TORONTO - Jose Bautista entered Wednesday's play at or near the top of most of baseball's important offensive categories.
The 33-year-old is the league leader with 34 walks. His 1.058 OPS and 191 OPS+ are the best in the game. Bautista's hit nine home runs, which ties him for fourth in the majors.
He's reached base safely in each of the Blue Jays' 33 games to begin the year. That's a club record.
"I think I've had a pretty strong first month, as strong as I might have had ever in my career," Bautista told TSN.ca during a conversation in Philadelphia. "But the season's long and it's hard to look at small samples and how that's going to portray into a complete season. I try not to pay attention to those things and just focus on the preparation and the work and my effort and hopefully at the end of the year everything's taken care of itself."
As teams around the league rely more heavily on spray charts and advanced offensive data, Bautista, like most sluggers around the league, often hits with three infielders on the left side of second base. The percentages show that if Bautista hits the ball on the ground, most of the time he'll pull it.
With that in mind, hitting coach Kevin Seitzer has encouraged Bautista to occasionally take pitches the other way. Manager John Gibbons believes the approach helps Bautista stay on breaking pitches down and away. He sees those often as opposing pitchers often work around him or, at least, are particularly careful about keeping the ball out of the middle of the strike zone.
"The only difference I see with him is he's taking some hits the other way and I think it's making him a tougher out," said manager John Gibbons. "You hear some people who complain about, well, he's a home run hitter, you've got to do it this way. Well, you know what? His home run numbers haven't suffered one bit."
Bautista's coaches and teammates took notice of his approach in the 10th inning of Tuesday night's 6-5 win over the Phillies. Melky Cabrera led off with a single. Bautista worked a 2-2 count and with the infield pulled around to the third base side he pushed a 93 miles per hour fastball through the gaping hole where the second baseman would usually stand. Cabrera advanced to third on the play and one out later scored the game-winning run on Juan Francisco's sacrifice fly.
Manager John Gibbons called it "winning baseball."
"It's good to see, that's what winning players and winning teams do, the little stuff," said Jose Reyes. "In that situation he didn't try to hit a two-run home run and pop it up to the infield or something. He just tried to move Melky over, he saw that huge space there at second base and he hit the ball that way, first and third and we win the game right there."
Outfield coach Tim Leiper paid Bautista the ultimate praise last week, equating his pregame preparation and in-game adjustments to that of a coach.
Bautista doesn't want the label but he is involved in every pitch. From the dugout he's studying the opposing pitcher, watching for tendencies that may indicate which type of pitch will be thrown. Not a base stealer himself, Bautista tries to help his faster teammates get a read on a pitcher's move. Defensively, he'll involve himself in outfield positioning based on his extensive knowledge of hitters.
"I try to pay attention to things like that and I share all kinds of information with my teammates," said Bautista. "I also encourage them to share stuff that they know and information that they have with me. I like to listen to that kind of stuff and put it into my database, I guess."
Gibbons recalls a game in Kansas City early last year when injuries to Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie forced Bautista from his usual spot in right field and in to play third base. Bautista would frequently hover around the mound in between outs, giving the pitcher a scouting report on the next hitter.
"Jose's not just out there playing," said Gibbons. "He studies this and he's paying attention to what's going on. He's played against a lot of these guys over the years so he's got a pretty good idea of what they do."
The Blue Jays entered Wednesday's action with a record of 16-17 following a 4-4 road trip to Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Like on their previous road trip, they left some games on the table due to poor, late-game pitching.
Bautista isn't panicking, however, because the American League East remains tight six weeks into the season. Toronto's just a game and a half back of first-place Baltimore.
"The only thing that would matter if we were 15 games back," said Bautista. "That would mean we'd dug ourselves a big hole to come out of. From that perspective it doesn't really matter. What matters is how we play from here on out and we've got to focus on that."