We’ve reached the point in the offseason where it’s time for my annual Predicting Future Hall of Famers article. For those who haven’t read one before (past entries can be found here), this is my attempt to try and determine which players are on track for a Hall of Fame career. Instead of focusing just on players who are already in the homestretch of their careers, though, I extend my analysis to even the youngest of players.
I do this in a pretty straightforward mathematical way. First, I look at the sample set of Hall of Famers (divided into position players and starters). Then, I use Baseball-Reference’s Play Index to look at their Wins Above Replacement at every age during their careers. Next, I take note of the median WAR total for Hall of Famers who were active at that age.
Once I have this Median WAR (which will be noted for each age group in this article), I also look at the total number of players in history who have met this marker, Hall of Fame or not. Then, I take a simple percentage: how many of the total players who have hit this mark went on to make the Hall of Fame? I also remove players not yet eligible or still on the ballot, as their Hall fates are still uncertain. In the end, though, the result is a rough guideline to what a Hall of Fame player’s career looks like, as well as odds that even the youngest players in the league will see the inside of Cooperstown.
Of course, there are some other disclaimers necessary here. This is strictly descriptive of what has happened, and can’t really foresee changing standards in voting. Similarly, it doesn’t factor in non-numerical arguments. Though it’s also worth noting that, by definition, half of all Hall of Famers didn’t hit these standards, so a current player missing them doesn’t mean all is lost.
And of course, the Hall itself has some rather amorphous standards, so players who hit these cutoffs may not make the Hall anyway, even if they end up with deserving careers. Conversely, players who are currently not in the Hall may eventually be added via the Veterans Committee. So maybe these odds actually underestimate players’ chances, in the long view of things.
With all of that preamble out of the way, let’s look at which active position players appear to be on pace for Cooperstown!
Age 20: 0.55 WAR Median, 28.18% inducted
Most Hall of Famers still haven’t debuted at this age, but for the ones who have, half are at 0.6 WAR already. On the flip side, 3 out of every 10 players who pass this milestone wind up in Cooperstown. A pair of 20-year-old infielder rookies passed this mark in 2017 with very similar batting lines. Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies hit .286/.354/.456 in 244 plate appearances, while Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers hit .284/.338/.482 in 240. Albies edged Devers out in WAR, 1.4 to 1.3. Top prospect Victor Robles is one to watch in 2018; he stands at 0 WAR in 13 games so far, but he’s a top prospect with an early edge on a starting role in the Nats’ outfield and was the only other 20-year-old position player in 2017.
Age 21: 2.3 WAR Median, 36.50% inducted
There were more 21-year-old position players, but only one came anywhere close to the 2.3 WAR needed. NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger racked up 4.2 WAR for his great season, putting the age 22 mark easily within reach even with a sophomore slump. The next closest name on the list is the recently-traded Magneuris Sierra, at just 0.3 WAR.
Age 22: 4.3 WAR Median, 36.41% inducted
Much like in the last group, there is one name far above the rest. Carlos Correa looked like he might run away with the MVP award before a torn thumb ligament sidelined him. Despite only playing in 109 games, the young shortstop still recorded his best season by WAR yet, at 6.3. For his career, he’s already up to 16.3, setting him up at least through his arbitration years. He’s probably already a better-than-even bet to make the Hall, all things considered. Andrew Benintendi and Manuel Margot are tied for the next closest, at 3.1.
Age 23: 7.7 WAR Median, 40.80% inducted
Not only were there three players who cleared this mark this past season, but all three of them were shortstops. First, we have a second Puerto Rican shortstop in Francisco Lindor. It’s fascinating how similar his career has been overall to Correa’s; Lindor sits just half a win behind him, at 15.8.
We have our third Rookie of the Year so far next, this one both a Dodger and a shortstop. Corey Seager has 13.5 Wins to his name to date. After him, there’s the 10.0-Win Addison Russell. So, the four players over the Hall median for ages 22 and 23 represent the last four shortstops to play in the World Series. That’s at least interesting.
The near-misses are interesting as well. We have the man who was picked one spot after Correa, Byron Buxton. Buxton continued to improve his bat, and while he’s not yet a great hitter, his amazing glove is more than enough to make up for that so far. At 7.2 WAR, he just missed. There’s also Correa’s partner on the left side of the infield, Alex Bregman, who has totaled 5.8 Wins so far. Keep an eye on both of these two going forward.
Age 24: 11.3 WAR Median, 43.02% inducted
Not only are there four players above this mark this year, but two of them are set through their age 27 seasons and a third is good to go through their age 26 season. Manny Machado is just shy of 28 WAR already, with 27.9 in 5+ seasons. Right on his tail is Bryce Harper at 26.1. 9.9 of it came in his 2015 campaign, which won him the MVP; another year like that could set him up for another two years in the future.
Mookie Betts isn’t quite as far along as those two, with 24.1 Wins so far. However, he also has 250+ fewer games than either of them. And lastly, we have Jose Ramirez, who just joined in the club this year. At only 14.0 Wins, he actually needs to stay healthy and productive to keep up with the pace, but he also had the best 2017 season of this quartet.
The near-misses have some interesting names, as well. Betts’s teammate Xander Bogaerts has been above the milestone in the pass, but just missed at 11.1 career WAR. He’ll need to take a step forward and have his best season yet to get back on pace for next year. Gary Sanchez isn’t terribly close at 7.1, but he’s also a catcher, and due to the lower playing time catchers face, they usually don’t need as much value as other positions, so he may be in a pretty good place anyway. And lastly, Trea Turner only has 6.4 Wins, but part of that has come from service time manipulation, injuries, and other assorted playing time limiters. With a full season or two, he may find himself above the median for his age.
Age 25: 16.05 WAR Median, 48.70% inducted
Mike Trout has almost double the WAR that the next closest player his age or younger has. At 55.2 WAR, the Angels’ center fielder is set up until his age 34 season, which isn’t until 2026. He could conceivably pass the overall Hall median next year, since he’s only 7.7 WAR shy; 2017 was his first season where he didn’t match that mark, “only” getting 6.7 Wins while missing 48 games from injury. It’s hard to overstate just how impressive has been in his first 6+ seasons.
There are also non-Trout players above the median, of course. Kris Bryant had a strong follow-up to his MVP-winning season, picking up 6.1 WAR to bring his career total up to 19.7. His relatively-late debut (at 23) meant that he was at a little bit of a disadvantage in these rankings, but all it took was three years for him to find his way over the Hall median.
There’s also now-Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, who has managed 17.7 WAR so far. There are some reasons for concern, like the fact that this is partly due to his early debut (at 21), and that he has only once been worth more than 4 WAR (sooner or later, you need a few MVP-type years to keep up), but his 2016 was good enough to believe that he could keep ahead of the Hall pace. After Yelich, it’s a long drop-off to Odubel Herrero (10.3) and Jonathan Schoop (10.1).
Age 26: 20.7 WAR Median, 52.05% inducted
After all of these years flush with talent, the age 26 group looks a little underwhelming. Only Nolan Arenado has cleared the 20.7 mark, with 27.4 to his name. Arenado’s improved every year he’s been in the bigs, so he should be a likely candidate to stay on this list for years. After him, Yasiel Puig would need a year for the ages to get back above the median, sitting at 16.5 WAR presently.
Age 27: 25.9 WAR Median, 56.72% inducted
Something must have been in the water between 1989 and 1990. Ever since I started this project, this cohort has compared strongly to every other age group in the game, and somehow, it’s only gotten deeper as time has gone on.
There’s a new leader at the head of the class, thanks to Giancarlo Stanton’s MVP campaign. That 7.6 WAR boosted him to 35.1 overall, almost enough to take him through the next two seasons. Obviously, 60-70 WAR isn’t the only milestone Stanton seems to be on pace for (he sprinted past 250 home runs this year as well), but it’s notable all the same.
Right behind him is Jason Heyward, who seems to be going in the opposite direction as of late. Heyward has yet to look like his former self since arriving in Chicago, posting 3.8 WAR in his two seasons there (he only had one single season below 3.7 before getting to the Cubs), which leads to questions of how much longer he can keep this up. He’s already set through 2018 anyway, and he’d need to take another massive step backwards this year to not hit the mark for the year after that as well. But sooner or later, he’s going to have to return to his MVP form; even if he winds up with decent numbers, Hall voters have shown a reluctance to induct players who peak so early and drop off that quickly.
The other reigning MVP, Jose Altuve, moved into third place this past year. I started this project back in 2013, and Altuve looked like he had no shot of ever being here. He sat at just 2.1 WAR, and he would post a 1-Win season at age 23, meaning that he’d basically need back-to-back MVP-level years just to get back on pace. Yet here he is five years later, at 29.6 Wins. He’ll need a few more similarly strong years to keep up with the rapidly rising pace of the late-20s and early-30s, but it definitely seems achievable for him now.
We move across the diamond next, with shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Thanks to his amazing glove and improving bat, he had himself an MVP-caliber season of his own, finishing with 7.1 WAR. That gives him 28.6 for his career.
And finally, we have a pair of first basemen above the line, and they’re within half a win of each other. Freddie Freeman played 40 fewer games than Anthony Rizzo in 2017, but managed to top him in value, 4.5 to 4.4. That extended his career lead, 26.6 to 26.1. This is entirely too early for this type of speculation, but if they wind up being similar in careers, I wonder if having two NL first basemen who overlap that much would hurt them both in the minds of Hall voters?
The top runner-up is Kevin Kiermaier at 21.5, and he probably won’t be able to make up a gap of this size in 2018. The second runner-up is Salvador Perez at 19.3, though, and since he’s a catcher, it’s worth keeping him in mind going forward since he won’t be expected to match the overall median.
Age 28: 31.6 WAR Median, 64.17% inducted
Elvis Andrus had his most valuable season yet, according to Baseball-Reference, but it still wasn’t enough to get him back above the median. He sits at 28.8 WAR on his career, 5 Wins ahead of anyone else his age.
Age 29: 36.0 WAR Median, 70.64% inducted
Paul Goldschmidt needed a 7-Win season in 2017 to match this, and he didn’t quite make it, finishing the year at 5.8. That leaves him at 34.8, which means he’ll need a good 2018 to make the median, but it’s not as tall an order as what he needed last year. He’s coming along rather nicely, for a guy who didn’t play a full season in the pros until he was 24.
The only other 29-year-old player above 30 WAR is Justin Upton. Thanks to debuting back when he was 19 over a decade ago, Upton has racked up 32.4 WAR, but his peak so far hasn’t quite been that of a Hall of Famer. If he has several more seasons that look like his last year, though (5.7 WAR across two teams), he might be back in business.
Age 30: 39.9 WAR Median, 71.96% inducted
As of last week, the top-two 30-year-olds are now teammates. Newly-acquired Giant Andrew McCutchen had a bounceback after his disastrous 2016, finishing just over what he needed at 40.0 WAR. He’s going to need to rediscover his youth out in the Bay, though; the increases jump back up to about 4.5 wins for the next two seasons, while McCutchen’s 2016 and ’17 were worth just a combined 1.8. He’s at a crucial make-or-break point right now.
Meanwhile, Buster Posey is right behind him at 37.5 Wins. He’s had a much stronger past two years, and as an added boost to his case, he’s a catcher, making that total even more impressive even if it isn’t quite above the median. No one else going into their age-31 season has even 24 Wins to their name.
Age 31: 44.5 WAR Median, 75.49% inducted
We have our third straight San Francisco Giant, which I have to say is really weirding me out considering that two of them were faces of the franchise for different teams a couple of months ago. Evan Longoria finished 2017 at exactly 50 WAR, including a 7-year peak of 42.8 that (according to JAWS) puts him more or less right in line with the average of Hall of Fame third basemen. At this point, he probably just needs a handful of nice seasons in his 30s and he’ll have the career profile of a Hall of Famer (which any more great seasons just icing on the cake). What will be interesting to see is how voters will treat him, seeing how the position has been pretty historically undervalued.
Behind Longoria is another third basemen, Josh Donaldson. Donaldson hasn’t passed the median yet like Longoria has, but what he’s done is incredibly impressive in its own right. Back at the start of the 2012 season, Donaldson was a 26-year-old who had only played in 14 games at the Major League level, most of them as a catcher. After that year, just five years ago from today, Donaldson was a 27-year-old with under 90 games in the Majors and a career WAR total of 1.2. In the five years since, he’s been worth 36.2 WAR. Regardless of what he goes on to do, that’s a Hall-level peak. He may yet go on to pass the Hall median. The next-closest player his age is Adam Jones, who’s only at 31.2 WAR in almost twice as many games.
Age 32: 49.1 WAR Median, 77.78% inducted
I already covered last year what a depressing set this bunch is, between Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Zimmerman (and, to a lesser extent, Matt Kemp). I’m not sure there’s any value in recovering that ground, so I’ll try and cover this from a pair of slightly different angles:
First, how have Tulowitzki and Zimmerman’s cases fallen so far apart? Injuries did it for both of them, but it has manifested a little differently. Since his rookie season in 2007, Tulo has been plagued by more or less constant injuries that have cost him about 50 games per year. His peak has looked like a Hall of Fame one in spite of that, with his best seven seasons being worth 40 WAR (for comparison, the average shortstop in Cooperstown has a 42.8 WAR peak). His other four years, though, include one decent, 128-game game campaign and three more of 101 games or fewer worth a combined 0.9 Wins.
Zimmerman’s injuries were more debilitating and sudden. An injury to his shoulder wrecked his fielding value and his power, and a second took him from above-average to below-average. Last year, he revitalized his swing and found his power again, but as he’s a first basemen, it didn’t mean as much as it used to when he was a slick-fielding third baseman. He’s been worth 36.5 WAR so far.
As a comparison to those two, though, are a pair of 32-year-olds who have revitalized their game with age. Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner have both broken out the past few years, making them some of the leaders in this age group. If only you could stitch their careers to Tulo and Zimm’s, and you’d have two Hall of Famers between the quartet.
Age 33: 51.2 WAR Median, 75.73% inducted
For the first time in his career, Joey Votto leads everyone else his age in career WAR. The runner-up to the NL MVP had one of his best seasons ever in 2017, producing 7.5 Wins to take him to 54.8 in his career. That means that this is also his first season above the Hall median, an impressive feat for someone who didn’t have his rookie season until he was 24. Votto is the example Paul Goldschmidt should look to going forward.
The player that Votto finally passed is Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia is still over the median himself, at 52.2 Wins, but there are causes for concern. He missed nearly 60 games due to injury last year, contributing to his worst season since his 31-game debut back in 2006. Furthermore, as a second baseman, there’s reason to worry he may never return to his old self; plenty of other second basemen have seen their careers end early. There are, of course, counter examples, and Pedroia doesn’t need to return to his old MVP-winning ways to make it to the Hall median (a few more years of being useful will get him there), but it’s also not a guarantee.
After those two are Ryan Braun (45.6) and Hanley Ramirez (37.6). Both were above the median once upon a time, but it seems their ships have sailed.
Age 34: 54.1 WAR Median, 77.00% inducted
At this point, I don’t think anyone is going to argue against Miguel Cabrera being a Hall of Famer. It’s looking like he’s going to reach 500 homers sometime in 2019 and 3000 hits the year after that. How well his body holds up going forward is an open question (he was actually worth negative value in 2018, at -0.8 WAR), but either way, he’s already above not just the median WAR for his age but also the overall median for Hall of Famers at 68.8 WAR.
Of course, Cabrera isn’t the only player entering his age-35 season who’s already above the overall median. Robinson Cano sits at 65.7 Wins. Unlike Cabrera, he had a productive and mostly-healthy 2017, including an All-Star selection. I don’t know that he gets the “future Hall of Famer” label as often as Cabrera, and while he’s maybe equally deserving, he might still have time to convince even the most stubborn of voters.
Joe Mauer isn’t quite above the median for his age, but he’s remained close. He’s slowly bounced back from his lingering concussion issues over the last few years, and was finally all the way up to 3.4 Wins last year. And keep in mind, he’s been a catcher, so he’ll be facing a different standard than other position players. In fact, JAWS has him above the average Hall of Fame catcher in both career and peak value.
David Wright’s injury-wrecked last three years (no games in 2017, just 75 since 2015) have destroyed his pace. He still stands at 49.9 WAR, so I suppose a comeback isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but things certainly seem grim.
Also, a fun fact: this is the first age group we’ve seen where someone has more WAR than Mike Trout.
Age 35: 57.1 WAR Median, 77.78% inducted
I know I say this every year, but I’m still a little shocked by Ian Kinsler. He still hasn’t ever been above the Hall median for his age, but he’s been close every year as of late despite not playing at all in the majors until he was 24. Right now, he sits at 55.0 WAR, and while he was worth just 2.1 Wins last year, he was worth between 5 and 6.1 the four years before that. His batting dropped off a lot last year (he posted an OPS+ of just 90), but his BABIP dropped massively despite the fact that his peripherals didn’t seem too far off from what they were in 2016 (when his OPS+ was 122). Maybe he’s got a few more good seasons in him? Outside of Kinsler, Adrian Gonzalez is the next best thing in this bunch, at 42.7 WAR.
Age 36: 60.2 WAR Median, 82.80% inducted
Nobody here is even close. Curtis Granderson leads his age bracket with 45.8 WAR. Ben Zobrist is second with 42.9, which is impressive for someone who didn’t play a full season until he was 28, but still not especially close.
Age 37: 61.5 WAR Median, 84.62% inducted
Last year, Albert Pujols was arguably the worst player in the majors. In a full season as a designated hitter, he posted a mere 81 OPS+, which is a big part of why he was worth -1.8 WAR. In spite of that, he still has 99.4 Wins to his name. Hopefully, he bounces back somewhat in 2018. Matt Holliday is the not-particularly-close runner-up, with 44.4 WAR.
Age 38: 61.5 WAR Median, 82.80% inducted
We actually get one more age with a pair of players over the median. First, Adrian Beltre spent a lot of the year injured, but looked just as good as ever when he did play. He posted a 135 OPS+ on the way to picking up 3.7 Wins and his 3000th career hit. For his career, he sits at 93.9 WAR, so regardless of whether he ends up at 500 home runs or not (he’s 38 away), he’s cemented himself in the Hall’s inner circle.
Chase Utley might have a harder time getting inducted, but he’s proven himself every bit as worthy. He played in just 43 games as a 24-year-old, picked up 2.3 WAR in just 94 games the following year, then in his first full season the year after that, began a run of five straight years with over 7 Wins (including seasons of 9.0 and 8.2). Even last year, he was still valuable, picking up and extra win to give him 65.4 on his career. Hopefully, by the time he hits the ballots, the BBWAA will be able to recognize how good he was despite the late start and low counting stats.
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
There were no 39-year-old position players in MLB last year, and the only 40-year-old has since retired. Carlos Beltran finally got the World Series that has long eluded him. In doing so, he dropped his career Wins Above Replacement below 70, down to 69.8, but I think he’ll take that trade-off. It seemed there was a definite shift in how writers talked about him, as well, with more feeling comfortable calling him a “future Hall of Famer”. Hopefully, he sails in to Cooperstown in 2023.
There was also one active position player over 40 last season. Ichiro Suzuki, who turned 44 in October, was basically a fourth outfielder, but he’s still looking to play in 2019. Hopefully, we see him for as long as he wants to keep playing. He currently has 59.6 WAR despite debuting in MLB at 27.
And with that, we’ve covered the scope of active position players. Check in next time as we focus on starting pitchers.