And finally, we have the second part of my annual series predicting active players’ chances of one day making the Hall of Fame. If you missed the first article focusing on position players, you can find it here.
As a quick recap of the methodology: first, I find the median Wins Above Replacement among Hall of Famers for each age (that is, the median WAR for Hall of Fame careers at age 20, then age 21, and so on) up until it matches the overall median for Hall of Famers. Then, I look at how many players in history have matched that total at that same age, and take a simple percentage: how many of the players who hit that Hall of Fame median would go on to make the Hall of Fame?
So, if for example (to pick easy numbers to work with), there were forty Hall of Fame starters, exactly half of them had 10 or more WAR at 24, and twenty-five total players had 10 or more WAR at that age, we’d use (20 Hall of Famers)/(25 total at the median)=80% chance of making the Hall. It may not be exact, but it’s a good starting point to visualize the odds, especially for young stars.
There are the normal caveats with this, too. Since Hall status is still up to voters, using precedent assumes that the standards the voting body uses won’t change. Players who aren’t in might be inducted by the Veterans Committee later. And of course, since I’m using medians, half of all Hall members didn’t hit these marks themselves, so no one is totally out of the running. This is more focused on finding early favorites. Pitchers have a few extra things to note: I’m focused on just starting pitchers, not relievers, since there aren’t really that many of them to be trying to compute a hard “Hall standard” for. This means I focused on pitchers who started 10% of their games when I was drawing historical standards, to cover young starters while being eased into the roll from the bullpen while ruling out straight-up reliever. Also, I limited my study to post-1920 pitchers, because I needed to separate “modern” pitchers from the very-different early days of the sport, and the start of the Liveball Era seemed like a good place to do that.
With all of that out of the way, let’s move on to looking at the modern aces:
Age 20: 1.0WAR Median, 15.38% inducted
Julio Urias had 1.0 WAR going in to 2017, but had limited time in the majors last year and didn’t do so hot in that time, so he actually dropped down to 0.7 WAR. The only other 20-year-old pitching in the Majors last year was Luiz Gohara, who threw 29.1 innings for the Braves.
Age 21: 2.3 WAR Median, 11.99% inducted
There were only three 21-year-old pitchers in 2017 (Sandy Alcantara, Jack Flaherty, and Francis Martes), and they combined for -1.3 WAR in 84 innings. They’re young, they still have time to adjust and improve.
Age 22: 4.8 WAR Median, 17.57% inducted
Technically, this method only covers starting pitchers. The Hall’s history with relievers is short and spotty enough that you couldn’t really create a system like this. Either way, though, it’s probably worth noting that closer Roberto Osuna leads this age bracket with 5.3 Wins. German Marquez is the closest starter, at 3.3.
Age 23: 7.0 WAR Median, 17.24% inducted
Luis Severino is close enough here, at just 0.1 WAR short, that we can probably round him up to being at the median. However, as you may note, matching the Hall median at this age isn’t a great predictor, especially when compared to hitters (hitters at the median are already at a 40% chance of induction), and we won’t even see that start to meaningfully increase for another three seasons. So Luis is as likely as anyone at this age, but I still wouldn’t recommend putting money down on him or anything. Lance McCullers is the runner-up at 5.0.
Age 24: 9.75 WAR Median, 16.48% inducted
Once again, not one pitcher hits this total, but three are close enough that they could feasibly make a run at it next year. Michael Fulmer has 8.4 Wins, Aaron Sanchez has 8.1, and Noah Syndergaard sits at 8.0 even. Of course, that would partly require Sanchez and Syndergaard coming up healthy after injury-marred 2017s. Stuff like this is why predicting pitchers’ careers at young ages is so much harder.
Age 25: 12.3 WAR Median, 18.28% inducted
Carlos Martinez is yet another example of a pitcher just falling short. He too stands 0.1 WAR shy of where he needs to be*, so for all intents and purposes, we can probably consider him at the median. Of course, unlike Luis Severino, Martinez will need to post a season of over 6.0 Wins just to keep up with the pace of the median. That will be tough, especially since it would easily be his best season. He has the talent to do it, and his current best season is only about half a win behind that, so it’s still feasible that he does it, but there’s also still a lot that could go wrong, like injuries.
*It’s worth noting that I only consider pitching WAR for pitchers; with his hitting value, Carlos would easily pass this mark.
Once again, the runner up isn’t especially close, with teammate Michael Wacha at just 7.1 WAR. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone this long in one of these articles without a single player truly at or over the median for their age group, and that’s despite the median for Hall pitchers being uniformly lower than for hitters well into the thirties. I wonder if an increase in injuries or an increase of teams limiting innings over a fear of injuries are partially to blame? After all, getting an early start is a big part of hitting these marks, so teams holding starters in the minors longer would have a direct effect on that. It’ll be interesting to see how these players’ careers look when they actually hit the ballot, and if their career totals are lighter as a result, if Hall voting will change to account for that.
Age 26: 18.4 WAR Median, 29.82% inducted
Still no players who match up to this standard. Julio Teheran was over the line last year, but posted his worst full year yet in 2017 and only made it to 14.9 Wins. Recently-traded starter Gerrit Cole trails him by a decent amount, at 11.4 career WAR. If either is going to make the Hall, it’s going to rely on some really strong peak years that last decently into their thirties.
Age 27: 22.8 WAR Median, 36.17% inducted
Hey, we finally have someone who is actually above the Hall median! Even though he missed about half of last year, Madison Bumgarner still has 28.2 Wins under his belt (plus another 4.4 from his hitting), more than enough to carry him through 2018. A return to his 2016 or 2015 form should set him up through 2019 as well. Also, it’s worth noting that with 2018, Bumgarner will have spent a decade in the majors. Staying above the median is mostly because he’s been quite good so far, but it also helps quite a bit that he had a half-season at the age of 20, and that he’s been good enough to hold a rotation spot since. It’s given him a buffer in cast of injuries, like the one he suffered last year.
After him, it’s Kyle Hendricks at 13.2 WAR and Sonny Gray at 12.5, so it’s quite a drop off.
Age 28: 27.05 WAR Median, 39.53% inducted
Chris Sale’s first season in Boston had him pick up right where he left off in Chicago, as he finished second in Cy Young voting (his highest yet, plus his fifth straight top-five finish) and led the league in innings, strikeouts, and FIP. It was a 6.0 Win seasons overall, giving him 37.1 overall. Even an incredibly mediocre 2018 should set him up through the next two seasons, and another Cy Young-caliber year would set him up for even longer.
Behind Sale, Stephen Strasburg passed Sale’s former White Sox rotation mate Jose Quintana. Strasburg posted his personal best season, finishing third in Cy Young voting and picking up 6.5 WAR. That gives him 23.9 overall; not close enough that he could make a move on the median this year or next, but a sustained run could get him close. Quintana, meanwhile, had maybe his worst season overall, only picking up 2.2 WAR and finishing with a 22.8 career total. No one else their age has even managed 17 career Wins yet.
Age 29: 32.7 WAR Median, 44.73% inducted
If you thought Bumgarner and Sale were dominant, then Clayton Kershaw is on his own separate planet. Kershaw picked up his second runner-up finish in Cy Young voting, his second such performance, to go with his three Awards. He did it on the strength of leading the league in ERA, wins, and ERA+. Despite that, it was actually his second-worst season by WAR since his 108-inning debut way back in 2008, worth “only” 4.6 Wins. For his career, Kershaw has amassed 57.4 WAR, more than several dozen pitchers already in the Hall of Fame ever had, despite only just pitching his tenth season last year. The Dodgers’ ace is already done through the 2022 season, and could pretty easily set himself up through 2024 or later this season. It seems fair to put him somewhere between a 94 and 99% chance for Cooperstown, the odds for matching the Hall median at 34 or 35.
Craig Kimbrel is actually second place for the going-on-30 group, despite being a reliever. Again, I don’t have any hard numbers for closers, but his 18.0 WAR puts the totals reached by elected closers in easy reach for him. Jhoulys Chacin is next at 17.1, then Dallas Keuchel at 16.4. Keuchel didn’t really pitch a full season until he was 25, and has had a great peak, between his Cy Young performance in 2015 and his strong start before injury to last season. With a strong peak that goes into his 30s, he might wind up establishing himself as a possibility down the line.
Age 30: 37.55 WAR Median, 56.67% inducted
New Cub Yu Darvish leads the way here, at 19.3 Wins. Like Keuchel, he had a late start and some injuries have limited his playing time, but he could very conceivably sustain his peak for a few years and set himself up nicely. The early- and mid-30s are really the biggest make-or-break time for Hall of Fame starting pitcher careers.
Age 31: 41.2 WAR Median, 56.67% inducted
Felix Hernandez has had a rough few years, only throwing a little over 150 innings of 106 ERA+ last year and slipping to about 87 innings of a 98 ERA+ this year. You might be wondering if this has been enough to knock him from his perch above the Hall median, but as it turns out, his peak was both 1) very good, and 2) still pretty long. After all, despite turning 32 in April, King Felix already has 13 seasons under his belt, and a bunch of those have been all-star quality, even if it feels like he hasn’t been his old self as of late. Right now, he still has 52.2 Wins. Again, that’s more than several starters already in the Hall of Fame, and even if Hernandez never finds his full second wind and racks up more seasons like his best, a string of solid seasons at the end of a career can still go a long way. It’s still way too early to totally discount his chances for Cooperstown.
Hernandez is the only one above the median line, but there are still a handful of interesting names to watch going forward at this age. David Price and Jake Arrieta both have Cy Youngs and track records of success, with 33.9 and 20.3 WAR, respectively. Corey Kluber just won his second Cy Young and has 26.9 WAR. Johnny Cueto (33.2) and Gio Gonzalez (27.1) both appear on this list. It’s no given that any one of them will see a strong string of years well into their 30s, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if at least one of them does it. My money is probably on Kluber being the most likely.
Age 32: 44.7 WAR Median, 60.71% inducted
Five years ago, when I started this series, Max Scherzer didn’t even get a mention in the first pitchers article. It made sense at the time, as there wasn’t an especially strong reason to; after all, he was just a former top prospect who had kind of disappointed, with just over four full seasons, a 110 ERA+, and 11.3 WAR. Since then, he’s added five All-Star seasons with an overall 144 ERA+, three Cy Young Awards, and over 30 WAR. Last year, I said it was very possible he could pass the median mark in 2017, and he did that, with his Cy-winning 2018 bringing him to 44.6 WAR. The only pitcher his age within 28 WAR of him is Matt Cain, who just retired.
Age 33: 51.25 WAR Median, 85.00% inducted
After so many years without any players making the cutoff, the age-33 bracket actually has a pair of starters who passed 52 WAR. First up is Zack Greinke, who added 6.0 Wins in pitching last year to bring his career total to 56.9. That means that he’s already set up through 2018, and two more seasons like that one will get him all the way over the overall median for modern starters. Baseball-Reference has a lot of his WAR coming from two especially transcendent years (2009 and 2015, which account for 19.7 between them), but Fangraphs’ methodology has him in more or less the same place with a much more even distribution. I don’t know that I see many people calling him a future Hall of Famer, but it’ll be interesting to see if that perception changes in the next few years as we get greater perspective on his career.
Cole Hamels is right there with Greinke, sitting 4.2 Wins behind him at 52.7. He’s been almost the exact opposite, racking up the value through stunning consistency; in twelve seasons, only one (2009) saw him post less than 2 WAR (and that was even 1.9). Only two more saw him below 3 WAR (his rookie season, which was 2.3 WAR in a partial season, and last year with 2.9 WAR). The lack of a true peak might hurt him, though. He’s certainly deserved better than the one fifth-place Cy Young finish he’s gotten, and at least part of his problem in that regard is his low win totals even in good years. But at the same time, he’s also never had a season were he’s clearly been the best pitcher in his league, and he only has two seasons of more than 5.5 WAR (both of which were 6.6). Maybe the electorate will change by the time he’s on the ballot, or maybe he has more good in him, but right now, I can’t see this playing out well even if he does wind up with good career numbers.
The only other 33-year-old worth mentioning is probably Jon Lester (41.7 WAR). He could probably buckle down and hit the mark still, but it’s a little worrisome that 2017 was his worst season yet. Of course, his 2016 was wonderful, so maybe it was just a one year blip. We’ll just have to wait and see how 2018 goes.
Age 34: 54.5 WAR Median, 94.44% inducted
For two years, Justin Verlander dropped below the median. Even after his 2016 campaign, which was good enough to net him second place in the Cy Young voting, wasn’t quite enough to get him back on pace. But it just so happened that he had another season like that up his sleeve, turning in over 6 WAR yet again between Detroit and Houston and bringing him up to 56.9 WAR on his career. That career median for Hall starters doesn’t seem so far away when you’ve just had two seasons like he had (and certainly, being a World Series champ doesn’t hurt your motivation, either). No other active players his age have even half as much WAR.
Age 35: 59.3 WAR Median, 100% inducted
It’s impressive what Adam Wainwright has accomplished in such a short time, given his relatively late start and two entire seasons missed due to injury. And his four top-3 Cy Young finishes and 34.6 career Wins are certainly admirable! They just…aren’t quite enough to qualify for a Hall of Fame pace.
Age 36: 60.65 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Like Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia has really bounced back and reestablished himself the last two seasons. It’s easy to forget, because his peak feels so long ago, but his peak was pretty good, with a Cy Young Award and five other top-five finishes. It’s part of why he has 60.7 WAR. A few more solid years as a mid-rotation arm and Sabathia is easily over the Hall’s standard for modern starters.
Age 37: 61.25 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Brad Ziegler has the most WAR of any pitcher this age. The only starter in this group is Rich Hill, who threw his second-most innings last year with 135.2 and has just 11.7 WAR in his career.
Age 38: 62.05 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
John Lackey is the only starter of note here. He’s been better than you might realize; his career has been worth 38.0 WAR, he’s just shy of 200 Wins and 2300 Ks, he has a 110 ERA+, and he’s one of just sixteen players to win a World Series with three different teams (the 2002 Angels, 2013 Red Sox, and 2016 Cubs; if the 2014 Cardinals had just won 7 more games, he’d have the record to himself). In another era, that might have been enough to at least get a Veterans Committee nod.
Age 39: 63.55 WAR Median, 85.00% inducted
Age 40: 66.35 WAR Median, 85.00% inducted
Age 41: 67.4 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Overall: 67.95 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Ages 39 and 40 each had just a single reliever representing them in 2017. Age 41 had nobody left, but RA Dickey was 42 and Bartolo Colon was 44. Neither of them is particularly close to the 67.95 WAR needed, though, with Dickey at 23.2 and Colon at 47.5. Of course, Colon already has a Spring Training invite, and Dickey was a useful back-end starter last year, so it wouldn’t be too strange to see either hanging around the majors in 2018.
And with that, the 2018 edition of my Future Hall of Fame series has reached its conclusion. Thank goodness Spring Training has started, so we won’t have to wait much longer to see who winds up keeping up with a Cooperstown pace.