Jose Bautista is not what most people would consider a slugger, certainly not most fans of his former team the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Yet he has emerged with a league-leading 42 home runs so far in 2008, after working on his swing last year with Toronto hitting coach, Dwayne Murphy.

This unexpected power has led to allegations that Bautista has done what Roger Clemens, or possibly even A-Rod has done in using controlled substances. Despite the improbability of his breakout, I don’t believe these charges.

That’s because Batista’s recent success doesn’t seem to be about power: He is probably not hitting harder than before. Instead, he is hitting “smarter.”

Bautista has one of the “fastest” swings in the majors, which is to say that he lifts, rather than merely “slugs” the ball. Thus, he uses a bat like a lever, not a club.

It was an ancient scientist, Archimedes, who said, “give me a lever and a place to stand on, and I can move the earth.”

That’s why he has one of the highest “conversion” ratios of home runs to fly balls in the majors. FanGraphs rates only Joey Votto, Carlos Pena, and Adam Dunn better in this regard.

Garden variety sluggers (A-Rod perhaps), approach the ball with what might be characterized as a lateral, or “overhand” swing. As a result, they tend to hit a lot of line drives, which often go for extra base hits.

If they hit the ball lower than normal (with an upward trajectory), it might clear the wall for a home run. If the ball is hit higher than normal, it might be a hard grounder.

On the other hand, many Pittsburghers considered Bautista’s batting (and the rest of his play), downright amateurish. That’s because it is similar to what many will see in Little League, with “underhand” hitting, much as underhand pitching is a staple of that level of play.

That’s because Bautista doesn’t hit baseballs laterally, which requires power. Meaning that he hits relatively few line drives or grounders. Instead, he pops them up.

If the near side of the baseball can be likened to a clock, Bautista might be hitting it at “five o’clock,” instead of two, three or four o’clock, like the more conventional sluggers.

This leads to one of the highest ratio of fly balls to total contact (54%) around. Bautista’s batting average is low because a large percentage of his contacted balls are caught.

But most of the ones aren’t going for extra bases. Combine that with a top five home run to fly ball ratio and the product of the two is the league-leading home run total.

Bautista’s approach reminds me of the story of how David, a Biblical teenage warrior beat a giant named Goliath (in an “exhibition” match).

After rejecting an offer from the King of the King’s personal sword and body armor (the best of conventional weaponry), David won the battle with a “light weapon” (a slingshot) that he knew how to wield better than anyone else.

Bautista has hit 50 home runs in the “season” that began September 1, 2009 and ended yesterday. (I am stopping the clock a day early to compensate for the fact that last year’s season lasted a day longer than his year’s.)

During this time, he has shown the ability to hit 8-12 home runs every other month. If he averages eight home runs in his three best months, plus some random long balls in “off” months, he could knock somewhere over 30 balls out of the park next year.

If he averages 10 home runs in his three best months, the season total could be in the low 40s. And if the average is 12 for the three best months, the total could even approximate 50. In any event, he’s not going back to 15 home runs a year  (or 20 if annualized over a full season).

“Submarine” (underhand) pitchers are a rarity in Major League Baseball. But when they exist, they are often quite effective because they have an unusual style that works for them, and is different from what most hitters are used to (Think Kent Tekulve, Chad Bradford or Mike Myers).

There will probably be only a few of them, but there is room for “submarine” batters like Jose Bautista as well.


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