What he did: File Watson with Jimmy Wynn, Frank Howard, and Nate Colbert as another player who might have been a Hall of Famer in a different era. Watson hit .295 with 184 home runs and a lifetime OPS+ of 129 in 19 seasons from 1966 to 1984, playing his best seasons in a time and ballpark that favored pitchers. His name came up in a Baseball Think Factory forum discussion this week on Cooperstown. Someone mentioned George Kelly, noting, “His closest BBREF cop is, as Bill James pointed out, Bob Watson, who played his prime in the Astrodome and actually out OPS+s Kelly by 20 points.”
Playing his prime seasons in an inversely stronger era for hitters, Kelly put up roughly the same offensive stats as Watson. Kelly’s .297 career batting average, 109 OPS+ and 24.3 career WAR rank him as one of the weakest players in Cooperstown, and were it not for Frankie Frisch lobbying to get several of his teammates into the Hall of Fame while he served as head of the Veterans Committee, it seems unlikely Kelly would have a plaque. So, I must ask: what if Watson got the same opportunities as Kelly?
Era he might have thrived in: Kelly played 16 seasons between 1915 and 1932. Were Watson to play these years, his numbers might compare to Charlie Gehringer or Earl Averill: batting average about .320, 200 home runs, and an OPS+ around 130. Not every 1920s and ’30s player with these general stats is enshrined, but many are. Watson, a two-time All Star who got 0.7 percent of the Hall of Fame vote his only year on the ballot, would probably have received at least far greater consideration had his career occurred fifty years earlier.
Why: The past 40 years has seen a revolution in baseball research led by James. We know now that a .330 batting average from 1932 when hitters ruled is far different than the same clip from 1968 when pitchers dominated. But for all the research advances, voting for Cooperstown is only slightly more enlightened. It’s better with the writers than with the Veterans Committee which recently favored Dave Concepcion over statistically-superior candidate Ted Simmons, but voting still generally lacks context. The Hall of Fame doesn’t deal in hypotheticals, in what might have been had circumstances been fairer.
What still remains the greatest Hall of Fame determinants are traditional stats, and Watson would rack them up playing in the greatest offensive period in baseball history short of the steroid era. He’d clean up playing on a Giants team packed with future Hall of Famers like Bill Terry, Mel Ott, and Frisch, not to mention all the men Frisch later enshrined. I also doubt the cavernous Polo Grounds would be anything Watson hadn’t already encountered playing in the Astrodome, which I assume is now being used to park jets in the absence of baseball.
To give an example of what Watson missed with his era, his 1976 season with the Astros would convert to 1925 with the Giants here. His stats from each of those years are listed below as well as Kelly’s 1925 numbers:
|Watson ’76 Astros
|Watson ’25 Giants
|Kelly ’25 Giants
Basically, if in some baseball version of “Freaky Friday” these men got to switch places, Watson would have a few more seasons like these, buttressed with most of his other ones above .300 and be later toasted by Frisch at a Hall of Fame dinner. Kelly would get to follow his nondescript career with a stint as general manager for George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, if he was lucky. And if Kelly was simply acting out the film version of “Freaky Friday,” he’d be Lindsay Lohan and preparing to ring in the new year at the Betty Ford Center. Some men have all the luck.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Nate Colbert, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays