The Late Bloomer Show

 My first thought on last night's game: only Tony La Russa could have managed to somehow have the pitcher batting cleanup in a game with the designated hitter.

My second thought: Jaime Garcia is awesome.

Third thought: Matt Holliday is pretty awesome, too.

Fourth thought: what the hell happened to Jose Bautista?

And that's where I want to kick off the post proper this morning: with the inexplicable outburst of ridiculousness we've seen from Jose Bautista, who is leading all of baseball in dingers after years of toiling in baseball purgatory. (You may know it as Pittsburgh.)

It would be tough to find anyone who actually predicted this breakout season for Bautista. And by tough, of course, I mean impossible. This is the same Jose Bautista, after all, who posted an OPS+ of 89 from 2004-08, and the same Jose Bautista whose career high in home runs came in 2006, his age 25 season, when he hit 16 homers in 469 trips to the plate.

It's entirely possible this is just an extreme outlier season; possible we'll all look back a couple years down the line and say, "Hey, you remember when Jose Bautista hit like 40 homers that one year, and we all thought he was going to take off and be a top slugger? Man, that was weird, wasn't it? Oh, well, at least it wasn't us who gave him that contract for six years and eighty million." Then we'll laugh on in to the night at Bautista's 2011 and '12 campaigns, when he hit a total of 28 homers and assured himself a spot in the Toronto Blue Jays Hall of Bad Contracts, right next to Vernon Wells and Alex Rios and B.J. Ryan.

Or, on the other hand, Bautista could also serve as a cautionary tale about giving up on a player too early, the same way Ryan Ludwick and Jayson Werth do.

The story isn't the same with all three, of course; both Ludwick and Werth suffered mainly from injury issues early in their careers, and as a result were never able to garner the kind of consistent playing time that leads to star careers. Bautista just wasn't very good, and now suddenly he sort of is. Werth was drafted out of high school in 1997, made his MLB debut in 2002 (with Toronto, no less), and posted an .825 OPS in his first extended look in the big leagues in 2004 with the Dodgers. He dropped off to a .711 the next season, then missed all of 2006 due to injury. The Phillies picked him up off the scrap heap, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Ludwick's trials and tribulations in getting to the majors have been well chronicled by now, and with good reason. It's an impressive story, with lots of adversity and talent and a cameo appearance not once but twice by Juan Gonzalez. The short version is this: extremely talented player drafted out of UNLV in '99, got hurt a little, made his debut in 2002 (interesting, no?), then got hurt. A bunch. Got hurt and hurt and hurt, bouncing around and losing his job to Juan Gonzalez. Picked up by the Cards a couple years ago, called up to bolster a Calista Flockhart thin outfield, fought off another challenge from Juan Gone, and the rest is, as they say, history.

note: I realise Calista Flockhart is only mildly topical, and only because she just married Indiana Jones, but I have good reason for such a reach. The original version of that was with Karen Carpenter instead, but my better nature prevailed and I chose to back away.

I can't quite decide if Ben Zobrist fits into this category or not; he was drafted late by the 'Stros (he was already 23), then got traded along with Mitch Talbot for Aubrey Huff in '06. He looked like a utility infielder, then just exploded with the bat. He was one of the most valuable players in baseball last year, and so certainly seems at home with Luddy and Werth, but he didn't really knock around the hinterlands nearly as long as these other guys.

Chris Carpenter certainly fits; he's another injury case, but also a case of a player whose performance never matched his talent until he grew up and learned his trade a bit more. I wonder if if part of the common thread here might be these players all took off when they got into another organisation.

There's Josh Hamilton, of course, whose story is really on a completely different level than virtually anyone else you can think of, but definitely fits into this demographic.

Half the closers in baseball end up being these guys; failed starters who find their niche throwing just their best stuff for 15-20 pitches at a time. Eric Gagne was awful in the rotation, then had perhaps the greatest season ever by a reliever in 2003.

So is this power explosion from Bautista real? I have no idea, to be honest. His batting average is almost exactly in line with the rest of his career (.239 career BA before this season; .232 this year), his walk rate is up quite a bit, but that's likely a result of the fact he's hitting the ball over the wall at a frightening rate. He's actually striking out a bit more often than in the past; he's basically turning himself into a three-true-outcomes hitter. Such players can be very productive, of course, particularly if that offensive profile doesn't come with Adam Dunn's fielding issues. (And for the record, Bautista is a little below average but not bad in the outfield and probably shouldn't be playing third base. Just in case you were wondering.) There's anecdote/narrative support for his newfound power, of course, as there always seems to be, but only time will tell if this is the Jose Bautista we're going to see from now on.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of identifying characteristics here, no way of really telling what players might just be waiting for their chance to shine and which really do belong on the scrap heap. Joe Mather looked like a classic late bloomer just two years ago; now just a couple seasons and a whole mess of wrist trouble later he's an afterthought once again.

So, any players you guys think could end up big-time deals off the heap in the next few years? I still like Jeremy Sowers for some bizarre reason; I just wish he would return my calls once in a while.

Anyhow, that's all I've got this morning; it's just too damned hot to think of more than one thing to write about.

The Baron's Playlist for the 23rd of June, 2010 -- With Apologies to Bryan Adams and Don Henley

"Summer Wind" - Frank Sinatra

"It's Summertime" - The Flaming Lips

"Summertime" - Sam Cooke

"All Summer Long" - the Beach Boys

"Summer Snow" - Snow Machine

"Summer Babe" - Pavement

"Summertime" - Girls

"Summer Dress  2" - +/-

"Summer's Over" - Rialto

"Summer Shakedown" - Slow Club

"Summer of Hate" - Crocodiles

"Oslo in the Summertime" - Of Montreal

"Summer Teeth" - Wilco

"Summer's Cauldron" - XTC

"Summertime Clothes" - Animal Collective

"Jogging Gorgeous Summer" - Islands

"Knives of Summertime" - Sparklehorse

"Summer Grof" - the Spinto Band

"Hands Down" - Dashboard Confessional (Okay, so it doesn't really fit, but I don't care. Listen and tell me it doesn't belong here. I don't think you can.) 

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