When Jose Bautista hit 54 home runs in 2010, more than tripling his career high, it was easy to dismiss his breakout season as a bit of a fluke.
Another year and 43 homers later, the Toronto right fielder has established himself as one of the game's top sluggers.
"He's become one of the best hitters in the league," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said Saturday. "When you look at how he looks physically and the work ethic that he has and the awareness to the game, there's no reason to think that shouldn't continue."
Four years after he was traded to Toronto for a backup catcher, Bautista will try for his third consecutive home run title this season. His rise to stardom is exactly the type of unexpected boost the Blue Jays need if they're going to compete with the New York Yankees, Boston and Tampa Bay in the American League East.
Bautista made his major league debut with Baltimore in 2004, but he ended up playing for four different teams that year. He finally settled in with Pittsburgh, where he hit 16 home runs in 2006 and 15 the following season — but his low batting average hurt his value.
He was traded in August 2008 for Robinzon Diaz, and not much changed in his first full season in Toronto. He hit .235 in 2009 with 13 home runs, and there was little indication of what was to come.
Bautista says his approach changed after he joined the Blue Jays. Then-manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy helped him start his swing earlier in the pitcher's delivery.
"I have made a lot of adjustments and I've been pretty descriptive about those," Bautista said. "Getting ready on time, keeping my focus on that and just attacking the ball. Being consistent with that in my preparation is what's done it the most."
The last two seasons have been staggering. Bautista's 54 homers in 2010 outdistanced Albert Pujols by a dozen for the major league lead. Bautista faced his share of skeptics, but the Blue Jays gave him a five-year contract extension worth over $60 million, banking on the idea that he was no one-year wonder.
He wasn't. Bautista not only kept hitting home runs, but he improved his average to .302 last season.
"I don't have any complaints about the season I had last year," he said. "Better than just having a good year personally, I feel happy that I was able to contribute to some of the wins that we had."
Bautista led the big leagues in home runs and slugging percentage (.608) while finishing second in on-base percentage (.447) in 2011.
"You could say it's two career years, back to back," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said.
Despite his stellar numbers, Bautista fell short in the MVP voting, finishing third last year and fourth in 2010. The honours instead went to Detroit's Justin Verlander and Texas' Josh Hamilton, underscoring the importance of playing for a successful team even in the race for individual awards.
The Blue Jays went 81-81 last year. They've finished below .500 only once in the last six seasons, but it takes more than an above-average performance to win the AL East.
Anthopoulos hopes Toronto has surrounded the 31-year-old Bautista with enough talent to compete for the division. Third baseman Brett Lawrie made his debut last year and hit .293, while catcher J.P. Arencibia hit 23 homers.
"I think our offence should be as strong if not stronger than it was last year," Anthopoulos said. "And it's not really going to rely on one guy."
But Bautista gives the Blue Jays something even the Yankees and Red Sox can envy — a hitter in a class with players like Pujols and Miguel Cabrera.
Outfielder Colby Rasmus, traded to Toronto from St. Louis last year, had the fortune of playing with Pujols and Bautista in the same season.
"Both of them are extremely prepared," Rasmus said. "That's why they're so good, because they're prepared at what they're trying to do, and they're confident in what they're trying to do every day. With Albert, he was always confident in his game, which you have to be to be that good. Jose's the same way."