And just in time for Opening Day, I’m covering the follow up to the last article and looking at the pitchers’ side of things. Once again, I’ll be using last year’s numbers to keep things simple. My description from last time: Essentially, I’m looking at how many Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) all Hall of Fame hitters had accumulated at each age and picked the median. Then, to give some context, I found what percentage of players at that mark or higher went on to be inducted into Cooperstown (accounting for players still on the ballot and such). This isn’t to say these players will or won’t make Cooperstown; by definition, half of all Hall of Famers didn’t. And hitting these marks is no guarantee; players may drop off, or they may not and Hall voters may not choose to recognize them anyway. This is just to get a rough guide to what a Hall of Fame career might look like, and to see who is on pace.
Compared to the Future Hitters article, the Future Pitchers Hall of Fame article is always less fun to cover. Part of that is the greater unpredictability of pitchers; with hitters, you can follow along as a guy keeps up with the numbers, but a pitcher might fall of the face of the earth or get injured and see his chances crash and burn. But more of it is that the Hall is much stricter with regards to pitchers, so it’s harder to dream on guys. The “Hall Pace” that I use moves up extremely aggressively, and it’s almost impossible for all but the best two or three pitchers from a generation to match that.
I wrote more about it a few years ago, and that article is still good if you want the full details. But the general point is the Hall voters have no idea what to look for to induct most pitchers. They know the most obvious ones, but they don’t realize that there are also plenty of pitchers in the Hall of Fame already below the median, and have more or less stopped inducting pitchers of that caliber. That would be less of a problem if there were a bunch of over-the-median pitchers they forgot to induct and they were just now going back to get them, but that’s not the case; every pitcher above the median WAR is either in or still on the ballot. Being below that gets you zero consideration. It’s a big part of the reason post-deadball-era pitchers are underrepresented.
But let’s ignore that problem for now; I’ll come back to it another time (possibly next time, even). For now, let’s focus on who is on pace.
Age 20: 1.3 WAR, 17.50% of players inducted
Only two 20-year-olds pitched in the Majors this year, and both of them were relievers. Of course, we might as well mention them, since pitching in the Majors at this age is still pretty darn impressive. There was Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna with 1.7 Wins Above Replacement, and Blue Jay-turned-Rockie Miguel Castro was worth -0.3 WAR.
Age 21: 2.4 WAR, 11.36%
There were only two more pitchers in the league last year to pitch at this age. Lance McCullers of the Astros made the cut on the dot in 22 starts, while Luis Severino of the Yankees fell 0.5 WAR short in about half as many starts and innings. Both look to be major pieces of their rotation this year.
Age 22: 4.8 WAR, 16.90%
Even though he’s a three-year veteran, Jose Fernandez leads the pack here. Even missing an entire season’s worth of games hasn’t stopped him, as he’s been worth 8.9 WAR. That means that he should hopefully reach the ag-24 benchmark this year, and possibly the age-25 one. That type of cushion is impressive, even if it doesn’t build his chances up much more than just making this cut-off
No other pitchers made this mark, but there are a whole bunch that could be on pace next year if everything goes right. There’s Aaron Sanchez with 3.2 WAR, then Eduardo Rodriguez with 2.5, Taijuan Walker with 2.2, and Noah Syndergaard with 2.1
Age 23: 6.5 WAR, 15.38%
No 23-year-old pitchers made it to 6.5 Wins Above Replacement this year, but there are two were close. Both played for the Cardinals and made the All-Star team, as well. Michael Wacha fell half a win short, while Carlos Martinez turned in a strong first year in the rotation to the tune of 4.0 WAR (giving him a career total of 3.9, given his rough bullpen outings in the two prior seasons).
Age 24: 9.6 WAR, 15.05%
No pitcher this age has done this well so far, but there are a number within spitting distance. A former Cardinal leads the way here, to go with Wacha and Martinez a section ago: Shelby Miller’s All-Star season last year moved him up to 9.1 WAR on the season. Immediately following him on the rankings are two former Braves teammates. Current Atlanta ace Julio Teheran has posted 8.5 WAR in his career, while current Dodger Alex Wood sits at 7.1 WAR. Gerrit Cole, who finished fourth in the Cy Young voting last year, also has 7.0 WAR.
Age 25: 12.25 WAR, 16.67%
I feel like it’s easy to forget that Madison Bumgarner is a 25-year-old, seven-year veteran. I feel like I usually remember one fact or the other at a single time. He started really early, and it kind of blows my mind. That early start, combined with his solid last few years, has given him 20.2 career WAR so far; while sounds like it should set him up for the next few seasons, it only gets him through next year. The median marker sort of lurches and jumps the next few seasons, going from a 2.7 increase here to 5.9 next year, then 6.4, then 2.9, then 7.1, then 3.7… I have no explanation for why this happens, it just does, and the major takeaway is that a pitcher basically just needs to mix a couple of strong years into their mid-to-late-20s. MadBum looks well set up to do just that.
Sonny Gray is our first runner-up, but he only has 10.3 WAR. That makes for a big gap to make up this year, although he finished third in Cy Young voting last season, so he has the talent to do it. I just don’t think I’d bet on any one pitcher to have an 8-WAR season. Check back in a year, though.
Age 26: 18.15 WAR, 26.79%
Speaking of 2015 AL Cy Young voting, here we have the guy that finished behind Gray last year. Chicago’s Chris Sale rode his fourth All-Star season (in four seasons starting, nonetheless) to just over 26 Wins (26.2, to be exact). And just like with Bumgarner, that huge 8-WAR lead on the pace sets him up through…this season. He’s still almost a full win and a half shy of what he needs to make the following cut-off. The Hall Median moves aggressively; one late call-up or injury-wrecked season can spell doom for your chances. I feel like that’s the biggest realization for me, doing this piece.
No one else makes this mark, but there are a few good names worth mentioning. Sale’s teammate Jose Quintana has quietly built up 15.3 WAR in four seasons in Sale’s shadow. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey are a little further down at 14.0 and 11.2; like I said, an season-marring injury (or two) can really throw your pace off.
Age 27: 24.6 WAR, 39.47%
Okay, so, I know I’ve been ranting about how hard it is to hit some of these marks and even harder to build up a real cushion, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. Case-in-point: Clayton Kershaw. It probably won’t surprise you too much to learn that Kershaw is good to go through his age 32 season already. I don’t know about you, but I am personally just shocked, shocked, that someone with five All-Star selections, three Cy Young Awards, and two more top-3 finishes in eight seasons like Kerhsaw would have something like 47.2 WAR. Sarcasm aside, you have to figure that, if you were forced to bet on one active pitcher making the Hall eventually because you’re in some weird alternate dimension where that’s mandatory or something, Kershaw would have to be in the top three on your list of who to pick, if not number one overall. No one else his age is even close to him; Craig Kimbrel is next with only 13.4 WAR, which says a lot given that he’s not even a starter.
Age 28: 27.5 WAR, 41.03%
This is just a really weak group, for whatever reason. Lance Lynn will be out the entire season, and there’s still a good chance he holds onto his title here despite only having 11.8 Wins. Derek Holland might pass him since he’s at 9.5, but the rest of the field almost certainly won’t catch him.
Age 29: 34.6 WAR, 57.14%
Immediately following those weak-outside-of-Kershaw years, we suddenly have a crush of talent in this group alone, including four recent Cy Young winners and several more top-finishes in that race. Of course, it’s difficult that anyone other than Felix Hernandez is the leader of the group. Yeah, he “only” has one Cy Young Award, but he’s had some darn good seasons outside of that. King Felix has amassed 49.8 WAR, and he doesn’t even turn 30 until April 8th. No other active player has reached that high a total by his age, and only Kershaw has a realistic chance to match it right now. This is among the upper echelons of career-starts for pitchers.
No one can match up to Felix, but that’s a tall order. And while no one else has the magical 34.6, there are a few interesting names worth mentioning. David Price is the only one with a chance to get back on the HoF-median pace. The 2012 AL Cy Young winner has 29.2 WAR, so he’s not likely to catch up this year. But a few good seasons could get him there in a few years.
While no one else has a realistic plan to get to the Hall median, it’s worth pointing out just how many good pitchers there are here: most notably, Johnny Cueto has 25.9 WAR, Jordan Zimmermann has 20.2, Jake Arrieta has 15.1, and Corey Kluber has 12.4
Age 30: 38.3 WAR, 57.14%
No 30-year-olds have reached the Hall median yet, and the top two by WAR are in a virtual tie. Nominally in the lead is Matt Cain, who has been injured and ineffectual for a few years now, but who stood at 31.8 WAR just three years ago at this time. You know, in case you needed a reminder that pitching is a cruel mistress, and that pitchers can lose their stuff at any time with not even a moment’s notice. On the other hand, there’s Max Scherzer, with 31.1 WAR at the same age. Three years ago at this time, in contrast, Scherzer stood at 11.3 WAR, with 4.2 of that coming from the previous season. You know, in case you were worried that we might be figuring these things out.
My instinct is that pitchers with good stuff who have made it to this age without nagging injuries and with recent success are safer bets to stay good going forward, and anecdotally, there’s some support for that (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Randy Johnson). That bodes well for Scherzer, if it is true. I still wouldn’t put any money on it, though, because pitchers don’t make any sense.
Age 31: 42.4 WAR, 61.54%
Finally, we have our first (and what will be our only) season with more than one player over the Hall median marker. Zack Greinke slots in between King Felix and Kershaw, with 48.6 WAR to his name. Baseball-Reference’s calculations have him earning it in a very clustered way, with 19.7 of it coming from his 2009 and 2015 campaigns (Fangraph’s version gives him a much more level curve to his seasons). I have no idea if that affects how the BBWAA will view his career when he comes up for induction, but I think it’s interesting enough to mention here.
Next, we’ve got Cole Hamels. Hamels has been worth 44.8 WAR so far, but looking over his B-R page, he seems like he’s been underrated so far. He’s managed that total despite only making three All-Star games, and never placing higher than fifth in Cy Young voting. He hasn’t reached as high of peaks that some of the other players we’ve covered here have, but he’s been much more steady. There have only been two seasons since his rookie year in 2006 that he hasn’t reached 200 innings, and one of those was 2007, when he made an All-Star game anyway. Hopefully, he can withstand the Ballpark in Arlington going forward.
The only other 31-year-old with more WAR than years is Jon Lester. Lester sits at 35.7 Wins Above Replacement, so he’s probably not making it to 45 next year, but he sure as hell stands a better chance of it than Anibal Sanchez, Scott Kazmir, or Ubaldo Jimenez. He’d be in a much better position if it weren’t for that weird dip in performance back in 2012.
Age 32: 45.5 WAR, 61.54%
In case you needed another example of how relentless this total climbs: remember how unstoppable Justin Verlander was a few years ago? Including that 2011 season that saw him win not just the Cy Young, but the MVP as well? And then he had a rough 2014 and start to 2015. It basically amounted to just a one-and-a-half year slump, as he rebounded to a 2.80 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and a 95/21 K/BB ratio in the second half. And that strong rebound, combined with his fantastic eight-season start to his career added up to…43.9 WAR. Yep, he’s no longer on pace, and he needs a 7.6-win season to get there. If he’s back to being THE Justin Verlander for a while longer, he can make it, but he’s at a crucial age.
Jered Weaver is the only other 32-year-old of note, with 36.7, but if he’s lost as much velocity as he’s rumored to, things are going to be very difficult for him going forward.
Age 33: 51.5 WAR, 84.21%
The top guy here is Adam Wainwright, and while I’m a huge Cardinals and Waino fan, I’m just going to throw out that it doesn’t bode well for a guy’s career numbers when he gets a starting gig at 25 and goes on to miss more or less two full seasons to various injuries. Wainwright has 33.4 WAR so far, but maybe a retired number is in the cards (pun intended) for him.
Age 34: 55.5 WAR, 94.12%
It’s easy to forget just how good CC Sabathia was at his peak, given how rough his last three seasons have been (424.1 IP, 4.81 ERA, 83 ERA+, 1.40 WHIP, 0.8 WAR). Despite all of that, he’s still at 54.9 career Wins, just 0.6 shy of where he’d need to be to match the Hall median. He lost the entirety of his 12.5 WAR buffer from three seasons ago. I’m hoping he has a few more good seasons in him still. Jake Peavy is next on this list, all the way down at 38.7 WAR.
Age 35: 59.7 WAR, 100%
There’s no one here. Josh Beckett leads the way for all 35-year-old players, and he retired last year. The active leader in WAR is reliever Brad Ziegler with 11.9.
I don’t usually go over age-35, because at this point, the leaderboard by age starts to look a lot like the overall active leaderboard. For instance, on the hitters’ side of things, I wound up omitting guys like Alex Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre, Carlos Beltran, Chase Utley, Ichiro Suzuki, David Ortiz… you know, the elder statesmen of the game. But that’s just not really the case on the pitchers’ side of things. The only pitchers over 30 with more than 30 WAR that I didn’t mention are John Lackey (34.4 at 36) and Bartolo Colon (46.1 at 42). I’m not sure how much of this is just a slightly abnormal lull or if this is just what happens with older pitchers, but I feel like it’s much more desolate than normal for the upper ages. I hope this isn’t the new normal, but we’ll see.
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