As you may know by now, I’m especially interested in the Hall of Fame. And one of my favorite offseason activities, in the period between the official Hall of Fame election and pitchers and catchers reporting for a new season, is to merge the modern and the historic and look at the active players who, entering the season, are on pace for Cooperstown. I’ve been at it for several years now, in fact.
It’s a pretty simple system, running primarily on Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement across ages. And it’s more descriptive than predictive, reflecting who’s already been elected rather than who should be but was snubbed, or whether the Hall should be bigger, or how much newer issues like steroids will affect the vote.
But it’s a good activity for the slow end-of-winter days, and unlike some other methods, it usually returns a reasonable number of players given what we know (Bill James’s estimate years ago is that there are usually around 40 active future Hall of Famers in a given season, and I’m usually a little over that but with some regression expected), and they’re actually fairly spread out across ages rather than clustered at the end (that 40 active players total doesn’t differentiate between players just starting and those nearing the end). And if nothing else, it gives you an idea of what a reasonable career path to Cooperstown looks like?
So what is the method I use, exactly? I basically look at each player inducted (divided by position player or pitcher, since the standards are different), then look at their spread of WAR by age. I pick the Median; and from there, look at how many total players in history have matched or bettered that total by that age (excluding players who are still active, not yet eligible, or still on the ballot, since their fates are still up in the air), then look at what percentage of that group eventually went on to Cooperstown.
See, not too complicated! So, with that out of the way, who all currently is above the Hall of Fame median WAR for their age? Players are grouped by their age from the 2019 season.
Age 20: 0.55 WAR Median; 29.91% of all players at this mark elected
Juan Soto (7.6 WAR)
Fernando Tatis Jr. (4.2 WAR)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (2.1 WAR)
On the one hand, I can see why this would feel too early to tell. And just over half a career win doesn’t feel all that much. And really, it’s not; a 30% chance is still pretty low compared to everything else on this list. But really, it’s just a testament to how difficult it is to make it to the majors at such a young age and actually provide value; under 150 players have actually achieved this total by age 20, and just under a third of the ones that have and are eligible for the Hall have made it.
So no, none of these three players individually are likely to make the Hall at this early point in their careers. But taken together, there’s a very good chance that at least one of them holds on.
Age 21: 2.0 WAR Median; 33.55% of all players at this mark elected
Ronald Acuña Jr. (9.6 WAR)
Bo Bichette (2.1 WAR)
Bichette managed to match his teammate Vlad Jr. in about half a season’s worth of game fewer. Acuña, meanwhile, has in just two seasons already matched the Hall median in WAR through age 23, and is well on his way to knocking out the age 24 one.
Age 22: 4.0 WAR Median; 35.14% of all players at this mark elected
Ozzie Albies (9.9 WAR)
Gleyber Torres (6.8 WAR)
Rafael Devers (6.6 WAR)
Victor Robles (4.6 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Yordan Álvarez (3.7 WAR)
Acuña’s teammate over in Atlanta, Albies is still a hair ahead of him in WAR (albeit in over 100 more games). Torres, Devers, and Robles all passed the mark as well, but the biggest point of interest for Astros’ fans is probably Yordan Álvarez, who just missed despite his late call-up for service time reasons. If he can play close to that level in 2020, he’s above the age 23 median this time next year.
Age 23: 7.65 WAR Median; 41.71% of all players at this mark elected
Cody Bellinger (17.4 WAR)
The reigning NL MVP’s big 2019 set him up through two more years’ worth of WAR to stay on the median pace, at least. There’s still a lot that can go wrong clearly (even the age-25 median carries a more or less 50-50 chance), but it’s not hard to see why the type of player who can put up a historic 47-homer, 169 OPS+ season at just age-23 has Hall chances that good even with a definite majority of his career ahead of him. And with his new teammate out in Chavez Ravine (more on that in a second), we might be looking at one of the best outfield duos in history, even if it only lasts one season.
Age 24: 11.1 WAR Median; 43.50% of all players at this mark elected
Carlos Correa (21.0 WAR)
Honorable Mentions: Andrew Benintendi, Yoan Moncada
We finally have our first Astro officially above the Hall median in Carlos Correa. It's easy to forget given how much injuries have wrecked him over the last few years, but he's been pretty incredible when he's been able to stay on the field, including 6-WAR seasons at the ages of 21 and 22. His injury history means you probably need to adjust his Hall chances down to some extent, but they're still really good for a 24-year-old, and if he does manage to finally put together a healthy season, it would go a long way to helping the Astros reclaim the AL West. Correa's nearest contemporaries, Benintendi and Moncada, both fall just above 8 WAR, for comparison; catching up to the Hall median isn't out of the question if they break out, but it will likely still take good health and multiple seasons to do so.
Age 25: 16.1 WAR Median; 49.68% of all players at this mark elected
Francisco Lindor (28.6 WAR)
Alex Bregman (20.8 WAR)
Corey Seager (17.8 WAR)
After those two ages with only one representative, we're right back to a stacked age bracket. First up is the shortstop who finished runner-up to Correa in Rookie of the Year voting way back in 2015, Francisco Lindor. Lindor has a bit of a down year in 2019, especially after his big 2018, but he's still strong glove at shortstop with a good bat, and a normal season from him in 2020 should get him over 31.75 WAR (the overall Hall median for position players is 63.0, making that the halfway point).
After that is Alex Bregman, our second Astro officially above the line. Bregman is exactly at the age-26 median, meaning he'll be back on this list next winter barring a negative-WAR season, and an All-Star-caliber campaign this year probably sets him up through 2021 as well. And lastly, there's Corey Seager, who bounced back nicely from missing most of 2018 with Tommy John surgery and managed to stay above the median for his year. He doesn't have the room for error that Lindor or Bregman do, but he's still only 3 Wins short of making his next cutoff.
Age 26: 20.8 WAR Median; 53.06% of all players at this mark elected
Mookie Betts (42.0 WAR)
Manny Machado (36.9 WAR)
Bryce Harper (31.5 WAR)
Jose Ramirez (25.3 WAR)
Honorable Mentions: Xander Bogaerts, Matt Chapman
It's only a modest increase over the age-25 rate, but the age-26 mark of 20.8 WAR is the first median where more than half of the players to make it historically have gone on to Cooperstown. It's still basically just a coinflip, but that's not bad considering players at this age still have a decade or more left in their careers.
Anyway, newly-minted Dodger Mookie Betts is our first player above the overall Hall of Fame median, and his fellow AL-East-to-NL-West transplant Manny Machado is the second. Last offseason's other big free agent, Bryce Harper, just misses, and should pass that mark (as well as the age-28 median) in the opening weeks of the season barring injury. Jose Ramirez is a level below all of them, but he should still make the age-27 median with ease. Xander Bogaerts (19.9) and Matt Chapman (18.5) are both within sight the 20.8 WAR mark, but they'll definitely need to hit their best-case projections to reach the age-27 mark. Neither is totally out of reach of it, though.
Age 27: 25.9 WAR Median; 58.09% of all players at this mark elected
Mike Trout (72.5 WAR)
Christian Yelich (33.6 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Kris Bryant
You already know Mike Trout is good; I'm really not sure what else to add here. He should clear 73 WAR (i.e.; a full 10 wins above the overall Hall of Fame median for position players) in the first month of 2020. Christian Yelich almost looks like a disappointment in comparison, since he's "only" one year ahead of schedule, but he'll still spent this season working towards his 2021 goal. In something closer to an actual disappointment, there's Kris Bryant, who's rough last two seasons (5.5 WAR) have left him at 25.1 WAR, making this the first time since his rookie season that he wasn't above the Hall median for his age.
Age 28: 31.6 WAR Median; 65.57% of all players at this mark elected
Nolan Arenado (38.7 WAR)
The age-28 median is basically halfway to the overall Hall of Fame median WAR. There's still a long way to go, but you have a pretty good idea at this point who actually has what it takes to make it, as we're in the midst of a pretty aggressive set of increases in the year-to-year Hall median. To still even be in the equation at this point, a player would need multiple All-Star-to-MVP quality seasons, and of course, having multiple years like that means you have a good chance to add a few more. That's a big part of why about two-thirds of the players at this cutoff have made it to Cooperstown (which is still decent odds, but not overwhelming). Anyway, we have Nolan Arenado here, who's on a string of five straight All-Star seasons (and four top-six finishes in MVP voting). And like several other players we've covered, he's already set through this year.
Age 29: 36.1 WAR Median; 72.07% of all players at this mark elected
Giancarlo Stanton (39.9 WAR)
Jose Altuve (38.5 WAR)
Freddie Freeman (37.4 WAR)
Jason Heyward (36.9 WAR)
Andrelton Simmons (36.9 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Anthony Rizzo
This is our final age bracket with a large set of players to cover. First is Giancarlo Stanton, who does a good job of demonstrating why being a year ahead of schedule makes a big difference; one injury-wrecked season, like Stanton's 2019 (just 18 games) and your buffer is suddenly gone. He's still not to far away from his goal this year, but if his 2020 is similarly injury-plagued, he could find himself below the median and in need multiple All-Star seasons to catch back up.
Next, we have our third Astro on pace, Jose Altuve. His 2019, while similarly injury-plagued, still wasn't anywhere near as rough as Stanton's, and a repeat in 2020 would still keep him above the median for his age. A full return to form and he might even pass Stanton and pick up that one-year buffer on the pace. After them is Freddie Freeman, who's been remarkably steady, even if he hasn't quite reached the MVP heights of Stanton and Altuve; he's working on a streak of four straight 4+-WAR seasons and seven-straight 3+-WAR seasons. It's hard not to admire that consistency.
After Freeman are two of his former teammates, Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons. Heyward is like the cautionary tale of the "young players above the Hall median" story; an early debut and some strong seasons (including a 6-Win campaign at age 20) left him with strong lead on the pace, but after four-straight 2-WAR (or fewer) seasons since joining the Cubs, he's basically squandered all of that. It's a harsh reminder that, as good as it is, that 72% mark listed above still isn't 100%.
Simmons, meanwhile, is building a Hall case on his historically-good glove. Omar Vizquel finally passed 50% in balloting this year, and looks like a good bet for induction sometime in the next few years. In that case, it's hard not to see that as laying a precedent for a potential Hall precedence for Andrelton should he stay healthy and keep up his defense.
Meanwhile, joining Bryant and Heyward in "disappointing Cubs land", we have Anthony Rizzo. He was on pace as recently as two years ago, but two straight "just-okay" seasons combined with the aggressive increases to the Hall median in these ages have left him about three and a half wins shy of where he needs to be.
Age 30: 40.1 WAR Median; 74.07% of all players at this mark elected
Things calm down drastically from here. No one from this age cohort is even close to 40 WAR; Elvis Andrus leads at 31.7.
Age 31: 44.7 WAR Median; 76.92% of all players at this mark elected
Paul Goldschmidt narrowly misses (43.1 WAR) after a rough 2019; he overcame something of a late start (playing just 48 games in his age-23 debut) and finally crossed the median last year, but one rough season was all it took to erase that. And what’s more, given that the Hall median makes another pretty steep climb, Goldschmidt is going to either need to have one of his best seasons yet at the age of 32 or string together several 4-ish Win years to get back above the Hall pace.
Age 32: 49.1 WAR Median; 79.21% of all players at this mark elected
Andrew McCutchen (43.6) is another example of a sharp drop crushing a promising start; he was sitting above 37 WAR after his age 28 season back in 2015, but in the four seasons since, has totaled just 6.2 WAR. At this point, he needs a mid-30s second act. Last year looked like it might be the start of that, but missing the last 100 games of the season due to injury feels like a pretty crushing blow.
Buster Posey doesn’t make the cutoff either (42.1), but since he’s a catcher, he has more leeway since they usually have lower counting stats all-around (for example, only four catchers in history have topped the Hall-median WAR of 63.0). So while his exact chances are even more up in the air, I’d say they’re definitely better than McCutchen’s.
Age 33: 51.4 WAR Median; 76.92% of all players at this mark elected
Evan Longoria (54.2 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Josh Donaldson
I’m really curious to see how Longoria’s career plays out, and how Hall voters view him post-retirement. His first six or so were pretty incredible, with him averaging about 7.0 per 150 games through the age of 27. He hasn’t been that good in the six years since, but he’s still butting up above-average seasons. If he can keep it up through the end of his current contract, he’ll easily pass the 63.0 WAR Hall median, but I wonder if writers would penalize him for his peak starting and ending so early, even if he was still good after that?
Josh Donaldson, the runner-up here (44.8 WAR), is basically the opposite. While Longoria’s peak ended at 27, Donaldson didn’t even break 100 games until his age-28 season. But since the 2013 season, he’s put up six 5+ Win seasons, including four of 7.5 or better. And with 6.1-season last year in a bounce back from injuries in 2018, it seems like he can keep going like this for at least a few more years. I have no idea what the latest point is that a player has passed the Hall median for their age for the first time, but Donaldson definitely has a strong chance to set that record in two years or so.
Age 34: 54.4 WAR Median; 78.43% of all players at this mark elected
Everybody here is 15 WAR away or more.
Age 35: 57.2 WAR Median; 79.21% of all players at this mark elected
Joey Votto (60.2 WAR)
I’m not sure how voters will view Votto’s candidacy right now. On the one hand, his counting numbers are a little low. On the other hand, he’s still under contract for four more seasons, so there’s plenty of time to pad those. He’s still not an awful player, and could add value over the next year or two still. Will the voters see value in his high peak, or hold the length of his career against him? One interesting point to watch in the coming years might be Todd Helton, who finished with around 30% of the vote this year in a sizeable leap from the previous year. Helton finished within 1 Win of Votto’s current total, with a 7-year peak just half a win better. Like with Vizquel and Simmons earlier, if Helton builds momentum, it seems like a pretty clear path for Votto to follow.
Age 36: 60.2 WAR Median; 83.33% of all players at this mark elected
Miguel Cabrera (69.6 WAR)
Robinson Canó (69.6 WAR)
Age 37: 61.4 WAR Median; 84.21% of all players at this mark elected
Age 38: 62.2 WAR Median; 86.02% of all players at this mark elected
Age 39: 61.6 WAR Median; 84.21% of all players at this mark elected
Albert Pujols (100.3 WAR)
We close out with the players who have largely made their cases. It largely doesn’t matter how Albert Pujols’s final two seasons in Anaheim play out, his case was a lock the moment he passed the ten-year minimum the Hall requires. Miguel Cabrera’s also struggling as of late (and his contract goes through at least 2023), but he’s also a two-time MVP, eleven-time All-Star, Triple Crown winner, and still-likely 500 homer/3000 hit guy. It doesn’t matter how rough these last few years get, he’s still going in first ballot. Canó would be in that category probably, were it not for his PED suspension back in 2018. We’ll just have to wait and see how voters view that when he hits the ballot, which will probably be sometime around 2030? As someone who is still struggling to write 2020, that does not seem like a real year, so I really have no idea what the general consensus of the BBWAA will be at that point. And to cover the empty years, Ian Kinsler and Curtis Granderson were the active leaders for ages 37 and 38, but both retired this offseason.