This year is the fifth anniversary of my annual “Predicting Future Hall of Famers” project (see the past four years here), so I don’t know how much of an introduction is necessary. Let’s just jump right into the methodology refresher so that we can move on to the active players on pace, shall we?
Basically, I’m looking at how the Hall’s elected players (hitters today, pitchers next) have historically looked at each age en route to their eventual election into the Hall of Fame. I use Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference’s version, for the sake of research) due to its high correlation to Hall election, and look at how each hitter looked, career-total-wise, each year. I pick out the median as a baseline, then look at what percentage of players with the median WAR at that age eventually got into the Hall.
To put concrete numbers on this, say that there were 99 hiters in the Hall of Fame, and the 50th most WAR at the age of 28 was 30. I would then see how many total players in history had 30 WAR at 28, then take a percentage of players in the Hall out of total players (removing players still on the ballot or not yet eligible, as their status is still up in the air). So if there were 100 players with 30 WAR at 28, we’d say there was a 50% chance of a player at the Hall median for WAR at age 28 eventually getting elected. It’s a little simple and crude, but it’s a good visualization of how historic Hall of Fame careers have looked.
And of course, the standard disclaimers: this is based entirely on precedent, which is a fickle thing in Hall voting. Good, deserving players get snubbed all the time from Cooperstown. Other times they have to wait years before the Veterans Committee before they get in. On the flip side, by definition, half of the players in the Hall of Fame were below the median, so not hitting the mark is not a death sentence for their eventual enshrinement. This is just to pick out the strongest cases and assign rough odds.
Good, now, with all that out of the way, let’s see who all is absolutely, totally, 100% going to get elected on the first ballot 20 years from now:
Age 20: 0.55 WAR Median, 28.18% inducted
Technically speaking, the actual median is 0.0 WAR, as over 90 Hall of Fame hitters hadn’t debuted at 20 (fun fact: the latest debut for a Hall of Fame hitter is Jackie Robinson at 28). But for the 60-odd eventual members that were playing at this age (a pretty decent percentage, if we’re being honest), the midpoint was 0.55 career Wins. That doesn’t seem hard, but only just over 100 players ever have accomplished that. Sure, some were a confluence of flukes of merely above-average talent, opportunity, and good timing rather than superstar talent bursting forth, but a pretty good percentage still wound up elected (and if we count deserving snubs, it looks even better, but we can’t really account for that here).
Raul Mondesi Jr. was the only 20-year-old getting at-bats in 2016 and he didn’t come close to 0.55 WAR, but he’s young and might be getting significant playing time in 2017, so maybe he makes the age-21 mark.
Age 21: 2.3 WAR Median, 36.50% inducted
About two-thirds of Hall of Fame hitters have debuted by their age-21 season, and over a third of all hitters who reached the Hall median WAR for this age eventually got inducted. That’s not bad for predictive value, considering the guys at this age usually have at least a decade and a half of playing time ahead of them and two decades or more before they even make a Hall ballot.
Baseball has a wealth on young talent right now, and the youngest star at the moment is Carlos Correa. Already a two-year veteran, Correa has already been worth 10.1 Wins since his debut, setting him up to surpass his age bracket’s Hall median through at least 2018. He could easily tack on another year or two this year. Plus, several former top prospects who missed 2.3 WAR could make a run for the age-22 mark this year, including players like Andrew Benintendi, Nomar Mazara, and Yoan Moncada.
Age 22: 4.3 WAR Median, 36.41% inducted
This is where baseball’s absurd depth of young talent starts to become apparent. Four different players entering their age-23 start 2017 above the Hall of Fame median, including three starting shortstops (and all from teams that played in the Championship Series in 2016, at that!)
At 10.3 Wins, you’ve got Correa’s Rookie of the Year Runner-Up and likely long-term Cleveland centerpiece Francisco Lindor, who will hope to improve on his nearly-6-Win, Pennant-winning 2016. Immediately after him, you’ve got yet another Rookie of the Year in Dodgers’ shortstop Corey Seager, who finished third in MVP voting in his first full season and managed to build his WAR total to 7.9 (counting his 2015 call-up). Of course, his team lost the pennant to the eventual-champion Cubs, led by their own 7.6-Win, 23-year-old shortstop Addison Russell. So with Correa, that’s four 23-and-under shortstops who are on pace with most Hall of Famers in 2017.
And in addition to them, you’ve got Rougned Odor on the other side of second. However, it’s worth noting that he has the most playing time and lowest career value of the age-22 quartet at “only” 4.5, and he’s the only one of the four to not yet have a 3-Win (or greater) season, which he’ll need to do in 2017 to keep pace. After him, the misses have some interesting names like Byron Buxton (2.1) and Alex Bregman (1.8), who could be right in the mix of things with a break-out season.
Age 23: 7.7 WAR Median, 40.80% inducted
Five years ago when I started this project, the two players at the top of this level were still only nineteen but had already cleared the age-20 benchmark. And of course, both of them have already had single seasons of 7+ Wins, let alone careers worth 7 wins. On top of that, their ranks have doubled in the meantime.
Manny Machado has jumped back into the lead after falling into second last year. With his third 6+-WAR season in 2017 (and second in a row), he moved to 24.4 WAR for his career, which sets him up through 2019 at least. Given that players that hit the age-26 cutoff have a 52% chance of making the Hall of Fame, you have to figure that a 23-year-old at that level has an even better chance.
Trailing him is Beltway rival Bryce Harper, who built up a bit of a cushion with his 9.9 Win 2015 but fell back to earth some in 2017. Hopefully, he can pick the pace back up, but with 21.5 total WAR, he still has a buffer through the next three seasons as well.
Following them, it’s a pair of Red Sox. Mookie Betts more than doubled his career value with his 9.6 WAR 2016, bringing him to 17.6. Xander Bogaerts hasn’t even hit that for his career (he’s still at 8.9 Wins Above Replacement), but he still more than clears the 7.7-mark.
Then, you have a few interesting misses. The closest is Lindor’s teammate on the left side of the infield, Jose Ramirez, who moved to 7.2 WAR in 2015. Then you have a trio who just finished shortened rookie seasons that left them over 3 career WAR, Trea Turner, Gary Sanchez, and Trevor Story. None look like they can hit the 11.3 WAR goal for next year, but maybe they can catch up in a few years if they play at similar rates to this season.
Age 24: 11.3 WAR Median, 43.02% inducted
We have three more players here, meaning that there are 11 hitters entering their ages 23-25 seasons in 2017 who are on a Hall of Fame pace. That’s an incredible sum (and yet, we haven’t even hit the most crowded year yet).
Mike Trout is so far ahead of the curve that it’s hilarious. With 48.5 WAR, he’s less than a win shy of where he needs to be in 2024! He has more value to his name in his career than any active player under the age of 33. He could take the next decade off and still come back in a better position value-wise than a number of players who have made the Hall of Fame. And if he somehow manages to duplicate his insane 2016 MVP season, he sets himself up not only all the way through his age-35 season (which would be 2027), but also within 3 total WAR of the overall Hall of Fame hitter median value.
Compared to all of that, Christian Yelich and Kris Bryant almost feel like disappointments, and yet, they’re still roughly on a Hall of Fame pace. Yelich has mustered 13.8 WAR, while the other reigning MVP trails him by only 0.2 in over a seasons’ worth fewer games. Both look like they can easily clear the bar they need to in 2017, barring-injury. After them, it’s a significant drop to the nearest miss, Odubel Herrera, at 8.0 WAR.
Age 25: 16.05 WAR Median, 48.70% inducted
We’re back to our first one-player bracket since age-21, although as we’ll see, it’s only a temporary lull. Third baseman Nolan Arenado sits at 20.1 Wins, which means that, even if he has a lackluster 2017, he should still stay ahead of next year’s median. Another season like his last two will save his one-year safety net, though. After him, outfielders Ender Inciarte and Yasiel Puig would need to break out in a big way to hit the age-26 line, given that they sit tied at 12.7 WAR.
Age 26: 20.7 WAR Median, 52.05% inducted
And here, we have the mother lode. The last few years I’ve been doing this, this bunch has always had quite a few players, but somehow, they’ve only picked up guys as time moves on. That’s kind of shocking.
Even with a weak 2016, Jason Heyward is still set up through 2018 at least, thanks to some strong seasons in 2014 and 2015. Despite only adding 1.5 WAR in 2016, he still sits at 32.7 for his career. And, even given that, you have to figure two years is a reasonable amount of time for him to get back on track. He’ll probably be fine.
Giancarlo Stanton’s career has been pretty injury-plagued, but he’s been so incredible when he has played that he’s managed to get himself a year ahead of schedule anyway. With 27.5 WAR, though, he’ll need to try and stay healthy, because he doesn’t have quite as much time as Heyward to get it together. It’s been two years since he played more than 120 games in a season, and five since he played 150 or more.
Next up, we have a cluster of four players all separated by less than a single Win, with a pair of first basemen with nearly-identical career value leading the pack. Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo both had All-Star-level 2016's, and it brought them to 22.1 and 21.7 WAR, respectively, despite both being below the necessary WAR to make the median last year. Freeman has about a season of extra time on Rizzo, despite their similar numbers.
Next we’ve got yet another former Atlanta top prospect in Andrelton Simmons. The slick-fielding shortstop has overcome his weak bat to amass 21.5 WAR, once again staying just above what he needs to make the median. And finally, we’ve got another middle infielder, Jose Altuve, who like Rizzo and Freeman, just joined the club this year. Altuve rode his career best 7.7 WAR season to a 21.3 total. Despite standing at only 3.1 WAR when he was 23, Altuve has put together three straight great seasons to catapult himself right back into the conversation.
While no other 26-year-olds have the required WAR, it’s worth mentioning Salvador Perez here. While he only has 16.9 to his credit, catchers in general have lower WAR than other positions, due in part to less playing time. Given that, he’s in a lot better position than he would initially seem being on the outside looking in.
Age 27: 25.9 WAR Median, 56.72% inducted
I’m sorry to report that none of the remaining years will quite match the volume of age-26, or even ages-22 through -24. Especially not these next few groupings. No one age-27 has reached even 25 Wins. Elvis Andrus is at the top, finally dropping below the median for the first time. Thanks to an early start, he stayed above the line for a while, but eventually an early start to your career won’t cut it if you aren’t putting up All-Star-caliber seasons. At 24.1 career WAR, he’d need a 7.5-Win season just to get back on pace, or a little under twice his career single-season best. Starling Marte has a slightly better chance of pulling that off, but thanks to his late start (his first full season came at 24), he’s further behind, at only 21.8 WAR.
Age 28: 31.6 WAR Median, 64.17% inducted
Another age where no one has quite made it. Paul Goldschmidt is in first, and conceivably in striking distance. With 29.0 Wins, he would need a 7-Win season, but he’s done that twice before. He reminds me of a certain Reds first baseman (who I’ll cover shortly) who also got a late start, but slowly caught his way up. It could happen. Even if he doesn’t make it next year, two 5-Win seasons would work almost as well.
After Goldschmidt is former teammate Justin Upton. Once upon a time (three years ago), Upton was actually above the Hall median, but he’s been slipping further and further behind the last few years. A 10-WAR season in 2017 (he’s at 26.7) seems out of the question. Kyle Seager (24.3) is also likely too far behind the pace, unless he has a sustained, slightly-older peak than most players.
Age 29: 36.0 WAR Median, 70.64% inducted
Last year, I noted that Andrew McCutchen was not only above the Hall median, but that an All-Star-level 2016 could set him up for three more years. He, uhh…didn’t quite do so hot in real life; sorry if that was my fault. But, thanks to the buffer he had built up, he’s still all set for the time being, with 37.5 WAR. He needs to bounce back in 2017, though; an All-Star season would of course be best, but even a slightly-above-average season should buy him another year above the cut.
The only other candidate worth mentioning is Buster Posey. At 33.5 WAR, he isn’t at the median, but again, catchers usually deserve a bonus on top of their stated WAR, so you could probably call him “technically on pace” for the Hall, if you wanted. Surely, if he wasn’t a catcher, you could probably even put him in that category based on his postseason “intangibles” and all.
Age 30: 39.9 WAR Median, 71.96% inducted
It’s easy to miss how good Evan Longoria has been lately. It’s been seven years since his last All-Star appearance, but you could argue he has between two and four snubs in that time (at the very least, the two seasons where he finished top-10 in MVP voting without making the Midsummer Classic look strange in retrospect). That consistent greatness, coupled with his immediate skill when he burst onto the season years ago, have contributed to his 46.4 career WAR, meaning he’s technically set for 2017 already too. And another season like 2016 or ’15 or ’14 will keep him a year ahead of pace.
I do kind of wonder if his odds of making the Hall of Fame are actually 72%, though. For one thing, that drought of accolades is going to look weird when he retires, no matter how much he actually deserved something. Playing an undervalued position like third base won’t help. And of course, the fact that his first few seasons were the best might make voters regard him as someone who peaked early and fell apart, like Andruw Jones or Cesar Cedeno. Hopefully not, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Another third baseman trails Longoria, but it isn’t particularly close. Josh Donaldson has “only” 32.5 WAR to date in his career. But, of course, he also got a late start; he didn’t play more than 75 games in a season until he was 27, and he’s been worth 7 or more Wins every season since then. Maybe we shouldn’t rule him out yet.
Age 31: 44.5 WAR Median, 75.49% inducted
The group is an incredibly depressing bunch to look at. Five years ago, when I started this yearly project, there were three players here that I thought were worth mentioning. First was Matt Kemp, who technically wasn’t super close. But he was only a year removed from an 8-Win, MVP-runner-up season, so you figured if he could get his health back, he might make that up. He was worth 19.7 WAR then; since then, he’s only added 2.1 to his total.
Then, there was Ryan Zimmerman. He was an underrated star, and made the cut the first two years I was looking. Then, injuries hit and he narrowly missed in his third year. A return to All-Star form would make up that difference, though, right? Of course, over the past three seasons, he’s been worth a net 0 WAR, sitting at 33.8.
And, of course, there was the leader of the set, Troy Tulowitzki. He spent the first four years above the pace he’d need, but last year was a close call, as he finished 1 Win above what he needed. But that gap between ages 30 and 31 is quite large, and Tulo didn’t quite make the cut, finishing 0.8 short at 43.7. He’s going to have to stay healthy and rediscover his way if he wants to make it back on pace next year, as the upcoming jump is just as large as last year’s.
Seriously, what happened in 1984? Were all the babies born that year held together by glue and paperclips?
Age 32: 49.1 WAR Median, 77.78% inducted
Dustin Pedroia is in the stage of his career where he’s looking like he’s on the homestretch of the Hall of Fame path. With 50.7 WAR, he’s just a half-win away from being set for next year as well, and another season like last year’s could set up him for the next two. He’s only about a dozen Wins away from the overall Hall median for hitters, and he has five seasons left on his contract, so being just a normal starter for each of those years will get him close. Of course, there’s a chance he falls off a cliff or whatever, but based on his recent performance, he should be able to make the standard.
While Pedroia is the only one with the requisite 49.1 WAR, there is another player close, so let’s finally circle back around and discuss Joey Votto. He’s never actually made one of these median-marks, in part because his rookie season didn’t come until he was 24. Like Pedroia, he could make the age-33 mark if he just repeats last year, but he sits further away at 47.3 WAR. Of course, if his awful defense last year was just a fluke, that mark gets a lot easier to hit. After Votto are a pair of guys who have probably seen their chances at making any future medians fall away, Ryan Braun (44.4) and Hanley Ramirez (37.8).
Age 33: 51.2 WAR Median, 75.73% inducted
Once upon a time, this group had a quartet of players on the Hall median pace, but injuries have taken a toll. Maybe they’ll all make it in regardless? At least the top two are probably still locks, though.
At the very least, we can say Miguel Cabrera is a definite yes. He has a chance to reach 500 home runs this year, he has a good shot at 3000 hits, he has a Triple Crown and a pair of MVPs…I just don’t see any way the voters turn him down. He also has 69.6 WAR, meaning that he’s already cleared the overall Hall median. He’s good for as long as he plays (you know, barring a sudden collapse that leads to him continuing to play while racking up huge negative value).
Robinson Cano can join him above half of Hall hitters this year, with just half a win (62.4). For as much as the voters have a tendency to underrate second basemen…I think Cano will probably be fine. He might not be as much of a lock as Cabrera, but that’s an awfully high bar, with plenty of room under it for an easy first ballot guy to fit in.
Then, we have the pair ravaged by injuries. Joe Mauer moved his way into third after something of a comeback last year, but it wasn’t enough to get him above the 51.2 Wins he needed. Still, a few more good years at the tail end of his career might be enough. After all, he’ll probably get a bit of a boost for his best years coming as a catcher, and he did some pretty historic stuff behind the plate. All of that makes for a great peak, some padding to get his career numbers up at the end is all he needs.
And then, there’s David Wright. He will not be getting bonus consideration for being a catcher, and will in fact likely be penalized for playing third base (given that voters have held the position to a much higher standard, historically). With only 75 games between his last two seasons and another shoulder injury already this spring training, his days may be numbered, but a career like his (49.9 WAR to date) is nothing to be ashamed of, if this is the end. Hopefully he still has some more years in him, though.
Age 34: 54.1 WAR Median, 77.00% inducted
No one this age made it to 54 WAR, but there’s an interesting case to discuss. You very likely didn’t realize it, but Ian Kinsler? It looks like he has a pretty good Hall of Fame case suddenly. It sort of snuck up on everyone; he didn’t debut until he was 24, took another year to break out, and then threw a down year in as soon as he started to pull close to the median that dropped him way behind schedule.
I got into this last year, and even said, “If he goes all-out and posts another 6-Win season, though? He’s just 0.6 WAR off the pace. It could happen.” Sure enough, in 2016, he was worth 6.1 Wins, although due to the players inducted since I last calculated these medians, he’s actually now 1.2 WAR shy (52.9, for those who don’t want to do the math in their heads). How long does he keep this up? His 2016 was the sixth-best season ever for a player his age. A 4.2 WAR 2017 would be about equally unlikely in history, and it would also be his worst season in five years. How long can he continue to defy age?
I’ll be pulling for him, that’s for sure. It would be impressive to see, even if it might not wow Hall voters, who have historically overlooked players like Kinsler with late peaks and consistent value into their 30s. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that the number I’m counting is just the median, so technically Kinsler’s numbers are already in the thick of it with a bunch of Hall inductees. It could actually happen, even if it is unlikely.
Age 35: 57.1 WAR Median, 77.78% inducted
Age 36: 60.2 WAR Median, 82.80% inducted
Age 37: 61.5 WAR Median, 84.62% inducted
Age 38: 61.5 WAR Median, 82.80% inducted
Age 39: 61.5 WAR Median, 82.80% inducted
Age 40: 62.8 WAR Median, 85.56% inducted
Overall: 62.9 WAR Median, 86.52% inducted
It seemed like it was worth just combining all the remaining years. The numbers don’t move too dramatically from here on, and you know the cases for most of the players. I think it’s especially interesting how the median at age 36 is within 3 WAR of the overall median, and how it basically just plateaus for the next three seasons before a final upward jolt at age 40, and then nothing else. If you’re a player on the cusp who plays this long, being able to throw in one or two more decent seasons at the end here can go a long way in making up the gap.
As for which active players we’re talking about here? Well, you’ve got Albert Pujols (101.1) at age 36, who cleared the median and added an Andrew McCutchen’s worth of value on top of that.
You’ve got a pair of 37-year olds in Adrian Beltre (90.2) and Chase Utley (64.4). Beltre is probably a lock; he’s still putting up All-Star level seasons, and will get his 3000th hit this year to convince any remaining hold-outs. Utley might be a harder pitch, even though he’s still above the overall Hall median; he’s always been somewhat overlooked, and might not get the counting numbers some voters will be looking for. He’s hurt by the fact that he didn’t get called-up until he was 24, and then took another two seasons to play a full year. In his case, all we can do is hope for the best and prepare for the likelihood that he doesn’t get inducted.
Then, we have the oldest active player over the mark, 39-year-old Astros DH Carlos Beltran. At 70.4, he’s cleared the bar with some room, too. I feel like I’ve seen a shift in how he’s talked about over the last few seasons, with more and more “Future Hall of Famer” labels being applied. I’ll remain hopeful in the meantime.
And of course, there’s one player close to the overall 62.9 median: 43-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. He’s technically within striking distance, at 59.9 WAR, but given that his last four single season totals have been 1.5, -1.2, 1.0, and 1.5, drawing close will probably be all he can manage. Of course, given that he didn’t debut until he was 27, this is still a pretty impressive accomplishment. He’s a lock for Cooperstown, either way.
Check back in next time, as I continue my annual update with the pitchers making their way to the Hall.