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Is Jose Bautista The New Ben Zobrist?

This afternoon, I mentioned Jose Bautista‘s power surge over the last week, where he hit four home runs and upped his season total to 10, tying him for the 5th most in the major leagues. While it’s easy to point to Bautista’s career numbers (and the leaderboards, where he’s joined by Kelly Johnson and Alex Gonzalez, among others) and write this off as a small sample fluke, Dan pointed out in the comments section that Bautista started this power surge last September, when he launched 10 home runs in 125 plate appearances.

How striking is the difference? If you run Bautista’s career numbers from 2004 through August of last year, he had hit 49 home runs in 1,913 plate appearances, or one every 39 trips to the plate. Since September of 2009, he has hit 20 home runs in 292 plate appearances, a rate of one every 14 trips to the plate.

That’s the kind of drastic change in results that warrants a closer look.

For his part, Bautista claims to have overhauled his swing with Blue Jays hitting coach Dwayne Murphy:

“I was getting ready so late,” Bautista said. “Now, I feel like I can attack the ball in any count, and I’m on the offensive at all times and I’m not going up there to the plate trying to fight for my life.”

Overall, his batted ball profile didn’t change much last September – the main difference was that 25.6 percent of his fly balls went over the wall, a drastic increase from the 10 percent mark he’d run earlier in his career. He hasn’t been able to sustain all of that power this year, though his 18.9 percent HR/FB rate is still nearly double his previous career totals.

While it’s tempting to stick the “New Ben Zobrist” label on Bautista, we’re still dealing with under 300 plate appearances and a HR/FB rate that would put him in the same category as monstrous sluggers like Prince Fiedler, Adam Dunn, and Carlos Pena. Listed at 6’0/195, Bautista doesn’t look like those kind of mashers, and we shouldn’t expect him to continue pounding the baseball like he has been.

However, we can’t overlook the fact that he’s put up 28 percent of his career home runs in the most recent 13 percent of his career plate appearances. While ZIPS had Bautista posting a .161 ISO heading into the season, the updated ZIPS projection for the rest of 2010 has him at a .192 ISO, accounting for the fact that Bautista is showing a new found power stroke that hadn’t been part of his arsenal prior to last September.

The sample size isn’t large enough to claim that Bautista is for real, but it is too large to simply ignore the performance and assume he’ll go back to being the player he was prior to last fall. He is one player worth keeping a close eye for the rest of the 2010 season.