I got into a bit of a Twitter debate last week following my routine praising of Jose Bautista. After the Toronto Blue Jays slugger hit two home runs on Saturday, he sat atop the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard at 6.5, just a shade under his full-season total of 6.9 from last year. Now, he is at 6.7, a pace for over 11 WAR, a Bondsian pace. Some of the comments sent to me after I sung Bautista’s praises flat-out accused the right-hander of using illegal substances to get ahead.
As a result of the recent “steroid era”, which may or not be over, Bautista has in many circles been a magnet for accusations of performance-enhancing drug use. The man who slugged 54 home runs last year shrugged off those claims in an interview with Canada’s TSN as well as pointing out that he has been drug tested no less than 15 times. That is not enough for some people, unfortunately — likely the same people who crowed when Major League Baseball instituted the current drug-testing stipulations.
It is unfortunate that many people cannot enjoy Bautista’s rise to superstardom because of their apprehension trailing from the “steroid era”. Like a jilted lover, these baseball fans are reluctant to embrace another power hitter lest they be let down again as they were with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
The “evidence” people cite as “proof” of Bautista’s using is nothing short of hilarious. For instance, many accuse him of beginning to use steroids in 2010, even though his power surge actually started in September 2009. Then there are the arguments from incredulity, the claim that there is no possible way a scrub like Bautista could become a premier power hitter without the aid of a PED (one that has gone undetected, has not visibly altered his body, and apparently has been unused by other players).
When rational explanations are given, such as that the move from Pittsburgh to Toronto gave him access to a different set of coaches that tried different things with his mechanics — something Bautista himself said was the underlying cause of his transformation — the skeptics scoff. Coaches are good, but are they 16-to-54 home run-good?
Yes. Why is it hard to accept the notion that a coach could have a huge impact on a player? First, the words from Bautista himself, transcribed from the TSN video.
I did have to make some changes to my hitting approach and the way I went up to the plate. Because I used to get started so late, the only way I could try to be on time, sometimes, was to be quick. So, this was my speed [demonstrates]. So, by the time I try to come around, the ball was already on top of the plate and everything was so late. I had heard it a million times: start slow and early, start slow and early. But to me, that didn’t make a lot of sense until we watched video. We got a mirror, they showed me.
Those skeptics who don’t buy that story should also have trouble believing the story of Roy Halladay. Halladay got off to a rough start in his Blue Jays career for a variety of reasons, but didn’t turn things around until he received guidance from Mel Queen. From SI’s Tom Verducci:
The Blue Jays owed Halladay $3.15 million for the 2001 and ’02 seasons. Privately, the organization wanted to fix him just enough to be able to trade him. The Toronto G.M., Gord Ash, telephoned one of the organization’s pitching instructors, Mel Queen, in the spring of ’01. “You’ve got to fix Halladay,” Ash said.
Queen was the Blue Jays’ pitching coach from 1996 through ’99. He had watched Halladay throw in his first big league camp and called him Iron Mike because his slow, over-the-top delivery looked as measured as those old metal pitching machines.
Queen brought Halladay to the bullpen for a throwing session, except he began so rudimentarily that he refused to let Halladay use a baseball. Queen lowered Halladay’s release point and speeded up his delivery, all without a ball in the pitcher’s hand.
Halladay threw phantom pitches for 20 minutes. The next day they did the same thing. At the end of that session Queen let him actually throw a ball. The coach showed him two grips for a fastball: one that caused the ball to run away from a righthanded hitter and another that sent it away from a lefthander. “Aim for the middle of the plate,” Queen said.
What happened was amazing. The improvement was immediate.
“It was one day,” Halladay says. “The first day it was good. And the next couple of days it just got more comfortable and more consistent. It just made it so much easier to move the ball.”
While Halladay turned things around by his mid-20’s as opposed to Bautista’s nearly-29 (more a result of [lack of] opportunity rather than skill or biology), the comparison is rather fitting. Bautista’s resurgence is discriminated against because he is a hitter, whereas Halladay’s transformation gets nary a raised eyebrow because he is a pitcher and because his rise to superstardom came before the witch hunts. Pitchers this side of Roger Clemens are rarely thought of in the performance-enhancing drug issue, even though they had similar incentives to use (and did use).
Why can a pitcher turn his entire career around and become the best pitcher in baseball due to good coaching, but a hitter cannot do the same for himself?
Ultimately, if you don’t trust Bautista’s success achieved entirely in an era with strict drug testing, then you should logically be just as, if not more, skeptical of Halladay, whose success preceded the first implementation of drug testing at the Major League level.