Jose Bautista celebrated May Day by going back to work. There was no stare, no dismissive flip of the bat or preening of any sort. Just a slider mashed off the facing of the third deck in left field at the Rogers Centre, the crushing of a pitch that 24 hours before would have been unmanageable.
April showers, May flowers. All that stuff. And isn’t this how it usually happens? Four hours earlier found Bautista’s manager, John Farrell, at what might be termed the “mulling over” stage of the 2012 Major League season. Mulling over possible moves within the Toronto Blue Jays lineup, with a notable exception - Bautista will work his way out of his hitting funk as the No. 3 hitter. He has earned the right, Farrell said, to do that “however long it takes.”
Farrell’s team emerged from April with significant questions about its lineup. Bautista’s second-half hitting slump continued into a new season, cleanup hitter Adam Lind had just one home run and has barely kept his average above .200, and lead-off hitter Yunel Escobar finished the month 4-for-32. The Blue Jays were third in the Majors with a .321 batting average with runners in scoring position, but that provided scant consolation.
And so while Farrell affirmed his commitment to his lineup, he allowed himself to once again muse about perhaps switching Escobar and No. 2 hitter Kelly Johnson. The latter is not a prototypical lead-off hitter because of his propensity to strike out, but he does draw a walk. And as Escobar showed in Tuesday’s 8-7 win over the Texas Rangers when he was in the middle of two a pair of hit-and-runs, he’s perhaps the most adept bat-handler in the lineup. Yet Farrell has also openly discussed the possibility of moving Edwin Encarnacion into the clean-up spot without acting on it. We also know that Farrell, who speaks of a batting order in thirds, says he is willing to let Brett Lawrie hit himself into a responsible role in the middle of the order and that Escobar is also capable of handling an RBI position.
Farrell revealed a major reason why he’s loath to perform major surgery on his lineup: in his mind, the sample size is close but not yet large enough to make major moves. “Individually,” he explained, “you look at 100 at bats as a sample size and you look at 35-40 games as a team to know your strengths and limitations.
“Something I don’t want to do is make a lot of changes. If you do that, there will be a lot of wondering going on in there (the clubhouse.)”
Heading into Tuesday’s second game of a three-game series, Bautista was stuck in a funk that saw him hitting .183 (70-for-382) since the All-Star Break with 15 home runs and 11 doubles. He had at least walked more than he’d struck out this season, after a mid-season turnaround in 2011 that saw him strike out 78 times and walk 54, compared to 58 walks and 57 strikeouts before the All-Star break. It is fair at this point to remember that Bautista was hardly a piker in the second half of 2011 – he did have an .896 OPS – but only the most stubborn optimist would claim he’s the same hitter he was at the break. Forget pitch selection and things of that nature: Bautista has had difficulty squaring up hittable pitches. And when he does make contact, his batting average-balls in play was .171 going into Tuesday – third-worst in the American League. Worse even than Vernon Wells. So there is some element of luck involved, too.
Bautista’s fourth homer of the year was followed up by a running catch of an Elvis Andrus liner. It was almost as if you could feel the tension leave his game. “Hopefully, it allows him a deep breath,” said Farrell, reminding everybody that just like any other hitter, Bautista has “maintenance requirements.”
There are those of us who will tell you that we saw this coming: that for all the focus on a perceived need for starting pitching during the off-season, the Blue Jays needed another offensive weapon – preferably in the middle of the order. But the likelihood of a significant acquisition before the trade deadline is minimal, so whatever answers exist are within the current roster, give or take a Travis Snider. But if Tuesday’s May Day bomb was a sign that Bautista’s back punching the clock instead of dugout walls or his batting helmet, the complexity of the question is mitigated.