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A Fitting Farewell for Gaston

Last night, the Blue Jays beat the Yankees 8-4 in their final home game of the season. It was also the last home game for legendary Toronto manager Cito Gaston, who is set to retire after the season. Pre-game ceremonies made for an emotional send-off.

It was also an appropriate goodbye to Gaston in a baseball sense. It has been said (I don’t remember by whom) that the plate approach of the 2010 Blue Jays resembles nothing more than every hitter swinging at the first pitch they think they can drive as if he were in the Home Run Derby. Given that the 2010 Jays are (depending on how you round) currently “on pace” to displace the 1997 Mariners with the highest team isolated power in baseball history, it was fitting that the Blue Jays hit three home runs for Gaston’s Toronto farewell, setting a new franchise record for home runs in a season. Travis Snider, wearing an eyeblack mustache in tribute to Gaston, broke the old record with a 400-foot shot to right field to lead off the bottom of the first. In the second inning, catcher John Buck hit his 20th home run of the season with an opposite-field solo homer that just cleared the wall. Aaron Hill finished yet another Derby at the Rogers Centre with a three-run bomb to left in the fifth. The only thing that would have made it better (other than Jose Bautista hitting three more jacks) would have been if all three homers had been solo shots, given the Blue Jays’ power-without-walks offense this season.

Bautista’s big season is in itself an nice accompaniment to Gaston’s retirement, not in how it relates to Gaston’s distinguished career as a manager, but in how it relates to Gaston’s career as a player. The Bautista story is well-known so I won’t go through it again. It has certainly been fun to watch Bautista’s monster shots fly out of the park (unless your team was the victim, of course). After never having put up more than 2 wins above replacement in a season, Bautista current stands at 6.7 WAR for 2010. His .421 wOBA for the year is 82 points higher than the next closest season.

But until last night, I never realized the curious parallel between the playing careers of Gaston and Bautista. In parts of 11 seasons with three different teams (he had two different stints with the Braves), Gaston (who played all three spots in the outfield at different points in his career) accumulated a mere 3.9 WAR. His .313 wOBA (.256/.298/.397) was actually league average for his career (100 wRC+), but TotalZone sees him as as a poor fielder for his career at -63 runs. Gaston never was worth one WAR in a season, and several seasons, despite a decent amount of playing time, ended up below replacement… except for his 1970 season with the Padres. That year Gaston hit .318/.364/.543 for a .400 wOBA (153 wRC+). In 1969, the year before his big season, Gaston hit for a .267 wOBA (.230/.275/.309) in 419 plate appearances. In 1971, the year after, he had a .295 wOBA (.228/.264/.386). His next best season came six years later as a bench player for the Braves, and it was only a .355 wOBA. In no other season did he have a a better than .330 wOBA.

Check out this incredibly difficult to read comparative WAR graph comparing “nth best” seasons by WAR. The green line is Gaston, the orange line is Bautsita. (Click here for a larger version.)

Interesting. If one wants to talk about “seasons out of nowhere,” off the top of my head I can’t think of any more out of nowhere than Gaston’s 1970 given both what came before and after — including Bautista’s. It points out (again) how subject to unpredictability and randomness player performance can be. This isn’t to postulate a Gaston-esque career path for Bautista; I don’t expect him to have a .420 wOBA next season, but I think he’ll do better than the .339 he put up in 2009. I simply think that after looking at Gaston’s monster 1970 against the rest of his playing career, Bautista’s own unforeseeable explosion in 2010 is a fitting tribute to his retiring manager.