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Jose Bautista’s Historic Pace

In discussing Thursday how Jose Bautista has been, without question, the best and most valuable player in the American League this year, the topic of where his first “half” ranks historically was raised. Bautista played 84 games through the break and tallied 6.6 wins above replacement. Last year, he finished with 6.9 WAR in an excellent breakout campaign. He essentially matched his production from a year ago in half of a season.

Nobody else is even close to him this season either — it would actually take the combined WAR totals of Adrian Gonzalez and Jay Bruce, an MVP candidate and an All-Star, to match his singular productivity. But where does his 6.6 WAR total through the first half of the season rank?

According to our splits data and the yeoman work of David Appelman, Bautista’s 6.6 WAR is the second-highest total since the 1974 season. That was the first year in the sample given the full availability of detailed event information on a game-by-game basis. Babe Ruth produced insane totals in 1920 (14.1), 1921 (14.4), 1923 (15.4) and 1927 (13.2) but we don’t have the capability of determining his totals through the same period.

In any event, here are the top four WAR totals through July 10 in a given year from 1974-2011:

Joe Morgan, 1975: 7.17 WAR
From 1972-76, Morgan ranged from 9.2-11.4 WAR per season, with the high end of that range coming in his historic 1975 season. In that five-year span, nobody was even close to his level of production. Morgan produced a whopping 50.5 WAR in that stretch. Teammate Johnny Bench ranked second… at 36.7. The Reds keystone cornerman hit .327/.466/.508 in 1975, with a +14 fielding mark. He walked 21 percent of the time and whiffed in only eight percent of his trips to the dish. He actually hit better — albeit by a slim margin — the next season, but didn’t rate as highly on the fielding spectrum. As amazing as Bautista has been this year, Morgan was even better three decades ago.

Jose Bautista, 2011: 6.64 WAR
He’s, uh, really good. Hopefully the ankle injury he suffered Thursday night won’t keep him sidelined for too long. Otherwise, I’ll feel some responsibility for derailing his historic pace.

Barry Bonds, 2002: 6.63 WAR
From 2001-04, Bonds had a Morgan-esque stretch of his own. The Giants outfielder amassed 47.9 WAR over those four years. Alex Rodriguez had the second-highest total in the same span, at “just” 34 WAR. Bonds’ 2001-04 is the gold standard for performance in recent memory, so to keep with a current frame of reference, Bautista is on a Bondsian pace. Everyone remembers his 2001 season with 73 home runs, but he produced just as many WAR in the season mentioned above. Bonds hit an insane .370/.582/.799. His batting average was higher than the OBP of 107 of 151 qualifying players. His OBP was higher than all but 10 players’ slugging percentages. And his SLG on its own would rank about halfway down the list of OPS leaders that year. Just a remarkable season.

Frank Thomas, 1994: 6.62 WAR
His WAR totals suffered given poor fielding at the easiest position and several seasons as a designated hitter, but he was undisputably awesome in this strike-shortened campaign. He finished the season with 7.3 WAR as the strike obviously cut short his 8-10 WAR pace, but Thomas still won the MVP award. He hit .353/.487/.729, similar to Bautista’s current numbers when era adjustments are applied.

Only two other players produced more than 6.2 WAR through July 10 in the 38-year sample. Rickey Henderson had 6.28 of his 10.5 WAR in 1990, and Cal Ripken, Jr had 6.27 of his 11.1 WAR in 1991. All of the seasons mentioned here are among the best of all time. Bautista is en route to joining that club, with a first half for the ages. A strong second half will cement his 2011 as one of the best seasons in baseball history.