitched as well as hit, growing to six feet and 190 pounds and increasing his strength enough to throw 95 mph. He won Florida Junior College Player of the Year honors, helped his team win the Panhandle Conference championship, and took an emergency start in the state tournament when the scheduled starter went down. Though his pitch count wasn’t built up, he threw a complete-game victory and won MVP honors. The Pirates, who still retained his rights, offered him $500,000 to sign in May 2001 and he accepted.
The 20-year-old Bautista began his professional career at Low-A Williamsport, hitting .286/.364/.427 with five homers in 62 games while playing primarily at third base, then .301/.402/.470 with 14 homers in 129 games at A-level Hickory; he helped both teams win league championships. A fractured right hand, suffered when he punched a garbage can after striking out, limited him to 58 games in 2003.
Despite the fact that Bautista had never played above High-A, the Orioles chose him in the Rule 5 draft in December 2003. This meant that he had to spend the entire season on the major league club’s roster (or what was then the disabled list) or be put on waivers and, if cleared, offered back to the Pirates for half the $50,000 draft price. Thus the 23-year-old Bautista’s 2004 season was an odyssey. He made his major league debut on Opening Day, April 4, pinch-running for David Segui and scoring a run against the Red Sox. Three days later, he collected his first hit, a pinch-single off Boston’s Ramiro Mendoza, but he made just 12 plate appearances spread over 16 games across the season’s first two months before the Orioles placed him on waivers. The Devil Rays claimed him, but he didn’t even make it until the end of June before being sold to the Royals. They kept him for just over a month before dealing him to the Mets, who immediately flipped him back to the Pirates in a deal that sent Kris Benson and Jeff Keppinger to Queens. Bautista was an afterthought in Pittsburgh, just as he was everywhere else. The sum total of his season was 64 games played, but he accrued just 96 plate appearances and posted a .205/.263/.239 line.
Understandably, the Pirates sent Bautista to the minors for most of 2005. He hit .280/.359/.490 with 24 homers in 117 games at Double-A Altoona and 13 at Triple-A Indianapolis, then went 4-for-28 in a cup of coffee with the big club in the second half of September. He returned to Indianapolis to start the 2006 season, was recalled in May, and hit a respectable .235/.335/.420 (94 OPS+) with 16 homers in 469 PA in a utility role. His first major league homer came against the Marlins’ Scott Olsen on May 13, 2006.
Unfortunately, brutal defense offset Bautista’s modest work with the bat; he had -8 DRS in just 33 games at third base and -9 DRS in 57 games in center field en route to a net -1.1 WAR. He was below replacement level again in 142 games in 2007, 126 of them at third base (-18 DRS). After about three-quarters of another replacement-level season for the Pirates, he lost his third base job to Andy LaRoche. On August 21, 2008, he was traded to the Blue Jays for a player to be named later (catcher Robinzon Diaz). By the end of the season, he owned a career batting line of .239/.325/.398 (89 OPS+) with 46 homers and -2.9 WAR in 1,634 PA.
With the help of Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston and hitting coaches Gene Tenace and Dwayne Murphy, Bautista tweaked his mechanics and approach, shortening his swing so as not to get routinely beaten on fastballs on the inner half of the plate. The changes didn’t make him an overnight success, but he began hitting the ball in the air with greater regularity, and cut down his strikeout rate. He hit just three homers in 279 PA through the end of August, but Gaston had taken a shine to him.
“He was willing to play anywhere for you,” Gaston told Brunt. “He never bitched or cried about not playing. He’s the most coachable kid I’ve ever been around in my life.”
On August 10, the Blue Jays put right fielder Alex Rios on waivers even though he wasn’t even a full season into his new seven-year, $69.8 million extension; he was claimed by the White Sox, who assumed the remainder of his contract. The move opened up playing time in the outfield for Bautista, who rewarded the Blue Jays’ faith by bashing 10 homers in 125 PA in September and October, hitting .257/.339/.606 for the month and finishing at .235/.349/.408 (99 OPS+) with 1.8 WAR.
He was on to something, and while he started slowly in 2010, he heated up and broke out in a major way. Pulling the ball in the air with greater regularity, Bautista homered 12 times apiece in May and August, and 11 times apiece in July and September/October.
“If you look at his swing from Pittsburgh to now, or even from the beginning of last year, you’ll see a difference in his swing path,” Murphy told the New York Times‘ Pat Borzi late in the season. “His bat is going through the zone instead of in and out of the zone… Before, he was unable to get to the ball middle-in. Now he can hit the pitch inside.”
Bautista’s 54 homers didn’t just lead the league, he set a franchise record, besting the 47 hit by George Bell in his MVP-winning 1987 season. Bautista accompanied that with a .260/.378/.617 line, and made his first of six straight All-Star teams. His 351 total bases led the league as well, while his 100 walks ranked second, his SLG and 164 OPS+ third, his 7.0 WAR seventh; his defense, both in right field (113 games) and at third base (48 games), was much improved. He finished fourth in the AL MVP voting, but unfortunately, the Blue Jays finished fourth in the AL East for the third of five straight seasons. Gaston retired and was replaced by John Farrell.
After signing a five-year, $65 million extension in February 2011, Bautista showed that his breakout was no fluke by hitting .302/.447/.608. His slugging percentage, 182 OPS+, 43 homers, and 132 walks (24 of them intentional) all led the league, while his OBP and 8.3 WAR both ranked second. He was voted to start the All-Star Game in right field for the first of four straight seasons, and finished a close third in the MVP voting behind Justin Verlander and Jacoby Ellsbury.
While the Blue Jays helped Edwin Encarnación, another reclamation project, emerge as a first-rate slugger and total 78 homers in 2012 and ’13, injuries took a significant bite out of Bautista’s playing time in those years, limiting him to a total of 210 games and ending both seasons prematurely. At the All-Star break in 2012, he was tied with Josh Hamilton for the AL lead with 27 homers, but he played in just just two games after the break due to an unstable tendon in his left wrist that required surgery. He finished with a 138 OPS+ and 3.8 WAR in 92 games, while the Blue Jays, who had gone 43-43 in the first half, pancaked to 30-46 the rest of the way. A bone bruise in Bautista’s left hip cost him the last six weeks of the 2013 season, during which he hit 28 homers to go with a 132 OPS+ and 4.5 WAR; meanwhile, the Blue Jays sputtered to 74 wins in John Gibbons‘ return as manager after a four and half year hiatus.
With a healthy Bautista alongside Encarnación, the Blue Jays improved to 83 wins in 2014. The now-33-year-old right fielder turned in a season much closer in quality to his 2010-11 ones by hitting .286/.403/.524 and ranking second in OBP and walks (104), fourth in OPS+ (162) and WAR (6.9), and fifth in homers (35).
In the winter of 2014–15, the Blue Jays reunited Bautista and Martin, signing the latter to a five-year, $82 million deal and trading for third baseman Josh Donaldson. Both were transformative figures; Donaldson would hit 41 homers with 7.1 WAR en route to AL MVP honors, while Martin would shepherd the pitching staff to the league’s fifth-lowest total of runs allowed while adding 4.5 fWAR (including framing). Bautista, for his part, hit .250/.377/.536 (145 OPS+) with 40 homers and 4.8 WAR, while Encarnación added 39 homers and 4.9 WAR. Buoyed by the deadline addition of David Price in a trade from the Tigers, the Blue Jays went 93-69 and won the AL East.
In their first postseason series since winning the 1993 World Series, the Blue Jays fell behind two games to none against the Rangers despite playing at home; Bautista’s solo homer off Keone Kela in Game 1 went for naught. The Jays won the next two games in Texas, however, returning the series to Toronto for Game 5. Bautista’s RBI double off Cole Hamels in the third inning cut into a 2-0 deficit. The score was tied 2-2 when the seventh inning began, one of the wildest postseason innings in recent memory. The Rangers retook the lead when Rougned Odor scored after Martin’s throw back to pitcher Aaron Sanchez deflected off Shin-Soo Choo’s bat. In the bottom of the seventh, the Blue Jays loaded the bases with no outs when the Rangers defense fell apart. Martin reached on a bobble by shortstop Elvis Andrus, and Kevin Pillar got on thanks to a bad throw to second by first baseman Mitch Moreland in an attempt to start a double play. Ryan Goins bunted, and Adrián Beltré fielded it and spun; his throw to Andrus at third base beat Dalton Pompey, who had pinch-run for Martin, but Andrus dropped the ball. Pompey was forced out at the plate on a Ben Revere grounder, but Pillar scored the tying run when Donaldson’s pop fly eluded Odor.
Sam Dyson had taken over for Hamels when Donaldson came up, and the Blue Jays had still made just one out. Bautista stepped in, and on a 1-1 count, utterly annihilated a 97-mph fastball, sending it 452 feet into the second deck in left-center. He punctuated the shot with the most iconic bat flip in major league history as pandemonium erupted in the Rogers Centre. That three-run homer proved decisive.
Bautista kept going, driving in runs in two Blue Jays victories in the ALCS against the Royals. In Game 6, with Toronto trailing three games to two in Kansas City, he hit a solo homer off Yordano Ventura in the fourth inning to cut a 2-0 lead in half, then added a game-tying two-run shot off Ryan Madson in the eighth. Alas, the Royals broke the tie in the bottom of the eighth when Lorenzo Cain raced home from first base on Eric Hosmer’s single; the game ended with two men in scoring position and Bautista on deck as Donaldson grounded out.
The Blue Jays picked up Bautista’s $14 million option for 2016 after the season. On May 15 against the Rangers — who were still steamed by Bautista’s bat flip — Bautista took out Odor with a hard slide into second base to break up a double play, causing a throwing error. Odor took umbrage, shoving Bautista and then landing a right hook to his face, followed by a glove punch to his left shoulder. Benches cleared, with both parties and six others ejected. Odor drew a $5,000 fine and a suspension for eight games (reduced to seven on appeal), Bautista for one; in all, 14 players and staffers were disciplined.
The Blue Jays lost that brawl game to fall to 19-20, but they eventually turned their season around, winning 89 games and returning to the playoffs via a Wild Card berth. Bautista, however, slipped to 27 homers, a 118 OPS+, and 1.8 WAR while playing just 118 games, missing time due to big toe and knee sprains. He hit a second-inning solo homer off the Orioles’ Chris Tillman in the Wild Card Game (won in 11 on Encarnación’s three-run homer), then added an RBI single off Hamels and a three-run homer off Jake Diekman in Game 1 of a Division Series rematch with the Rangers. The Blue Jays won via a sweep, but fell to Cleveland in a five-game ALCS, with Bautista going 3-for-18 without an RBI.
While Bautista rejected the Blue Jays’ $17.2 million qualifying offer, his free agency didn’t drum up a ton of interest given that he had just turned 36 and was coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued season. It turned out that the Rangers weren’t the only team with a negative impression of him, either. Orioles GM Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun’s Eduardo A. Encina that he told Bautista’s agent, “José is a villain in Baltimore and I’m not going to go tell our fans that we’re courting José Bautista for the Orioles because they’re not going to be happy.’” Encina cited Bautista’s history of “exaggerated at-bats, long stares at strike calls, flipping his bat down after drawing walks and staring down of opposing pitchers” as things that raised the ire of Orioles players and their fans. Left unsaid was that the Orioles were one of the teams that failed to help Bautista reach his potential 12 years earlier.
Cleveland showed some interest, but ultimately Bautista returned to the Blue Jays with a one-year, $18.5 million deal that included a mutual option for 2018 and a club option for ’19 that could vest. Though he was healthy enough to play 157 games in 2019, the second-highest total of his career, his performance collapsed; he hit .203/.308/.366 (79 OPS+) with 23 homers, a career-high 24.8% strikeout rate, and -1.2 WAR. For the Blue Jays, declining their end of the mutual option was a no-brainer. Even so, on the final day of the season, when Gibbons pulled him in the ninth inning, he received hugs from his teammates and a rousing ovation from the Rogers Centre fans as he exited, a thank you for all that he had meant to Toronto baseball.
As a free agent whose trend arrows were unmistakably pointing in the wrong direction, Bautista wasn’t exactly a hot commodity heading into 2018. He declined low-paying major league offers (the Angels, Mariners, and Rangers, of all teams, were said to be interested), but finally accepted a minor league deal with the Braves on April 18. After 12 games in the minors, he played just 12 games for Atlanta, going 5-for-35 before being released on May 20. Two days later, he signed with the Mets, who were busy going nowhere with a roster that included the final stops of Adrián González and José Reyes, both of whom are on this ballot as well. Bautista showed some signs of life, hitting .204/.351/.367 (102 OPS+) in 302 PA, enough that the Phillies traded for him in a waiver deal on August 28. He performed respectably (.244/.404/.467 in 57 PA), but an 8-20 September skid left the Phillies outside the Wild Card picture.
Though Bautista said late in the year that he wanted to continue his career, he didn’t receive any offers. In March 2020, while working out with the Dominican Republic national team as it prepared for a tournament to qualify for the Summer Olympics, he floated the prospect of a comeback attempt as a two-way player to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Olympics and that bid, but Bautista not only helped the Dominican Republic qualify in June 2021, he played in the Olympics in Tokyo, throwing a runner out at the plate against Mexico, hitting a walk-off single that eliminated Israel, and ultimately winning a Bronze Medal. On August 11, 2023, Bautista signed a one-day contract with the Blue Jays and officially retired.
In terms of both traditional and advanced statistics, Bautista doesn’t have the numbers for Cooperstown. That said, for a while he was one of the best. His 249 homers from 2010–16 was 12 more than any other player:
Most Home Runs, 2010–16
Similarly, Bautista’s 39.4 WAR from the 2009–16 span ranked 10th among all position players. Outside of that window, he had net negative WAR, but that run in Toronto earned him a spot in the hearts of Blue Jays fans and left its mark all over baseball.