Which Active MLB Players Have a Shot at the Hall of Fame?
With the 2020 Baseball Hall of Fame election set to be announced next week, I thought it’d be an interesting exercise to look at which current players have a chance at Cooperstown. First, this list only includes players over the age of 30 (w. So while superstars like Chris Sale, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Jose Altuve, Jacob Degrom and Christian Yelich may be on a Hall of Fame pace, there is so much of their career still in front of them that it would be silly to project their Hall of Fame chances at the moment. Second, I also excluded relievers like Kenley Jensen, Craig Kimbrel, and Aroldis Chapman. The standard for Hall of Fame relievers has changed so much recently that it seems impossible to predict what the requirements will be when the current crop of elite relievers will be eligible.
No-Doubt, First Ballot Hall of Famers:
Albert Pujols: Many people forget how great Pujols once was because the current version of the Machine, a slightly above-average hitter and a complete liability on the bases and in the field, barely resembles what he once was. Pujols was as skilled an all-around hitter as there was in the game during the 00s, able to hit for both power (12 straight 30 home run seasons) and average (nine straight seasons hitting above .310) while walking far more than he struck out. He also was a smart baserunner, albeit not a particularly fast one, and won two gold gloves. And while the Angels version of Pujols is a shell of what he once was, he still averaged over 25 home runs and 90 RBIs a season and posted five seasons with an OPS+ over 110. The counting numbers (656 home runs, 3202 hits, 100.3 WAR) are easily Hall of Fame worthy, so Pujols only real challenge remaining is to continue climbing the all-time offensive leaderboards.
Miguel Cabrera: If Pujols was a dominant force in the NL, Cabrera was just as successful in the AL. He was an elite, if not quite an all-time great, hitter in his early years in Florida, but he became something else entirely in Detroit. From 2010-2013, he slashed an incredible .337/.425/.612 while averaging 39 home runs and 127 RBIs a year. Though injuries have led to a steep decline since then, Cabrera is still approaching the 3000 hits and 500 home run plateaus, both markers for the Hall of Fame. Like Pujols, Cabrera’s greatness has been obscured by his recent decline, but one shouldn’t forget how great he was in his prime.
Mike Trout: You can make a strong argument that if Mike Trout retired right now, he would be elected into the Hall of Fame. Here’s just a few Hall of Famers who Trout has already passed in career WAR at age 26:
All Trout needs to do solidify himself as an all-time great is to play more games. Even if he plays ten more years and accumulates 3.0 WAR a year (both very conservative estimates), Trout will finish among the top 30 players ever. However, Trout’s ceiling is far higher than that. He’s on pace for not just 600 home runs and 3000 hits but also has a real chance to be the greatest player of the expansion era not named Barry Bonds.
Clayton Kershaw: The biggest comparison people use for Clayton Kershaw is Sandy Koufax, and it’s not just that they’re both left-handed pitchers for the Dodgers. They both had eerily similar 5-year peaks that are considered among the best in baseball history.
Kershaw Age 23-27: 88-33 (.727) 2.11 ERA (172 ERA+) 1.9 BB/9 10.0 K/9 Three Cy Youngs
Koufax Age 26-30 : 111-34 (.766) 1.95 ERA (167 ERA+) 2.1 BB/9 9.4 K/9 Three Cy Youngs
The difference is that while Koufax was inconsistent before those five years and retired at the age of 30, Kershaw has remained an effective pitcher in his early thirties. So if Koufax got 85.9% of the vote, where does that leave Kershaw?
Max Scherzer: Scherzer has been overshadowed for a large portion of career by Kershaw, but as Clayton has begun to slip in recent years, Mad Max has firmly established himself as not only one of the best pitchers of his generation, but a surefire Hall of Famer. His run of dominance began in 2012 with the Tigers, and in the eight seasons since then, Scherzer has finished in the top 5 in Cy Young voting each year. While Scherzer isn’t proficient at run prevention as Kershaw, he struck out over a batter an inning more than him. Scherzer is also unmatched in his durability: He has thrown over 170 innings in each year since 2009, and last year was the first year of his career where he spent significant time on the DL. At age 34 and showing no signs of slowing down, Scherzer still has time to add to his Cooperstown resume
Justin Verlander: By 2015, Verlander’s days as a dominant starter appeared to be over. He was coming off a 2014 season in which he posted an ERA of nearly four and a half and followed that with an injury-plagued 2015 season where he was limited to just 20 starts. Yet something strange happened. Verlander bounced back in 2016 with a typical Verlanderian campaign (3.04 ERA, 254 strikeouts), got traded to Houston and led the Astros to a World Series title. He’s somehow stepped up his game over the past two years, averaging over 215 innings and 290 strikeouts a year and winning a Cy Young award this past season. In reigniting his career, Verlander has moved from a borderline candidate to a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Likely Hall of Famers
Zack Greinke: While Scherzer, Kershaw and Jacob Degrom have been stringing together historic seasons and taking home all the hardware, Greinke has been quietly putting together a Hall of Fame career. He’s already reached the 200 win and 2500 strikeout plateaus, and his 71.7 career WAR is already ahead of first-ballot Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Jim Palmer, and Roy Halladay. His one Cy Young and relatively mediocre six all-star appearances may scare some of the “small hall” voters, but anyone who looks at Greinke’s resume objectively knows he’s a Hall of Famer.
Joey Votto: The knock-on Votto’s candidacy is that, for a first baseman, he doesn’t hit for much power. His 284 home runs would be by far the lowest of any Hall of Fame first baseman who played since World War II. What Votto lacks in power, however, he makes up for with a tremendous all-around hitting ability and an all-time great eye. Only Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby have led the league in on-base percentage more times than Votto’s seven. Though his 1866 hits and 60.2 WAR totals are quite low, his OPS+ of 150 is easily Hall of Fame worthy. Votto in cleary no longer the player he once was, but as long as he puts together a few more adequate seasons to get his counting numbers up, he should be able to sneak into the Hall of Fame.
Yadier Molina: Much of the debate over the current Hall of Fame ballot centers around defense-first players who lack prowess with the bat, such as Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel, and Scott Rolen. Soon, there will be another player who falls along those lines eligible for election: Molina. Molina’s defensive resume speaks for itself: Eight gold gloves,366 defensive runs saved, and a reputation as one of the strongest game callers in the game that had resulted in two World Series championships. The question is whether his offense is strong enough to be Hall of Fame worthy. Molina is far from a poor hitter (1,963 hits, .282 career average, five seasons hitting over .300), but his OPS+ of 98 is well behind recent Hall of Fame catchers such as Mike Piazza (142), Ivan Rodgriguez (106) Gary Carter (115). The best comparison for Molina, however, is a defensive wizard from another position. Omar Vizquel has a career OPS+ 17 points lower and a career WAR thirteen points lower Molina, yet is projected to get over 50% of the vote. This bodes very well for Molina’s chances once he gets on the ballot.
Borderline Hall of Famers
Cole Hamels/Jon Lester: I combined these two 36-year-old left-handers because they have nearly identical resumes.
Hamels: 3.42 ERA (123 ERA+) 2,694 IP 2558 K 2.6 BB/9 4 All-Star appearances
Lester: 3.56 ERA (120 ERA+) 2,537 IP 2355 K 2.9 BB/9 4 All-Star appearances
In addition, both pitchers are legendary in the postseason; Hamels winning both the NLCS MVP and the World Series MVP in 2008, and Lester with his 2.51 career playoff ERA. So what gives? For starters, both of these guys have been a step below the top tier pitchers in the game throughout their career. Neither has either won an ERA title, strikeout title, or Cy Young award. In their 28 combined seasons, they have just four top-five Cy Young seasons. The aforementioned four all-star appearances are also well below the mark of an average. It’s fair to assume that neither will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but I believe as their career is evaluated again and again with every annual ballot, voters will realize how the stats don’t represent how successful each of these pitchers is.
Felix Hernandez: Hernandez’s story is a sad one. Coming up at age 19, Hernandez was well on his way to being not just a Hall of Famer, but an inner circle one. Through age 30, Hernandez already had nearly 150 wins and over 2000 strikeouts, earning six all-star appearances and a Cy Young award. All he needed to do was be just an adequate pitcher throughout his 30s and he’d be a shoo-in for Cooperstown, but he has failed to do even that. Not only has he failed to top 160 innings in any of his last four seasons, but his ERA has been nearly 1.8 points higher than it was in his first eleven seasons. Now he’s a thirty-four-year-old free agent in danger of being out of baseball. There is a chance voters will be enticed by the pure dominance of his first decade, but it’s more likely that he will go the way of Andruw Jones (1.7 WAR after age 30, 7.5% Hall of Fame vote in 2019)
Buster Posey: Few players can say they were part of three championship teams, and even fewer can say that they were the best player on each of those teams. Posey was the heart and soul of the early 2010s Giants that won three championships in five years, and he has a rookie of the year, a batting title, and an MVP to bout. The problem with Posey is that his numbers fail to match the resume and the accolades. His rate stats (128 OPS+, 302 average) are some of the best of all time for a catcher, but 140 home runs, 1380 hits, and 42.1 WAR are all well below Hall of Fame standards. Though declining, Posey remains a productive hitter, and if he can maintain adequate for a few more years, he should be on the road to Cooperstown.
Nelson Cruz: Though he didn’t get an opportunity to play every day until age 28, Cruz has developed into one of the most feared sluggers in the game. He’s hit 35 or more home runs in each of the last six seasons, and somehow posted his best season (.311/.392/.639 41 HR 108 RBIs) last year at age 38. He is, however, a terrible defender and provides no value on the bases, and 401 home runs aren’t enough for someone has no other skills and a steroid stain on his resume. Cruz has incredible offensive consistency and a remarkable 17 postseason home runs going in his favor, but if Fred Mcgriff (seven straight 30 home run seasons, 10 postseason home runs) can’t get elected with no steroid
Robinson Cano: It’s easy to forget just how great Cano was during his prime. From 2009 to 2016, he averaged nearly 30 home runs and 100 RBIs while slashing .308/.364/.511. He finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting six times during that period and won two gold gloves. Cano’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider he plays second base, a historically weak offensive position. He’s second all-time in home runs and his career WAR of 69.6 is already ahead of the Hall of Fame average for second baseman. The steroid suspension hurts his resume, but if fellow steroid suspenders Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez get elected by the time Cano reaches the ballot, his numbers are strong enough to join them in Cooperstown.
Ryan Braun: Braun has all the numbers and accolades needed to be a Hall of Famer. He has an MVP award, two other finishes in the top three, a rookie of the year award and six all-star appearances. He also has six 30 home run seasons, two thirty-thirty seasons and an OPS+ of 135 that is well above the Hall of Fame benchmark. The lasting memory of Braun, however, won’t be any of his achievements. It will be him challenging and ultimately overturning a suspension for a positive testosterone test in 2011 before getting suspended for another failed test two years later. The incident destroyed Braun’s reputation and will likely keep him from ever getting elected, no matter how strong his resume.
Evan Longoria: The top five active players in WAR are the aforementioned superstars Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Robinson Cano. Right behind them is Longoria, who has never been considered a true superstar but has been a solid two way player for over a decade. He’s won three gold gloves and completed four 30 home run seasons, but, somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t been an all-star since 2010. He’s also never finished in the top five in MVP voting proving that, while he has been an extremely valuable player, he doesn’t have the numbers to be seriously considered for the Hall of Fame.
Dustin Pedroia: Through his first ten seasons, Pedroia was considered a likely Hall of Famer. He had an MVP and a Rookie of the Year award to his name, along with four all-star appearances and four gold gloves. He had batted over .300 four times and was a key member of two World Series championship teams. Then came a Manny Machado slide in May 2017, which sent Pedroia to the DL and resulted in a down season. An offseason knee surgery ensued followed by another one in 2019, both of which combined to limit Pedroia to just nine games over the last two years. The ship has likely sailed on Pedroia being a Hall of Famer, as now he will attempt to just stay on the field.
Corey Kluber: Kluber has always been underrated even after winning two Cy Youngs. He doesn’t have the electric stuff or the electric personality, yet year after year he has been consistently brilliant. From 2014-2018, he averaged 218 innings and 246 strikeouts a year, finishing in the top 3 in Cy Young four times in those five years. It was a tremendous five-year peak, but it was the only five years of his career where he posted an above-average ERA+. With only 98 wins and 1461 strikeouts, he’ll need to rebound in his new home in Texas to build a serious Hall of Fame case.
Paul Goldschmidt: Like Kluber, Goldschmidt has gone largely unnoticed playing in small market Arizona. He also doesn’t post gaudy home run numbers, but what makes Goldschmidt so great is that he does everything well. He’s hit over .290 six times, posting an on-base percentage above .400 four times, smacked over thirty home runs five times, and won three gold gloves. He’s even stolen over 15 bases five times, unheard of for a first baseman. His 1337 hits,243 home runs, and 43.1 WAR are well below Hall of Fame benchmarks, however, so he needs to continue to produce at an all-star level through his thirties to merit serious Hall of Fame consideration.
Edwin Encarnacion: Since his breakout season in 2012, there has been no better power hitter in the game than Encarnacion. He’s averaged 37 home runs and 106 RBI’s a year while getting on base at a .363 clip. Sitting at 414 home runs going into his age 37 season, he has a real shot at joining the 500 home runs, a remarkable achievement for someone who didn’t reach 100 home runs until age 28. It’s a good thing Encarnacion hits a lot of home runs because he doesn’t have a lot else going for him. He can’t, he can’t run the bases, he doesn’t hit for a high average (.263 career). His 34.9 doesn’t come close to Hall of Fame standards, so even if Encarnacion reaches the 500 home mark, it won’t be enough to overcome his deficiencies.
Andrew Mccutchen: Mccutchen’s career numbers look a lot like a guy who is making gains on the current Hall of Fame Ballot: Jeff Kent
Kent: .290/.356/.500 .855 OPS 27 HRs/ 173 hits per 162 games
Mccutchen: .286/.378/.480 .858 OPS 24 HRs/173 hits per 162 games
On top of that, both are five-time all-stars and have won an MVP. Surprisingly, according to Fangraphs, Kent was a better defender (1 DRS to -28 DRS) while Mccutchen was a bigger threat on the bases (187 SB to 94 SB). Even though they played different positions and in different eras, Kent and Mccutchen have eerily similar careers, so it doesn’t bode well for Mccutchen that Kent has topped 20% during his six years on the ballot.
Josh Donaldson: If Donaldson got a chance to play every day before age 27, he’d have a very strong Hall of Fame Case. His peak is there: He totaled a 43.8 during his best seven years. That’s thirteenth all-time among third baseman behind 8 Hall of Famers, future first balloter Adrian Beltre, and three other guys who arguably should be in the Hall of Fame. During his prime, Donaldson was a prolific power hitter who hit for a high average and played gold glove level defense. Even as his defense has slipped in recent years, he still hits home runs and draws walks at an exceptional rate. There’s still a lot left in the tank, so if Donaldson can continue to produce at an all-star level for a few more years, he could make up for his late start and merit serious Hall of Fame consideration.
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