Thursday, March 11, 2021

Predicting Today's Future Hall of Fame Starting Pitchers, 2020 Edition

Last time, we took our annual look at which position players were on-pace for the Hall of Fame. Naturally, we follow that up by looking at the pitchers.

As I mentioned last time, I decided to just carry on like normal, shortened pandemic and all. Players from other generations have faced shortened seasons for other reasons, so it’s built into the precedent we’re working with, to some degree. But it did make me wonder a little, are pitchers better suited to the missing time? Like, it’s to some degree expected that pitchers will miss a season here or there due to injury, in a way that isn’t common with position players. Right?

But looking a bit deeper, I’m not actually sure. For example, while Tommy John surgery isn’t rare and usually wipes out a whole season, there actually aren’t that many players in the Hall who have had it; to date, it’s just John Smoltz and non-pitcher Paul Molitor (although maybe Billy Wagner or Tommy John will be added in the near future). And sure, there are a few more Hall pitchers with non-UCL injuries that took time, but on the whole, Hall pitchers are probably noticeably healthier than pitchers as a whole. It also doesn't help that the year-ending injuries are a relatively recent phenomenon, seeing an uptick since the 2000s and especially since the 2010s, meaning we are still some time away from seeing how it's handled by Hall voters. So in short, my feeling is that for now, we should assume the missed time will still matter, although we will probably need to wait to get a sense of the exact degree.

Anyway, if you’re looking for an explanation of the general methodology of this series, the process is the same as the one I discussed at the beginning of the position players article, measuring the Wins Above Replacement totals for Hall players across ages, and then seeing how many other position players also reached that mark. The one difference is that, for the pitchers, I narrowed my scope to just starting pitchers from the liveball era on (1919-present), since pitching has varied wildly throughout baseball history and this helps keep it to just a single, more recognizable standard.

I will also note that the standard caveats I mentioned last time hold here as well. This is only descriptive and can miss modern extenuating circumstances, like testing positive for PEDs and how that impacts voting (or, again, the modern spike in injuries). Some starters who will make the Hall, by definition, are below the Hall median, so missing these marks isn’t the end of a player’s chances. Also, my research on Cooperstown failing to fully understand modern pitchers applies here as well, and that may affect future Hall voting.

One other major thing I want to cover before diving in is the difference between what the position player median means versus the pitcher median. This is something that I’ve covered in-depth before, but to summarize: the position player median is much more straightforward. Position players who reach the mark young tend to stay good, one that debut later needs a strong but steady run to catch up, and it’s just generally fairly predictable from early on. Pitchers are not like that; passing the median early doesn’t mean nearly as much, and pitchers with later major successes in their 30s isn’t nearly as rare. The Hall of Fame formula for pitchers, for the ones who aren’t instantly dominant from the start and always stay ahead of the median, is to just be somewhat close to the WAR median until your early thirties or so, and then just having enough strong seasons in your 30s to catch up from there.

With all of that out of the way, let’s finally ask the question: which current starting pitchers are trending towards the Hall of Fame?




Age 20: 1.0 WAR Median; 14.81% of all players at this mark elected
Age 21: 2.1 WAR Median; 11.46% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Even making the majors at these ages as a pitcher is difficult, even more so in a year without September call-ups, so it’s not too surprising that there weren’t any players above these WAR totals even with how low they were. There was only one 20-year-old pitcher in the league at all (Luis Patino), and only a half-dozen 21-year-olds (Sixto Sánchez leading with 1.4 WAR).



Age 22: 4.3 WAR Median; 15.91% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players:
Mike Soroka (5.8 WAR)


It’s not enough for the position player list to be overloaded with young Braves stars, they also kick things off on the pitcher list as well. Granted, Soroka is on the list entirely for his 2019 season, since his 2020 season didn’t even reach 14 innings, but working around injuries is part of being a pitcher. In our honorable mention tier, Soroka’s teammate Ian Anderson, Dustin May , and Jesus Luzardo all have more than 1 WAR, but not much more. Maybe one of them would have made it to 4.3 Wins with a full season, but it’s not a guarantee.



Age 23: 6.75 WAR Median; 17.20% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None

Once again, nobody makes it to the median. Jaime Barria and Julio Urias are both about halfway there, with about 240-ish innings under their belt. Maybe one of them would have made up the difference with a hot back-half of 2020 had it been a full year, but again, I don’t feel super sure about that.



Age 24: 9.6 WAR Median; 17.35% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Brad Keller finished with 8.3 WAR, and for a change of pace, he would have likely made it to 9.6 Wins in a full season, finishing with 1.7 for the year. Jack Flaherty is 0.3 behind him, but his 2020 was a lot rougher. Like I mentioned in the position player article, it’s hard to know what effect the pandemic had on players mentally last year, but maybe he would have had a strong season in a neutral environment; hopefully, he can bounce back strong in 2021. Zac Gallen (5.3 Wins) also finished more than halfway to the goal.



Age 25: 12.25 WAR Median; 17.65% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: German Márquez (13.0 WAR)


This is where the lack of games last year is going to hurt some cases. Márquez still finished above the median, but he had a solid year, and given that the leap from age-25-median to age-26-median is pretty big, getting to build up some more value would have helped. Cy Young winner Shane Bieber (8.8 career Wins) would have also probably liked to have more time to build up his stats last year, given how good he was and how much ground he still has to make up.



Age 26: 18.65 WAR Median; 30.00% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


José Berríos leads this age bracket, but he’s not even as far along as Keller, at just 7.7 Wins.



Age 27: 22.55 WAR Median; 33.33% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Aaron Nola not making this feels more like a technicality than anything, as he finished at 22.3 WAR. And while his 2020 wasn’t as good as, say, Bieber’s, it was still a nice bounceback following his 2019 falloff, as he was well on his way to his second-best season. Maybe he could have even made it to the next median as well, although another 4+ Wins would have been asking a lot. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, though.

Outside of Nola, there’s Kyle Freeland, who had an even more dramatic collapse from 2018 to 2019. His 2020 was an even bigger return to form, as he matched Nola’s 2.2 WAR but was starting from negative WAR the previous year, but it still only brought him to 13.0 Wins. Blake Snell is even further back at 11.3, despite his Cy Young campaign, thanks in part to his innings limits and a relatively late start (he debuted at 23 and broke 100 innings for the first time a year later).



Age 28: 26.5 WAR Median; 35.85% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Technically, age-leader Carlos Martinez is over halfway to the goal, at 13.9 WAR. But even that tenuous status doesn’t feel like it will last much longer, given how forgettable Martinez’s last few years have been.



Age 29: 31.8 WAR Median; 41.30% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Gerrit Cole has spent the last few years trying to claw his way back to the Hall median pace after a few mediocre years, and between his two fantastic years in Houston, it looked like he might be able to do it. His New York debut was similarly great, but the shortened time means he probably missed out on another 3-4 Wins. Not quite enough to make up all of the gap this year (he’s currently at 25.5), but enough that he could have caught up in 2021 with just another great year. Instead, he needs a pretty historic one instead, so it will optimistically be another few years, even with a few more seasons as good as his last few.

There are a few good players after him that are still a ways away thanks to relatively late starts, including Trevor Bauer (17.7) and Mike Clevinger (13.4), but the second-place for this group is actually Julio Teheran, at 18.7 Wins. Teheran hasn’t replicated his early success, but his 2020 was especially awful after contracting COVID. Hopefully he’s back to full strength this year.



Age 30: 37.0 WAR Median; 54.29% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Madison Bumgarner was only barely holding on last year, so things looked grim given the big jump in value from age 29 to age 30. But his 2020 was especially bad, to the point where it being shortened might have helped him out (he posted his first sub-100 ERA+ for a season at 71, and was worth negative WAR). He’s now at 31.9 Wins for his career. Trailing him are Kyle Hendricks (22.3), Sonny Gray (18.9), and Patrick Corbin (18.1), all of whom are much further away, but actually posted positive value in 2020.



Age 31: 41.5 WAR Median; 55.88% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players:
Chris Sale (45.4 WAR)


Sale wasn’t going to have a 2020 season regardless of the pandemic thanks to Tommy John surgery, but thankfully, he had enough WAR stockpiled that he can withstand missing even all of this year (hopefully, it doesn’t come to that, but just in case…). My research from a few years ago indicates that a starting pitcher has an extremely good chance of making the Hall if they can get around 55-ish WAR by the age of 33, and with two years to go, it doesn’t look like Sale will hit that mark. But with some healthy and effective years post-33, he should be fine, and hopefully this surgery ensures that.

Stephen Strasburg also had a pretty injury-marred year, appearing in only 5.0 innings. He’s only at 32.1 WAR as is, which is a bit off, but in that same research I linked to earlier, I mentioned that the more conventional way to merit induction is for a starter to land somewhere in the 30-50 WAR area through age 33 and then add some strong post-33 years. That one feels doable for Stras barring further injury, but you can see why that’s a big asterisk in his case. After those two is José Quintana, who’s only at 25.7 WAR following some hard backsliding into mediocrity the last few years after a promising start.



Age 32: 45.4 WAR Median; 61.29% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players:
Clayton Kershaw (67.0 WAR)


With a full year, Clayton Kershaw would have passed the overall Hall median WAR for starters, but I’m assuming he’ll take the World Series as a consolation prize. Of course, once again referring to that research I mentioned earlier, he’s probably already set. There’s also the fact that he has 3 Cy Young Awards already (every eligible pitcher with that many or more is in Cooperstown except Roger Clemens). 3000 strikeouts isn’t quite as much of a lock as those two factors, but that’s only a couple of years away at this point as well. I don’t think anyone reading this needed much convincing of Kershaw’s Hall credentials, but there are already a lot of ways he fits right in.

Jacob deGrom, on the other hand, could have used the extra time of a full season. He didn’t debut until he was 26, but has made an impressive run at the median mark since then, and now sits at 35.9 Wins. A full year wouldn’t have been enough for him to get the rest of the way, but he needs as much extra time as he can get. Of course, he made a strong run at that third Cy Young last year, and there’s still a chance he could get it this year or beyond. Sure, age could strike at any time, but you have to figure the guy on a run like this has at least a few more good seasons left. After deGrom, there Dallas Keuchel, who’s coming off a strong 2020, but he’s also even further away from the median, with just 22.1 Wins to date.



Age 33: 52.4 WAR Median; 86.36% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


There are some interesting names on new teams here (new Padre Yu Darvish at 25.3, new White Sock Lance Lynn at 25.0, new Met Carlos Carrasco at 21.3), but none of them are all that close to this median.



Age 34: 55.6 WAR Median; 95.00% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players: None


Two of the biggest names to opt out of the 2020 season lead this age group. Felix Hernandez was hoping to revive his career last year, and the early word out of Spring Training was good before the pandemic ended. Maybe this year will wind up being a turnaround? He’s still at 50.1 WAR (even after losing 1.6 Wins from his poor 2018 and 2019), so he’s not in a bad position if he can make this the start of a second act to his career.

Meanwhile, David Price will finally be making his Dodgers debut this year (I was curious, and it does look like he’s getting a ring for 2020). He’s currently at 39.7 Wins and was never really on pace, so he’s going to need to stay effective for a number of years to get up to speed. It’s not unthinkable, but he’ll basically need a second peak I think.

After them, nobody is especially close here, either. Johnny Cueto’s career has kind of seen the bottom drop out when he hasn’t been injured, but he still leads the way with 34.1 WAR. Corey Kluber is right after him, with 32.3. He looked like he might have be able to overcome a late start after 2018, but injuries have wrecked his last two years. But perhaps he can pick up where he left off this year; if there’s any team that can resurrect peak-Kluber in 2021, it’s (unfortunately) probably the Yankees.



Age 35: 60.0 WAR Median; 100% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players:
Max Scherzer (60.6 WAR)


Scherzer was the reason I specified “active players” back during the Kershaw section, rather than just naming him specifically. So with a trio of Cy Young Awards to his name and a World Series back in 2019, Scherzer’s Hall case is likely already set. But while he’s at it, he may as well just lock down a little bit more WAR, and pass the Hall median. If he’s really on his game, he could even manage it in 2021 or early next season.



Age 36: 60.7 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players:
Zack Greinke (67.1 WAR)


I used to be worried that Hall voters wouldn’t be able to properly appreciate Greinke’s career and he would struggle in Hall voting. Given how Hall voting has played out lately, I don’t think it was an unfounded concern, but I think the narrative on Greinke over the last few years has solidified enough that he’ll be spared their confusion. He’s continued racking up awards, counting stats, and value, and I don’t think a quarter or more of Hall voters will be able to hold out on him (certainly not indefinitely, but there might still be some first ballot weirdness? I’m starting to doubt that as well). If there’s an area where he lost out on the pandemic, it’s on his chances at 3000 strikeouts, where his timeline shifted from “likely sometime in 2021” to “2022 or beyond”. Maybe he quits before reaching it now, but I still doubt this (although my article on the chances of him and Verlander pairing up in a 3000-K rotation aged pretty poorly). Either way, he should pass the overall Hall median this season.

Cole Hamels, meanwhile, is a lot closer to the borderline, at 58.4 Wins. He could have used more playing time in 2020, although injury wound up wiping most of that for him rather than pandemic. A shoulder injury is worrisome, especially for a pitcher his age, and as of this writing, he still hasn’t found a team for the 2021 season. I hope he can come back strong and keep building his case with a few more good years. 3000 strikeouts feels like a bit of a long shot, as he’s at 2560, but not unreachable; hitting a big traditional mark like that should help him. Even as-is, I think he falls into my tier of “below-median pitchers I would support for the Hall” with guys like Mark Buehrle (Hamel’s postseason performance helps a lot here). I’m not sure that does Hamels a ton of good in the actual voting, though, seeing as Buehrle only reached 11% of the vote this year, and in a relatively weak ballot at that.

Jon Lester is still around and kicking as well, signing with the Nationals. At 45.0 Wins, his shot at the Hall median is pretty much gone. I’m curious to see what he can manage if he sticks around for a few more years; maybe I’ll talk myself into adding him to my “below-median, but still Hall-worthy” tier as well.



Age 37: 61.4 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Age 38: 62.5 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Age 39: 65.5 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Age 40: 66.1 WAR Median; 86.36% of all players at this mark elected
Age 41: 67.0 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Overall: 68.0 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Active Players:
Justin Verlander (72.3 WAR)


Verlander will likely miss all of 2021 season, but his Hall credentials are basically set no matter how you want to look at it. I have no doubt he’ll be back post-Tommy John surgery, but if he just decided he’d rather retire at this point, he’s done more than enough to win over voters. We’d likely be missing out on some good seasons, but his case doesn’t really lack for anything.

There are a few other older starters in the league this year, like J.A. Happ and Rich Hill. But the most notable remaining pitcher is Adam Wainwright at 36.9 WAR. That’s very far from where he needs to be, but I think it’s still fascinating how much value he’s managed despite the general shape of his career. His rookie season wasn’t until he was 24, he didn't have his first year as a starter until the year after, he’s basically lost three full years to injuries and a majority of another year to a pandemic. And yet, despite all that, he’s still managed over 2000 innings and nearly 40 WAR thanks in part to a high peak (four top-3 finishes in Cy Young voting), but also thanks to staying healthy and effective until nearly 40, which is weird to say given all the time missed due to injuries. I’m not sure how much longer he has, so it’s fun to appreciate while he’s still active.

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