No one could have predicted that Jose Bautista would hit 50 home runs, but Brian Graham knew better than just about anyone what the former Curve slugger was capable of doing.
Five years ago, when Bautista hit 23 homers with 90 RBIs in 117 games to earn the Curve's MVP award, Graham told me this:
"Bautista can hit 30-35 home runs in the big leagues."
Graham was the Pirates' farm director at the time - he was fired after the 2007 season - and is now the coordinator of instruction for the Baltimore Orioles. What did he see in Bautista?
"He had strong hands, he had bat speed, he had athleticism and he had the qualities that power hitters have," Graham said by phone Friday night. "I never thought he'd hit 50 home runs, but I thought he was a guy that would hit for power."
Bautista belted his 50th homer for the Toronto Blue Jays this past week, and Friday he smacked two more to get to 52.
Jose Bautista, the Curve's MVP in 2005, is enjoying a remarkable season with the Toronto Blue Jays. His stats:
In the past few weeks, I've had about a dozen conversations about Bautista, and each time I relayed the story of what Graham told me five years ago. He obviously was right about Bautista, and obviously the Pirates embarrassed themselves by trading him for backup catcher and career minor leaguer Robinzon Diaz, who has hit 22 homers in 804 career games.
"You saw a guy that wasn't extremely big in stature, but you saw bat speed and you saw strong hands," Graham said of Bautista's time in Altoona. "And when you see a guy with bat speed and strong hands, the ball carries different than it does off a normal hitter's bat. The ball just carries. It's hit in the gap, and you see it travels further."
The Pirates failed with Bautista by giving up on him way too soon. He was never the hitter then that he is now, but the fact that their baseball people misjudged him so egregiously - and couldn't help him reach his potential - is mind boggling.
Bautista hit .235 with 16 homers and 51 RBIs in 117 games for the Bucs in 2006 and .254 with 15 homers and 63 RBIs in 142 games in '07. He hit .242 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs in 107 games in '08 and lost his third base job to the newly acquired Andy LaRoche.
What a disastrous decision.
LaRoche has been a major bust for the Pirates, who unbelievably thought he was better than Bautista.
A change of scenery and new opportunity, it turns out, is all Bautista needed.
He has split time this season between right field and third base for Toronto, and his 52 homers are equal to the combined total of Buccos Garrett Jones (20), Andrew McCutchen (16), Pedro Alvarez (12) and LaRoche (4).
Graham is working with the Orioles' major league staff to close the season and had a chance to catch up with Bautista during a recent series with the Blue Jays.
"It was great to see him, and he was very excited to see me," Graham said. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Remember how many times you talked to me about getting my foot down early?' And I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Well, I found a timing mechanism that allows me to get my foot down early and be on time with the pitcher.'"
That mechanical change is just one of several things that have led to Bautista's incredible season.
"Obviously the switch clicked on, and certainly what happened this year is the result," Graham said. "It was a combination of a lot of things: The light went on, he got some pitches to hit and obviously his experience and understanding of pitchers in the league and knowing situations.
"He's got a great swing, and he has experience now. He's learned to hit. This guy has worked very hard to become a very good hitter."
But is Bautista's banner year legit? Or a fluke? He had never hit more than 16 homers in a major league season, and last year he had just 13 in 113 games.
Graham has believed in the hitter all along because of his great hands and bat speed. He even compared Bautista's hands driving through the ball to the way Hank Aaron approached hitting.
"Watch his home runs, and he really uses his hands in the hitting zone," Graham said.
He's had an enormous season, but the answer of whether it's a fluke won't be known for several years.
"I'm not sure how many hitters can sustain a 50-home run season; I don't think there's very many hitters," Graham said. "He's obviously going to get pitched to more carefully. This year he got a lot of good pitches to hit, and he took advantage of them."
Just like the Pirates got taken advantage of in the ill-fated trade that sent Bautista away.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or email@example.com.