Since I write a lot about future Hall of Famers, especially among active players, I wanted to expand on some comments I left on William Metzger’s article on Jose Altuve’s Hall of Fame candidacy over at The Crawfish Boxes. Generally, my stance is that we can start talking about players being future Hall of Famers well before we normally do. Metzger does a good job of looking at what Altuve has to do to have Hall-caliber stats, but how likely a player is to do that is a different question.
As a simple example, I looked at every second baseman in history who was within 10 WAR of Altuve at the same age; specifically, that means anyone between 25 and 35 WAR by the end of their age-28 season. That leaves us with a group of 22 other players; two of them are the also still-active Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia.
Of those 20 retired examples to work from, 12 went on to the Hall of Fame. Simple enough, then, right? Altuve has something like a 60% chance to stay on a Hall-pace.
But the remaining 8 players aren’t a list of players who started strong and then broke down, like you might think. One of them is Pete Rose, who has…let’s say some mitigating factors that you might be aware of, but he put up a Hall-quality back-half to his career, if nothing else.
There are a few other weird cases as well, though. For example, Larry Doyle walked away after a 3-WAR age-33 season to go manage a minor league team in Toronto closer to his home. Maybe he could have a few more good seasons if he stuck it out, but he didn’t feel like it, so we’ll never know. And then, there’s Fred Dunlap, who broke his leg on a slide during his age-32 season in 1891. However, it wasn’t the injury that ended things; it was the ensuing dispute with the team over (essentially) disability play for the injury that got him to walk away.
That’s not to say weird, unaccountable things couldn’t still spring up for Altuve. But, at the same time, we know that at least the Dunlap scenario won’t happen today, and Rose is the only gambling-related permanent ban in over seven decades. Despite the weirdness of all of those scenarios, and the low chance of them recurring, they still make up a significant portion of our Altuve comps, because there are so few players good enough to actually use as a comparison!
Then, three of the remaining five Hall-outsiders are Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, and Willie Randolph, all of whom had Hall-level numbers for their career but just didn’t get any electoral support. I know there are still large groups of people saying that they were snubbed, and they might still even get in via the Veterans Committee! But even if you don’t want to account for the unpredictable VC, they pretty clearly didn’t “fall apart” or anything; they held up their end of the deal and played well, the voters just didn’t see how good they were.*
*Also, there’s a question of whether Altuve can even be grouped with them anymore; he already has as many career All-Star selections as any of them, and he has as many top-ten MVP finishes as all three of them combined. If attention from fans and writers is what doomed that trio, it doesn’t seem like Altuve will be facing that issue, particularly if he plays as well as they did in their second career-halfs.
All told, that just leaves us with two stereotypical “Hall-trajectory player falls apart and plays himself out of Cooperstown” cases from the twenty players similar to Altuve, Chuck Knoblauch and Cupid Childs. There are actually more players in the “weird, unpredictable, non-injury stuff” category than there are these guys.
All of that gets me to my main point: players who are this good, this young, to the extent that someone like Altuve is, are in a class of their own. They’re more likely than not to finish out a career that gets them to Cooperstown, and even if they don’t make it to the Hall, almost all of them end up at least playing at a Hall-of-Fame-level the rest of the way. Being good but going unrecognized is about as common, or even more so, than totally falling apart. Just a thing to keep in mind when having “future Hall of Famer” discussions