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Jose Bautista’s Historic Season and the Hall of Fame

Jose Bautista is in the midst of a historic year. Jose Bautista will in all likelihood not make it into the Hall of Fame.

Much has already been said about the unique career arc of Joey Bats, with a particular focus on how ridiculous the number’s he’s putting up this season really are. Through Sunday the Blue Jays had played in 85 games. Jose Bautista has accumulated 5.8 fWAR over that time. Extrapolating that pace (and also taking into account a proportional number of missed games the rest of the way) over the course of the year would give Bautista about 11.1 fWAR.

That is a really large WAR number. In the history of baseball only 37 position players have recorded a season of 11.1 fWAR. Albert Pujols has never amassed such WAR in a single season; Hank Aaron never came close to that.

While a stunning season for anyone, 11 WAR is particularly amazing coming from a career utility guy with one stand-out year. Most of the players that have crossed the 11 WAR threshold are upper echelon Hall of Fame guys in their prime. Multiple appearances from Ruth and Bonds (both in his first and “second prime”), Gehrig, Mays, and Cobb dot the list. Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner also appear. Basically the best players ever to play the game. Jose Bautista, meanwhile, is not one of the best players to ever play the game, at least in the traditional consistent long-term sense.

Bautista is in his age 30 season, so even if he could rattle off another another 4 seasons after this one at 7 WAR apiece (generous in my mind) and continues to be productive into his late 30s, he’ll end up finishing well off the mark of most Hall of Fame standards, both traditional and SABR. Bautista is unlikely to reach 400 home runs and barring a Bondsian aging curve 500 is near impossible; likewise a career batting average well below .300 is likely. The SABR community will likewise find themselves staring at a player with a career WAR in the 50s, an average defensive corner outfielder whose value was completely tied into his bat. Sure, some guys with less than ideal counting numbers and tremendous peaks have received the nod from the BWA, but those cases generally contained an additional factor such as time missed due to war, illness, injury, or death.

Most have already the lack of pity the BBWAA has shown with respect to Edgar Martinez and his tardy-to-launch career. I think it’s safe to say that even using optimistic career projections, Bautista likely won’t be getting into Cooperstown without a ticket.

So with that being said, I set about to look at the greatest seasons of all time by players that were not in the Hall of Fame.* I set the cutoff at 9.5 fWAR to get a decent sample, as you’ll soon see, there’s not many non-HOFers hanging around where Jose Bautista could land.

Benny Kauff 1914: 11.1 (24) (Federal League): Benny Kauff was known as the”Ty Cobb” of the Federal League. During the 2 years the League was in existence he was by far the best player. To call the Federal League a true major league may have been a bit of a stretch, however, and when he switched over to the National League in 1916 he was a good but not great player during his prime. Still, this man playing in what amounted to the glorified minor leagues almost 100 years ago is the only non-HOFer to do what Jose Bautista is on pace to do: produce 11 fWAR.

Norm Cash 1961: 10.8 (26): Norm Cash was actually a really good player. As yet another Tiger that is constantly looked over for HOF consideration, he holds a special place in this Detroiter’s heart (and yeah, I don’t know how George Kell got in either). Still, it took a BABIP 100 points higher than his career, as well as career highs in HRs, SBs, and (almost) TZ for Cash to produce this monster 10.8 WAR year. In addition, 1961 was an expansion year which many believe diluted the competition, and Cash has admitted to using a corked bat during that season (which, who knows how much that helped, but, it’s there). Cash was still only second in WAR that year, to Mickey Mantle, and lost the MVP to Roger Maris (obviously).

Rico Petrocelli 1969: 10.6 (26): Unlike the previous two guys, Petrocelli was an above average player for a number of years before this outstanding season, yet he was still on the young side of his prime at 26. Playing Gold Glove defense at SS while blasting 40 homers should have probably garnered him some MVP votes, but he didn’t even register in top 5. Unlike many of his peers on this list, and similar to Bautista, Petrocelli did not approach a HOF career, but his career arc was much different than Bautista. Petrocelli’s age 30 season garnered him 2.9 fWAR, and he would garner less than 3 fWAR after that season in the rest of his career.

Darrell Evans 1973: 10.2 (26): Evans is another HOF candidate stuck in purgatory, but his age 26 season with the Braves sticks out above the rest.

Ron Santo 1967: 10.2 (27): Santo should be in the Hall. He has three seasons over 9 WAR and this was his best. Not close to a Bautista comp.

Joe Jackson 1911: 9.9 (22): Age 22. Wow. Shoeless Joe almost equaled this incredible rookie season at age 31 before he was banned from baseball.

George Stone 1906: 9.7 (29): Stone is the first player somewhat comparable to Bautista in career arc. Of course, he didn’t try out for pro ball until he was 26 and didn’t crack the starting lineup of a major league team until 28. It’s really hard to compare eras but Stone’s emergence was based mostly on increased batting average with some additional power as well. Stone had two more very good seasons but was out of baseball by age 34.

Benny Kauff 1915: 9.6  (25) (Federal League): See above.

Cy Seymour 1905: 9.5 (32): Another possible Bautista comp. Seymour grinded away as a starting pitcher for his first 4 years in the big leagues and did not initially hit with any proficiency until his age 30 season. After his spectacular 1905 in which he was 1 HR away from the Triple Crown, Seymour accumulated 16 more WAR over the next 5 seasons.

Out of this list of one-hit wonders (or in some cases, men who fell just short of greatness), only Seymour and Stone’s careers look anything like Bautista’s, and yet Bautista’s pace of production blows both of those career years out of the water. Adding to this problem is that it’s hard to take anything of significance away from long-term projections on Bautista’s future by looking at players from 100 years ago. I think it’s safe to say however, that, like Seymour and Stone, who were not even considered for the Hall, Bautista is unlikely to even be a fringe candidate. In that regard, Bautista may be setting additional history this year by having the greatest season by a non-HOFer of all time.

*Just as a fun fact here’s a list of players not yet eligible for the Hall who have had at least one season over 9.5 WAR:

Barry Bonds: 1990, 1992, 1993, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004; Ken Griffey Jr: 1996; Alex Rodriguez 1996, 2000, 2002, 2007; Craig Biggio 1997; Sammy Sosa 2001; Albert Pujols 2003; Adrian Beltre 2004