Today, Joe Posnanski wrote a piece about Jose Bautista’s remarkable 50th home run. Bautista’s the first man to crack the 50-home run barrier since 2007, just the 26th man ever to reach such a gaudy number, and even though he’s already done it it’s still hard to believe. Two months ago, I wrote one of the stupider things I’ve ever written, when I predicted Jose would cool off before reaching the 35-homer plateau. So is his season a fluke? The answer depends on two things: just how much talent he truly has, which he’ll get to display over the next several years; and just what we mean by the word “fluke,” the meaning of which has drastically changed in the years since the Steroid Era, when outlier performances are all too often simply assumed to be chemical-induced.
Roger Clemens exemplifies the compromised history of the Steroid Era, which literally has made it hard for many of us to justify having rooted for many of the greatest players in baseball history. Jose Bautista exemplifies the way that the taint of steroids continues to affect our ability to enjoy the game. If Bautista had hit 50 back in the age of innocence, say, in 1990 like Cecil Fielder did — when the half-century mark was reached for the first time since 1977 and the last time till 1995 — we might be able to marvel at his accomplishment and cheer Bautista as a hitter who had, for one brief moment, either unlocked his entire potential or found the perfect four-leaf clover. And of course Bautista isn’t the only guy ever to have a massive home run spike. Posnanski found 31 other similarly fluky seasons, including Maris’s 61, Bonds’s 73, Adrian Beltre’s 48, and Hack
Williams Wilson’s 56. Many of these flukes occurred during the Steroid Era, and in retrospect the word “fluke” seems misguided. But many others didn’t, and the list helps remind us that there have been other Jose Bautistas in the past, who came out of nowhere and went nuts for a while.
But in 2010, it’s harder to enjoy an out-of-nowhere home run performance in the same way, in the way we still enjoy other career years. Take, for example, Ryan Dempster’s nearly equally miraculous 2008, when the 31-year old failed starter and failed reliever with a 4.82 career ERA moved to the rotation once more and had the finest season of his career, a 17-6 record with a 2.96 ERA and 3.41 FIP that netted him a $52 million contract in the offseason. Or the wonderful Andres Torres, whose 5.4 WAR at the age of 32 has made him one of the best stories in baseball, but who might be dogged by a lot more nasty innuendo if he’d come out of nowhere to hit 30 homers instead of just 14.
As Posnanski writes, we’ve always treated home runs differently: “Home runs alone define how many people look at the game,” he writes, calling such a burst of such seemingly obvious insight his “obviopiphany.” And: yeah. Home runs are in many ways baseball’s signal event. They’re the most important counting stat in the game, because they’re so easy to count and so easy to remember. Our national obsession with homers are what caused Roger Maris’s hair to fall out and Hank Aaron to receive death threats, allowed Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to bring baseball back from the precipice of the
1998 1994 strike and convinced Barry Bonds that he’d never be taken seriously until he hit more homers than any of them.
And they should be the most important counting stat. They have a higher WPA value than any other event on a field. There’s no single more important counting stat on the back of the baseball card. If you were explaining baseball to an alien or a Frenchman, you’d mention homers pretty early on. There are as many slang terms for a home run as there are words for snow in the Inuit language, and that tells you just how important homers truly are: if you really want to know what ballplayers revere, just look at what they nickname. The more different things you can call something (“hammer,” “Uncle Charlie,” “12-to-6,” “hook,” “curveball”), the more essential it is.
Bautista may have picked the wrong era to get hotter than a June bride on a feather bed, but there’s at least one way out of it: keep hitting them. As Posnanski writes, “We have to see how his career progresses from here.” For some reason, most people believe that the lesson of the steroid era is that momentary spikes are due to “the juice,” while protracted success is due to talent. As Posnanski mentions, Carlos Pena never hit more than 27 homers until he was 29, when he hit 46 homers in 2007, but he hits a bunch of homers every year, so 2007 wasn’t exactly a fluke, and no one accused him of acquiring his power through illicit means. So the only way for Bautista to look legitimate will be for him to keep hitting them year after year.
Once miracles are cheaply bought, they are no longer easily enjoyed. I hope Bautista can keep it up, so that we can finally feel at liberty to enjoy his miraculous season.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.