In my last go-around, I looked at Hall of Fame pitchers and demonstrated just how important it is for a starter to be good in their mid-to-late-30s when it comes to the Hall of Fame. My entry point into the discussion, though, was looking at Cole Hamels and the possibility of him one day making it to Cooperstown. Now that we have the former framework in place, why not take a look at the latter question, and expand it to other players with Hall potential?
A quick refresher, for those have forgotten, the general factors we will be looking for are:
-A starter with more than about 56 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference’s version) before their age-33 season is basically in no matter what. Starters with more than 56 WAR in their total careers don’t always make it in, but guys who manage that mark this early in their career basically always do.
-Everyone else should probably be in the range of 30 to 56 Wins by then, at which point they will need a solid end to solidify their pitch to voters.
-For that group, 20+ WAR from age 33 on is pretty safe, 12+ WAR isn’t bad (especially depending on their pre-33 total), and other factors after that point (like Cy Young-type seasons or memorable postseason performances) don’t hurt.
-Starting pitchers with under 30 WAR before turning 33 aren’t totally without representation in the Hall, but you need to be one of the all-time great old-man pitchers (see Phil Niekro, or Randy Johnson for examples). As such, it’s worth keeping in mind, but probably not worth highlighting specific players unless they give us a reason to think they might be that type of guy (by, say, having a Cy Young-caliber year or two in their 30s already).
So, given those conditions, who’s in the conversation, and what would they need to do the rest of the way to punch their ticket? If I were drawing up a list, separated into different tiers based approximately on career, it would look roughly as follows (WAR totals accurate as of this week):
Clayton Kershaw (60.7 WAR so far, in his age 30 season)
We may as well start with the guy in his own category. As I mentioned last time, the only post-deadball starter to top 56 WAR before his age-33 season and not make the Hall is Roger Clemens, who’s obviously a special case. Kershaw has two full years after this one to build on his total before he hits our second “old pitcher” phase, and even if he can’t make it all that far into that phase of his career, he’ll probably just follow the precedent of guys like Jim Palmer and Juan Marichal at that point.
Justin Verlander (61.8 WAR, 35)
Verlander might actually be as safe as Kershaw at this point. He didn’t hit the magic pre-33 number (reaching 43.9), but he’s already had so much success in his mid-30s (17.8 WAR, in Cy Young contention every year, big postseason victories) that he looks indistinguishable from a lot of Hall inductees. Everything from here on is probably just reducing his wait time on the ballot and increasing his year-one vote totals.
CC Sabathia (61.0 WAR, 37)
Sabathia has had an unusual career, which makes it harder to find comparisons in Hall voting, but I think he’s in a good place. CC had 53.2 WAR at 32, and generally pitchers who manage that are pretty safe unless they fall apart. His weak 2013 and 2014 made it look like he might follow Bret Saberhagen and Dave Stieb, but he’s rebounded nicely into a solid back-end starter in the four years since. Hopefully all that time that’s passed since his peak doesn’t make voters forget it, but I think sticking around providing value and hitting round career numbers (250 wins, 3000 strikeouts) will help the more forgetful ones.
Zack Greinke (60.5 WAR, 34)
Zack Greinke is probably a safer bet than even CC at this point. He was well into the upper end of the pre-32 range before last season, and he’s added two All-Star selections and 9.2 WAR and counting since then. Showing he can succeed like that as an older pitcher is a good sign that he has at least a few more good years in him to keep adding to his totals.
Cole Hamels (52.3 WAR, 34)
Finally, we reach the guy who inspired this entire project. As mentioned last time, Hamels probably has the best Hall of Fame case of anyone from those late 2000s Phillies team outside of Chase Utley, but what does that mean exactly?
Well, Hamels managed just shy of 49 WAR before turning 33, so that’s one box checked. It’s not quite into the “lock” territory, but it’s not bad. In a year and a half since then, he’s been worth 3.4 WAR since then, which is okay but not overwhelming. On the flip side, being worth well-over 30 WAR and falling short on the back-end doesn’t have a great record, historically. Frank Tanana was worth 47 WAR before 33 and 10.6 after and didn’t make it. Neither did perennial Veterans Committee candidates Billy Pierce (44.7/8.5) or Mickey Lolich (40.0/8.2). Dennis Eckersley, however, is probably the closest pre-33 match (48.8/13.8) and did make the Hall, but is that more because of his years closing?
If he hangs on several years as a mid-rotation guy with occasional flashes of brilliance, he wouldn’t look much like any candidate before him, so it’s hard to gauge how voters would interpret it. That resume might be more than enough given his additional “intangibles” like postseason success or leading a popular team, but it’s still going to take sustained success over several years. If you flipped this season with his 2016 season, I’d like his chances a lot more, in only because it would show that Hamels has the tools to re-invent himself and succeed as an old pitcher. Heck, even back-to-back 2017-esque years would be convincing, given that this year seems like further regression. Maybe a new, smart pitching coach can help him remake himself, depending on if he goes anywhere at the deadline (Update: Hamels is now officially a member of the Chicago Cubs). Right now, I’ll leave his chances at “possible, but not the most likely”, but writing all of this thought process out, it’s pretty clear why that his case is interesting enough to inspire a deep dive into the issue like this.
Felix Hernandez (51.7 WAR, 32)
This exercise has me a lot more concerned about Felix’s chances than I was for years. Ever since I started doing the “Future Hall of Fame” series, I had always seen Hernandez so far ahead of the curve and assumed he was a lock. After all, how many players have 50 WAR before turning 30?
But King Felix has stalled out pretty hard over the last three years, and while before, I figured he’d have time to figure things out, now that I’ve studied history, it’s hard to look at his trajectory and not think of guys like Johan Santana and Saberhagen. He’s the only one in this tier who hasn’t hit 33 year, so he does have some time, but a lot of guys have stalled out this age and just not gotten it back together too.
Max Scherzer (49.3 WAR, 33)
This is currently Max Scherzer’s age-33 season, and he’s probably going to finish the year with upwards of 8.0 Wins. I think he’s a pretty good bet to reach that “20 WAR after 32” plateau I mentioned earlier. Of course, this is leaving aside the fact that he already has 3 Cy Young Awards (traditionally a Hall lock), and might pick up even more along the way. I’d feel pretty comfortable betting on him right now.
Jon Lester (43.4 WAR, 34)
Lester looks a little like Hamels in some ways. Same age, and his post-32 value is pretty similar. But flipping them so that this year is better (Lester was even an All-Star this season) makes a difference. Of course, his young days weren’t quite as good as Hamels (only 40.5 WAR), but Lester a track record of October success like Hamels but over even more opportunities (including three World Series titles) and an inspiring story of overcoming leukemia, so the intangibles might put him ahead in the minds of voters. Of course, he still needs several more good seasons showing that he can keep this up, but at this stage in his career, his doing just about everything that you’d want him to, and the odds aren’t terrible.
Chris Sale (42.3 WAR, 29)
Sale has a pretty good chance to move into the Kershaw-tier soon. He’s already having his best season ever, which is saying something given the seven straight All-Star seasons. There’s a real chance that, after this year is over, his WAR total will be close enough that he could hit the 56 career WAR mark by just repeating his worst full season three more times in his three seasons before turning 33, and that’s basically the best place you could hope to be right now. It’s a little weird he still doesn’t have a Cy Young despite 1.6 Cy Young shares (31st all-time, and even if he loses this year, he’s going to move up the list quite a bit), but even if that doesn’t change, I think by the time he hits the ballot, voters will be able to see it for a weird quirk that maybe at worst delays his induction a year or two, rather than a reason to never vote for him.
David Price (35.8 WAR, 32)
Johnny Cueto (34.5 WAR, 32)
Corey Kluber (31.5 WAR, 32)
Starting this tier, we have a trio of players all sort of in the same place. All check off that “30-50 WAR” box, and they’re all finishing out their age 32 season, meaning that they’re about to move on to phase two. The next two or three years will be crucial. I think Kluber has the best chance at having a strong mid-30s, given he’s been the most successful of the trio as of late (including three straight All-Star selections and the 2017 Cy Young), and even the injury concerns this year don’t change that, given that Price and Cueto have had similar problems the last two years.
Cueto has looked good this year when he’s pitched, but that’s been rare, and his post-DL starts haven’t been what his early season starts were. Being good when you play is a definite plus, but plenty of guys have stayed good players while being betrayed by their bodies. A full, healthy season would go a long way in restoring my confidence in his chances. Still, this is a guy who was an All-Star just two years ago.
Price just has not looked like the same guy since signing in Boston. Obviously, health is some of that, but he’s also been a step below the ace-level performance he was delivering in Detroit and Toronto even when he does play. Trying him in the bullpen last year was an interesting experiment, though; maybe he could build a Dennis Eckersley-like second half to his career?
Madison Bumgarner (28.6 WAR, 28)
Stephen Strasburg (24.9 WAR, 29)
(22.3 WAR, 30)
This group’s reckoning isn’t as imminent as the last one’s, but it’s getting close. All of them look like they’ll make it past 30 WAR before hitting 33, though, barring injury of course. Bumgarner is young enough that he could get a pretty impressive total over the next four years, although he probably won’t hit that 56 WAR mark. Still, being in the mid-40s isn’t bad either. DeGrom’s total is the lowest here, but that’s more a function of his late debut than anything else, and neither Strasburg nor Bumgarner has had any season as good as his 2018.
Jose Quintana (23.8 WAR, 29)
Gerrit Cole (15.0 WAR, 27)
Trevor Bauer (13.5 WAR, 27)
If you wanted to start looking at the next generation of guys after that last batch, this wouldn’t be a bad starting place. Cole and Bauer are having some real break-out years, and if 2018 is the new normal, passing 30 WAR in the next half-decade won’t be a problem at all. Quintana has gotten close more via sustained, quiet solidness, but he’s a pretty good bet to pick up the extra 7 or so Wins he needs in the next three years, and that’s probably worth acknowledging.
So there you have it. It’s not quite as predictive as my framework for hitters, but I think it’s at least a little more informative way of looking at these things. Congratulations to this weekend’s class of Cooperstown Inductees, and may they one day be joined in that club by some of these guys!