I'm watching the Jays today (May 16, 2011) on Sportsnet, and the theme of the day seems to be 'Jose Bautista, best player in baseball'. After his 3-HR outburst yesterday, Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler are discussing the question of the current 'best player in baseball'. While the easy answer has been Albert Pujols for so much of the last couple years (and yes, there have been an assortment of challengers, but none so consistent as Pujols.
The Elias Sports Bureau, obviously a more objective source than the Jays' broadcast team, has put Bautista at the top of their most recent rankings. Bautista's stats are the best in the majors now, by a wide margin; he leads in runs, homers, walks, average, OBP and SLG. He's an early favourite to start the all-star game and could be headed for another home run crown.
Any mention of 'best player in baseball' inevitably gets me thinking about the much-derided Keltner List, and I'll spare us that examination here. Instead, I'm wondering if there's any realistic possibility at this point that Bautista can build a Hall of Fame career given his advanced age and lack of career totals.
Jose is now 30 years old and yet only has 608 career hits and 129 career HR. What would get him in the discussion? What if Jose manages to be the 'best player in baseball' for a few more years?
Well, then, his best comp could be Dale Murphy. For six seasons from 1982-1987, Murphy won 2 MVPs, finished in the top 10 twice more, and averaged 36 HR. He took a lot of walks and hit for a good average. He won five Gold Gloves. Murphy was at 12.6% in the Hall of Fame vote this year, and will likely hover around that for the foreseeable future. His 398 career HR total isn't blowing anyone away, nor are his 2111 hits. His .265 career average is underwhelming. His career WAR is 44, clearly below the typical HoF cutoff of around 55-60. His best seasons were 6-7 WAR apiece. While Murphy was quite good in those years, he never had a truly historic season. His MVP wins weren't slam dunks and if he hadn't gotten them, his Hall case wouldn't be still alive now.
It would seem like Bautista's 2010 might be better than anything Murphy ever put up (and offensively, it was), but Murphy did it in centre while Bautista merely rates about average in the field. His 2010 WAR total was 5.7. He's at 3.9 already this year, so it's entirely possible that he can get to 'historic season' numbers. What if Jose can end the year at .340/.450/.650 with 60 HR and, say, 130 RBI? Yes, it would be a stretch. Even Pujols would be hard-pressed to keep that pace up. But suppose he does that and follows it up with a couple 40 HR years and remains at least useful into his late 30s. What then?
There's really no precedent for what we're seeing with Jose. To go from utilityman to home run king, without warning, is a strange story.
Why not compare him to Adrian Beltre? Certainly, they're different players, but Beltre's 10-WAR MVP year in 2004 was so far removed from his other performance at the time that noone really knew what to make of it. Even with some good years since, and all the defensive value, he's not really on anyone's HoF map, but maybe he should be. He's only 32 and -surprise- is at 44 career WAR. If he keeps hitting home runs and playing 3rd, maybe he'll get some support from the stats crowd.
Another thing distinguishing Jose is that his performance seems to be a little more concentrated. Yes, it's only been a year and a half, but what if his peak, unlike Beltre's, is sustained and he remains in our consciousness as the league's top slugger for multiple consecutive years?
We can only wait and see. Bautista continues to amaze; I think it's too soon to start guessing at his limitations.