ESPN had an article last week advocating the case of Carlos Beltran for the Hall of Fame. This caught me off guard. Beltran has been a nice player, and a key member of several playoff teams, but at no point in his career would I have thought of him as one of the top five or ten players in the major leagues. His highest ranking in the MVP vote was fourth in 2006 and he was only in the top ten one other time, so the popular perception of him appears to be similar to mine.
So that got me to thinking: what exactly constitutes a Hall of Famer? Usually we can look at a player’s raw stats and say whether the meet the threshold of a Hall of Fame career. But that has undergone several changes in the past few decades. Whereas twenty years ago a pitcher would have needed to win 250+ games to be considered for enshrinement, we now know that wins are not the best measure of a pitcher’s performance, and 250 wins are probably out of reach for all but a few pitchers in an era when few pitchers get more than 25 decisions in a season. Steroids have also skewed the conversation. Beltran has never been implicated in the PED scandals, but does the fact that the players with the biggest numbers from this era have disqualified themselves mean that the next guys on the list get in or that nobody does? Hard to say.
When I struggle to figure out an issue like this, I generally fall back on math to come up with an answer. Here’s the raw data: there have been about 17,500 players on major league rosters since the major leagues began, and there are 208 players in the Hall of Fame, which works out to about 1.2%. With thirty major league teams, there are 750 players currently on active rosters – let’s say eight or nine hundred if you count guys on the disabled list, guys who are suspended, or whatever else can lead to a guy being on a roster but not playing. (When I was a kid guys missed a couple of games every year to serve in the Army Reserves. Can you see A-Rod doing that?) Anyway, 1.2% of 900 is about eleven, so we can infer that there are about eleven guys currently on major league rosters who will end up in the Hall of Fame. Since the distribution of great players over time probably looks like a bell curve, the range of current players is probably between five and fifteen; it is very unlikely that there are actually, say, twenty or more future Hall of Famers currently playing.
How you view a particular player’s Hall of Fame chances depends on the stage of his career that he has reached. Players in their mid-to-late thirties and older can be assessed based on what they have already achieved, since it is rare for players that age to substantially alter the arc of their career. In other words, very few players who are not considered Hall of Famers when they reach their 35th birthday accomplish enough past that point to get themselves elected. At age 36, Beltran probably fits into this category. There are several players, however, who seem more likely to be locks than Beltran, such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Ichiro, to name a few. In addition, there are several players in this age range whose chances for the Hall will be hindered by their connection with steroids. This would include Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi, for certain.
Players in the prime of their careers (age 27-34, more or less) can be considered as legitimate candidates only if they are truly elite players, dominant in one or more phases of their game. In my opinion, if a player at this stage of his career does not already have multiple seasons with Top 10 finishes in the MVP or Cy Young balloting, he is disqualified for the Hall. It may be a shaky idea to base an assessment of greatness on the opinions of writers, but remember that those same writers vote for the Hall of Fame, so you have to assume they will make that vote based on similar standards to their MVP and Cy Young votes.
Going back as far as 2006, I found 34 players who have been top ten for either MVP or Cy Young that are still active: Ryan Braun, David Wright, Hanley Ramirez, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer, Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera, Troy Tulowitzki, Adrian Beltre, Justin Morneau, David Ortiz, Joey Votto, Lance Berkman, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Kevin Youklis, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, David Price, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Carpenter, Craig Kimbrel, Cole Hamels, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Cliff Lee.
Of those, Pujols and Cabrera seem to be locks. Among the hitters, I would rank Beltre, Mauer, Pedroia, and Cano as having the best shot, although Tulowitzki would probably rank with them if he played in a larger market. Among the pitchers, Sabathia, Hernandez, Verlander, Kershaw, and Halladay seem like the best candidates. Among the ten players I named, odds are that half will fall short. Most of them would need to have several more years at their current level in order to be solid candidates, and you can never assume that will happen.
Guessing whether a player aged 26 or under will make the Hall of Fame is a fool’s errand. Mike Trout and Buster Posey certainly seem headed that way, but Posey is a catcher, so his odds of staying healthy are lower than any other position, and the player from the past that Trout reminds me most of is Fred Lynn, who was MVP as a rookie and had several great seasons, but not enough to ever get close to being elected to the Hall before injuries derailed him. Odds are that three or four players who have begun their careers since 2011 will make the Hall of Fame, but it is likely as not that at least one of them is someone you would laugh at if I suggested him.
So, if we stick with our projection and say 10-15 currently active players will make it to Cooperstown, who makes the cut? The locks are as follows: Cabrera, Pujols, Jeter, Rivera. Sabathia and Beltre would probably get in eventually if their careers ended today, but they probably need a couple more solid years to be considered locks. Halladay is just a notch below them, mainly because of his age. The odds of him having 2-3 more good years are slightly less because he is 36. Beltran is the same age as Halladay, but in my opinion he would need to actually remain at an elite level for a couple more years to get in, and that is difficult to imagine at 36. I would put David Ortiz in the same category as Beltran. Mauer, Pedroia, Cano, Verlander, Kershaw, and Hernandez are on pace to get in, but need to remain at an elite level for several more years. Odds are that most of them won’t. Everybody else is either too young to project or needs to finish their career stronger than the normal career arc would suggest in order to be considered.