PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Gerson Bautista is a man of superlatives.
At 170 pounds, the righthander is the lightest of the 56 players in the Mets’ major-league spring training. At 22 years old, he is the youngest pitcher (only infielders Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith were born later). And with a fastball that regularly touched 100 mph last summer, he is the hardest-throwing of all Mets relievers — harder than closer Jeurys Familia, harder than the enigmatic Hansel Robles, harder than fellow prospect Tyler Bashlor and everybody else.
It’s the biggest reason why Bautista, whose lanky 6-2 frame belies its power, plans to make it to the majors soon — midseason soon — despite not yet pitching above high Class A.
“This is the year I’ve been waiting for for a long time,” Bautista said through a translator. “My goal is to stay in Double-A for a month or maybe two. I want it to happen very fast.”
Nobody doubts Bautista’s ceiling of late-inning, high-leverage relief ace. Some doubt his ability to reach it, because his control can be as wild as his dyed-blond Afro. There have been glimpses of progress, however, in Bautista’s half-year as a Met.
Bautista was one of three relief prospects, along with Jamie Callahan and Stephen Nogosek, whom the Mets acquired from the Red Sox for Addison Reed at last year’s trade deadline. Bautista was considered a project, a lottery ticket: throws hard, doesn’t always know where it’s going, raw, not close to major league-ready. He had some fits and starts early in his career, including a 2013 suspension for a positive PED test, but the potential was there.
“Because you have the velocity, it’s something to work with,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said. “That was our attitude.”
And then something weird happened: Bautista dominated. All of his on-paper struggles from four months with Boston’s high-A affiliate seemingly disappeared.
In a month with high-A St. Lucie, Bautista cut his ERA by three-quarters (from 5.16 to 1.26) and cut his WHIP in half (from 1.81 to 0.91). His rate of strikeouts per nine innings went up (10.5 to 12.6) and his walks per nine went way down (5.6 to 1.9).
Chad Kreuter, St. Lucie’s manager, said Bautista hits 100 mph “every night,” more often than expected. “When he came in that trade, the scouting report was wild, trouble throwing strikes,” Kreuter said. “We saw none of that.
“We saw the numbers. We saw OK, yeah, this is going to be a little bit of a project. Kid came in and it was like, OK, that was pretty good. Then you throw him back out there a couple of nights later and it was like, oh, that’s really good.”
What led to the flip-of-a-switch improvement?
“There was no change I made,” Bautista said. “I tried to keep going with my routine and keep doing my job like I’ve done it before.”
OK, but the gains — albeit in 10 games, compared with 27 before the trade — were dramatic.
Kreuter spoke in generalities about how a change of scenery sometimes is beneficial to a player.
“For some reason, they may be in a rut, the living situation isn’t good, whatever it may be,” Kreuter said. “They’re banging their head against the wall and they can’t get out of that rut they’re in. And so for him, it was coming here, breath of fresh air, clean slate, a new staff. Everything. He gets to start new.
“If he was deemed a good guy, bad guy . . . indifferent. We judged him on the time he walked in the clubhouse.”
This year, Bautista’s first major-league camp has been filled with conversations with Familia, his fellow Dominican flamethrower, and more hints of promise. He has been working on a splitter and his slider, which manager Mickey Callaway called “maybe a tick above average.” Alderson indicated there is some question about how consistent the slider can be.
In his first three exhibition games, Bautista struck out four and allowed one hit in three scoreless innings. In two appearances since, he has given up four runs, six hits and three walks (with four more strikeouts) in 2 2⁄3 innings.
Two rival scouts who have seen Bautista in recent weeks both pointed to inconsistent command and control as his primary fault.
“He’s showing more refinement here than maybe some expected,” Alderson said, “and to some degree, that’s an extension of what happened the last month of the season.”
Bautista hopes to open the regular season with Double-A Binghamton. Alderson called it a possibility, depending on how the rest of spring training goes.
“He’s commanded the strike zone a lot better than we thought he would,’’ pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “So it’s been, I don’t want to say surprise, but it’s been really good to see.
“He’s a guy that could potentially come up quick. But let’s not overevaluate in spring training.”