Hall of Fame Watch: the American League

I grew up in the middle of baseball’s steroid era, when offense reached new heights every year and a new record seemed to be set every year. One of the game’s most exclusive clubs is the 500 home run club–after Babe Ruth became the first member in 1929, the next seven decades saw only 15 new players join the club. Then Mark McGwire hit his five hundredth home run in 1999, and the floodgates opened. I’ve seen 2/3 as many players join the 500 home run club–10–in the last fourteen years as joined it in its entire prior history.

The point is, for a while we lived in baseball’s Gilded Age, when every team seemed to have a true superstar, someone who was a lock for the Hall of Fame. Some teams had two or even three–Smoltz, Glavine, and Chipper on the Braves, or Bagwell and Biggio on the Astros. The inflated power of the age sapped the Hall cases to be made for some players, relegating sluggers like Albert Belle and Fred McGriff to the Hall of the Nearly Great.

For some years my team, the A’s, had a true superstar. For a couple years we had several: Giambi left, and Tejada stepped up; when he left, we looked to Eric Chávez to carry the banner–talented as he was, the body couldn’t quite hold up, and we were left with a bizarre caravan of aging sluggers. There was Frank Thomas in an unlikely renaissance season, then Mike Piazza, Mike Sweeney, Hideki Matsui, and even another Giambi sighting.

The A’s haven’t had a true superstar–a Hall of Famer, someone who’s the best in the game at something for a long time– in years. (I’m not counting Matt Holliday’s overnight stay.) This left me thinking: what’s the rest of the league look like, in terms of Hall of Fame chances? There are some obvious choices, and some difficult choices for the future committees.

In this week’s edition we’ll examine the AL–NL soon to come.

Bold indicates a projected Hall of Fame player

Underline indicates a player with a decent case for the Hall of Fame

Italics indicates a player with a lot left to do, ie likely on the outside looking in

AL East:

NYY: Cano, Jeter, A-Rod, Rivera, Ichiro, Sabathia, Pettite, Teixeira

Jeter’s not my favorite, but despite the hate he’s long since secured his spot. A-Rod
should make the Hall, unless steroid rage keeps him out. Rivera is the best to ever play his position. Ichiro has like 10,000 hits. Cáno is by far the youngest of the group, but he’s hitting like few second basemen ever have while also fielding the position at an elite level. Pettite is one of the hardest cases on here. His peak years were in the height of the steroid era, when you could have a 4.50 ERA and not worry about your job. He’s an extreme opposite compared to someone like Felix Hernandez: as a pitcher on the early-aughts Yankees, you were guaranteed 15 wins just by showing up for work. His numbers don’t quite work out, but baseball-reference readers using Elo FanRater number him the 57th best pitcher of all time, squarely in range of the Hall. However, he was never the best in the game, something you’ve got to be able to do to make it to the Hall. Sabathia’s also a tough case: he gets tons of credit for being an “old-timey” ace in these years of reliance on specialized bullpens. Checking out his b-ref page, we see lots of black ink and bold: that’s a good sign. Right now it looks like his career WAR will get to 72, the average for HoF pitchers, but his “7-year peak” currently sits well below the Hall average. We’ll have to wait and see about Sabathia. Finally, Teixeira’s quick decline means the switch-hitter is unlikely to be able to make a good case.

BOS: Pedroia, Ortiz

Dustin Pedroia does not strike me as the kind of player who is likely to be able to sustain his key skills well into his 30s–a near-must if you want to make the Hall. His smallish frame and aggressive instincts seem to portend injuries and the kind of quick decline that has struck other power-hitting second basemen like Chase Utley and Bret Boone. However, we have to respect what he’s done so far, and he does have an MVP award, which is a ticket into the conversation in its own right.

Ortiz’s late start, mid-career swoon, and positional inflexibility make it likely he’ll be left out. But maybe the voters who leave out Manny–convicted steroid user–will vote his onetime companion and outspoken steroid critic Ortiz in.

BAL: Wieters

Okay, it’s a possibility. Dude was a megaprospect. If he continues to hit and pick up Gold Gloves, you never know. Oh, he’s hitting .220 this year? Hm. Next!

TB: Longoria,

It’s obviously too early to tell whether David Price will be able to sustain his success. But Evan Longoria looks like the real deal. Check out his b-ref “similar batters” chart. True it lists Hank Blalock. (People really thought Hank Blalock would be awesome!) But it also says Mike Schmidt (and Scott Rolen)! Longoria doesn’t have Schmidt’s power, but he’s similarly the complete package at third base, hitting for average and power while playing phenomenal defense. It looks like he’ll be putting up 5+ win seasons for as long as he can stay healthy; he’s on pace for 7 this year.  He’s well on his way to joining the notoriously-third-base-lacking Hall.

TOR: Reyes

He stole 78 bases one time, but he’s also only been in the top 10 for position player WAR once in his career, which has probably already peaked. Next.

KC: Tejada

Miggy has an MVP, which is a rarity for shortstops: only fourteen have done so, making it the position with the fewest MVP awards. Of the shortstops who won MVPs, four didn’t make the Hall (not counting as-yet-ineligibles like Jimmy Rollins and A-Rod), including the amazingly-named Zoilo Versalles. Miggy will likely join that group. While his peak was pretty great, his career line will end with a 107 wRC+, which won’t be enough for a shortstop who neither ran nor fielded too well.

CLE: Giambi, (Santana)

Jason Giambi was frankly a beast during the mid-aughts, putting up several seasons with .470 OBPs and monster power. Unfortunately, he was totally on steroids at that point, and his case was borderline anyway. Unlikely. Carlos Santana is a catcher who, like Wieters, could gain a case mostly by virtue of being a catcher.

DET: Cabrera, Verlander, Fielder, Hunter

Miguel Cabrera is a good enough hitter that someone made an argument he is the best hitter in the history of baseball. Was it a good argument? No. But the fact that it was made tells you this guy is headed for the Hall. Verlander’s only got 129 career victories as of today, but he’s only once posted an ERA+ below 125. As an undisputed ace and one of the only pitchers to win an MVP, he’s got a good case already, as evinced by the Black Ink Test–he’s been a league leader in several categories throughout his career.

Fielder is a great hitter, if he were Hall-bound he’d have an average closer to .300 than .280 for his career. Torii Hunter is a stealth candidate based on his shelves full of Gold Gloves, but while that worked for Ozzie Smith it’s unlikely to do the same for the longtime Twin.

MIN: Mauer

Catchers who can hit like Mauer (135 career wRC+) are few and far between. For Mauer’s Hall case, look no further than his 7-year peak of 35.9 bWAR, slightly above the average Hall of Fame catcher’s 7-year peak of 33.2 bWAR. If he can stay healthy for several more years, he’s got a great case.

CHI: Peavy, Konerko, Sale

All unlikely. Sale obviously just started. Konerko has the best case, but he was never an MVP candidate, really, and lacks the oomph typically associated with the award.

LAA: Pujols, Trout, Hamilton

The days of comparing Josh Hamilton to Mickey Mantle seem to be gone. Mike Trout’s performance last year put him in pretty historic company. Check this out if you have any doubts about Pujols. Oh wait, I meant this metric, which suggests he’s one of the five best first basemen of all time.

SEA: Hernandez

He’s a great pitcher, a true ace whose skills have grown over the years. But his Hall case is going to be unfairly hurt by the fact that he has played for a losing franchise his whole career, meaning he’s only got one season with more than 14 wins. If voters can look past wins–as they did in awarding him a Cy Young–then there’s a compelling case to be made.

OAK: None

HOU: None

TEX: Beltre, Berkman, Darvish, Kinsler, Nathan

Unsurprisingly, the best teams in baseball–NYY, BOS, TEX, DET–all have multiple candidates for the Hall. Darvish is just starting out, but he obviously has mind-blowing potential. Kinsler is a slow climber up the second-base charts. It’s an unfair comparison, but with one more premier-level season he’ll pass Bill Mazeroski–yes, a Hall of Famer–in career value. Nathan only became a relief pitcher after several years of promise as a starter with the Giants. He could very well end his career in the top five in saves, but he’d probably need to go beyond that to 450 or 500 to garner a bid.

The final two we’ll consider are especially interesting cases. Lance Berkman is one of the greatest switch-hitters of all time. (The third best in terms of offense only, according to that writer.) He sits in a precarious position behind Jason Giambi–dismissed above–and Tony Perez–already in the Hall–on the first base JAWS leaderboard. (Of course he played many years in the outfield, too.) His career OPS+ is, notably, higher than Prince Fielder’s, despite Fielder being in his prime and Berkman presumably on his way out. All of the players ahead of Berkman on that list are pre-decline and probably Hall of Famers. While he didn’t hit for crazy power, he’ll end up with more than Orlando Cepeda (376), another first baseman in the hall. His best skill was always getting on base–career .4017. If you check out the leaderboard for career OBP, all the modern era hitters above .400 are in the Hall (or likely headed there–though Todd Helton is another tough case). We’ll have to see whether this is enough for Berkman.

The case for Beltre has already been laid out well here.

Totals:

11 probable,

It would be really interesting to see a historical graph of how many Hall of Fame players were in the majors at any given time, to see how this total might stack up against other decades’ best.

Finally, check this guy out:

I had never heard of Bobby Gritch, but he posted one of the strangest 8-win seasons I’ve ever seen. He had a career year in 1973 as a 8.3-win second baseman for the California Angels–but he hit only .251 that year! How’d he do it, then? Well, with defense, mainly–3.9 dWAR–as well as speed (17 steals), some power (12 homers), endurance (700 PAs) and extraordinary on-base skills (.373 OBP, a Votto-like .122 jump over his average!).

Ben Zobrist before Ben Zobrist, I guess.

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