Jose Bautista has crushed the Orioles this season, posting a .326/.400/.884 line with six homers in just 50 at-bats. It's safe to say that the former Oriole is a big reason why the O's are 0-11 against the Blue Jays this season. More interestingly, though, Bautista has enjoyed a truly break out season at age 29, leading the league in home runs and posting 2.5 WAR in 400 plate appearances. This has of course led to a great deal of analysis about whether or not his break out is "real" or simply a fluke. R.J. Anderson has the latest piece at Bloomberg today.
Unfortunately, every single thing I've read about Bautista this season falls short in one important respect: no one has mentioned his path to the Majors. In 2003, Bautista played 51 games at A+ Lynchburg where he posted a .242/.359/.424 line at age 22. At this point, he had accumulated 990 plate appearances across the Gulf Coast, NY-Penn, Sally, and Carolina leagues. Then, the Baltimore Orioles selected Bautista in the Rule V draft and jumped him straight to the big leagues. In 2004, he received a combined 96 plate appearances with four different organizations.
Since he didn't stick in the Majors, Bautista returned to the Pirates in 2004, and the Bucs did the sensible thing and assigned him to AA in 2005. There, he posted solid numbers, hitting .283/.364/.503 with 23 home runs in 507 plate appearances. His development looked to be on-track.
In 2006, the Pirates jumped him to the Major Leagues after just 119 plate appearances in AAA. Add in the 55 pa's he received in AAA in 2005, and Bautista had only 174 plate appearances at the highest level of the minor leagues. Over the next four seasons, Bautista was largely a full-time player for Pittsburgh and Toronto, accumulating 1911 Major League plate appearances and posting a .242/.334/.412 line, equivalent to a 96 OPS+. Certainly not great, but he was just a bit below average with the bat. Add in a bit below average glove, and Bautista was only marginally more effective than a replacement player over that span.
Bautista's 2010 exploits have been well chronicled, so I won't rehash them here. I do, however, want to raise an important question: how did Bautista's non-traditional path to the Major Leagues affect his long-run development? Certainly, 2004 was a lost developmental year, and he also spent negligible time at AAA before his final promotion to the Majors. Yet, all along the way, Bautista showed good plate discipline. Should we really be so surprised by his break out season? Let's throw out 2004, and also toss 2006, Bautista's first full Major League season. Would a 27-year old hitter with an 11.6% walk rate a 96 OPS+ in about 1500 plate appearances across three seasons, and who also showed power potential in the minor leagues, enjoying a break out really shock us? For instance, Brian Roberts had nearly 1700 Major League plate appearances and an 83 OPS+ before his breakout 2005 season.
I don't know the answers to those questions, but I think they have important implications for player development. The Orioles have tended to rush their young pitching prospects, and they definitely pushed Nick Markakis aggressively. I don't think you can make a reasonable case that Josh Bell was big league-ready at the time of his promotion this year. While each player is obviously unique, how do aggressive assignments affect player development, in aggregate?
Is Bautista's 2010 season a fluke? Quite possibly. But given his handling during his key developmental years, I'm absolutely not willing to casually dismiss his power surge.