Who is Cooperstown bound? A look at active players with strong Hall of Fame cases
This is Hall of Fame Weekend up in Cooperstown, N.Y., but Sunday’s induction festivities will be muted because all three men being recognized — umpire Hank O’Day, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and catcher/third baseman Deacon White — have been dead for at least 74 years. Thanks to a combination of first-ballot jitters and inchoate protest over the presence of candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs, the Baseball Writers Association of America failed to elect anyone on a ballot brimming with qualified candidates.
We’ll have plenty of time to focus on the BBWAA’s next go-round this coming winter, but for the moment it’s worth considering which current players may be bound for Cooperstown if the voters ever wade through the growing backlog of candidates. I’m using my JAWS system to measure the career and peak values of each player against the average enshrined player at their position in the Hall while bearing in mind the more traditional merits that voters look for in candidates. I’m only looking at players who are well along in their careers — no Mike Trout or Bryce Harper here, and no retired players either. Due to underlying changes in Baseball-Reference.com’s version of the Wins Above Replacement metric, the numbers have shifted since the winter (as they do almost every year) but not enough to substantially change conclusions about who should be in or out.
Below I’ll run through the players at each position with the best chances at being elected, though some may well not make it. First, the positional averages, the baselines to which these players are being compared:
Catcher: Joe Mauer (43.5 career WAR/37.7 peak WAR/40.6 JAWS)
At the age of 30, in his 10th major league season, it appears that the Twins’ catcher is well on his way to a bronze plaque. Thanks to a stellar career batting line (.323/.405/.468), he’s already accumulated enough WAR to surpass the average peak of a Hall of Fame catcher, and since battling injuries en route to a 1.5 WAR season in 2011, he’s been worth 9.0 WAR over about 1 2/3 seasons. On the traditional merits, he’s in strong shape as well, with six All-Star appearances, three batting titles and an MVP award. A position shift is an eventuality, but it won’t hurt his case given his resume thus far.
First base: Albert Pujols (93.0/61.5/77.3)
His time in Anaheim has been miserable to date, and he’s still got eight years to go on a 10-year, $240 million contract that looks more ridiculous by the day, but Pujols has already done more than enough to be elected. If he rebounds, he should surpass Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig to become the top-ranked first baseman of all time as far as JAWS is concerned (the rankings currently show Stan Musial ahead, but he more accurately belongs in rightfield, where he accumulated the most value). With 492 homers and 2,346 hits under his belt midway through his age-33 season, Pujols is headed for some monster career totals even if he never returns to his St. Louis form. He’s also got nine All-Star appearances, three MVP awards and two World Series rings, making him a lock unless he’s felled by some scandal.
Second base: Chase Utley (57.9/49.1/53.5)
Though he’s only 34 and hasn’t played more than 115 games in a season since 2009, Utley has already surpassed the peak value of the average Hall of Fame second baseman by a substantial margin of 4.5 WAR. That’s thanks largely to off-the-charts defense; via Defensive Runs Saved, he’s 142 runs above average at second. That said, he’s anything but a lock to get in, because he’s not only short on career value, he’s well short on the traditional counting stats, most notably with 1,352 hits; the BBWAA has yet to elect a player whose career began after 1960 expansion who failed to reach 2,000 hits. Utley has five All-Star appearances and a World Series ring, but getting jobbed out of the MVP award by teammates Ryan Howard (2006) and Jimmy Rollins (2007) won’t help his cause either. Whether or not he stays in Philadelphia beyond this trading deadline, he’ll need a strong finish.
Third base: Adrian Beltre (68.3/44.9/56.6), Miguel Cabrera (53.0/43.0/48.0)
Because Beltre spent so many of his first 12 seasons failing to live up to the expectations created by his 48-homer 2004 showing at age 25, he is often thought of as an underachiever, but he’s resurrected his career by playing for contending teams in hitter-friendly ballparks while maintaining outstanding defense (168 career Defensive Runs Saved). Midway through his age 34 season, Beltre has already surpassed the average Hall third baseman on career, peak and JAWS, ranking 10th in the latter all-time. He’s a bit short on the hardware — he has just three All-Star appearances, no MVP award (but two top-three finishes) and no World Series ring yet – but he’s already got 2,351 hits and 368 homers, and he’s signed through 2015 with a vesting option for 2016. Three thousand hits and 400 homers is a possible combination, one that would be unprecedented among third basemen.
As for Cabrera, not only has he surpassed the Hall peak measure, he’s in the midst of a peak season (5.6 WAR so far) that could wind up his career best even with his warts-and-all defense; as it is, last year’s 7.6 mark sets his personal standard. He’s got 1,936 hits, 352 homers, two batting titles, a Triple Crown, an MVP award and a World Series ring (2003 with the Marlins, remember?) — and he’s still in his age-30 season. All he needs to do is remain free of the off-field drama that nearly derailed his career a couple years back.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter (72.3/42.3/57.3)
The Yankee captain is in Captain Obvious territory, despite having played only one major league game this year due to injuries. Even with a massive hit due to defense (-142 DRS), he’s above the Hall standard for shortstops in career and JAWS, and within half a win on peak. He’s also got 3,305 hits (11th all-time, with sole possession of ninth place just 15 hits away), 13 All-Star appearances, five World Series rings and (guffaw) five Gold Gloves, not to mention a spotless record in an era when spotless has hardly been the norm. Somebody in upstate New York is already casting his plaque, awaiting only the final numbers.
As for Alex Rodriguez (115.5/64.1/89.8, 647 homers, 2,901 hits, three MVP awards), let’s just tiptoe past the chalk outline of his Hall of Fame case for now.
No active leftfielder is within 15 JAWS points of the average Hall of Famer, with Matt Holliday (38.0/.34.4/36.2) the closest but nowhere near close enough, and Ryan Braun (35.4/35.4/35.4) going down in spectacular flames. Move along.
Centerfield: Carlos Beltran (66.9/44.1/55.5)
Midway through his age-36 season, Beltran ranks ninth all-time among centerfielders in JAWS, with a peak score that’s dead even and a career score that’s just 3.6 wins off. He’s not moving particularly fast on the latter track, with 1.9 WAR this year, but with 8.3 WAR in the previous two seasons, he is moving forward. On the traditional merits, his counting stats (2,168 hits, 353 homers, 308 steals) probably need padding to convince voters, though his eight All-Star appearances and sizzling .363/.470/.782 postseason line (with 14 homers) will bolster his case, and he’s got a shot at a World Series ring this year. He’ll have to keep going, but his 2013 line — .301/.335/.522 with 18 homers — should generate another contract once he reaches free agency this winter.
Rightfield: Ichiro Suzuki (59.1/43.6/51.3)
Despite not debuting stateside until age 27, Ichiro has surpassed the peak score of Hall rightfielders, and with 2.0 WAR in each of the past two seasons, he’s creeping toward the career mark even at age 39. Considering his 2,702 hits, 467 steals, 10 straight All-Star/Gold Glove seasons, his MVP/Rookie of the Year debut in 2001, two batting titles and general ambassadorship of the game, he’s almost a lock on the traditional merits.
Designated Hitter: None
I’ve said this many times, but even having taken over the all-time lead in hits among DHs, David Ortiz (42.7/32.0/37.4) hasn’t accumulated anywhere near the value to measure up to the average Hall of Famer hitter at large or Hall of Fame first basemen, the two yardsticks by which I’d measure his candidacy, and he’s nowhere near the in-limbo Edgar Martinez (68.3/43.5//55.9), the patron saint of DH causes. Ortiz does have two World Series rings and a strong postseason line (.283/.388/.520), but he’s also been linked to PEDs via the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test. While that one comes with considerable caveats, the BBWAA has yet to demonstrate any inkling of a nuanced approach on the topic. I can envision a statue of Ortiz in front of Fenway Park, but I don’t see him getting elected to Cooperstown.
Starting pitcher: Roy Halladay (64.6/50.6/57.6)
Halladay has already surpassed the Hall peak for starters, but having undergone shoulder surgery this season at age 36, his career is on the ropes, and even if he bounces back, he may fall short on career WAR. His traditional merits — eight All-Star appearances, two Cy Young awards (and three other top-three finishes) and two no-hitters, one in the postseason and the other a perfect game — are solid. The hitch right now is that he has just 201 wins, and the current bloc of BBWAA voters has yet to demonstrate that they’ll elect a starting pitcher who’s substantially short of 300 wins; Catfish Hunter, with 224 wins, was the last starter elected with south of 250 wins, and that came in 1987, more than a quarter century ago. The likes of Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling and John Smoltz should eventually change that, but the Doc is no lock.
Relief pitcher: Mariano Rivera (56.1/28.9/42.5)
He’s the all-time save leader (641), second only to Dennis Eckersley (who spent half his career as a starter) in JAWS, with five World Series rings, an 0.70 ERA in 141 postseason innings, and a level of esteem and respect throughout the game that rivals that of Cal Ripken Jr. Rivera’s career is just about finished, and like Jeter, his plaque probably is, too.