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    Saturday, March 9, 2019

    Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Hitters, 2019 Edition

    Once again, it’s that time of the offseason where I dive into the best young players in the game and determine which ones are on a pace to make Cooperstown. As usual, I’ll be starting today with the position players.

    To give you a refresher on the process: I begin by looking at every Hall of Famer, then finding the median career Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) by age for the group. Then, I look at how many players in history have matched or bettered that WAR total through that same age. From there, I take a simple percentage of how many players made the Hall out of the total set of players who reached the median WAR (removing players still on the ballot or not yet eligible for Cooperstown). While it doesn’t account for things like eventual Veterans Committee selections, or give us a great idea of which below-median players will eventually be elected, it does give us surprisingly strong odds for the best of the best, and way earlier than most people expect.

    So, with the preamble out of the way, let’s dive right in:

    Age 20: 0.55 WAR Median, 29.91% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Ronald Acuña (4.1 WAR)
    Juan Soto (3.0 WAR)

    The 2018 NL Rookie of the Year and runner-up both made the cut-off for age 20. Acuña is actually set up through his age 22 season, while Soto was only 19 for the 2018 season and has time to catch up to him this year.

    Also, it’s worth noting that only 64 Hall of Fame position players have debuted by age 20 (out of 159 total). Just under forty more debuted at age-21, then 26 for age-22, and then things will slowly increase until age 28. Eventual Hall of Famers still tend to distinguish themselves among others who debuted young to some extent, and any who debut later usually start strongly enough to make up early deficits.

    Age 21: 2.0 WAR Median, 33.55% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Ozzie Albies (5.2 WAR)
    Gleyber Torres (2.9 WAR)

    We have yet another Brave leading the way here, with 2018-first-time All-Star Ozzie Albies; Acuña and Albies is an impressive core for a rebuilding team to have, and it reminds me a bit of the Astros from a few years ago (although, if Victor Robles, who has a good 34 games through age 21, comes on strong, the Nationals could have a strong counter in him and Soto).

    Yankees middle-infielder Gleyber Torres should have plenty of playing time to pad his total in 2019, between Didi Gregorius’s injury and the Yankees deciding not to pursue Manny Machado. And the first runner-up here is his divisional rival Rafael Devers, who had 1.3 WAR after 2017 but followed it up with a 0-WAR 2018.

    Age 22: 4.0 WAR Median, 35.14% of players elected
    Active Players: 

    Cody Bellinger (8.3 WAR)

    And now we have the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year; there’s a lot of good, very-young talent in the National League, for whatever reason. Bellinger’s 4.2 WAR basically doubled his career total, setting him above the bar for next year and giving him a huge lead on the next-closest 23-year-old (Adalberto Mondesi of the Royals, at 2.1 WAR).

    Age 23: 7.65 WAR Median, 41.71% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Carlos Correa (18.3 WAR)

    Speaking of those good and young Astros from a few years ago, a lot of them are still young and really good, even if they’re not still 20 and 21. Correa had a rough year, marred by injuries, but he had an early enough head start that he’s still set through the next two seasons. If he’s back in form for 2019 and plays a full season, he could definitely add to this total. Andrew Benintendi is the next 23-year-old on the list, and he could conceivably hit the median in 2019 (he’s at 7.0 WAR right now).

    Age 24: 11.1 WAR Median, 43.50% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Francisco Lindor (23.9 WAR)
    Corey Seager (13.7 WAR)
    Alex Bregman (12.7 WAR)
    Addison Russell (12.0 WAR)

    Lindor’s lead here is pretty incredible, especially given the large quantity of young talent at this age. Already with three All-Star appearances and plenty of awards success, this is what a Hall-of-Fame career in the making looks like.

    It’s also kind of incredible that Seager is still above the mark, even after missing almost all of what was supposed to be his third full season due to Tommy John surgery. Bregman almost made up the difference in Seager’s time away, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see both of them hit 16 WAR this year. This could be the year Russell falls off the list, between his domestic violence suspension and declining performance.

    Age 25: 16.1 WAR Median, 49.68% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Mookie Betts (35.2 WAR)
    Manny Machado (33.8 WAR)
    Bryce Harper (27.4 WAR)
    Jose Ramirez (22.0 WAR)

    With an incredible, nearly-11-WAR season, Mookie Betts takes the lead in what’s an incredibly strong bunch of players. He passes both of the big free agent signings of the winter, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, both of whom turned their historic career-starts into a pair of record-breaking contracts. It will be interesting to see what type of contract Betts gets in two years when he hits free agency, since he’ll already be past his age 26 and 27 seasons, which was a big reason Machado and Harper’s deals got as big as they did. And then, there’s Lindor’s infield partner, Jose Ramirez, who has two straight third-place finishes in the MVP race.

    There’s some interesting things going on in the near-misses as well. Xander Bogaerts is the closest (14.8 WAR), but he’s never been close to a 6-Win player in a season. Maybe he steps his game up, but that’s the only way it happens. Javier Baez (11.9) and Matt Chapman (11.7) are different stories; even though they’re both farther off-pace, they were worth 6 and 8 WAR last year, respectively. Maybe they don’t get above the age 26 mark, but they might be on track by 27 if things go right.

    Age 26: 20.8 WAR Median, 53.06% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Mike Trout (64.3 WAR)
    Christian Yelich (26.2 WAR)
    Kris Bryant (21.6 WAR)

    Believe it or not, Mike Trout is already over the median WAR mark for Hall of Famers. All he needs to do at this point is play two more seasons to hit the 10-year minimum to be elected to Cooperstown. Meanwhile, Yelich used his MVP season to surpass Kris Bryant, who struggled in 2018. Aaron Judge is the nearest miss at 13.2, which is impressive considering he only has two seasons under his belt. It was a late debut, but a couple more strong years could get him above the pace.

    Age 27: 25.9 WAR Median, 58.09% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Nolan Arenado (33.1 WAR)

    The last three seasons have seen Arenado finish fifth, fourth, and third in MVP voting. He’s already one year ahead of the Hall pace, so he has room to work with even if he doesn’t finish second and first the next two years. If he does keep this up, even the Hall voters won’t be able to ignore this third baseman. In the misses, Ender Inciarte (18.8 WAR) finally passed Yasiel Puig (18.6), although neither is especially close.

    Age 28: 31.6 WAR Median, 65.57% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Giancarlo Stanton (39.2 WAR)
    Jose Altuve (35.1 WAR)
    Jason Heyward (34.9 WAR)
    Andrelton Simmons (34.9 WAR)
    Freddie Freeman (33.1 WAR)

    Things are slightly thinner in this bunch this year than in the past few years, as there were some down years. Giancarlo Stanton’s follow-up to his 2017 MVP was a little disappointing, but it was still a 4-Win season. No reason he can’t bounce back next year. Same goes for the other 2017 MVP, Jose Altuve, although to a lesser extent; he still managed 5 Wins through his injuries. He can easily keep on track with even a bad season, although a return to MVP form would set him up into his 30s.

    Jason Heyward is the biggest slip-up in this category, though. After three miserable seasons in Chicago, he’s set up to fall below pace for the first time unless he rediscovers his pre-Cubs form. It’s shocking how big of a buffer he’s burned through over the past few seasons.

    In contrast, Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman had really good 2018s to stay above the median. Anthony Rizzo had been matching Freeman for a while, but also had a down 2018 and dropped to 28.8 WAR.

    Age 29: 36.1 WAR Median, 72.07% of players elected
    Active Players:

    Elvis Andrus sits at 30.0 WAR, and needs a 10-WAR season to get back above the median. He did make it halfway to 3000 hits last year, and it was the first season he missed significant time to injury, so maybe he can get in to Cooperstown through one of the traditional milestones.

    Age 30: 40.1 WAR Median, 74.07% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Paul Goldschmidt (40.1 WAR)

    For the first time in his career, Goldschmidt reaches the median for his age group, landing exactly on the cutoff mark for age 30. Making Goldschmidt’s feat even more impressive is that he only had 48 games played before his age-24 season way back in 2012; all it took was six straight All-Star seasons (including three top-3 finishes in MVP voting) starting in 2013. No biggie, right?

    The first runner-up is Justin Upton. His 35.0 WAR is impressive, but quite a ways off from where he needs to be going forward, given that he’s only had two 5-WAR seasons so far. Is Upton a disappointment? On the one hand, he’s a former #1 overall draft pick and top prospect who debuted at the age of 19, and he seems to have topped out as more or less a 3-Win player. But most top picks don’t go on to be Ken Griffey Jr. or Joe Mauer or anything, and he’s already ninth all-time in WAR by a #1 pick, and it’s hard to call a likely-40+ WAR career disappointing by any measure.

    Age 31: 44.7 WAR Median, 76.92% of players elected
    Active Players:

    Sadly, Andrew McCutchen fell behind the pace this year for the first time since I started doing this series, as his 2.7 WAR only got him to 42.0. These increases in the early 30s are punishing, especially at an age where injuries can start to catch up to players. Hopefully, though, McCutchen’s time with the Yankees (which saw his OPS+ jump from 113 to 141) is a sign of resurgence. I’d love to see him get his groove back.

    Also, Buster Posey falls just behind him at 41.3, but as a catcher, different standards are going to apply. Catchers just can’t rack up the playing time and value that other positions can, so basically none of them hit these marks. By being this close, Posey is ahead of the curve.

    Age 32: 49.1 WAR Median, 79.21% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Evan Longoria (51.9 WAR)

    Every year I do this piece and get reminded that Evan Longoria only has three All-Star appearances (and none since 2010), and I’m dumbfounded all over again. He should have at least twice as many. He’s definitely lost a step, but he’s still a useful player (1.9 WAR in 125 games last year), and more importantly, he put it off until the point where most Hall of Famers tend to lose a step as well. Longoria is actually already at the age 33 mark, so if he can play 150 or so games at the level he did last year, he should be able stay a year ahead of the curve.

    Another third baseman follows him: Josh Donaldson, at 38.5 WAR. It would have been interesting to see if a healthy Donaldson could have closed the gap over the last two years in spite of his late start (his first full season was in 2013 at age 27, and he had only 89 games total before that). Maybe if he picks up where he left off, he still could, but it feels like a taller order for a 33 year old coming off of major injuries. The Braves certainly seem to think he has it in him, at least, given the huge one-year deal they gave him.

    Age 33: 51.4 WAR Median, 76.92% of players elected
    Active Players:

    Once upon a time, Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Zimmerman, and Matt Kemp all reached the mark for their age cohort or got very close (Kemp never quite hit the mark, but after that MVP-quality year, it seemed like he could easily catch up), and it looked like one or two or even all three of them could one day establish Hall of Fame careers for themselves. But nope, injuries hit them all hard. If you could mash together Zimmerman and Justin Turner into one super-third baseman, you might have something. It’s weird how neatly Turner’s rise and Zimmerman’s decline match up, with Zimmeran’s last ~4-WAR season coming in 2013 and Turner’s first coming in 2014.

    Age 34: 54.4 WAR Median, 78.43% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Joey Votto (58.8 WAR)

    Much like Paul Goldschmidt, Votto debuted relatively late for a start player (only 24 games played entering his age 24 season), and worked his way up to the Hall median through an extended run of strong, MVP-esque years. Now, at 35 and coming off of a 3.5-Win season, he has a chance to match the overall Hall median for position players (63.0 WAR) in 2019. And with that strong run extending into his recent seasons (including a 7.5-Win season in 2017) and at least five more years on his current contract, he should hopefully be able to build up the type of counting stat totals that make Hall voters realize that he should be a lock (he only has 1729 hits and 269 homers so far, both figures that would definitely turn off a large chunk of voters).

    Dustin Pedroia (52.1 WAR) is an interesting runner-up, because he fell under the median recently due to injuries (216 games missed in the past two years), not poor play (he had a nearly-6-WAR campaign in his last full season played). With some good health, he could maybe string together a few 3- or 4-WAR years that gets him back to the mark, but that feels like a big ask. Hopefully he comes on strong to start the 2019 seasons. After him, it’s a long way down to Ryan Braun (46.4 WAR).

    Age 35: 57.2 WAR Median, 79.21% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Miguel Cabrera (69.4 WAR)
    Robinson Cano (69.2 WAR)

    We finally have our first non-Trout players over the actual Hall median. Cabrera’s last two seasons have been rough, but I think his prime years, pair of MVP awards, and Triple Crown cemented his Hall status in most peoples’ minds, so he should be good either way. Plus, he also should be able to reach both 500 home runs and 3000 hits over the rest of his contract (which runs through at least 2023), which won’t hurt things.

    Who knows how voters will react to Cano after his PED suspension; signs aren’t encouraging so far, but we’ll see how views develop over the next decade or more (like Cabrera, Cano’s deal runs through 2023, then we’ll have the five-year waiting period before voters can even consider him). What also makes it interesting is that Cano is still good; he might even reach 3000 hits before Cabrera does, given the struggles of the former and the fact that Cano is only about 200 hits behind. If nothing else, we have a lot of time to wait and see how his story develops.

    The recently-retired duo of Joe Mauer (55.1 WAR) and David Wright (50.4 WAR) also fell here. Mauer will of course benefit from being a catcher and deserves to make the Hall, but injuries ruined Wright’s chances by basically ending his career at 32. And then there’s Yadier Molina, whose case will rely heavily on intangibles (he only has 38.9 WAR, which is low even for catchers), but he’s still doing well enough, and fans and writers seem to really like them. Like with Cano, I think we’ll need to wait and see how his narrative develops over the next seven or eight years, although it will be in the opposite direction of Cano.

    Age 36: 60.2 WAR Median, 83.33% of players elected
    Active Players:

    Once again, nobody makes the cutoff, but Ian Kinsler is close (57.3 WAR), so it’s time to go to my annual “Ian Kinsler is better than you realize and might even be a stealth Hall of Fame candidate” segment. 2018 wasn’t an All-Star-type year for him, but he was still an above-average starter and picked up a World Series title after his midseason trade to the Red Sox. Now, he moves to a Padres lineup that has added Manny Machado and a handful of exciting young call-ups, which should help him lock up the title of “Most Runs Scored in the 2010s” and put him in some really good company. And if he can put together a couple more above-average seasons like this one, he could even conceivably wind up above that 63-WAR mark I’ve been mentioning.

    I don’t think he’s going to get elected to the Hall. Even if he does top 60 wins, he’s not going to reach any big milestones (he only has 1943 hits and 248 homers to date), he’ll still be a bit of a fringe case, and his candidacy is going to look much weaker to all of the more traditional BBWAA members even with that “Most Runs in a Decade” thing. But still, it won’t be a bad career for a guy who didn’t make the majors until he was 24.

    Age 37: 61.4 WAR Median, 84.21% of players elected
    Active Players:

    Curtis Granderson (47.7 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (45.3) have both been wonderful players, but they’re nowhere near pulling this off. Again, though, it’s worth appreciating how close they got in spite of late starts; Granderson only had 56 games by the start of his age-25 season, while Zobrist didn’t play in the majors at all until he was 25 and didn’t have a season of more than 62 games until he was 28.

    Age 38: 62.2 WAR Median, 86.02% of players elected
    Active Players:
    Albert Pujols (100.0 WAR)

    I don’t think I need to persuade anyone that Albert Pujols is a Hall of Famer, do I? His seven seasons in Los Angeles have put a lot of distance in memory from his days in St. Louis, but those eleven seasons were incredible: three MVP awards, ten total top-ten finishes in MVP voting (plus one ninth-place one), over 2000 hits, nearly 450 home runs, a 170 OPS+, and an average of nearly 8 WAR per season. He still has three more seasons left on his current deal, and they’ll probably be a little bit of a slog given that he’s looked pretty bad the last two years and it doesn’t even look like he’ll have any milestones to hit along the way (3500 hits and 700 home runs are both possible, but will take good health and not getting any worse), but even ten disappointing years in the back half of his career aren’t enough to erase the astounding first half.


    Other than a brief cameo by Ichiro Suzuki to start the year, we probably won’t see any position players older than 39 in the majors this year. Erik Kratz (a few months younger than Pujols) is the only other 39-year-old with a contract so far, and if Matt Holliday gets a deal, he’s one day older than Albert, but that’s it. Check back next time when I cover the pitchers’ side of things.

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