The Blue Jays’ Five Greatest Hitters
Jose Bautista (2008-17)
There haven’t been as many, if any, rags-to-riches tales as celebrated or astonishing as that of Bautista. He struggled as a journeyman major leaguer through his first six years, bouncing around one season through five different organizations and, after finally sticking for a few years with Pittsburgh, was given up on by the Pirates—traded to the Blue Jays one-up for the dreaded “player to be named later.” At first, he played with the same uninspiring commonality in Toronto—but suddenly, late in 2009, he corrected the timing in his swing and became, literally, a reborn baseball hitter.
After hitting .218 with three home runs in his first 86 games of 2009, Bautista hit .280 with 10 blasts over his final 27 contests. The splurge continued into 2010, and everyone took notice; it was hard not to given that Bautista slammed his way to a franchise-record 54 homers with 124 RBIs, raising eyebrows everywhere. In the age of steroid suspicion, Bautista’s sudden rise from nomad to All-Star—he had entered 2010 with a career .238 average and never hit more than 16 homers in a season—prompted plenty of murmuring over whether he was juiced up, but Bautsita denied it and his coaches and teammates swore by his natural cleanliness.
Impressed, the Blue Jays re-upped Bautista with a five-year, $65 million pact, crossing their fingers that his 2010 breakout was no fluke. Their hopes would happily be confirmed; though his home run total in 2011 dropped to 43 (which still led the majors), he had a more complete season—raising his average to a career-best .302 and walking 132 times, 24 intentionally. He was also given love from All-Star Game voters who checked his name a then-record 7.4 million times. Injuries curtailed his output from 2012-13, but he still managed to be dangerous when active—knocking out another 55 long balls in 210 games over those two seasons.
Along with the Blue Jays, Bautista waited a long time to get to the postseason—and when he and the Jays finally got there in 2015, he responded by hitting .293 in 41 at-bats with four homers—the most memorable of those being a series-clinching moon shot against Texas in the ALDS, topped by a spectacular bat flip that marveled the baseball public while greatly ticking off the Rangers. (Rougned Odor would respond for Texas a year later by landing a solid right hook to Bautista’s jaw during a melee started between the two.)
Carlos Delgado (1993-2004)
Toronto is often a place where major league stars go unnoticed, lest they make a big splash at the All-Star Game or achieve a magnificent feat. Carlos Delgado did the latter—smoking out four home runs on September 25, 2003—and still was often lost in the crowd of steroids era sluggers playing for a team ensconced at the .500 mark.
For Blue Jays fans, there are no lost memories of the Puerto Rican native originally signed by Toronto at age 16. Delgado is the most sustained—and productive—power source in team history accented with a pair of monster years, and is tops on the all-time franchise list in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored and walks.
Raised as a catcher but quickly adapted to the outfield, then first base and, finally, the designated hitter spot, Delgado showed good sock from the start, but was only a career .267 hitter when he entered the 2000 season and ripped opposing pitchers apart—becoming a triple crown threat with a .344 average, 41 homers and 137 RBIs (he also added a team-record 57 doubles). He finished only fourth in the AL MVP vote but was rewarded with a sparkling new contract by the Blue Jays that made him, briefly before Alex Rodriguez’s megadeal with Texas, baseball’s highest annually-paid player.
Delgado’s fantastic 2000 campaign came amid a six-season run in which he averaged 40 homers, 40 doubles, 124 RBIs, 107 runs and 101 walks. His more notable achievements during this stretch, besides the four-homer game, were a pair of three-homer performances just 16 days apart in April 2001 and a major league-leading 145 RBIs in 2003. Delgado somehow was named to just two All-Star Games, and his anonymous existence with the Blue Jays came to a controversial end when, during his final season with Toronto in 2004, he refused to stand during the U.S. national anthem or the seventh-inning playing of God Bless America to protest the American-led Iraq War.
His contract expired, Delgado played one year with Florida and four with the New York Mets before injuries permanently sidetracked his career, which ended with 473 homers.
Edwin Encarnacion (2009-16)
The Dominican native’s career played almost as a mild variation on Jose Bautista’s baseball life to date: Persistent struggles early in his career, followed by a breakout performance and consistent All-Star-level hitting.
Encarnacion held great promise but found it hard to fulfill, which led the Cincinnati Reds to give up and send him to Toronto. The Blue Jays essentially followed suit when they placed him on waivers following the 2010 season; he was picked up by Oakland, but just as quickly snagged back by the Blue Jays when the A’s had second thoughts. It took a few more seasons, but Encarnacion finally clicked in 2012 with an impressive 42 homers and 110 RBIs; what was then considered by many to be the career year instead became the new normal, as Encarnacion would average 38 homers and 110 RBIs per season in the four years to follow. Part of his sudden rise to power could be traced to his move away from third base, where he had badly languished as one of the worst fielders at that position. (To wit: his 2011 fielding percentage at the hot corner was a deplorable .892.) Allowed to split more of his time between first base and the designated hitter spot, Encarnacion was able to concentrate more comfortably on his offense; the results were telling.
Power binges and hot streaks proved to be a habit for Encarnacion, who in 2014 tied Mickey Mantle’s AL record with 16 homers in the month of May; 10 of those blasts came over five multi-homer games, a monthly feat previously equaled by only two players in major league history. In 2015, he hit safely in 26 straight games—two shy of the franchise mark.
Josh Donaldson (2015-18)
During the slugging third baseman’s short but highly productive days in Toronto, the Blue Jays saw to it that the Oakland A’s were not erased from their Christmas card list, a blissful thanks for a steal of a deal they pulled off before the 2015 season when they sent four players of various talent levels to the Bay Area for Donaldson, still four years away from free agency—but on the brink of MVP stardom.
Drafted as a catcher and converted to a third baseman by the A’s in 2012, Donaldson blossomed in 2013—his first full year—by hitting .301 with 24 homers and 93 RBIs. The power slightly improved a year later, but his average dropped to .255; perhaps hesitant that consistent success may not be in the cards as they faced a salary increase via arbitration, the A’s felt it was smarter to trade him to Toronto for prospects. It was a deal that would haunt Oakland, while greatly benefiting the Blue Jays at a time when they sensed a long-awaited return to the postseason just around the corner.
In his first year at Toronto in 2015, Donaldson quickly sprang into superstar mode, earning the highest vote total of any player for the All-Star Game and ultimately snagging the AL MVP award with a .297 average, 41 homers, 41 doubles, 123 runs batted in and 122 scored. His 2016 encore was no less brilliant, corralling 37 homers with 99 RBIs, 122 more runs plated and a career-high 109 walks. In helping to bring the Blue Jays to two straight ALCS appearances, he proved to be a postseason wonder as well by hitting .321 with nine doubles, four homers and 13 RBIs in 20 playoff games for Toronto. Needless to say, his work ethic and dedication both at the plate and in the field made him a fan favorite at Rogers Centre.
Donaldson can relate to Major League Baseball’s intensive, ongoing efforts to preach its players against domestic abuse; he came from a broken home in which he was devoutly cared for by his mother, after his father was sent to prison for numerous crimes against the spouse.
Fred McGriff (1986-90)
The tall, upright first baseman became Toronto property in 1984 when he was yet another New York Yankee prospect hastily traded away during the 1980s for over-the-hill veterans to help George Steinbrenner win instantly—which never happened. (To be fair, McGriff was never going to knock the revered and highly loved Don Mattingly off the depth chart in New York.) The Yankees’ loss was certainly the Blue Jays’ gain; McGriff’s first extended year in Toronto in 1987 led to 20 homers in 295 at-bats, earning the everyday spot for 1988—when he clouted 34 more longballs, followed in 1989 with an AL-best 36. He became so good, it forced a brief exile of another Toronto first base prospect, Cecil Fielder, to Japan.
Bestowed the nickname Crime Dog from ESPN’s Chris Berman because his last name drew parallels to McGruff the Crime Dog, a popular public service cartoon character of the time, McGriff became a pillar of power in the Toronto lineup. But he wasn’t just home runs; he typically hit for a healthy (if not spectacular) average, tipping the .300 mark for the first time in 1990, and his potency at the plate was further enhanced by a knack for drawing walks, averaging nearly 100 a year for the Blue Jays. Despite these impressive early qualifications, McGriff never once made it to an All-Star Game with Toronto.
McGriff’s tenure with the Blue Jays was the beginning of a remarkably steady career in which he always put up big (but not bombastic) numbers, finishing a 19-year career with 493 career round-trippers despite never hitting more than 37 in any one season.
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