As a quick refresher on the methodology: I looked at every Hall of Fame starter’s career WAR over every age of their career, then took the median WAR as a “Hall benchmark” of sorts. Then, I looked at how many players throughout history were at or above that mark at each age, and took the percent that were eventual Hall of Fame inductees as the rough “odds” that the current player would reach Cooperstown. For starters, I focused exclusively on pitchers who started 10% or more of their games at each stage, and looked only at pitchers who debuted in the liveball era (1920-on), due to how radically the nature of the role of starter has evolved over time. Also, I will be grouping players based on their age in the 2018 season, with the traditional June 30th serving as the cutoff.
The normal caveats apply: some players not in the Hall might get inducted, some players with Hall-worthy careers might be overlooked, and non-playing factors might ultimately be the deciding factor for a lot of candidates. One other thing worth noting, which I studied more in-depth last year: success as an old pitcher is especially key for modern starters to get inducted, in a way that it isn’t for position players (for reasons I went into more deeply in those pieces). That sort of widened my scope of which pitchers I was focusing on here; also, given how much starters can use their mid-to-late-30s to bolster their cases, and how unpredictable the question of “who stays good into old age” can be (hello, Jamie Moyer, Tim Wakefield, and Bartolo Colon), it’s probably worth casting a wider net for starters either way.
Age 20: 1.00 WAR Median, 14.81% of players elected
No starters who were 20 in 2018 had a positive WAR.
Age 21: 2.10 WAR Median, 11.46% of players elected
Jaime Barria (2.6 WAR)
Barria threw 129.1 innings of 3.41 ERA ball for the Angels last year in his rookie season, but it went along with a 4.58 FIP and a 1.268 WHIP, so there are reasons to be skeptical that he’ll be back here next season. Additionally, Julio Urias of the Dodgers has 1 career pitching WAR despite throwing under 30 innings the past two seasons due to injury; his age 19 season was pretty good, though.
Age 22: 4.30 WAR Median, 15.91% of players elected
None Brad Keller (3.5 WAR) of the Royals and Jack Flaherty (2.3 WAR) of the Cardinals were the only players even halfway to this mark.
Age 23: 6.75 WAR Median, 17.20% of players elected
German Márquez (8.1 WAR)
Márquez was a big part of the Rockies’ shockingly successful pitching staff year, posting just below 5 WAR in his second full season. His teammate Antonio Senzatela (3.5 WAR) is the first runner-up, while division rival and third-place finisher in Rookie of the Year voting Walker Buehler (3.2) again comes in third.
Age 24: 9.60 WAR Median, 17.35% of players elected
Luis Severino (11.8 WAR)
Severino is close enough to reaching the next benchmark that he should be able to make it in spite of starting the 2019 season on the injured list. No such luck for Lance McCullers Jr. (6.1 WAR), who will miss the entire season from Tommy John surgery.
Age 25: 12.25 WAR Median, 17.65% of players elected
Aaron Nola (16.5 WAR)
A big, 10+-win 2018 season that saw him finish behind only Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer in the Cy Young voting jumped Aaron Nola over the Hall benchmark for his age. He can’t totally rest on his laurels this year, but at 16.5 WAR, he’s probably a better bet to get a year ahead of schedule in 2019 than just about any other pitch so far. Divisional rival Noah Syndergaard is also just shy of the mark at 11.9.
This is also the age group were you’ll find Kyle Freeland (11.7), Aaron Sanchez (9.3), and reigning AL Cy Young Blake Snell (9.2), all of whom aren’t totally out of reach of matching the age 26 median.
Age 26: 18.65 WAR Median, 30.00% of players elected
Carlos Martinez didn’t have an awful 2018, but he did miss a lot of time, and it’s dropped him kind of far below the pace he needs to be at (13.6 WAR).
Age 27: 22.55 WAR Median, 33.33% of players elected
Julio Teheran was once above the Hall benchmark for his age, but his run of mostly-mediocre seasons has dropped him to 16.7 WAR, well below where he needs to be. Gerrit Cole tied him this year, despite starting two years later; if 2019 is anywhere as good as 2018 was for him, he might yet make a run at the mark. It’s weird to see two players trending in such radically opposite directions next to each other. Cole’s former UCLA teammate Trevor Bauer (14.4) comes right after them.
Age 28: 26.50 WAR Median, 35.85% of players elected
Madison Bumgarner (29.9 WAR)
I feel like the Hall of Fame chatter around Bumgarner has cooled, despite how early it was picking up steam a few years ago thanks to his outstanding postseason performances. He’s been good the last few years, but injuries limiting his innings have probably made his 2010-2016 run feel further away than it really is. No reason a healthy 2019 can’t turn that around for him, though. Kyle Hendricks is next after him, at 16.8.
Age 29: 31.80 WAR Median, 41.30% of players elected
Chris Sale (43.1 WAR)
Sale has never won a Cy Young Award, which still seems a little surprising now coming off a string of seven straight All-Star seasons where he’s received Cy Young votes every season. Last year’s study of “old starters” pointed towards 60 WAR pre-33 as the gold standard for young dominance that ensures election; another 7-ish-WAR season like last year might finally get him that Cy Young award, get him to 50 WAR (a less dominant cut-off, but still one with a good track record), and move him closer to topping that mark.
After Sale, there’s Stephen Strasburg at 26.3 WAR. Over my years of doing this, Strasburg seems to go through a perpetual cycle of “He’s not really close” to “Actually, he had a good year, he might make up ground over the next year or two” to “Never mind, he got injured again, that sets him back”, over and over. He’s talented enough he could maybe one day make it to the Hall with a successful decade in the 2020s, which isn’t impossible, but feels sort of like a toss-up as to whether it will happen at this point given his injury history.
Age 30: 37.00 WAR Median, 54.29% of players elected
Clayton Kershaw (64.4 WAR)
At this point, there’s no way Kershaw’s future Hall of Fame status in still in doubt for anyone, right? Over 60 WAR, an MVP, 3 Cy Youngs and a pair of second-place finishes, 7 All-Star Games, a bunch of black ink…What does the case against him even look like now? Just comparing him to deadball pitchers without context? I don’t know if “He’s no Old Hoss Radbourn” will convince modern voters. Hopefully he can get back to healthy so we get even more good seasons to watch, but even if he’s just middling the rest of the way, he’s in the clear.
It feels weird to think of Jacob deGrom and Kershaw as the same age, given they debuted six years apart (Kershaw started in 2008 at 20, deGrom in 2014 at 26), but they are. Coming off a nearly-10-WAR, Cy Young campaign, deGrom may have a lot of ground to make up (27.0 WAR), but he doesn’t have a terribly long injury history since making the majors, and being that good at age 30 feels like an encouraging sign for the next few years at least, so maybe he makes it to the mark in three or four years?
Age 31: 41.50 WAR Median, 55.88% of players elected
Carlos Carrasco leads players who were 31 in 2018, with 20.3.
Age 32: 45.40 WAR Median, 61.29% of players elected
Felix Hernandez (51.0 WAR)
King Felix’s 2018 was bad enough that he actually went backwards in total WAR, costing his team a little over a full win while posting a 5.55 ERA over 155 innings (and with a FIP over 5 as well, indicating that wasn’t just bad luck). And yet, he’s still over the Hall median. You have to figure that won’t last much longer, given that he’s been worth less than a win since his age 30 season, but if he does somehow find out a way to reinvent himself and start a second act to his career, his buffer was big enough that he didn’t lose too much ground.
There are some interesting names here below the margin as well. David Price sits at 38.2 WAR, but last year was something of a resurgence for him, so maybe he’s figured out how to succeed in his 30s. Johnny Cueto (34.2) follows him, but will miss most of the season from Tommy John surgery. Plus, two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is right behind him (33.6), and looks the best of any of them. His current five-year run of 4+ WAR seasons didn’t even start until his age-28 year; prior to that, he had been worth just over 1 win over about 215 innings. Hopefully, he has enough time left to build the rest of a Hall of Fame resume, but his ongoing success is an encouraging sign in his favor.
Age 33: 52.40 WAR Median, 86.36% of players elected
Max Scherzer (52.9 WAR)
Scherzer still looks like he’s going strong, with a 2018 that featured his sixth-straight All-Star selection and a narrow miss on his fourth Cy Young Award. He has to be a lock at this point, right? He’ll probably stay good for long enough to get his counting stats to traditional Hall numbers, but three Cy Youngs also feels like an automatic in; the only players to do that who aren’t already in Cooperstown are Scherzer, Kershaw, and Roger Clemens. And while his start wasn’t quite as dramatic a turnaround as Kluber’s, it’s also amazing to think about how he only had about 7 career WAR over 600+ innings entering his age-27 season. In the seven year’s since then, he’s averaged 6.5 wins per year.
Age 34: 55.60 WAR Median, 95.00% of players elected
Zack Greinke (61.5 WAR)
I’m actually not totally sure how Zack Greinke will be perceived by future Hall voters. Part of that problem is that Hall voters are generally still all over the place when it comes to starters, but part of that is also that Greinke’s case is still kind of unusual in some ways. Like, sure, he has over 60 WAR, but nearly 20 of that comes from 2 incredible seasons (2009 and 2015). Outside of that, he has two more really good seasons over 5+ wins, then six more above-average ones between 3.5 and 4.5. That sort of lines up with his awards, with one Cy Young award, one second-place finish, one fourth-place, and just a two more where he got any votes. Or how he only has 5 All-Star Game appearances in 15 seasons. I would still vote for him, but I’m not sure how some of the more traditional Hall voters will break.
Cole Hamels (55.4) is close enough here that we should probably consider him “on pace”, for all intents and purposes. He inspired my look last year at the importance of success in a pitcher’s mid-30s, and after that piece, he took off with the Cubs, tripling his WAR total on the year. And he has some of the same problems as Greinke taken to an extreme (only 4 All-Star picks, never finished higher than sixth in Cy voting despite some good years), but maybe his postseason success is enough to offset that in voters’ minds? He still needs a number of good seasons to get his total the rest of the way, given that he’s only right on the line right now, but he already has two good post-32 seasons under his belt, so maybe pitching until 37 or 38 isn’t out of the question.
Hamels’s teammate Jon Lester (44.6) is also worth mentioning, I think, despite being further away. His case looks a lot like Hamels’s does, on the surface level at least (similar peak, career numbers, postseason success), plus he has the added personal story of having overcome lymphoma.
Age 35: 60.00 WAR Median, 100% of players elected
Justin Verlander (63.8 WAR)
I think Verlander is the only player on this list that I feel can match Kershaw in my confidence that they’ll one day make it to Cooperstown. The newly-extended Astro should hit 3000 strikeouts next year, and may hit 250 career wins by the time his new extension is up. All of that plus a World Series title, an MVP, a Cy Young Award, a few more that he probably should have won… it’s hard to see the case against him at this point.
Age 36: 60.70 WAR Median, 90.48% of players elected
Neither Adam Wainwright (34.3) nor James Shields (30.2) seems especially likely to make it.
Age 37: 61.40 WAR Median, 90.48% of players elected
CC Sabathia (62.2 WAR)
CC has already announced that 2019 will be his final season, meaning that he’ll probably finish somewhere between 64 and 65 WAR if this year is anything like his last few. Things looked a little dire there for a few years, but he turned things around pretty well to become a solid mid-rotation guy. He should pass both 3000 Ks and 250 wins this year, which should hopefully serve as good benchmarks to remind voters of how good he was once he does reach the ballot. That’s really my biggest concern, that his peak might have been long enough ago that voters forget by the time he gets discussed, but even if he doesn’t make it first ballot, he should easily stick around long enough for 75% of writers to recognize his fantastic career.
Sabathia is probably the last pitcher worth talking about, as the only other pitcher with even 40 career WAR is Bartolo Colon, who turns 46 in May and still hasn’t signed anywhere. But, for the sake of completeness, the benchmarks the rest of the way are:
Age 38: 62.50 WAR Median, 90.48% of players elected
Age 39: 65.50 WAR Median, 90.48% of players elected
Age 40: 66.10 WAR Median, 86.36% of players elected
Age 41: 67.00 WAR Median, 90.48% of players elected
Overall: 68.00 WAR Median, 90.48% of players elected
Watch this space in coming weeks; between the three relievers who have made it to Cooperstown over the past two seasons, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying to do something like this for relief pitchers. Depending on how that goes, there may be an article forthcoming.