Who’s going to Cooperstown? Part II
A closer look at the infielders & outfielders pursuing immortality
Welcome back! For those of you that missed out on Part I, please check it out. Quick refresher: players with 50% or higher will make the Hall of Fame, those with lower have work to do. Let’s get to it.
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.
Joey Votto (60%)
Joey Votto’s Hall of Fame case relies on his historically great slash numbers. Only five players have ever exceeded his current .312 batting average, .425 on-base percentage, and .541 slugging percentage for their careers. Their names? Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, and Rogers Hornsby.
Ruth. Gehrig. Foxx. Williams. Hornsby.
Inclusion on a list that exclusive can hardly be a fluke. When we account for changes in offensive environment over different eras, Joey Votto’s career 158 OPS+ places him 18th all-time. The only modern- era players with a higher OPS+ to miss out on the Hall of Fame have steroid suspicion or were banned for gambling. In an era where the role of on-base percentage is ascendant, Votto has led the league five times. Only seven players have led the league more and, with the exception of Barry Bonds, each is in the Hall.
Those numbers are impressive, yet do not guarantee his induction. It is still a fact that voters tend to favor traditional counting stats, and Votto hasn’t fit that bill for much of his career. He has only exceeded 30 home runs once and only has 240 lifetime home runs and 781 RBIs. A cautionary comparison could be to Dick Allen, a player whose 156 OPS+ and MVP trophy were not enough to overcome a middling 351 home runs, 1848 hits, and 1119 RBIs.
But Votto is in his age-33 season and has yet to slow down. His league-leading 26 home runs in 2017 puts him well on pace to set a career high. He has been a better second half-player in his career, especially in 2016 when he batted .408(!!!) after the break. If he can approach that performance again, his chances at a second MVP and punching his ticket to Cooperstown are high.
Paul Goldschmidt (35%)
Goldschmidt’s case is not all that dissimilar to Votto’s. He is one of only 22 players to have a slash line of .300/.400/.500 in their careers. He has finished as an MVP runner-up twice, won 2 Gold Gloves, and even stole 32 bases in a season. At age 29 Goldschmidt still needs a lot of help. He has 161 home runs, 948 hits, and 33.5 career WAR. His fairly anonymous reputation as a result of playing in Arizona for mediocre teams does not help.
2017 may be exactly what the doctor ordered for Goldschmidt. He was the consensus first-half NL MVP, and his 21/71/.315 has helped put the Diamondbacks in a comfortable wild-card lead. His national profile is growing, and voters should start paying attention. The next five seasons will need to be elite for him to be inducted.
Anthony Rizzo (25%), Freddie Freeman (24%)
Both of these 27-year old first baseman’s careers will be inextricably linked to the success of the rebuilding efforts they serve as cornerstones for. I was working at Wrigley Field the day Rizzo made his Cubs debut, and there was a tangible sense of hope in the air that he could usher the team out of an era where Darwin Barney was the most valuable player on the roster. And sure enough, four seasons later Rizzo is the face of the franchise that ended the most iconic drought in sports history. It is impossible to quantify the legacy that the 2016 Cubs have left and Rizzo is the central figure of that.
Freeman, on the other hand, tasted the playoffs early on in his career and was maintained as his franchise entered a rebuild. His talent gave the Braves executives a major asset to schedule their window for competing, and to use as propaganda to fleece the taxpayers of Cobb County by opening a new stadium. If the young Braves return to contending, Freeman will have a reputation for bridging eras for Atlanta.
Numbers-wise, nothing jumps off for either player to this point. Rizzo has a concerning lifetime batting average of .266, while Freeman has hit over 23 home runs once. Both are multiple time All-Stars with top-10 MVP finishes. Rizzo is the bigger star and will spend the rest of his career as a beloved figure of a potential dynasty. If he gets to 400 home runs and continues to contend for MVP trophies he will hard to keep out. Freeman, although less consistent, has more talent. His start to 2017 made him favorite for MVP before a wrist fracture. If the .341 average and 14 home runs in his first 37 games is an indication of future production, the next few seasons will put him in conversation with Harper, Bryant, and Arenado as best players in the NL.
Both have long ways to go, but I give a slight edge to Rizzo for his consistency and ring.
Robinson Cano (75%)
Cano has been a paragon of consistency for the better part of his career. Although he has never had a signature season, led the league in a major offensive category, or finished higher than 3rd in MVP voting his resume is quietly ensuring a trip to Cooperstown. He has finished in the top-10 in MVP voting six times in the last seven seasons, is one of two players to have 150+ hits and 50+ extra-base hits in his first twelve seasons, and has won two Gold Gloves. His 64.3 career WAR already has a good chance of putting him in. According to Bill James’ favorite toy method that predicts career totals based on age and recent performance, Cano has a 57% chance to reach 3,000 hits and a 58% chance to hit 400 home runs. If he reaches those milestones, he will be an easy first ballot selection.
One of Cano’s most impressive stats is his doubles totals. He has 493 in his career, good for 12th all-time for players before their age-35 season. Every player who hit more to that point is a member of the Hall of Fame, or will be inducted soon.
He is out of the spotlight that he enjoyed in the Bronx, but has proven his ability to be a franchise star in Seattle. He set career highs in home runs and total bases, with 7 WAR last year. This indicates to me that his production will continue, and will be a lock for the next version of this article.
Dustin Pedroia (55%)
In 2014 I compared Pedroia’s career to Craig Biggio’s as a roadmap for Pedroia’s induction. Biggio is the most recently inducted second baseman, and his career numbers compare more closely than those of other inductees Roberto Alomar or Ryne Sandberg. Let’s take a look at how they both have performed through the age-33 season.
There are a couple things to note here. First off: Pedroia has an issue with durability. It’s not serious enough to question his value, but it does sap potential for career totals that rival Biggio’s. When healthy, as he was last season, he is a star. He batted .318 and was good for over 5 WAR. One other advantage Biggio has over Pedroia is speed. Biggio stole over 400 bases, and Pedroia won’t steal 200. Although they have the same number of Gold Gloves, advanced stats peg Pedroia as superior and the best fielding second baseman in the game today.
Biggio played until he was 41 and ended with over 3,000 hits. Pedroia will be inducted if he gets there, but Bill James’ method only gives him a 12% of reaching that plateau. If Pedroia ends his career with over 2,500 hits as a career Red Sock with an MVP trophy and 2 World Series rings, it is hard to imagine that he will not gain induction.
Pedroia needs to stay relatively healthy, make another All-Star appearance or two, and continue to provide value on both sides of the ball for the duration of his contract that runs through 2021. I will give him a slight edge based on his old-school play, but it is no guarantee. Biggio had to wait until his third year on the ballot and I expect Pedroia to have to wait as well.
Ian Kinsler (15%)
As analytical as I try to be about players’ Hall of Fame chances, sometimes it just comes down to the Name Test. When you read Ian Kinsler what did you think? Hall of Fame? Most likely not. Is that unfair? Probably. But Kinsler has quietly put together a rather impressive career that does at least warrant consideration.
His career WAR is 54.7, including a streak of 4 straight 5+ win seasons running through 2016. He has hit over 200 home runs, won a Gold Glove, and received MVP votes in four seasons. Barring the continuation of this consistent production for 5 seasons in Beltre-esque fashion, the Name Test will relegate Kinsler to the Hall of the Pretty Good.
Chase Utley (30%)
Now Chase Utley? That name sounds like baseball. As a center piece of the Phillies resurgence of the late aughts, Utley benefits from national recognition and a World Series ring. Much like Kinsler, advanced stats think highly of Utley for his offense and defense. His lifetime WAR is 64.8, and includes a streak of five straight 7+ win seasons from 2005–2009 where he averaged 29/101/.301. Despite that production, Chase never finished higher than 7th in MVP voting and has never won a Gold Glove. (Quick note: Gold Gloves are subjective and often are awarded undeservedly, but it is a voting-based award and does provide some value when considering reputation in the game. Advanced fielding stats are not perfect, nor are they widely understood. BBWAA voters likely view them skeptically.)
Unfortunately Utley’s production effectively ceased after 2010. Since then he has batted over .280 once, has a high of 16 home runs, and has only played over 135 games twice. As a result, his counting stats leave a lot to be desired.
Utley’s role on the 2008 World Series team poses the question of recognizing players on World Series winning teams. In other sports, it is almost a prerequisite that a Hall of Famer is on the roster to win a championship. This does not carry over to baseball. In the past 35 seasons the 2005 White Sox, 2002 Angels, 1997 Marlins, 1988 Dodgers, and 1984 Tigers have won without representation in Cooperstown.
The 1984 Tigers offer two close player comparisons to Utley, shortstop Alan Trammell and second Baseman Lou Whitaker.
For their efforts? Whitaker was rewarded with 15 votes in his first ballot year, and was removed from consideration in 2002. Trammell hung around for fifteen years of voting, but only topped 40% in his 15th try. Utley may garner enough votes to stick on the ballot for a few years, but his lack of milestones and Gold Gloves will keep him out.
Jose Altuve (30%)
Once known only for his small stature and ability to hit singles, Altuve has developed in to one of the best players in baseball. His power has been improving each season, and 2017 is no different. He is on pace to set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+, WAR, and will likely lead the league in hits for the fourth season in a row.
Altuve is only 27, and already has a 37% to reach 3,000 hits. He also figures to benefit from being the leadoff hitter for the best offense in baseball. The presence of Carlos Correa and George Springer will allow Altuve to amass runs, hits, and national recognition for seasons to come. If Houston can win its first World Series in the next few seasons, Altuve will have been the face of three 100-game losing teams and the best team in franchise history within the same decade. There are not many voters that will be immune to the charm of that narrative.
Troy Tulowitzki (15%)
Unfortunately for Troy Tulowitzki, voters don’t vote on potential. He was once the best young shortstop in the game, a perennial MVP candidate, and a consecutive Gold Gove winner. He never quite entered the ranks of the game’s elite, a consequence of his long list of injuries. He has only played more than 140 games in a season three times. This not only limits his career totals, but likely robbed him of the 2014 NL MVP (21/52/.340/5.5 WAR through 91 games).
Tulo is no longer young, and he is no longer all that good. He has been below average offensively since being traded to Toronto, and has yet to show signs of consistent health. With no major milestones within reach, a prime that took place in hitting friendly-Denver (and splits to confirm he benefitted significantly), and little optimism for future production, Tulowitzki will have to settle for the Hall of What Could Have Been.
Andrelton Simmons (10%)
The only reason I bring up Simmons here is to address my optimism back in 2014. Back then, he was one season removed from setting the single season record for defensive WAR at age 23, and his poor hitting stats were comparable to a young Ozzie Smith. Simmons remains an elite defensive shortstop, however his wow factor and dominant defensive stats have slightly declined. A defense-first player has a small margin for error with voters, and Simmons has yet to prove he can contribute as a hitter.
His start to 2017 has been his best effort yet, but a .312 career on-base percentage with limited power and base stealing limits his chance to gain support. His offense still beats out Smith through age 27, but I am skeptical he can duplicate the Wizard’s iconic status. The emergence of other young fielding stars, particularly Francisco Lindor, has challenged Simmons’ monopoly on defensive value. But we’ll always have his 2013 season;
Nolan Arenado (25%)
At first glimpse, Arenado’s resume at 26 is as impressive as anyone not named Mike Trout. He plays a premium position, has won a Gold Glove in each of his four seasons in the league, and is the first player since fellow third baseman Mike Schmidt to lead the National League in both home runs and RBIs two years consecutively. (Cecil Fielder did it more recently in the AL, but that does not make for nearly as interesting a comparison now does it?)
That should put Arenado squarely in the conversation of best players in the game, yet he seems stuck out on the periphery of that discussion.
Although he may be working his way in to that conversation- it exposes the factor that may dog him for his whole career and when HOF votes are counted- the Coors effect. The young franchise has a small sample size of voting, but the early returns are not promising. Larry Walker has struggled to gain over 20% and only has three years of voting eligibility left, despite an MVP trophy, 7 Gold Gloves, 3 batting titles, and a lifetime WAR of 72.6. Todd Helton will debut on the ballot in 2019 with a solid resume, comparable to Walker’s. Both Walker’s and Helton’s primes happened to be in the heart of the steroid era, when no hitting environment has ever been as friendly as Coors Field. Their home/away splits bear out that discrepancy and it has damaged every Rockies’ reputation since.
Arenado has a few things working in his favor. He plays third base defensively as well as anyone in baseball, a talent that translates to any ball park. The Rockies have a young talented team, and currently sit atop the race for the second wild card berth. Arenado’s prominent role will elevate as the team continues to excel. Larry Walker and Todd Helton are facing ballot depth that has been unparalleled, and Arenado likely will face a less formidable list of candidates. At age 26 it is difficult to predict the next decade (see Tulowitzki, Troy), but he is on the right track.
David Wright (25%)
This isn’t gonna be fun to talk about. Just three short years ago, David Wright was chosen as the face of the MLB, albeit in controversial fashion. That selection was hard to argue with. After all, Wright had recently been named team captain and had been one of the best all-around players for almost a decade. He had a career average over .300, had a 30–30 season, won Gold Gloves, and was selected to seven All-Star games. In the middle of the 2014 season, I felt Wright had a good chance to end his career with respectable career totals, and that combined with his standing in the game would one day add up to induction.
Things could hardly have gone worse since that point. The writing was on the wall throughout 2014, when a recurring shoulder injury contributed to Wright’s worst season. Since the beginning of the 2015 season — limited by back, shoulder, and neck injuries — Wright has appeared in 75 games, hit 12 home runs, and batted .260. He has yet to play in 2017, and there is growing concern that Wright will never play again. Even if Wright does make it back to the field, there should be low expectations for him to play anywhere near the level he did before 2014. Those injuries are severe, and Wright is already 34 years old. He will have to rely on the voter’s sympathy to sniff induction, and I don’t believe his peak was quite great enough to outweigh the quick and tragic decline.
Evan Longoria (35%)
Like Wright, Longoria was once a young star, led his team to pennant contention, won Gold Gloves, and earned MVP consideration. His production has dropped off since his first three seasons, as symbolized by his lack of All-Star selections since 2010. (All-Star appearances are doubtlessly a flawed way to measure performance in a given season, but there is some correlation between HOF status and amount of All-Star selections. Over two thirds of players with eight selections or more are in the Hall of Fame)
Longoria has stayed healthy, and that gives him a better shot than Wright. His career value in WAR is 49, one win below Wright. Longoria ha a 58% of reaching 400 home runs and 16% of reaching 500. Reaching the former milestone will certainly translate in to votes from the BBWAA as a third baseman. However his career batting average is .271, and he hasn’t had an on-base percentage over .330 since 2013. He has been outside of the national spotlight for too long, and doesn’t have the injury defense that Wright possesses.
Hitting those milestones, returning to All-Star games, receiving MVP votes are all needed to improve his case. One wild card voters could consider is that Longoria is by far the greatest player in franchise history. If voters are itching to see a Rays hat in Cooperstown, Longoria is the only possible selection.
Carlos Beltran (55%)
Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for Carlos Beltran’s candidacy. He is the last remaining active player from my favorite computer game growing up, Backyard Baseball 2001.
(Fun fact: 8 players from that game have already been inducted (Cal Ripken Jr., Ivan Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, Barry Larkin, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and Randy Johnson). Beltran is signed to a one-year contract and is in his 20th season. I expect this to be his last.
By now, you probably see that one of my favorite ways to predict induction is to find comparable players. In many cases it is difficult, and often times the similarity of careers have little correlation when it comes to votes. Beltran has such an apt comparable that it is impossible to ignore. See for yourselves:
Both were Rookies of the Year and played a majority of their careers in center field. Beltran appeared in nine All-Star games, Dawson in eight. Dawson is regarded as a better fielder, and he won an MVP for his revenge-fueled debut season in Chicago in 1987. They are two of the five members of the 400 HR, 300 SB club.
Despite Dawson’s impressive well-rounded career, voters waited until his 9th year to vote him in. Beltran’s support may suffer for the lack of a signature season, and the fact that he never led the league in a major category. He will likely fall short of the automatic milestones of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. He has been productive everywhere he’s played and his career totals show that.
If this season is his last, Beltran has a rare opportunity to go out on top. He is in the enviable position of the veteran presence on one of the best teams in baseball. If his performance is anywhere similar to his first stint in Houston (8 home runs, 14 RBIs, .434 AVG in 12 playoff games) he will walk in to the Hall of Fame. Even if he is simply a modest contributor and veteran presence on the first Astros team to win a World Series and rides off to the sunset, voters will have that version of Beltran etched in their minds. He will have to wait on the ballot for a few years, but I believe his longevity and all-around skillset will place him in Cooperstown, just like it did for Dawson.
Andrew McCutchen (25%)
In 2014, McCutchen was a national star who had led one of the league’s sad-sack franchises to the playoffs as a perennial MVP candidate entering his prime. That narrative took a dire turn during the 2016 campaign. He began the season with four straight top-5 MVP finishes in a row under his belt, high expectations coming off a 98-win season, and looming speculation of his value in free agency following 2018. McCutchen responded with the worst season of his career, an ongoing controversy about playing corner outfield position, and the Pirates finished below .500. He was dangled in the trade market all offseason, but Pittsburgh couldn’t find any suitors. Hall of Famers are not dangled on the trade market with up to two years of service remaining at age 30 to not find any suitors.
He has relatively bounced back in 2017, but the window likely has closed. His numbers were never dominant, so his margin for error was always slim. His speed has vanished, his defensive value is in doubt, and his power has seemingly plateaued.
McCutchen will need to recreate himself as a corner outfielder or designated hitter, and hope to hang around for a while, like Beltran. Bill James’ favorite toy model gives McCutchen an 11% of reaching 3,000 hits, with 2,345 being the most likely scenario. At age 30 it will be a difficult uphill battle.
Giancarlo Stanton (35%)
Stanton’s Hall of Fame chances are straight forward: keep hitting home runs and he will get in. The power is awe-inspiring, and he is only 27 years old. PECOTA projects that Stanton will hit 473 home runs through his age-36 season (PECOTA only predicts ten years out), and Bill James gives him a 29% chance at 500. If Stanton gets to 500 there is little doubt he will get in.
To this point, however Stanton has yet to live up to expectations. He has yet to hit 40 home runs in a season and has struggled to hit above .270.
Leading the league in home runs a few times, winning an MVP trophy, and making the playoffs are all within reach and will be be useful come voting time. 2017 is a good start, he leads the league with 26 homers and has a puncher’s chance at an MVP award.
Ryan Braun (0%)
I don’t want to waste much time here. Braun tested positive for PEDs after the rules were clearly in place, lied about it, got off on a technicality, and then acted like an asshole about it. He even managed to make Aaron Rodgers a sympathetic character, a crime no voter should forgive.
If that episode didn’t happen, Braun would have an outside chance at induction. He won an MVP trophy, has a .300 career average, and will join the 200/200 club this season. He will likely end up with respectable career totals in hits, home runs, and stolen bases. If you want a sense for how little respect he has among writers; he finished 23rd in MVP voting last year despite being a big name, hitting 30 home runs, and batting .305. He will not be a Hall of Famer by way of the writers, veterans’ committee, or any other method.
Jason Heyward (5%)
If Heyward makes Cooperstown he will be setting a new precedent. The consideration here is based on the fact that he has accrued over 34 WAR and is amazingly only in his age-27 season. Only 53 position players have accomplished that feat. (Granted, Heyward is 52nd in WAR on that list, but that sits between Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Andre Dawson).
Heyward has struggled mightily at the plate in Chicago, and his hitting was never that impressive in the first place. He hit 27 home runs once, has a career high average of .293 and an OPS+ of 131. The bulk of his value is defensive. He has won 4 Gold Gloves and has 12 defensive WAR for his career. As has been discussed with Andrelton Simmons, there are few examples of defensive-first players to get inducted without at least mediocre hitting and base running. Heyward should watch Torii Hunter’s candidacy very closely. Hunter was a better hitter, a flashier fielder, and a more popular player. By the time Heyward is on the ballot his candidacy will rely on the evolution of voters to appreciate advanced defense stats. And even then, he will be compared to all the great fielders that are stuck in the Hall of Very Good.
Or he could try hitting better. That would help.
Mike Trout (99%)
Did you think I forgot about Trout? Of course not.
In the last draft of this article I still had Trout as a lock. Then I started to think about all the things that could go wrong so early on in a player’s career. (I also didn’t want to end with Jason Heyward, to be perfectly honest.) It may be overly ambitious to give this high of a percentage to such a young player. But Mike Trout has been shattering norms his entire young career. What future would keep him from induction?
Let’s play this argument out: Trout has accrued 52 WAR, behind only Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb through their age-25 season. Trout still has half a season left, and if he returns to his early season form can pass both.
So conservatively, Trout is the third best age-25 position player in baseball history. If he were to perish in a terrible accident, the two-time MVP would certainly be inducted via special election. If he suffered a rare career-ending injury or disease, his short-lived production would be viewed longingly by voters. Now, most realistically Trout plays out an average-length career and his peak to this point should still insure induction. 50 WAR in a five-year stretch is historic at any point in a player’s career.
Predicting Trout’s future is a fool’s errand. If he battles injuries and is inconsistently great, his career will closely resemble Mickey Mantle’s. If he maintains consistency throughout his career, his starting point suggests the ability to comfortably exceed Hank Aaron. If he continues improving, comparisons to Willie Mays may prove inapt. We can only hope that Trout stays healthy and pushes the limits of baseball history.
And if he doesn’t, that’s why I hedged my bet with only 99%.
Thanks for reading,