Hall of Fame Watch: The National League

Last week we examined the Junior Circuit’s potential Hall of Famers; this week, we’re looking at the National League. As before, a name in bold is a projected Hall of Famer; a name in italics is a potential Hall of Famer, with something left to prove; a name underlined is a player who is on the margins of the discussion.

 

NL East

WAS: Strasburg, Harper, R. Zimmerman

Let’s talk about Zimmerman first. Ryan plays third base; as we’ve mentioned before, there aren’t many third basemen in the Hall. Third base JAWS suggests he’s around the 60th best third baseman ever. He’s obviously got a couple more years to go, but while he might pass Pie Traynor and George Kell (both HoF) in terms of career WAR, no one I know is suggesting his candidacy. Next.
All of us know the potential that Strasburg and Harper have. You name it, it’s been predicted for them. Harper’s first 162 major league games produced 6.9 WAR. Strasburg posted a 2.81 xFIP and a strikeout-per-nine rate above 11 in his first season. They’re both babies, basically, in terms of Hall candidacy. But they’re sure off on the right foot.

MIA: Stanton

2012 was Stanton’s best season yet, as he raised his batting average to .290 to go with his monstrous power (he slugged over .600, with a massive .318 ISO). He’s been set back by injuries so far this year, but one glance at his “similar by age” batters reveals his potential–the list includes Juan Gonzalez, Frank Robinson, and Eddie Mathews.

ATL: Hudson

Tim Hudson’s case has been explained well by ESPN SweetSpot writer David Schoenfield. It remains to be seen whether Hall of Fame voters will be willing to embrace 200 as the new 300 wins. Most of all, we don’t know whether voters even consider the kind of era-adjusted rate stats that put Hudson in rarefied company. He has the 26th best winning percentage of any pitcher. He’s 29th ever in WPA (win probability added), 29th in base-out wins saved, 26th in situational wins saved. The problem is that even I–a regular reader of sabermetric work–have to look up what these things mean. And he’s lacking in the categories everyone knows: he’s never won a Cy Young, and made only three All Star games. If Huddy–one of my all-time favorite players–makes it to 250 wins, I think his case will be very, very good. Otherwise, he’s probably headed to the Hall of Very Good.

Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are both still guys who could make a push.

(Thought experiment–people are saying Andy Pettitte is a Hall of Famer. What if Pettitte and Hudson had switched teams at the onset of their careers? Which one would we be hearing as a better candidate?)

PHI: Halladay, Hamels, Lee, Utley, Rollins, Young

None of these cases are cut-and-dried. They’re all really tough cases that frankly I don’t know what to make of. Fortunately, other people have already written about them!

Some people might even want to talk about Ryan Howard. I am not one of those people.

Here are my quick thoughts on each one:

  • Halladay: yes. Considered the best pitcher in baseball for five-plus years, one of the great competitors, lived up to pressure in the playoffs.
  • Lee: sneakily possible. He’s back to his winning ways after that baffling losing stretch last year, and with 40 career WAR, reaching 65 isn’t impossible. It’s highly unlikely voters would consider him, but he’d get my vote if he made it to 65.
  • Utley: yes, if he can come back and be at All-Star level for another 2 or 3 years.
  • Rollins: no, peak too short.
  • Hamels: too early to say, but probably no.
  • Young: no, never dominant.

NYM: Wright, Santana

Johan Santana’s name might be an easy one to forget. After all, he has hardly pitched since 2010, and the Mets haven’t really been in the spotlight recently, either. He’s now 34, and it doesn’t seem likely his body will allow his talent to play much longer. It’s likely that today’s casual fans have already forgotten how dominant he was from 2004-2007, when he led the league in WHIP every year. This leaderboard tracks career Cy Young votes. Santana “only” won two, but he’s eleventh all time in Cy Young shares. He likely won’t add 20 career wins to reach the HoF plateau of 70 for starting pitchers, but it’s worth recalling that his peak was about as good as anyone’s.

David Wright is another great case to examine. Captain America seems to have been born to hit a baseball–but that’s not the only advanced part of his game, as he’s consistently been a threat to run and ranked as one of the best glovemen at the hot corner. Ranked against his peers, Wright has been the default best third baseman in the NL since he debuted, but injuries have cost him in several years. Check out this leaderboard, which shows career All-Star appearances. Wright currently has six. Assuming he makes it this year, he’ll need three more elite years to reach ten All-Star appearances. If you check out that list, there really aren’t very many players who accrue that kind of respect without also making the Hall. His power numbers are not the same as some of his peers at the third-base position. For sake of reference, check out this graph, which compares the career WAR arcs of Mike Schmidt (the gold standard at third base), Ron Santo (perhaps towards the lower end of modern third basemen in the Hall), and current contenders Beltre and Wright.

http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?players=639,1011586,3787,1011447

As you can see, Wright definitely has work to do. Being in New York has surely helped his popularity, but based on the numbers he will have a good case if he can extend his peak into his early-mid thirties.

NL Central

CHI: None

STL: Beltran, Carpenter, Wainwright, Holliday

Wainwright has already had a couple near-misses on the Cy Young; perhaps this year is his year. He’s got a sterling track record, but he got a bit of a late start, as he’s already 31. He’s unlikely to crack 200 wins, which seems to be a minimum standard for the new generation of starting pitchers.

Carpenter does already have a Cy Young, but including him as an active player is sort of an academic exercise. He appears to be pretty much done at age 38. He had a very impressive run and if there were a Sinkerballer Hall of Fame, he’d be there. However, he had a not-so-great start to his career, and basically was league average until he got to the Cardinals in his seventh season.

Matt Holliday is a star, but he’s never been a super-star, and while it ought to be the numbers that count, perception matters too. His case is better than you might think, but this year it looks like he’s hit a wall, which could mean kaputt for his candidacy.

Beltran has seven Gold Gloves, a Rookie of the Year, and is one of the game’s best power-speed-defense players. He is one of only 38 players to join the 30-30 club (Wright is also in the club). His play in the playoffs has been exemplary, and he owns a 1.252 career OPS in the playoff over 150 plate appearances. He has 346 career home runs, eleventh all time by a center fielder; he’s likely to creep towards 400 as his career comes to a close. However, he never won an MVP, and some of his rate stats have fallen off in the last couple years. It’s very possible he will be remembered as one of the ten or twelve best center fielders of all time, but it’s not clear whether that will be enough. (Related: is Andruw Jones a Hall of Famer?)

PIT: McCutchen

Almost anyone coming off a 7.5 win season is going to end up in this discussion. Cutch led the majors in hits last year, and might have won the MVP if not for a late season swoon. Center field is hallowed ground–Mays, diMaggio, Mantle–but McCutchen is only 26, and if he continues on the track he’s on, it’s plausible we could add another M to that center-field club.

CIN: Votto

Votto has already got an MVP and remains a contender for another. For his career, he’s hitting .318/.419/.552. That’s good for the 15th-highest-ever OPS. Pretty good I’d say. However, he’s a first baseman; there’s stiff competition over there. His case could look a lot like Todd Helton’s when it’s all said and done, and Helton currently looks like he’s on the outside looking in.

MIL: Braun

Ryan Braun won the Rookie of the Year award in 2007, and has been an All-Star every year since then. He’s hit 30 homers and 100 RBIs in all but one season. He’s even stolen 30 bases twice. As long as the steroid suspicions subside, he looks like a great candidate. He does not seem to be especially well-liked, though, and given the Hall’s political nature, that could be a bigger deal than it should be. (Didn’t matter for Ty Cobb though, I guess.)

NL West

SFG: Posey, Lincecum, Cain

There are only thirteen catchers in the Hall of Fame, and I think Posey has a good chance to join them. He’s only in his third full season–remember, he lost his sophomore campaign to that gruesome leg injury–but he’s already got a Rookie of the Year and an MVP under his belt. In his age-26 season he’s on pace for about 6 WAR; if we prorate that over seven years, he should easily pass the 34-WAR peak that JAWS identifies for catchers. Moreover, like Gary Carter–the most recent catcher to join the Hall of Fame–he’s a champion, having won two World Series in his first three years.

Three years ago, Tim Lincecum would have been in italics. Sadly, b-ref lists Brandon Webb, another Cy Young winner turned bust, as his top comparison. If Timmy is in the Hall of the Nearly Great–those who, at their peak, were truly amazing, but could not sustain it–then Matt Cain is in the Hall of the Very Good, those players who are dependably above average over a long period of time. (I won’t talk about this year.)

LAD: Kershaw, Greinke, Ad. Gonzelez

Clayton Kershaw has a growing legend, apparently. As with Votto, I’m prepared to personally predict he’ll make it, just because of how clear it is that he’s willing to work as hard as possible to contribute to his team. Barring his rookie season, he’s had a sub-3.00 ERA in the last five seasons. That’s really good. How about strikeouts? He’s got those too, leading the league with 248 in his Cy Young season. As the role of the starting pitcher has changed, the standards for a Hall of Fame starter will also chane; putting up 50 WAR over 7 seasons just won’t happen as often, because WAR is a cumulative stat and starters are pitching fewer innings than they used to. That’s why adjusted rate stats like ERA+ are great for measuring players against their competition, and why things like Cy Young shares are especially helpful in gauging Hall credentials.

Despite all that, Zack Greinke did have a ten-WAR season, in his amazing 2009 campaign. However, he’s been all too mortal since then, and his cumulative stats are none too impressive (93-79 career record, for example). Adrian Gonzalez is a first baseman. First basemen do not make the Hall of Fame hitting .290 with 20 homers.

SD: None

PHO: None, though maybe Goldschmidt will keep up his torrid pace and join the conversation

COL: Tulowitzki, Helton, C. Gonzalez

Other than a sophomore slump in 2008, Tulo has reliably put up 6 wins in every one of his major league seasons. If you ignore his injury-ended 2012 season, the 42-WAR 7-year peak mark for shortstops looks eminently attainable. He also looks to be en route to a career year, as he’s got 3.0 WAR after about a third of the season. As the premier NL shortstop, he seems primed to continue winning positional awards–All Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove–for a couple more years. I think that his numbers case is likely to be sound, but I’m not sure he has the intangibles: he’s yet to win an MVP, and while he has been to the World Series it was as a rookie, and he hit none too memorably in that series. His candidacy may hinge on those positional awards, as it seems risky to suggest the Rockies–while greatly improved this year–are going to inherit the NL West.

Carlos Gonzalez is a premier all-around player who has inserted himself into the conversation through stellar Coors-driven offensive performances, but as long as Larry Walker isn’t a Hall of Famer, I don’t think CarGo will be, either.

Todd Helton offers one of the most difficult cases yet presented. His candidacy probably leans too much on OBP, his only truly elite skill. The Toddfather was definitely jobbed in 2000, when he put up a .370/.460/.700 slash line only to lose the MVP to Jeff Freakin’ Kent. He is 71st in career total bases, 77th in career RBIs, 57th in career batting average, 79th in career home runs, 41st in career walks, 29th in WPA (win probability added), but only 109th in career WAR amongst positional players. What gives? you might ask. Here’s the key: his career OPS is .961, good for 18th all time–definitely Hall-worthy, right? Well, look at his career adjusted OPS: it’s only 134 (ie 34% better than league average for the years he played), and that’s only good for 120th all time: quite good, but not good enough for a first baseman. What voters make out of the offensive environment Helton played in will have an enormous effect on whether they think he is deserving. He played his whole career at Coors Field; that will probably hurt him. He also played half his career, and his best years, during the peak of the Steroid Era, which might actually help him as he’s never been implicated (think Jim Thome–his accomplishment seems even more impressive when you realize three of the other four contemporary members of the 600 homer club were definitely on steroids). In the end, I think Helton will probably not make it, but his career has definitely been incredible.

 

Final Totals:

2 projected Hall of Famers

17 potential Hall of Famers

11 guys in the conversation

Looks like the National League has fewer projected Hall of Famers, but quite a few young guns who could move into the conversation with a couple more high-level years.

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