Monday, July 11, 2016

The Next Generation of Hall of Fame Baseball Players?



I realize that, outside of politics, the quickest way to bring indignant wrath down upon yourself is to discuss who belongs and who does not belong in the Hall of Fame. But just call me a glutton for punishment.

As the All-Star game approaches, and there is nothing else going on today, I thought now would be a good time to look at the Hall of Fame prospects for current players. I'll admit it is somewhat distressing to look at the current All-Star rosters. I know a lot of the best players in the game can't be there every year anymore due to the rule of having a player from each team, but it seems that we don't have the number of larger-than-life superstars who are walking Hall of Fame plaques that we used to.

I will use 1970 as a comparison for the simple reason that I was nine years old that year and every morning raced to get the paper to plow through each box score. And nothing is ever as good as when you are a nine-year-old fanatic.

In 1970 there were no less than eight active players who had already accumulated a resume that made them absolute no-doubt-abouters: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline. These guys already had 500 home runs, 3000 hits, or both, or were still going strong and rapidly closing in on those numbers. If a meteor had struck the earth at the All-Star break of 1970, these guys would have had no trouble getting into the Hall of Fame (once it was rebuilt).


Also, Carl Yastrzemski, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal were only a few years away from having the career numbers to be considered sure things. There was little doubt that, barring a catastrophic career-ending injury (or some type of suspension), that these guys would make it.

In addition, the following players had notched five to eight good years and appeared to be well on their way: Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Billy Williams. Pete Rose and Willie McCovey.

These were stand-out players whose personalities and performance dominated every All-Star game for a decade or more. Of course, there were other guys in 1970 who were very good and later managed to compile Hall-worthy careers, but were maybe a notch below the above guys in day to day games--guys like Catfish Hunter, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan (although he was still in relative obscurity in Houston in 1970), Orlando Cepeda, Fergie Jenkins and others. And most of them still had a good decade of work to do.

While youngsters Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer, Rod Carew and Tom Seaver certainly seemed great, it was still too early to start forging their plaques. There were also a few cautionary-tales-in-the-making of why you shouldn't rush to enshrine young players, no matter how good they look. In 1970, Tony Oliva, Dick Allen, Denny McLain and Sudden Sam McDowell looked like sure things. But injuries and other problems would eventually keep them from their appointments in Cooperstown. Also, Ron Santo looked like a sure thing in 1970--not a guy who would have to wait 30 years--but we didn't know diabetes would shorten his career in only a few years.


Now look at current major leaguers [I will preface this with the statement that I am not taking into account any real or perceived use of performance enhancers--as several of these guys undoubtedly will have to battle when the voting begins--I am only talking about stats and actual performance; and all numbers stated are at the beginning of this season. Also, I am talking about guys who already have the complete resume needed for induction. Obviously, there are some guys who are good enough to make it, but have only had a few good years so far]:

Alex Rodriquez, Ichiro and Albert Pujols have clearly done enough to warrant inclusion in the Hall of Fame. And also David Ortiz, with more than 500 home runs and a great portfolio of post-season heroics. If these four were involved in a tragic accident tomorrow and had to stop playing, they would be safe as far as the Hall.

Miguel Cabrera with ten seasons of hitting .300, four batting titles, 408 home runs, 2331 hits and a lifetime average of .321 is a very good bet at this point. And he's only 33. If he stays in shape until he is 38 or 39 he can compile numbers which would put him in the conversation for the short list of best ever.

But that's it for right now. Five guys; among all current major leaguers.

There are a few other borderline players, but they all have question marks. I'll start with Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran. I lump these two together because they are so similar, even with their last names --almost so similar that they may suffer from the fact that some voters who don't pay much attention to the game (there are apparently more than a few of those still out there) might think they are the same guy.

Beltre, 37 this year, has 413 home runs, 1467 RBIs, 2767 hits, four Gold Gloves, and a lifetime .285 average. Beltran, 39, is nearly identical with 392 homers, 1443 RBIs, 2455 hits, three Gold Gloves and a lifetime .280 average.

Neither of them has ever been the dominant player in their league, but they have put together good, solid, long careers. These two guys probably deserve it; probably not on the first ballot, if that means anything anymore, which it doesn't. But their stats seem to put them in the Tony Perez class. Perez, who had to wait years to get in, had 379 home runs, 1653 RBIs, 2732 hits and a career .279 average. Also Perez had six division titles, five pennants and two world championships on his resume, which is always nice. Perez got in as an RBI man, and these two are Tony Perez, minus the postseason and minus about 200 RBIs--so not overly exciting.

Of the probables who need a few more good years, I think Robinson Cano is the most likely candidate. Cano, 33, has 252 homers, 1025 RBIs, 2014 hits and a .306 average and is a six-time All-Star. He will also get some extra credit for being a pretty good fielder (two Gold Gloves) at an infield position up the middle. Personally, I would like to see him get another 4 or 5 decent years to put him around 1400 RBIs and 2700 hits before I endorse him. Will he make it? He will be hurt by playing half of his games in Seattle, which is a tough power-hitting park. But considering some of the second basemen already in the Hall, I think Cano may only be one or two years away from being thought of as a sure bet.

Three years ago Joe Mauer would have been considered a lock. He was a great hitter and got premium points for catching and really had nine extremely good years. And he's a good guy, if that means anything. But time has not been kind to Joe Mauer. He hasn't been effective since 2013 and I think hamstringing his franchise by severely under-performing with a monstrous contract is hurting his reputation. Mauer, 33, has only 1697 career hits, 119 home runs and 755 RBIs. Despite six seasons over .300 and three batting titles, he never had much power (which makes him look even worse now as a first baseman/DH) and is quickly running out of gas and his career average of .314 will plummet the longer he tries to play. He will have a hard time getting 2000 career hits and 900 RBIs--just not very good numbers for the Hall of Fame. Mauer looks a little better than Thurman Munson, who has never gained much traction in voting. Munson, who died at 32, had 1558 hits, 113 home runs, 701 RBIs, a .292 average with one MVP and three Gold Gloves. Overall, I think Mauer may eventually get in, mostly on the strength of just how good he was in his early-to-mid twenties, but he may have to wait a few years.

Andrew McCutchen, 29, is a toolsy, good guy and some consider him to be one of the "faces" of the game. He has 151 home runs, 558 RBIs and a .298 average. His problem is that he doesn't really have a lot of power and we know that everyone's lifetime average drops at least 10 or 20 points the further they get in their thirties. He probably would need to play effectively until he's 37 or 38, which might put him around 350 homers (a stretch) and 1400 RBIs; not quite Andre Dawson numbers. That still doesn't look too good. So I would consider him borderline at best.

Adam Jones, 30, looks a lot like McCutchen, with a little more power and less average. He has 201 home runs, 678 RBIs and a .277 average, with four Gold Gloves. Like McCutchen, he needs 7 or 8 more solid years and he needs to keep his average from dropping too much.

There are a lot of guys who have had some good years, but injuries and age have rendered their chances very slim. Ryan Howard is essentially done with 365 home runs; he won't make it. Mark Teixeira, 36, is running out of steam and has only 394 home runs and 1254 RBIs--that wasn't enough for Rocky Colavito and it won't be enough for Teixeira. Similarly, Prince Fielder, 32, is showing signs that carrying around all that weight is wearing him down. He has 311 home runs, 984 RBIs. He had 3 home runs in 2014 and 23 in 2015. He doesn't have enough time left.

Adrian Gonzolez, 34, has 290 home runs and 1056 RBIs and Jose Bautista, 35, has 286 and 793. They don't have enough time left either.

Joey Votto had some good years for the Reds. But he's a die-hard on-base-percentage guy on a team that needed RBIs and OBP alone has never been enough to get a guy on the walls in Cooperstown. Votto is 32, with only 1226 career hits and 633 RBIs and is toiling for a miserable team. If he plays until he's 40, and has good years until then, that puts him around 2700 hits and 1400 RBIs max--sorry Votto fans, but there's no way that's going to happen.

Catchers are a slightly different breed as far as the Hall goes and, as stated for Mauer, they get a little leeway on their career stats due to the wear-and-tear from all that squatting. Buster Posey, 29, has had five good years and one MVP. He has 850 hits, 110 homers, 447 RBIs and a .310 average. He needs four more very good years to be Joe Mauer at 33. Yadier Molina, 33, has eight Gold Gloves, four .300 sesasons, 1477 hits, 101 homers and 663 RBIs and a .283 average. Right now, he's Thurman Munson with a few more Gold Gloves and not quite as good a hitter. Given that Molina is probably the best at his position of his generation, he'll probably make it some day.

Of course, there are a lot of great-looking young players; there always are. Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper all have Hall of Fame talent and have put up some good seasons. Manny Machado, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant look good. But they are much too young to start talking Hall of Fame yet. They need to stay away from injuries, bad attitudes and bad habits for another 10 or 12 years. If they do that, sure, they will waltz in. Unfortunately, as we have seen so many times in baseball history, a lot of things can happen. So I usually don't like to even start thinking Hall of Fame until a guy is around 27 or 28.

As far as pitchers, that is an all-together bleak prospect. Not that there aren't a lot of great pitchers out there--there are. Batters are striking out in record numbers and it's not just because they're not taking as many greenies as they used to. But I think we will eventually need to change our paradigm for what is considered immortal for a pitching career. It used to be that pitchers needed 250 or more career wins and at least 10 to 15 dominating years. Then Don Drysdale got in with 209 wins and lowered the bar. Because of the way pitchers are used now, it might have to eventually go much lower.

It's striking when you discover that the three top career wins men among active players are Bartolo Colon with 218, C.C. Sabathia with 214 and John Lackey with 169. That's it. Lackey, 37, has been solid at times, but I don't think anyone would even remotely suggest that he's a Hall of Famer. There are two major problems with modern pitchers as far as building Hall of Fame careers go: wins are getting very hard to come by for starters with the modern usage of bullpens and pitch counts, and it seems as though, in spite of improvements in medicine, we are seeing more and more injuries curtailing pitchers' careers. Nobody is asking for Old Hoss Radbourn to come back and throw 600 innings a year, but 200 innings and 15 wins seem to be getting harder and harder to find. At least not for 10-15 years in a row like we were used to.

Colon and Sabathia are close. Colon, 43, started this season 218-154 with a pedestrian career ERA of 3.96, although he pitched through some very pitcher-unfriendly years. Sabathia, 35, was 214-131 (an impressive .624 percentage) and 3.69. He has battled injuries and may be nearing the end. Of the two, I like Sabathia. I don't think Colon deserves to be in. But I could be wrong.

Clayton Kershaw is doing the best impersonation of Sandy Koufax that we have seen in five decades. Going in to this season, he is 28 years old with two pretty good and five superlative seasons under his belt. Other than his first year dabbling, he has never had an ERA above 3.00. His career stats are 114-56 with an ERA less than 2.50. Certainly these are Hall of Fame numbers. But it's not quite enough. Yet.

There have been two notable exceptions for pitchers as far as total number of career wins, Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean, and each of them, like Kershaw, were the dominant pitchers of their eras. Also--but this is a very big also--they each had that something extra: great post-season success along with an aura and charisma that transcended the game. And don't forget that Sandy looked great in a yarmulke. Kershaw has none of these intagibles. But Koufax (165-87, 2.76) and Dean (150-83, 3.02) had career numbers that are only about three seasons away for Kershaw. So, barring catastrophic injury, which is always a big if when talking about pitchers, I would say that Kershaw is nearly a certain thing and will be in a few years. And he may go down as one of the all-time greats.

After that, it is a crap shoot. Two years ago most people would have tabbed Justin Verlander as an automatic. Now he is very doubtful. He's 33 years old and is clearly slowing down. He is 157-97 with a career ERA of 3.50--a number that is rapidly going up. He was 15-12 with a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and 5-8 in an injury-plagued 2015 season. I think he really needs three more good seasons but he's not going to get them. Maybe if he hangs on for five or six years and crawls to 200 wins? Right now, I would call him possible, but doubtful.

Zack Greinke, 32, is 142-93 (.600) with a 3.38 ERA. He has had some very good years and a few mediocre ones. He clearly benefited from the Chavez Ravine mound and is having a hard time this year. He needs at least four seasons to get to 200 wins. If he lasts, maybe.

Felix Hernandez is 30, has a career record of 143-101 and 3.12 ERA. He's made 6 All-Star teams and has a Cy Young Award. Plus he has one of the best go-to nicknames in baseball (King Felix), no small accomplishment nowadays. He's close. It's well-known that he has toiled for some bad teams and I think voters will give him a little bit of leeway with career wins because of it. I would like to see him have another four decent years and end up around 200 wins; which is very possible baring injury. Between Greinke and Hernandez, I would go with Hernandez as far as HOF chances at this point. But they've both got a shot.

David Price and Max Scherzer are 30 and 31 years old respectively and have 104 and 105 career wins (for comparison, the above-mentioned Denny McLain had 110 at 26 years of age). They look good and had they pitched in the 1970s or 1980s would probably be locks. As it is, they will need to stay healthy and effective at least six or seven more years--an increasingly difficult task for hard-throwers these days.

Stephen Strasburg certainly has the kind of talent that can make a guy's name get thrown around in these types of discussion and is finally having the type of year everyone predicted. But he is still only 27 and had never won more than 15 games going in to this season. And with his history of injuries, there is too much uncertainty yet.

Jake Arrieta is untouchable right now, but remember he has only had one great year. He is 30 now and he didn't start doing well until he was 29. Hall of Fame voters do not have a good history of allowing guys in on the basis of a few extremely good years--which is why Roger Maris and Denny McLain aren't in. Even if Arrieta is canonized this year for leading the Cubbies to the promised land, he still needs to throw at least six more good years to get in on the Koufax and Dizzy Dean exception. Will he be able to do that? Who knows?

And that brings us to relief pitchers. This is really where the questions are. And the main question will be: what constitutes a Hall of Fame career for a relief pitcher now? Is it going to be 500, 600, 700 career saves? The specialty is changing so fast, and everybody seems to be piling up monstrous numbers of saves now. How do you separate them? What are the standards going to be?

And ERA is difficult to evaluate. A guy can be a one-inning closer, pitch perfectly in 54 games, then one day--maybe because of a bad batch of Cuban churitos--walk 3 guys and give up a home run and his ERA for the year goes up 0.67.

Of course there will be no doubt about Mariano Rivera, but what about modern relievers? I think a guy would need to be the dominant player in his role for at least 10 years. It seems that every season, at least half of the major league teams change closers. And they are all unhittable. Who's the best?

Francisco Rodriguez is 34, on his fifth team, in his 15th year and had 386 saves coming into the season. His career ERA is 2.71. Does he excite anyone? Joe Nathan is 41, in his 15th season, had 376 saves and a career ERA of 2.89. Jonathan Papelbon is 35 with 349 saves and a 2.36 ERA. Hudson Street, 32, had 315 saves and a 2.83 ERA. I'm not suggesting that getting three major league hitters out in the ninth inning is an easy task, but if current trends continue, there will be tons of closers over the next 20 years who will pile up 400 or 500 career saves with low ERAs. Are they all worthy--are they all better than Fingers, Gossage and Sutter--or is it just the nature of their role?

I think one problem we are seeing now for all players is that the 15-20 year careers are fading away. Guys are financially secure beyond their wildest dreams at 25. There is little incentive to play longer and unless a team is one piece away from a pennant run, little incentive for a team to pay, say 30 or 40 million a year for a past-his-prime guy when they can sign a younger player for much, much less.



So, who's going to be next up there? If you are keeping score at home, that's four definites: Ichiro, A Rod, Pujols and Ortiz (and two of those have a chemical cloud hanging over their careers that will need to be addressed by voters).

Three more probables: Beltre, Beltran and Cabrera (who, as I said, is only a year or two away from being a certain).

A few maybes: Sabathia, Mauer and Molina.

And then some guys who need a few more years. As far as the young players, remember that just a few years ago we had crop of guys named Longoria, Wright, Howard, Fielder, Uggla, and Utley who all seemed like sure-things, but injuries and other problems have rendered them yesterday's news. So don't get too excited yet. As Yogi would have said, you can't tell exactly how a guy is going to do in the future until he's already done it.

So there you have it. And remember: if I omitted or disrespected your favorite player, it was entirely unintentional and I am probably wrong. But feel free to hate me anyway.

6 comments:

  1. I think I will use author's privilege to make a small correction. Some better minds than mine have suggested that I was a bit too hasty on Beltre. After considering their statements and comparing him with third basemen already in the Hall, I will have to reluctantly agree that I was wrong (I hate it when that happens). He has already done enough; he can go in to the Hall with my compliments.

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  2. No sign Pedroia has lost his zest for playing at a high level and if he can avoid significant injuries he deserves mention at least. And despite his stats, I'm not sure A-Rod is a lock to be voted in , at least for awhile.

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  3. I agree Pedroia is a great player, but what worries me is that he's a little guy with no power playing a middle infield position--those guys have a hard time hanging around when they get old and lose a few steps; he won't be able to pad a few years on at the end playing DH. He is 32 years old with 1588 career hits and a .299 average. If we give him 5 more good years, averaging 180 hits until he's 37, that leaves him at 2488. Maybe borderline. But we can be sure that his batting average will drop over that period, almost everybody's does without steroids. He certainly deserves mention, but it would help if he could get a couple more .310 years soon to give him some wiggle room.

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    1. I didn't want to get into the steroid thing, but obviously A Rod will need to face the same tribunal Clemens and Bonds are facing before he gets in--who knows on that one.

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  4. Doug: Don't forget, Pedroia is an excellent fielder and team leader. His stats as you project them compare favorably with Red Schoendienst(who is still living at age 93)who is sort of a modern era guy for comparison. We'll see. Another World Series or two would help (or at least make me happy).

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  5. And his stats would certainly pass Mazeroski and a few other guys.

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