It’s long been a tradition here at Hot Corner Harbor to look at which active players might be on pace for the Hall of Fame. I’ve been busy with various things the past few months, but I really wanted to do my yearly update to the series before the 2016 season got under way. To keep it simple, I’m going to reuse my numbers from last year and give a quick refresher on my system; feel free to check previous year’s editions if you want a more in-depth explanation.
Essentially, I’m looking at how many Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) all Hall of Fame hitters had accumulated at each age and picked the median. Then, to give some context, I found what percentage of players at that mark or higher went on to be inducted into Cooperstown (accounting for players still on the ballot and such). This isn’t to say these players will or won’t make Cooperstown; by definition, half of all Hall of Famers didn’t. And hitting these marks is no guarantee; players may drop off, or they may not and Hall voters may not choose to recognize them anyway. This is just to get a rough guide to what a Hall of Fame career might look like, and to see who is on pace.
Age 20: 0.5 WAR, 24.79% inducted
Many players, even Hall-caliber ones, aren’t even called up at this point, and the bar is so low that it’s easy for a lot of fluke players to cross the line. But when a player comes up this young, it’s frequently a good sign for their early chances, and when they do really good, it’s an even better one. And the single 20-year-old hitter in 2015 certainly qualifies: Carlos Correa posted 4.1 Wins en route to the Rookie of the Year award. The fact that’s he’s already crossed the age 22 benchmark is a pretty solid early indicator.
Age 21: 2.0 WAR, 32.21%
Once again, we’re not dealing with our full sample yet, which makes things a little rougher. But we’re sill dealing with an almost 1-in-3 chance, so it’s not totally meaningless.
MLB in 2015 was stocked with young up-the-middle players that hit this mark. Leading the way was AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Francisco Lindor. Cleveland’s slick-fielding shortstop posted 4.6 Wins, letting him spend 2016 working towards the age 23 goal. After him, it was fellow rookie Addison Russell. His bat wasn’t as strong as Lindor’s (122 OPS+ to 90), but his glove and position still netted him 3.3 Wins.
After them, there’s Ketel Marte (2.3 WAR) and Roughned Odor (2.0) just making the mark. Also, at just below the line, there’s Corey Seager, who managed 1.8 WAR in only 27 games. If he wins Rookie of the Year in his first full season this year, he should be well over the mark next year. The only other 21-year old batters to see time in 2015 were Joey Gallo, Jorge Polanco, Byron Buxton, and Dilson Herrera, so one of them might make the list next year.
Age 22: 4.0 WAR, 34.27%
At age 22, we find two stalwarts of this series. Both have been on each version of this since it started back in 2013, despite both being 19 that year. First, with his MVP win this year, Bryce Harper moved to 19.8 WAR for his career, almost enough to get him through his age 26(!) season. By comparison, Manny Machado looks like a slacker, “only” being set through his age-25 season with 17.7 Wins and counting. Both marks would mark them as >50% chances for Cooperstown even before accounting for the fact that they reached this mark years early.
A pair of Red Sox also clear this mark. I feel like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts flew under the radar in 2015, but they improved their career totals to 8.1 and 5.3 Wins, respectively. They look to form a core in Boston for a long time, and if they do, look for them to join Machado and Harper as list regulars. After them, the nearest miss was the man Francisco Lindor replaced, Jose Ramirez, who has managed 3.3 WAR despite never playing more than 97 games in a season or topping 1.8 WAR in a year. Sticking around here might be an issue for him going forward unless something changes.
Age 23: 7.7 WAR, 40.72%
Let’s just knock this out right now: Mike Trout has 37.9 WAR in his five years in the Majors. He’s already set for his next six seasons. He could take the next six years off to write the Great American Novel, or become a master painter, or marathon the complete Days of Our Lives, or whatever else he felt like, and when he returned in 2022, he would still be above half of all elected Hall of Famers through the same age.
Let’s just take a moment to talk about this, even if it might touch on the morbid. Is there any way Mike Trout doesn’t make the Hall of Fame? If he plays the ten seasons he needs to qualify, he’ll have the numbers to merit induction, if only under the Koufax reasoning. So basically, he would need to retire before he reached ten seasons…except I can think of very few reasons he might retire before ten seasons that might not also merit consideration as an extreme circumstance. The Hall has waived rules for Roberto Clemente and Lou Gehrig, and if something that extreme happened to Trout, I feel like his case would at least be discussed in case of extreme debilitating disease or disaster. He’d certainly have defenders as well. Unless he just is struck by extreme apathy or pulls an O.J. Simpson (wow, we got even darker than life-threatening illness!), I think he could still get inducted. But those are maybe a less than 1% chance in the “Mike Trout retires without ten seasons” probability tree, which is already itself something like a less than 1% chance. I just don’t see a Cooperstown in 2050 without Mike Trout in it.
In the “Not Mike Trout” division, we have Christian Yelich just over the bar at 8.5 WAR and NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant just under it at 5.9 WAR. This makes Bryant feel weirdly late; he started with about as good a season as you could want, and he still didn’t make the cutoff. And what’s more, given how rapidly the bar increases the next few years, he might not quite make it either, unless his sophomore campaign matches his rookie one. That could happen, it’s just a little harder. It’ll definitely be something to watch the next few years.
Age 24: 11.3 WAR, 43.29%
We’ve got a pair of NL West stars at this level. Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado has managed 13.6 WAR in his career, while Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig hit the mark exactly even with his injury-marred 2015. Puig will need a return to his earlier form to stay on target for next year, while Arenado has a little more room to work with. Former division rival and new Brave Ender Inciarte is the nearest miss, at 8.9 Wins.
Age 25: 16.0 WAR, 49.32%
Age 25 players represent another strong showing for our list, with three players over the line and five more within two-and-a-half WAR. On top of the list is the prize of this past offseason, Jason Heyward. The new Cubs acquisition rode a good bat and a great glove to an MVP, 6+ Win season, and stands at 31.1 Wins Above Replacement for his career. Fellow NL right fielder Giancarlo Stanton sits right below him; in spite of an injury-marred 2015, Stanton is still well-positioned for the next few years, with 25.0 WAR. And finally, we have Heyward’s former teammate, new Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons. His fantastic glove makes up for his 85 OPS+, giving him 17.3 Wins so far. It will be interesting to see if he can stay on a Hall of Fame pace just on the strength of his glove.
Just below the magic 16.0 line, we have a pair of first basemen, namely Heyward’s current teammate and his former one. Anthony Rizzo looked like he’d finish 2015 short of this mark, but he turned in an even better season than his breakout 2014, adding 6.2 WAR to his mark to leave him only 0.1 shy of 16. Meanwhile, Freddie Freeman missed over 40 games in 2015, but still moved to 15.7 Wins for his career. Given those games back (or if you assume his bad fielding numbers in 2014 were a fluke), he would certainly make it over the line.
After those two, we’ve got reigning World Series MVP Salvador Perez. While his 14.1 WAR is short of the mark, it’s worth noting that as a catcher, Perez isn’t facing the same benchmarks in Hall voting that other players are. Most catchers don’t rack up as much value as other position players due to the wear from the position and lowered playing time, so Sal may well be on pace for his group (although, on the other hand, the Hall is usually stingier about voting for catchers, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword). And finally, after all of those, we’ve got a pair of infielders in Brett Lawrie (14.0) and Jose Altuve (13.7). Now, with all of those out of the way, we’re going to go into a little bit of a dry spell…
Age 26: 20.35 WAR, 51.77%
Elvis Andrus is the only 26-year-old to make it, and only just at that; he has 20.4 WAR heading into the 2016 season. Thanks to an early start (he played a full season at 20) and some strong years at the beginning, he managed to stay ahead of the curve. But it looks like he’s destined to fall off the pace this season, as he’ll need 5.2 WAR compared to the 1.0 and 2.1 he’s recorded the previous two seasons. The only other player here above even 10 Wins is Starling Marte, who at 16.9 is probably just a little too far back to make up the difference this year.
Age 27: 25.6 WAR, 55.73%
There are no players at this age who are on pace. There are two interesting players just shy, though. Strong 2016 campaigns from Justin Upton (24.7 WAR) or Paul Goldschmidt (24.1) might catch them up for next season, or at least make it easier for them to make up the difference the following year. The step in expected WAR is the largest from 27 to 28, after all, so maybe we should give them an extra year. Either way, either one will need to avoid injuries and have a good season to make it.
Age 28: 31.4 WAR, 64.35%
Andrew McCutchen is the first player we’ve seen thus far who has a higher career WAR than Mike Trout, believe it or not. And despite being at the age where the space between tiers is growing fast, McCutchen has still managed to pad a pretty decent head-start for himself, sitting at 38.2 Wins Above Replacement. Another All-Star season could keep him set for the next three years.
While no other active players this age are above 31.4, we do have another catcher who’s just a little bit short. Buster Posey has 28.8 WAR through six full seasons. Again, I don’t know exactly how close catchers need to be to the mark to still be considered “on track”, but I feel like it could well be within 3 Wins. After Posey, our next choice is pretty far off (Austin Jackson, 22.2).
Age 29: 35.4 WAR, 67.89%
It feels really weird to me to see this, but we’re half a decade away from Evan Longoria’s last All-Star appearance. I mean, some of that is just him getting snubbed (he had a 7+ Win season in 2011 and a 6+ WAR season in 2013), and he’s been above average the other years, but it still feels like a bit of a disappointment. Even if he has been a “disappointment”, his career-starting peak gave him a lot of wiggle room on making the Hall of Fame pace. He’s sitting at 42.6 WAR, so he can just keep having above-average seasons for the foreseeable future and stay above what he needs. But another All-Star season or two would help him even more, especially in building a narrative for the voters.
No one else who’s 29 is even above 30 Wins. The closes is Adam Jones, who sits at 27.5. Other players of note are late-bloomers Josh Donaldson (25.1) and Carlos Gomez (23.7), as well as the other CarGo, Carlos Gonzalez (21.9). I never knew both CarGos were the same age, and I imagine this new information will make it harder for me to keep them straight from now on.
Age 30: 39.5 WAR, 71.15%
Here we are, at the big 3-0, the beginning of the end for many players. This year’s batch is another weaker group, with only two players over 22.0 WAR. Both are/were injury-prone stars on the right side of the infield, but their careers have divulged over the last few years to the point where only one is still above the WAR cut-off. Troy Tulowitzki has played amazingly the last few years in between his several injuries. He hasn’t moved off the position yet, and he’s made All-Star Games the last few seasons. His trade to the Blue Jays returned him to the playoffs for the first time since his rookie season, and if he can keep us his health luck and benefit from his new location. As it stands, Tulo has 40.5 career WAR, so he doesn’t have a lot of room for error
On the other hand, you have Ryan Zimmerman, who’s been struggling with his injuries the last few years and even been moved off his original position over to first base. Thanks to 1.1 WAR over 2014 and 2015 combined, he’s only reached 34.9 WAR for his career, well off the pace he established earlier. I’m doubting he makes it back to these cutoffs.
Age 31: 43.8 WAR, 74.75%
Speaking of infielders who had injury issues in 2015, leading the way in this group is Dustin Pedroia at 45.1 Wins Above Replacement. Unlike with Tulowitzki and Zimmerman, this hasn’t been as much of a reoccurring issue for Pedroia; returning to his 2014 form will set him up perfectly well for next year and further into the future.
The runner-up fell agonizingly short this year: Joey Votto came in under a half-win shy, at 43.4 WAR. It might surprise you, but for as good as Votto has been, he hasn’t ever made one of these Hall of Fame cut-offs. That sounds shocking until you realize that Votto’s first season came at the age of 24. He essentially started 8 Wins in the hole, which has made his career all the more impressive. It would be great if he could finally make it this year for the first time at 32, and seeing how he seems to still be in peak form, it seems quite possible. Leaving aside his injury-marred 2014, he’s been worth 7.6, 6.6, and 5.9 WAR per year dating back to 2012.
The next runners-up are one-time stars who have lost their shine, in Ryan Braun (40.0) and Hanley Ramirez (35.1). Votto used to trail each of them last year, and had been neck-and-neck with Hanley and well behind Braun in the years before that. In a way, that’s both incredible on his end and really depressing on theirs.
Age 32: 48.4 WAR, 76.29%
Ever since I started doing this exercise three years ago, this age group has been the most prolific, and it hasn’t really trailed off at all.
My first Future Hall of Fame article came over six years ago, a little before voting for the 2010 Hall of Fame class ended. It was much less scientific, but I still organized it roughly by how likely I thought each player was to make it to Cooperstown. And I remember getting a surprising amount of flak for a specific choice: a lot of people thought I was too confident on putting Miguel Cabrera in “Good Chances” or whatever the equivalent category was.
Here we are, six seasons later, and it seems like my hunch that a player with a historic start to their career would likely become a Hall of Famer seems to have been accurate, given that he’s gone on to add six more All-Star selections, two MVPs, a Triple Crown, 199 more home runs, 1111 more hits, and six seasons of 172 OPS+ hitting. He stands at 64.7 WAR entering the year, and it looks like he even has a chance to become one of the next players in the 3000 hit/500 home run club (someone else will probably beat him to being the next one, though; more on that later).
Our non-Cabrera options are also pretty robust. Robinson Cano is his closest competition, standing at 55.1 WAR right now. Cano turned a slow start into an above-average season, and a full rebound here could go a long way towards making his case for eventual induction (although even being averaging 2-win seasons for the rest of his contract would get him over 70 WAR, but having a 5-win-type season now would cover up in case of later decline).
Next up we have David Wright. Even though he played under 40 games last season, his prior career and solid play upon return kept him above his target. With 50.1 WAR to his name so far, he can’t afford a total repeat if he hopes to stay on track next year or further into the future. I’m pulling for him to stay healthy enough that he earns an eventual induction.
Speaking of health, our first near miss was above the marks last year, but his health has failed him the last few years. Joe Mauer’s career has been wrecked by the concussions he got at the end of 2013; he’s still having symptoms like blurred vision affecting his playing to this day. Like Wright, I’m hoping he can rebound in 2016 and get back on track. Even with his troubles, he’s already at 47.8 Wins, which should get him extra consideration given that most of that was accumulated as a catcher. After those four, Jose Reyes is next on the list all the way down at 36.8 WAR. His best bet would probably be to hang around until he reaches 3000 hits (he has 1904) but staying healthy and rebounding following his poor play in Colorado will both be necessary to even think about doing that.
Age 33: 50.9 WAR, 75.51%
No 33-year-olds made it, but I’m going to have to take a moment to acknowledge the first runner up. In my three prior years writing these lists, this player didn’t even get mentioned all three times; I left him off in 2014 thinking he was just too far off the pace, and that his inclusion would look silly and out of place. The other two years weren’t much better, as all I said each time was second in his own age group behind people just above or below the line. But after seasons of 5.0, 5.7, and most recently 6.0 WAR, I feel like I should actually address Ian Kinsler as a serious candidate.
I know, I was kinda surprised by this too. Thanks to a late start (in 2006 at age 24) and a disappointing 2012 (in which he still made the All-Star team, but looked less deserving than in some years where he was snubbed), Kinsler looked to have no real shot. He was a 30-year-old with 30.1 Wins to his name, and would probably be on the downside of his career soon. That still might be the case, but he’s put together a solid run of years in his early 30s that’s taken him all the way to 46.7 Wins. He probably won’t post another 6-win season, but even a 3- or 4-win season would close the gap even more (the pace for him will only increase by 2.4 and 2.7 Wins the next two seasons). If he goes all-out and posts another 6-Win season, though? He’s just 0.6 WAR off the pace. It could happen. He’ll definitely be one to watch the next two or three years.
After Kinsler, we’ve got Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez with 41.8 and 39.9 WAR, respectively. Gonzalez needs a Kinsler-like late-run, which I’m not sure he has in him. Crawford needs a minor miracle.
Age 34: 53.3 WAR, 75.51%
Again, no one makes it. Curtis Granderson leads the way with 41.8 WAR. Late-bloomers Ben Zobrist and Jose Bautista fall here as well, with 38.5 and 33.8 Wins. Their peaks fit right in with those of a Hall of Famer; they just didn’t reach those points until they turned 28 and 29.
Age 35: 56.0 WAR, 77.08%
At the top, we’ve got Albert Pujols. I’m not sure what else needs to be said here. He’s almost certainly going to hit 100 career WAR this year, in case you’re interested (he’s at 99.7). That’ll make him the 21st hitter to reach that mark, so that’s cool. He should record his 3000th hit sometime in 2017 or 2018, making him the one ahead of Cabrera in line. All pretty awesome stuff.
The more interesting cases are the misses in this bunch. Leading the way is Mark Teixeira. I was preparing to write him off entirely if he underperformed or was injured most of the year again, but then he went and had a great season…that ended early due to injury. I’m really not sure what to make of that. If it’s a sign of things to come, he probably stands no chance; he’s currently at 52.4 WAR, and probably needs another 7.5-10 WAR at the bare minimum to be in the conversation, otherwise his basically another John Olerud/Will Clark-type. If he comes back right where he left off, he’s well on his way to that mark. More injuries or a regression to his 2014 form would probably mark the end of his chances.
The only other runner-up worth mentioning might just be me playing favorites, but I’ll go ahead anyway. Matt Holliday has 44.1 WAR, and that might seem underwhelming., but it’s worth considering that Baseball-Reference is a little more pessimistic on his fielding than other sites. Fangraphs, for instance, has him at 49.3 WAR. So depending on your estimate of you fielding, he’s either kinda far or reasonably close. He’s another victim of not getting a job until he was already 24, just to show you how far along that can still be setting a player back. Like Teixeira, Holliday is also pretty dependent on seeing how he bounces back from injuries in 2016, though.
There you have it; 24 players between the ages of 20 and 35 who are technically “on pace” for a Hall of Fame career, plus a handful who are close by. Again, keep in mind, this is not to say all who fell below these marks are doomed; half of the Hall of Famers didn’t hit these marks themselves by definition. And making these marks, while favorable, still doesn’t make anyone’s case invincible. They’re just fun starting points in having these conversations years early.