MLB's 2024 Hall of Fame ballot was revealed on Monday and Jose Bautista will be present on it for the first time, giving voters a mind-bending case to contemplate.
There's no doubt Bautista checks a number of boxes as a potential Hall of Famer.
He was one of the game's biggest stars for over half a decade, making All-Star Game appearances every year between 2010 and 2015, and topping fan voting on multiple occasions. During that time he hit 28 more home runs than any other hitter, while ranking fourth in the majors in OPS (.945) and sixth in fWAR (33.3).
Bautista led the majors in home runs twice, won three Silver Slugger awards, and was a top-10 MVP vote-getter four times. There's a strong argument to be made that he should've won in 2011.
He's also a Toronto Blue Jays franchise legend who helped the team break a 23-year postseason drought and produced one of the most memorable home runs in recent playoff history.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) April 18, 2020
Every voter's Hall of Fame criteria is different, but one qualification that often gets bandied about is the idea that a Hall of Famer is a player you couldn't tell the story of baseball without including. An attempt to tell the story of the 2010s without mentioning Bautista would be gross negligence.
That's not just because of his superstar level of production, but also because of his journey to the top of the game. Bautista was a Rule 5 Draft selection and played for three teams in his rookie year of 2004 before returning to his original squad — the Pittsburgh Pirates. Between 2005 and 2008 he was a below-average player for Pittsburgh before becoming a serviceable starter for the Blue Jays in 2009.
On his 29th birthday he had 0.3 fWAR to show for his 575 games in the major leagues. He was a below-average hitter by wRC+ (91) and graded out as a poor third baseman by both DRS and UZR.
There was no reason to believe he would break out and become a superstar. Before Bautista there wasn't evidence that any player at his age with such an unimpressive track record could do that at the MLB level. Although he would later become a villain to multiple fan bases around the majors, he was initially a feel-good story that literally changed our understanding of possible player development outcomes.
That's the sort of mark on the game that should theoretically be rewarded by Hall of Fame voters, but unfortunately for Bautista, part of what makes him so special also undermines his credentials. There's plenty of narrative value to becoming one of the game's best hitters after years of toiling in obscurity, but there's more value in using that time to put up massive numbers.
If you take Bautista's total career statistics, it's always hard to make a case for him because he effectively got started in his age-29 season, and experienced significant decline from age 35 on. His window was so small that his totals don't stand up to other Hall of Famers.
Even amongst the newcomers to the 2024 ballot, he ranks ninth in career bWAR at 36.7. His peak was better than most of the players above him, but his career was almost all peak. He was one of the best power hitters in recent MLB history, but he ranks 101st on the all-time home run list behind lesser sluggers who played longer like Torii Hunter and Chili Davis.
Jay Jaffe's JAWs metric that evaluates a player's Hall of Fame credentials gives Bautista a score of 37.5 — 50th all-time among right-fielders. Unfortunately for Bautista, the average RF to reach Cooperstown has a score of 56.7.
Bautista's career path is singular, and his impact on the game is beyond reproach. From his inspiring underdog story to his role in revitalizing a floundering franchise, there's no doubt that his career deserves to be honoured — and there's no question that he will be remembered fondly in Toronto for decades to come.
Not only were his results impressive, he was a stylistic marvel.
Bautista's plate discipline and ability to think along with pitch sequences made it seem like he was always in control of at-bats, but his pull-heavy swing possessed a wild quality. He was an apex predator that lurked in waiting before a violent pounce at the perfect opportunity. When he was at his best, there wasn't another hitter on the planet like him.
None of that is likely to be persuasive enough to a majority of voters. Bautista has some mitigating factors in his favour to help make up for his short peak, but probably not enough to change the final outcome.