Jose Bautista, bullpen ace? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

ATLANTA, GA – MAY 4: Jose Bautista #23 of the Atlanta Braves throws out a runner in the eighth inning during the game against the San Francisco Giants at SunTrust Park on May 4, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Jose Bautista, who slugged 344 home runs in his career, wants back in the Major Leagues, only this time as a pitcher

One hundred years ago, Babe Ruth left behind his pitching career to become the most feared slugger baseball has ever known. Now Jose Bautista wants to follow in Ruth’s footsteps, only the other way around.

Bautista, the six-time All-Star outfielder who didn’t appear in a Major League game in 2019, is trying to get back to the big leagues in 2020 as a relief pitcher.

Jeff Passan of ESPN reported on Monday that he’s seen video of Bautista’s bullpen sessions and that the former slugger reached as fast as 94 mph with his fastball and threw a big-breaking slider. Bautista’s former Toronto Blue Jays teammate Marcus Stroman backed up Passan’s assessment and believes Bautista could pitch in a big-league bullpen this season.

Going from the batter’s box to the pitching mound would be a difficult transition for anyone, but Bautista has specialized in stunning transformations before. Bautista was a middling utility player for the first six years of his career, bouncing around four different teams and never hitting more than 16 home runs in a season. In August of 2008, though, he was traded to the Blue Jays, a move that changed his career.

The Blue Jays were in the midst of a season that would see them miss the postseason for the 14th consecutive year and finish fourth in the AL East. Cito Gaston had begun his second stint as manager after John Gibbons was fired in June. Gaston and first base coach Dwayne Murphy saw something in the player they had just acquired and gave him a batting tip: start your swing early and keep it short.

The results weren’t immediate, but by September of 2009 Bautista hit 10 home runs over his last 26 games. In 2010, he became the first player in franchise history to reach the 50-homer plateau, leading the majors with 54. He led the big leagues again in 2011. Between 2010 and 2015, Bautista hit 227 home runs, 28 more than any other hitter. He was behind only Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, and Joey Votto, three likely future Hall of Famers, in offensive WAR and finished inside the top-10 in MVP balloting four times.

That Bautista has a big arm shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who saw him patrolling right field at the Rogers Centre. Between 2010-2017, he was fourth in the majors among outfielders with 75 assists (not to mention how far he can throw a bat). But if there’s one impediment to him beginning another chapter in his career as a reliever, it’s his age. Bautista is already 39 years old; in 2019, Fernando Rodney was the only pitcher 39 or older to pitch more than 20 innings out of the bullpen.

What Bautista is trying to do will be difficult, but it’s also not impossible. Former first-overall pick Matt Bush failed to make the big leagues as an infielder and made the switch to pitching, appearing in 136 games for the Rangers between 2016-2018. Kenley Jansen, the three-time All-Star closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, started his professional career in the minors as a catcher.

Bautista will play first base for the Dominican Republic in Olympic qualifying later this month. But there is little market for a 39-year-old who hit .203 in his last full season, so his only path to keeping his career alive is an unconventional one. His work on the mound may be ridiculed as a pipe dream by a fading superstar, but Bautista has been counted out before and proved all his critics wrong.

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