Jose Bautista returns this week to Rogers Centre, his workplace for almost all of the past decade. He considers Toronto his third home, behind the Dominican Republic and Tampa, and is one of the Blue Jays’ all-time greats, ranking second in homers (288), third in RBIs (766) and fifth in games played (1,235). The reception from the Canadian crowd should be a warm one.
But first things first.
The Mets arrived in Toronto late Sunday. They don’t play until Tuesday night. Before his on-field homecoming, Bautista has things to do and people to see — and restaurants to eat at.
“I have some stuff scheduled, to meet up with people who were part of my life when I was there and visit some of the usual spots,” Bautista said with a smile in Miami over the weekend. “It’s definitely a place that I hold dear and close to my heart. It’s going to be a fun time.”
Amplifying that fun: Bautista’s success. Since the Mets picked him off the scrap heap in May, he has not only earned his roster spot — earned sticking around for the Mets’ trip to Toronto — but has been one of baseball’s most productive hitters.
Bautista, 37, is hitting .250 with a .418 on-base percentage and .476 slugging percentage in 36 games. His 21.8-percent walk rate since he signed with the Mets is second in the majors. By wRC+ — a FanGraphs “runs created” stat in which 100 is average — Bautista is 35th out of 303 qualified players at 147 wRC+. The only teammate who has done better? Brandon Nimmo at 155 wRC+.
“I’m not surprised by what he’s doing,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “He probably just needed some at-bats to get going and now we’re seeing the byproduct of him being ready.
“I’ve always known he’s a really good hitter. He keeps himself in really good shape. He’s probably in the best shape of anybody on our team and is [the oldest player on the roster]. Great approach, great patience, still has bat speed.”
Callaway downplayed the idea that Bautista’s rebound has been a shocker, noting that he was an All-Star as recently as 2015 (the same year the Mets — now a bottom-five team in baseball — went to the World Series).
But the questions about Bautista’s future were real. He finished his Toronto tenure batting .203 with a .366 slugging percentage in 2017. The Blue Jays didn’t want to re-sign him last winter, nor did anybody else in an offseason that underscored the game’s move away from declining veteran players in favor of younger, cheaper, often more athletic ones.
Bautista sat out spring training and the start of the season until the Braves — led by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, formerly the Blue Jays’ GM — took a flyer on him. That lasted 12 games. Bautista hit .143.
He was unemployed for about a day and a half until the Mets — and special assistant to the GM J.P. Ricciardi, who was the GM of the Blue Jays when Toronto traded for Bautista in 2008 — signed him to a major-league deal May 22. Juan Lagares and Yoenis Cespedes were out with injuries, so the Mets had a glaring need.
“For me to be that guy, it meant a lot,” Bautista said. “There had to be a little something in [Ricciardi] and his staff that believed I could still contribute. That’s a good feeling.”
Why the sudden return to productivity? Merely playing helps, he said. With Jay Bruce also out, Bautista has been in rightfield every day. Of late, he has batted second, a lineup spot that Callaway before the season anticipated going to the team’s best hitter.
Bautista doesn’t seek vengeance but acknowledged there is some satisfaction in performing to this degree after major-league teams looked past him for months.
“Not having a spring training, wanting to swing the bat and some other things might’ve played into me not [getting on base] as much in Atlanta,” Bautista said. “I’m thinking that eventually I would have done the same. But I can only guess or assume. I’m enjoying what’s happening now and hopefully I can continue to get on base.
“Success at this level is something everybody needs to enjoy when they get it.”