This is really the first season I've watched the WAR leaderboards unfold as the season progresses. Seeing guys like Chase Utley and Justin Morneau pile up a ton of WAR in limited playing time got me wondering…
What are the single season WAR records—for position players who didn't play the whole year? Specifically, I'm looking for guys who only played part time (as opposed to short seasons from the 1800s). And, as always, I'm using Rally's WAR.
0–99 Plate Appearances
Fatty "The Alderman" Briody tops this list, but I'm not sure if he should qualify. He spent the beginning of 1884 in Union Association before jumping ship to the National League. These numbers only reflect his time in the UA. In the NL, he accrued 0.2 WAR in 154 PAs. Somehow, in the UA, he was 14 catcher runs above average in just 22 games. As there is no stolen base data on Baseball-Reference, I'm not sure how he did it. That's where the vast majority of his value comes from, as he was 4 batting runs above average (he hit .337 with a 140 OPS+). He finished his career with 2.5 WAR.
Bentley, interestingly, was a pitcher. In 1923, he was worth 1.8 WAR in 92 plate appearances and 0.2 WAR in 183 innings. The New York Giant hit .427/.446/.573 (167 OPS+) while going 13–8 with a 4.48 ERA (86 ERA+)—talk about helping your own cause. Bentley was worth 3.3 WAR in his career as a pitcher and 1.6 at the plate (yes, that's less than he was worth in 1923).
Three other players were worth 1.6 WAR, but all played in the 19th century. When we look at the seven players tied at 1.5 WAR, we start to see some modern players like Dwayne Hosey (in 76 PA for the 1995 Red Sox) and Steve Lombardozzi (in just 60 PA for the 1985 Twins). Many of the seasons that match this criteria in Rally's database are actually partial seasons split across multiple clubs.
100–199 Plate Appearances
While in the Texas League in 1902, Nig Clarke famously went 8-for-8 with 8 home runs in a Texas League game. Clarke was also the catcher for Cleveland when Germany Schaefer stole first base (he started at second base). In 1906, he was worth 3 runs behind the plate and 16 at it, hitting .358/.404/.486 (an OPS+ of 179) for 3.2 WAR (in just 193 PA). He was worth a total of 6.4 WAR in his career.
Jack Lapp, also a catcher, hit .353/.435/.467 (154 OPS+) in 1911. He was the backup catcher to Ira Thomas, who himself collected 1.8 WAR. Lapp's value came from 15 batting runs and 2 catching runs (plus a Total Zone run in just four games at first base). Lapp, who finished his career with 10.8 WAR, actually tied with Ross Barnes' 1871 season. But Barnes actually played in all 31 of his team's games that year.The seasons were just incredibly short in the 1870s.
200–299 Plate Appearances
Again, Barnes topped this list (with 5.2 WAR in 238 PA). But, he played in 45 of his team's 47 games, so I'm not counting him.
Solly Hemus played in the wrong era. What's the #1 thing in common among underrated players from yesteryear? OBP. It simply wasn't on the mind in the 1950s. But Solly Hemus, a shortstop, was coming off OBPs of .395, .392, and .382 when 1954 started. His 1954 season was remarkable, as he hit .304/.453/.430 for an OPS+ of 133—but in 274 PA. He was squeezed by a slick-fielding freshman named Alex Grammas. Grammas had an OPS+ of 78, but thanks to Rally's WAR we know that he was a slick fielder (9 TZ runs) worth 2.6 WAR. Still, to have a guy like Hemus relegated to spot duty is ridiculous. His three seasons before this 4.0 WAR campaign were worth 3.9, 6.4, and 5.1 wins. He finished his career with 25.3 WAR (Grammas had 6.8).
Tied with Hemus is the great Charlie Bennett, most well-known (that'd be relatively speaking) for being tied for first all time in catching runs with Pudge Rodriguez, according to Rally. Worth noting is that Bennett did this in 1062 games and 4310 PAs while Pudge stands at 2410 games and 9796 PAs, as of today. Bennett's rate stats don't jump off the page for 1888: .264/.347/.399. But offense was severely suppressed and his OPS+ was actually 137. That made him worth 11 batting runs. Add in 17 catching runs and you have an enormous amount of value in just 291 PAs. Bennett, one of my favorite players who I essentially had no knowledge of just a year ago, was worth 37.7 WAR.
300–399 Plate Appearances
Again, we're leaving Barnes off, who earned 7.4 WAR in 342 PA (wow!) in 1876, but actually played in every one of his team's games. Cap Anson is second on the list (6.4 WAR in 369 PA in 1888). He also played in every game. That brings us to Ruth.
You start bringing up Babe Ruth and 1918 and I start to hyperventilate a bit. Although, I have to admit that it's better now than it used to be. In 1918, Ruth pitched 166.1 innings and was worth 2.2 WAR on the mound. This would be his first full year he was worth more at the plate than on the hill. His 377 PA were a career high (at that point) and he would only go on to pitch more than nine innings in a season just once more. At the plate, Ruth was worth 41 batting runs, thanks to a 194 OPS+ (.300/.411/.555) and a league-leading 11 home runs. Ruth continued to be a pretty good player (snicker), compiling 172 WAR at the plate in addition to 18 on the mound.
Dan Brouthers follows Ruth at 5.9 WAR (in 372 PA in 1882). He played in each of his team's games, though. Cal McVey and Deacon White, two more full-timers who happened to be teammates in 1875, followed with 5.7 WAR and 5.4 WAR, respectively. Same deal for Charley Jones, who also had 5.4 WAR (in 1879). And that brings us to Nap Lajoie.
Lajoie actually played in one AL game in Philly in 1902 before appearing in 86 games for Cleveland in the NL. What happened? Let's ask Wikipedia:
[T]he Phillies obtained an injunction barring Lajoie from playing baseball for any team other than the Phillies. However, a lawyer discovered the injunction was only enforceable in the state of Pennsylvania. Mack responded by trading Lajoie to the then-moribund Cleveland Bluebirds, whose owner, Charles Somers, had provided considerable financial assistance to the A's in the early years. Lajoie arrived in Cleveland on June 4, and proved to be the shot in the arm the Bluebirds needed, drawing 10,000 fans to League Park in his first game. He was named team captain a few weeks later, and at the end of the season the team changed its name to the "Naps" in his honor.
So nap blurs the rules a bit, having played that one game in the AL (worth, not surprisingly, 0.0 WAR). With Cleveland, he was worth 36 batting runs (hitting .379/.421/.596 for an OPS+ of 177) and 5 Total Zone runs. Lajoie would accrue 104.2 WAR in his Hall of Fame career.
So, how does this year's WAR leader stack up to these guys? As of today, Chase Utley has 2.2 WAR on Fangraphs. With 129 PA so far, that comes out to a WAR/700 PA of 11.9. That rate would be the best among all players mentioned in this article. Here's hoping Chase keeps playing this year. I'm guessing this isn't a record he'd want to have.