Who’s Going to Cooperstown? Part I
Finally putting Baseball Reference browsing to use — meet the locks, pitchers and catchers that are trying to make it to the HOF
Over the course of any baseball broadcast there is a good chance that a player is dubbed a future Hall of Famer. It is a simple title to hand out for any player that has an above average career, but it underestimates the difficulty of actually gaining induction. The Baseball Hall of Fame, despite its faults, is the best way we have to document the history of the game by only enshrining the elite. There will never be a shortage of articles written about the best players of all-time, and the statistical leaderboards provide us a measuring stick for historical performance. But the Hall of Fame and its voting body, the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America), captures the complex nature of assessing players’ greatness.
This article is an attempt to predict the chances that the stars of today’s game have of someday being inducted in to the Hall of Fame. This is my second version of the article, with the last one completed late in the 2014 season. I do not offer up a single metric to assess player’s Hall of Fame virtues, writer Jay Jaffe and others have offered up their own formulas if you’re interested. Nor do I plan to accurately predict the statistical output of each player, although I will include references to methods made by people much smarter than me.
Instead, I attempt to take in to account a wholesome picture of each player’s chances. After all, Hall of Fame voters don’t simply rely on one number. Voters have biases, and one look a year’s vote totals reveals to anyone that consistency is not a strong suit among the constituency. Stats are important, but so are a player’s popularity, the narrative of his career, and the position that he plays.
The scale I use is simple. 50% is a toss-up (I try not to use that as a cop out), and any player with a higher figure I believe will make it, anybody lower has some work to do. I won’t talk about every star, because frankly sometimes there isn’t much to say. Hanley Ramirez and Matt Holliday? They both have had fine careers, but any in-depth analysis removes any chance of induction. And I will not make a fool of myself by trying to predict the chances that today’s young stars have. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Mookie Betts are each 24 years old. They each have already accrued 20+ WAR. Of 37 Hall of Fame eligible players to do the same at that age, 29 have made the Hall of Fame. Early elite production this is clearly an indicator of a historic career. But what more can I say other than to keep it up? The same goes for the even younger group of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager. Just stay healthy, stay away from steroids, and we’ll revisit it later.
Most of the players I analyze are in their primes or in the midst of their inevitable declines. Many of these players are difficult to project for me, and my job is much easier than the voters’.
But let’s start off with the easy ones. Here are the five active players I believe are locks for Cooperstown:
All stats are current through July 17, 2017. Special thanks to baseballreference.com and their Play Index tool for helping make this fun to do.
Albert Pujols (100%)
Pujols became the 9th member of the 600 home run club this season, and that alone is enough for first-ballot induction. However, he will not be remembered only as a slugger, but as one of the best all-around hitters to ever play. Over the first decade of a career, he trails only Ted Williams with 81.2 WAR (a metric that estimates the value of a player over an average replacement that incorporates hitting, fielding, and base running criteria adjusted for position). Over that decade, Pujols averaged 41 home runs, 123 RBIs, and a .331/.426/.624 line. His dominance yielded three MVP trophies and 2 World Series titles for the Cardinals.
Although the imposing batting stance and powerful swing are still there, Pujols has been a shell of himself, particularly in the first half of the 2017 season. He has managed to be a productive power bat for the past few seasons, but has reached a nadir. Pujols has an outside chance at breaking the career home run and runs batted in record, but the longer he hangs around to chase glory the further he will dilute our memories of the once-dominant slugger. Hopefully he can right the ship and continue to provide support to the Angels as a veteran sidekick to another legend in the making.
Miguel Cabrera (100%)
Although Cabrera’s victory in the 2012 MVP race over Mike Trout is often maligned as old-school and statistically ignorant, the traditionalist in me had no problem with it. After all, this was an established player who accomplished an iconic feat that hadn’t been done in 45 years. Are the Triple Crown stats perfect for measuring performance? No — but you know one thing it is good at predicting?
Hall of Fame induction. Each of the nine players to win it in the past century have been inducted.
And Cabrera’s 2012 was no fluke. He has won four batting titles, received MVP votes in every season, and is the active leader in batting average at .319. He will reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits within a few years.
Cabrera’s decline has been slower than Pujols, if existent at all. Last season Cabrera at 33 years old had an OPS+ of 157 (OPS+ measures OBP and SLG against the league average and is measured on a scale where 100 is average. Cabrera’s 157 was good for third in the AL in 2016.) Cabrera is somehow still under contract for at least five more seasons, and along the way he will continue to cement his status as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Ichiro Suzuki (100%)
Ichiro may have secured his status as a Hall of Famer in the middle of his rookie season. He was the first high-level import from Japan, opened the door for dozens of others, and has helped expand the MLB brand globally. He also happened to win MVP, Rookie of the Year, a batting title, and 116 games with the Mariners.
In case that wasn’t enough, he broke George Sisler’s 84-year old single season hit record three seasons later, won ten Gold Gloves, and joined the 3,000 hit club in 2016.
No active player has had a larger impact on the MLB. Although advanced statistics slightly discount his value due to his low on-base percentage and lack of power, voters will not look much further past his 3,000 hits. Ichiro has suggested that he will play until he dies. At 43, Ichiro is just about finished producing at the MLB level, but I think it is fine with everyone if he wants to hang around as long as he wants.
Adrian Beltre (100%)
Had I written this article in 2009, I surely would have been wrong about Beltre. He was 30 years old with one good offensive season, two Gold Gloves, and a career .270 batting average. In fact I’m not even sure I would have even mentioned him. But if I prescribed a way to get him in to the conversation, it would have read something like this:
Make four All-Star teams. Win three more Gold Gloves. Bat .310 in your 30s. Finish in the top-10 in MVP voting five times. Double your career WAR. Lead your team to consecutive pennants. Become the most GIFable player in the MLB;
See? Wasn’t that easy? Adrian Beltre has become one of the best third basemen of all-time. His career WAR of 91.5 is good for 42nd all-time. Of the 39 eligible players with more, 37 are in the Hall of Fame (Bonds, Clemens).
At 38 Beltre has not slowed down, and is quickly approaching the 3,000 hit and 500 home run milestones. It would be unprecedented to keep a player with his career value out of Cooperstown. He may be viewed skeptically by some that don’t trust a player that breaks out in his thirties, but each additional productive season diminishes any argument against him.
Clayton Kershaw (100%)
When I was a kid, I used to make baseball cards of myself. After a while, I realized that I didn’t care about the picture on the front — all I wanted to focus on was the stats on the back. And I fancied myself as a future dominant ace. As a kid who spent hours poring over the 1992 edition of Total Baseball I understandably modeled my careers after legends like Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, and Walter Johnson.
I recently came across one of those childhood creations. Imaginary Matt is quite an accomplished pitcher. I win seven Cy Young awards, two MVPs, and lead the league in strikeouts ten times. On the top of the sheet is the scribbled equation for calculating ERA. My career’s ERA came out to 2.54. Clayton Kershaw, against real-life batters, has a career ERA of 2.35. He literally has defied imagination.
Kershaw in the only player in MLB history to lead the majors in ERA four times in a row, has won three Cy Young awards (Only Clemens has won three or more and missed induction), and is the all-time leader in ERA+ among starters. (ERA+ compares ERA to the league average on a scale where 100 in average. Kershaw has a career ERA+ of 161).
All of these accomplishments are without his potential magnum opus in 2016. Thanks to a herniated disc, Kershaw missed two months of the 2016 season. He fell 13 measly innings short of qualifying for his fifth ERA title, breaking Pedro Martinez’ WHIP record, and shattering the SO/W record. Fangraphs calculated that Kershaw was the most valuable pitcher of 2016, despite pitching less innings than 84 other starters.
Pitchers are especially vulnerable to quick and steep declines. Kershaw has yet to have a serious arm injury to this point, but even if he had one tomorrow his peak to this point will be enough to secure induction. After all, his Dodger counterpart Sandy Koufax retired in the midst of a dominant peak due to arm injuries and was swiftly inducted. As Kershaw continues another great season in pursuit of his 4th Cy Young award, we may soon wonder if the Koufax comparison even does him justice.
Yadier Molina (51%)
When Yadier Molina signed a contract extension at the beginning of this season, analysts and writers were in a celebratory mood. Buster Olney was leading the way by calling Yadier Molina a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Molina is a popular player, and it was exciting for St. Louis to keep a fan favorite. I understand his role to the organization, but I question the certainty of his Hall of Fame induction.
Molina’s case relies on his status as the best defensive catcher in baseball, and he is a worthy successor to 2017 inductee Ivan Rodriguez. He has eight Gold Gloves to show for it, behind only Rodriguez and fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. But Molina’s is inferior to Rodriguez. Rodriguez holds many records for longevity among catchers, won an MVP trophy, and seven Silver Sluggers. Molina only has one Silver Slugger. I usually don’t put a lot of weight in to that award, but I do believe it captures the fact that Rodriguez for much of his career was elite on both sides of the ball.
I don’t believe that eight Gold Gloves necessarily guarantees induction. Bob Boone, Jim Sundberg, and Bill Freehan were each elite defensive catchers in their time, but all were denied membership. Freehan, the best catcher in the league between the Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench eras compares favorably to Molina. Both won World Series (1968 Tigers) and caught Cy Young winners. Freehan’s career WAR is higher, he was selected to more All-Star games, was a better hitter, and had similar finishes in MVP voting. Despite these accomplishments, Freehan received two votes was removed from the HOF ballot in one year. Voting has certainly changed since 1982, but this is another example of the level of scrutiny that player’s resumes endure in front of the BBWAA.
Molina’s reputation is higher than his statistical standing, and ultimately that may be more important. Despite statistical evidence and comparisons to suggest otherwise, it is hard to ignore the chorus of support for induction from media members and those within the game. I believe Molina will take a few years to get in, and only if he can secure another Gold Glove or two.
Joe Mauer (49%)
In 2014, I was bullish on Mauer’s chance to join the HOF. His prime is among the best a catcher has ever had, highlighted by an MVP trophy and three Gold Gloves. Mauer won three batting titles in four seasons while every other catcher to ever play have won a total of four. The past few seasons have seen Mauer’s career and Hall of Fame chances decline rapidly. How did we get here?
First off, Mauer has moved to playing first base full-time. That is not unique among catchers, but players are still expected to produce offensively. Since the beginning of 2014, Mauer has hit 30 home runs, batted .270, and has an OPS+ of 103. That is average production and below average power that the Twins are spending $23 million for each year. The results? The Twins have lost over 90 games five times since 2011.
Mauer only has one year left on his contract, and he may retire after his 15th season. His nagging head injuries are likely to blame for his decline, and voters may be sympathetic. The argument in favor of Mauer is that he will retire with over a .300 batting average with a decade as a catcher. Those are valid points and may prove true, but I can’t help but think that he has vanished from the national discourse for too long. Anecdotally, as a White Sox fan that has attended a lot of Twins games, Mauer’s name does not get a reaction from the crowd that future Hall of Famers usually do. I believe Mauer will stay on the ballot for a number of years, but without a few more All-Star caliber seasons, I believe he misses out. Gary Carter waited until his sixth year on the ballot to get inducted in 2003, and his level of production as a full-time catcher extended much longer than Mauer’s.
Buster Posey (40%)
Joe Mauer has taught me to temper my expectations for 30 year-old catchers. Consider Mauer after his age-30 season and Posey today, halfway through his age-30 campaign.
Posey has a few advantages over Mauer. He is a well-known face of the league, has won three World Series, plans to keep catching, and has avoided the chronic injuries that dogged Mauer.
His 2017 numbers put him in the thick of a crowded MVP race and in pursuit of a second batting title. I think he will have a better chance than Mauer or Molina if he can string together just a few more elite seasons.
Salvador Perez (25%)
Perez is only 27 years old has been easily the best catcher in the American League for the 2010s. His resume through age-27 is much more appealing than Molina’s at that point. (100 v 82 OPS+, 18.7 vs 11.3 WAR). He already has four Gold Gloves, five All-Star game starts, and a World Series MVP trophy to his name, and has shown more power than the other three catchers discussed.
Having said all that, it is a fact that catchers do not age well, and that candidates with more complete resumes will still face a high level of scrutiny before the voters.
Perez needs to keep his average around .290 and flirt with a few 30-home run reasons to solidify his chances. It’s still a long way to go, but he’s not as far behind as you may think. His 2017 provides some optimism. He is well on pace to set career highs in HRs, RBIs, OPS, and has added over 40 points to his batting average over 2016.
For decades the role of starting pitchers has been evolving, and it is unclear if the BBWAA has yet to recognize or accept that changing role. Take for example, that only six starting pitchers have been inducted since Nolan Ryan. They are Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Bert Blyleven. You would be hard pressed to find comparisons among today’s non-Kershaw pitchers.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s not easy to be inducted as a starter. Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling have very legitimate arguments for induction but have struggled to get past 50% in their first few years on the ballot. This high bar means that we need to be skeptical of a number of great starters’ chances. Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Adam Wainwright, Johnny Cueto have had solid careers and may gain marginal support but approaching the 75% threshold is highly unlikely.
Max Scherzer (55%)
Back in 2014, I stupidly wrote off Scherzer’s chances at Cooperstown. I thought that his breakthrough had simply come too late, and that his age would likely prevent him from seeing more than two or three more elite seasons. Now, in 2017 I have to admit I’m impressed. From 2013 to now, he is 84–32 with a 2.82 ERA, a 145 ERA+, and an average of 278 strikeouts per 162 games. Max won his second Cy Young last season and has finished in the top-5 for four years straight. Earlier this season he became the 3rd fastest to reach 2,000 strikeouts.
Scherzer is on pace to strike out over 300, lead the league in WHIP, and finish in the top-2 in Cy Young voting this season. If Scherzer can win his third in 2017, and it seems like it will be him or Kershaw, that puts him in a good spot. As Bret Saberhagen and Denny McLain have proven, 2 Cy Youngs does not guarantee membership in the Hall of Fame.
His prime has been unquestionably HOF-quality. I believe he needs to have three more high quality seasons to get in to Cooperstown. A career with about 200 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, and 2+ Cy Youngs will make a convincing case. At age-32 there is a small margin for error, and in this age of steep declines and injuries, I am not positive he can pull it off. But based on Scherzer’s determination/craziness I’ll give him the edge.
Felix Hernandez (41%)
In 2014, I gave King Felix a 70% chance of being a Hall of Famer. He was en route to a second ERA title, and another runner-up finish in Cy Young voting to go along with his 2010 award. One of the reasons I was so confident because there were “no signs of slowing down” at age 28. That has since changed. 2015 — despite earning Felix his 6th All-Star game appearance- was his worst season since 2006. In 2016, Felix put up his worst ERA in a decade and started to show signs of declining durability and velocity. And at the 2017 All-Star break Hernandez has only thrown 50 average innings.
At this point Felix being 31 is only partially comforting. His velocity has been in steady decline and he has already thrown over 2,400 innings. It is difficult to predict Felix’ future. He is young enough to remodel himself as a finesse pitcher, or to regain his strength for a surprising comeback. Or, he continues to slide in to mediocrity. He has a chance to get to 200 wins, possibly 3,000 strikeouts, and 7 top-10 Cy Young finishes. His career to this point is valuable enough to earn at least a few years on the ballot.
Recency bias may be harming my ability to look objectively at Hernandez’ case. The decline in production is concerning, but I give him a slight edge over Verlander because he has more time to figure it out.
Justin Verlander (40%)
Verlander’s 2016 season breathed life back in to his Hall of Fame candidacy. After a dismal 2014 and an injury shortened 2015, Verlander won his 4th strikeout title, led the league in WHIP, and finished second in Cy Young voting. That was the type of season Verlander needed to give legitimacy to his eventual case. His peak from 2009 to 2012 was as good as any, highlighted by an MVP season in 2011. He has shown little consistency throughout his career, yet he has more top-10 Cy Young finishes than any other active pitcher.
He is already 34 years old, and through the first half of 2017 he appears to have reverted back to being an overpaid former ace. In order to make it to Cooperstown, Verlander will likely need three above average seasons, adding about 10 WAR to his total. That career would be similar to Roy Halladay’s, likely the next starter inducted. But, time may be running out. Halladay pitched 2531 innings through age 34, and retired only 38 starts later. Verlander, on pace to pass 2500 innings this season, better hope for more longevity.
Chris Sale: (35%)
At 28, the ace has a great chance to make it to Cooperstown. He trails only Clayton Kershaw among active pitchers in ERA and ERA+, and is the all-time leader in strikeouts to walks ratio (SO/W) ratio. He has finished in the top-6 in Cy Young voting five seasons in a row and been named to the All-Star team six times consecutively.
He has yet to have a signature season, but 2017 seems to be his best chance. He is on pace for 300 strikeouts, leads the league in ERA, FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching attempts to capture runs that pitchers are directly responsible for using home runs, walks, and strikeouts), and is receiving the national notoriety of playing for a contending team for the first time in his young career.
He may win the coveted Cy Young award, near-prerequisite to Hall of Fame consideration. If his production continues, or elevates as Scherzer’s did at age 28, his status as the best American League starter of the decade will be difficult to deny among voters.
Madison Bumgarner (25%)
This would be a more fun case to discuss if Bumgarner hadn’t decided to fall off a dirt bike and miss two months of the 2017 season. In 2016, he won his 100th game, set career highs in innings pitched, ERA, strikeouts, ERA+, and finished 4th in Cy Young voting. It was the best season of his career, and at age 27 he is in the middle of his prime.
The overwhelming focus of his eventual HOF candidacy will be on his playoff heroics. This is not a new argument for HOF voters. Recent candidate Jack Morris had a very solid career, but at the end of the day he stayed on the ballot for fifteen years on the merits of a single performance (His 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series). Bumgarner is 8–3 in 14 playoff starts, and has given up one measly run in 36 World Series innings to go along with 4 wins, a save, and 3 rings. Only Christy Mathewson, Bob Gibson, and Sandy Koufax could make an argument for better playoff track records.
His overall production trails Sale and Kershaw, but still has plenty of time to craft an appealing resume for voters.
Zack Greinke (25%)
Active pitchers have reached 200 ERA+ in a season three times. That means that the ERA is less than half of the league average, accounting for park factors, and has been a historically elusive benchmark. Greinke has achieved that number twice, and those 2009 and 2015 seasons are his strongest argument in favor of induction. Those 2 seasons have yielded nearly 40% of his career WAR, a Cy Young award, and a $206 million contract.
Top-heavy resumes are not viewed favorably by the BBWAA. Bret Saberhagen won 2 Cy Youngs and had three seasons (1985, 1986, and 1989) that amounted to over a third of his career WAR. His lifetime WAR of 59.2 just barely exceeds Greinke’s, and he was only on the HOF ballot for one year.
Arizona offered Greinke the massive contract in 2015 believing that his skillset would age well. At this point his resume is not HOF-quality, but his 2017 is off to a good start (11–4, 2.86 ERA). The next 4 years need to put Greinke past 210 wins, raise his ERA+ above 125 and garner a number of Cy Young award votes. His dud of a 2016 season gives me doubts that he can maintain that staying power.
CC Sabathia (20%)
At this point in Sabathia’s career we can view his resume as a finished product. He is 36 years old and in his last year of his contract. It is unknown if he will retire.
Sabathia won a Cy Young, finished in the top-5 five times, and was the ace on a World Series-winning Yankees team. He also willed the Brewers to the 2008 playoffs, when he finished in 6th in MVP voting with only 17 games in the National League. Those are impressive feats, and he has compiled 230 wins and over 2,700 strikeouts.
His 2017 season is his best since 2012. His career 60.5 WAR puts him on bubble among past inductions, however his career ERA of 3.70 would be highest among BBWAA selections. That statistic, and similarly mediocre peripherals are damning in the eyes of voters. The Hall of Very Good will have to do for Sabathia, despite his inspiring career comeback in the fight against alcoholism.
Relief Pitchers are a difficult position to predict HOF probability because of the small sample size and the ongoing evolution of the role. There are only five relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame, one of whom was a starter for a large part of his career. Most relievers that are in consideration for induction are strictly closers that save a large number of games. Saves are losing their luster in today’s statistical community, but that has yet to translate in to changes in voting behavior.
Voters have high expectations for relievers. These pitchers need to show flashes of unquestioned dominance, but also show staying power with elite production for over a decade.
Craig Kimbrel (25%)
Kimbrel has already led the league in saves more times than Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, or Lee Smith and is on pace to do the same in 2017. His 280 saves by the age of 29 is the second-most of all-time, behind only Francisco Rodriguez. Through age 29, Kimbrel also has the highest ERA+ (218) and lowest ERA (1.81) of any relief pitcher to appear in over 200 games. Simply put, Kimbrel is the best relief pitcher through age 29 ever.
In 2017, Kimbrel is continuing to dominate and will warrant Cy Young consideration once again. If Kimbrel maintains this level of performance for a few more seasons he will make a great case. The only issue with his candidacy is somewhat out of his hands. To this point, Kimbrel has pitched less than an inning per appearance, and voters will need to come to grips with the specialized use of the modern starter. If they don’t, then even the best in the game will be left on the outside looking in.
Francisco Rodriguez (10%)
Before Kimbrel, K-Rod was arguably the best young reliever of all-time, highlighted by his record setting 62 save season in 2008 that was good for a third place Cy Young finish (His 3rd and final top-5 finish). Rodriguez has also shown staying power. K-Rod saved 44 games last year, and was selected as in All-Star in 2015 at age 33. This combination has Rodriguez as the active leader in saves at 437. That impressive sum is good for fourth all-time, but that does not guarantee anything in front of the BBWAA. Lee Smith held the all-time record for 13 years, but received over 50% of the vote only once. Rodriguez’ ratio numbers (per-inning or per-game) are better than Smith, and comparable to Trevor Hoffman’s. His ERA+ is 147 to Hoffman’s 141. However the advanced or ratio stats are not always recognized by voters. Billy Wagner has a better ERA+, WHIP, SO/9, and SO/BB than both Hoffman and Rodriguez but has barely exceeded 10% of votes in his first 2 years on the ballot.
Ultimately, the issue voters will have with the induction of any of these players is that they have barely played in relation to other members. Rodriguez, Wagner or Hoffman will have fewer innings pitched than any inductee with the exception of Satchel Paige (not exactly a useful comparison, Paige was 42 when he debuted in the MLB). I can’t see Rodriguez having any more success than Lee Smith, and his recent release from the Nationals does not bode well for improving his case.
Kenley Jansen (10%), Aroldis Chapman (5%)
Each of these pitchers closely trail Kimbrel in their dominance through age 29. Their ERA, ERA+, and SO/9 numbers each rank in the top-10. If voters begin to ignore saves, that would improve their chances. Jansen and Chapman have both never led the league. The reasoning is illogical, but the ratio statistics haven’t got the voters’ blood pumping, especially with the low innings pitched numbers. There is no reason to expect that these three will have a better chance than Kimbrel at induction. Chapman’s domestic abuse history and poor 2017 numbers puts him slightly behind Jansen.
Thanks for reading Part I, check out Part II for infielders and outfielders.