Breakout Impossible: Don’t Compare Jose Bautista to Others

Jose Bautista came out of nowhere two-and-a-half seasons ago and hit 54 home runs at the age of 29. At a time when most players’ careers are declining, Bautista’s taking off. In fact, his  breakout has been completely unprecedented for someone his age.

Since the start of the 2010 season, Bautista has accumulated more than 18 WAR. In the history of baseball, only 38 hitters* have reached that kind of production during their age-29 to age-31 seasons. The most amazing part of Bautista’s statistical climb is how it was totally unpredicted.

In his three previous seasons before Bautista reached his 54-home-run year, he accumulated just a bit more than 3 WAR. To put that into perspective, of the 38 players who had 18 or more WAR from age 29 to age 31, here are the lowest WAR totals for players from their age-26 to age-28 seasons:

Name WAR
Jose Bautista 3.3
Ryne Sandberg 9.7
Jason Giambi 10.0
John Olerud 10.0
Roy Campanella 11.1
Joe Torre 12.6
Nellie Fox 13.2
Brian Giles 13.4
Craig Biggio 13.5
Sammy Sosa 13.5

The next-lowest player, Ryne Sandberg, had a WAR total almost three-times that of Bautista’s. The 38 batters averaged just less than 19 WAR for those three seasons.

Besides the WAR totals, Bautista’s home run totals also are unprecedented. In his age-29 to age-31 seasons, he’s hit 124 home runs. Only eight other players have ever reach that home run total during the same age range. They are:

Name HRs (Ages 29-31) HRs (Ages 26-28)
Alex Rodriguez 137 140
Albert Belle 127 124
Albert Pujols 126 118
Sammy Sosa 179 112
Jim Thome 138 103
Mike Schmidt 124 97
David Ortiz 136 92
Ted Kluszewski 131 69
Jose Bautista 124 43

Ted Kluszewski was the closest to having a breakout similar to Bautista’s, but he was still averaging more than 20 home runs per season before his breakout. Bautista, on the other hand, was closer to 14 home runs per season. This group of players is rather small, so I decided to expand the list out to include all the players who hit 110 home runs from ages 29 to 31** (29 players). Here are the 10 sluggers with the lowest home run totals from their age-26 to age-28 seasons:

Name HRs
Jose Bautista 43
Carlos Pena 46
Roy Sievers 57
Ted Kluszewski 69
Brian Giles 72
Vinny Castilla 75
Jason Giambi 80
Frank Robinson 89
Jeff Bagwell 91
David Ortiz 92

More players, like Carlos Pena and Roy Sievers, are at the lower end of the spectrum. But Bautista still has the lowest home run total.

It’s pretty obvious that Bautista’s breakout is unique. He was close to being a replacement-level player in the three years before became the game’s best home-run hitter. And it has been a great breakout. In fact, it’s so extraordinary that any other offensive surge that a hitter experiences shouldn’t be compared to Bautista’s.

*Joe Morgan, Willie Mays, Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Mike Schmidt, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Jason Giambi, Jeff Bagwell, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Brooks Robinson, Rod Carew, Eddie Mathews, Chase Utley, Cal Ripken, Frank Robinson, Albert Pujols, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle,Roberto Clemente, Gary Carter, Carlos Beltran, Carl Yastrzemski, Roy Campanella, Craig Biggio, Ken Boyer, Brian Giles, Harmon Killebrew, Todd Helton, Richie Ashburn, Sammy Sosa, Ryne Sandberg, Yogi Berra, Joe Torre, Pete Rose, John Olerud, Nellie Fox

**Alex Rodriguez, Albert Belle, Albert Pujols, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Mike Schmidt, David Ortiz, Ted Kluszewski, Jose Bautista, Babe Ruth, Manny Ramirez, Carlos Delgado, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, Dale Murphy, Alfonso Soriano, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Mark Teixeira, Willie McCovey, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Robinson, Jason Giambi, Vinny Castilla, Brian Giles, Roy Sievers, Carlos Pena




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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.


57 Responses to “Breakout Impossible: Don’t Compare Jose Bautista to Others”

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  1. Josh A says:

    Kluszewski’s breakout looks a lot more like Bautista’s if you start when he was 28 instead of 29. If you do that, he hit 54 HR in his age 25-27 seasons and then 136 in his 28-30. For WAR, he put up 6.4 in his 25-27, and then 19.6 in his 28-30.
    Basically he went from averaging 18 HR and 2.1 WAR to averaging 45 HR and 6.5 WAR.

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    • Hmm says:

      exactly and while almost nobody can be compared 1-1 to Bautista there are plenty of guys from Michael Morse to Jason Werth who become very good MLB players at 26-27+

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      • No says:

        But that should be expected. That is when the players are entering their peak, so it is logical that is also when some end up breaking out. The big difference with Bautista, is that he was on the downside of his peak when he broke out, which is what is so incredible about it.

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      • Simon says:

        You wouldn’t really expect many more guys to break out in their 27 year old season than in their 28 or 29 year old seasons. The difference between a 26, 27, 28 and 29 year old player on a standard aging curve is not very substantial at all.

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      • RC says:

        Strictly defining a peak by age is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. We know a guy will peak somewhere between 26-32, but assuming everyone will peak at exactly the same age is ludicrous.

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  2. Preston says:

    Of the nine other players on that first list two were steroid users, and one wasn’t allowed to play in the MLB until he was 26 because he was black.

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  3. RMD says:

    But seriously, who’s gonna rise out of relative obscurity and become the next Sandy Koufax?

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  4. WillC says:

    It could be that he found a magic potion to make him stronger and bat faster.
    I wonder what that could be.

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    • Radivel says:

      Booster Juice, obviously.

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    • Preston says:

      Like I pointed out above there are steroid users on this list, and even they didn’t make as extreme of a jump as Bautista. So even if he was somehow circumventing the drug policy, even that wouldn’t be a full and complete explanation of his turnaround.
      Jason Giambi and Sammy Sosa were good hitters who became great, Jose Bautista was a fringe major league player who became a good hitter in 2009 at age 28 and then transformed into a great hitter the last three seasons.

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      • WillC says:

        Or you can look at someone like Gary Mathews Jr who was starting to break out before he got caught with some banned substance. Who knows what he could have been if he kept using it.

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      • Preston says:

        If you want to harp on steroids go ahead. But it’s not magic, it ups your power output. That means more HR’s, a better BABIP and as a result more walks. But it only works if you can put the bat on the ball, and it doesn’t make a weak hitter a power hitter. Bautista’s renaissance should not be dismissed so quickly. Especially since as you point out Mathews Jr. was caught. I’m not naive enough to think that nobody is using, but I doubt they can get away with using the kinds of things and in the amounts that Mcgwire, Giambi, Sosa and Bonds did once upon a time. So I doubt that any foreign substance is doing much to contribute to Bautista’s production.

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      • RC says:

        “If you want to harp on steroids go ahead. But it’s not magic, it ups your power output. That means more HR’s, a better BABIP and as a result more walks”

        This just isn’t true at all. Steroids increases your ability to exercise, and build muscle. There’s no reason to think thats always going to translate into only more power.

        It leads to faster bat speed, which makes it easier to foul off pitches; easier to square up the ball, etc.

        “but I doubt they can get away with using the kinds of things and in the amounts that Mcgwire, Giambi, Sosa and Bonds did once upon a time. ”

        Why? Those guys got away with it pretty much forever? Black market drugs are ALWAYS going to be ahead of the testing regimes.

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    • Simon says:

      That obviously explains why nobody else has been able to do it. After all, steroids are so rare in baseball that Bautista must be the only player in the history of the game to be able to get some. Or not.

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  5. ChuckO says:

    So, what is the most likely explanation for Bautista’s breakout? Barring the use of PED’s, for which there’s no evidence, what could it be?

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    • byron says:

      Didn’t he noticeably change his swing? I mean, I don’t understand the mechanics of baseball well enough to understand why everyone doesn’t just change their swing to that, but it’s still a testable hypothesis.

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      • LTG says:

        Bautista’s swing produces so many FBs that it would not be advisable for most players to use that swing. It is only because he can generate so much power that his swing works for him.

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    • Phantom Stranger says:

      I think he was nearly this talented all along, but finally found the right approach for his athletic talents. His style goes against so much of the MLB conventional wisdom for hitting that it would be hard for a young swinger to emulate his swing unless they immediately met with success, because the pressure to change would be immense from coaches and management.

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    • siggian says:

      There are plenty of articles that document how Bautista changed what he does during the at-bat.

      Summary: Dwayne Murphy convinced Bautista that he was getting started on his swing too late. This time the message from his batting coach took. But it took an almost “I’ll swing early to prove Murphy wrong” swing that happened to connect for a home run to cement the lesson.

      Bautista’s swing style is not for everyone. It’s very timing dependent so if he is off, his offense evaporates. The Jays have to be patient because it can take weeks for him to fix his timing. Fortunately, he takes a lot of walks so he’s not completely useless during that time.

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  6. TKDC says:

    Don’t forget he got 10 of those 43 HR and probably a decent chunk of that 3.7 WAR in the last month of 2009.

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    • Preston says:

      Yeah, I think it’s important to look at Bautista’s transformation starting in 2009, prior to that he had negative WAR in about 1700 PA’s, his 2.1 WAR season in 09 was a surprising turnaround in itself. Then 2010 happened.

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  7. everdiso says:

    Bautista:

    25: -1.3war/150
    26: +1.1war/150
    27: +0.2war/150
    28: +2.8war/150
    29: +6.4war/150
    30: +8.3war/150
    31: +5.5war/150

    Encarnacion:

    25: +2.0war/150
    26: +0.2war/150
    27: +2.3war/150
    28: +1.7war/150
    29: +5.7war/150

    +22 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. Charlie Crist says:

    Remember he also hit 10+ home runs in the September before his breakout. He was nothing more than a utility player before. Unprecedented.

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  9. Juan Chapa says:

    You people are so full of yourselves with all your damned stats.
    Nelson Fox was white, not black! He chewed tobacco, had a
    bulge in his right cheek you would not believe everytime he
    went to bat. He usually struck out less than 19 times per
    season, GREAT CONTACT HITTER! Could steal bases, but
    hitting second meant his job was to move runner(s) or
    get on base. Pitchers hated him, because he made them
    work. A Gold Glove Second Baseman, he was a lifetime
    .288 hitter and an All-Star. He usually would hit around
    200 hits per season in his prime, with 2 – 5 homers. He
    was AL MVP in 1959, when the Sox went to the World
    Series, 2 HRs, .306 batting average, 70 RBI’s, and
    struckout just 13 times. How I hate today’s baseball with
    its .160 batting averages and Medicare DH’s!

    -6 Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. Luiz Gonzalez was 32 or 33 when his breakout happened I believe. And he put up 21.3 WAR in those next three seasons.

    Just focusing on years 29-31 is too narrow. The list should focus on breakouts post age the age 28 or 29 season.

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    • Jon L. says:

      I know people on this site hate unsubstantiated steroids allegations as a go-to response for sudden changes in performance, but Luis Gonzalez had one of the most suspicious changes in ability I’ve ever seen, timed perfectly with the peak of the most famous steroids users. I think no one likes to say anything about it because he was so well-liked, but come on.

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  11. CHILLBASEBALLFAN says:

    Ok simple question! After reading about two of the comments it made me think, has Batista always showed powered but just never had playing time???

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  12. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    I think it is fair to say that the Pirates have had around a 20 year history of not understanding the players they have very well. They kept Van Slyke over Barry Bonds in 1992 and from then on it has been far more bad calls than good calls in Pittsburgh.

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  13. Dylan says:

    Looks like Josh Hamilton will likely join this list as well

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  14. Ajax says:

    Nelson Cruz didn’t become a good player until age 28, I believe.

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  15. John W says:

    Even the biggest Bautista supporters have to admit there is a VERY high likelihood that he took PEDs the past 3 seasons.

    -11 Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Dave says:

    If you look at the 8 players who hit 124+ homers above at least 6 or the 8 are admitted or likely steroid users. What are the chances a journeyman OF ( Bautista) didn’t take some kind of performance enhancer?

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    • DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

      Umm, they test for them now. Also look at his picture in the ESPN “The body” issue, doesn’t look like someone on roids and my brother takes them!

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      • RC says:

        They test for about 2% of the stuff thats out there.

        And you don’t need to look like Arnold to be a steroid user.

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  17. Anon says:

    Significant change in swing mechanics. Just read up on the guy rather than trashing his person with no evidence.

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  18. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    The Dodgers had the best record in baseball, yah it does feel like a million years ago, like my teachers always said “and the older you get the faster it seems to go”

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  19. Dave says:

    DODGERSKING… are you really that ignorant?
    ” They test now”
    Yeah, and the guy are all taking fast acting testosterone which is out of your system in 12 hours.

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  20. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Bautista is not a great hitter, he is a great HR hitter. The walks go along with the HR’s of course but he is still hitting .244 which is still about his career average. The question to me is how did he learn to hit HR’s?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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