As they reach the twilights of their careers, Jay Jaffe examines the Hall of Fame hopes for borderline candidates like David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, CC Sabathia and more.
As Hall of Fame induction weekend approaches, it’s natural to think about which active players are headed toward Cooperstown. With 549 career homers and three MVP awards, Albert Pujols is certainly on his way, two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera is likely heading there as well, and as he approaches 3,000 hits to go with 400-plus homers, Adrian Beltre is approaching lock status, too. At the other end of the spectrum, young superstars such as Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are in the early stages of building strong cases, but it will be years before their candidacies truly come into focus. It’s the players in the middle of those two extremes, who haven’t sealed the deal yet, who are the focus here.
At various times, I’ve suggested that some of these six players are well on their way to a bronze plaque, based upon both their traditional merits as well as their measures via my JAWS system, which compares a player’s career and peak (best seven seasons) Wins Above Replacement totals to those at their position who are already enshrined. Even so, in the two years since my last full-lineup roundup, their situations may have changed, largely due to the effects of age and injuries. Here’s a quick look at the cases of those six, listed in order of age.
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Beloved in Boston for his clutch performances in helping the Red Sox to three championships in a 10-year span, Ortiz is believed by many to be on his way to the Hall of Fame, but his candidacy has two major knocks against it. No full-time designated hitter has ever been elected, and neither has any player who has been reported to have failed the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey test, which set the stage for the introduction of drug testing the following year.
First, the DH question. Frank Thomas is the first to gain entry having spent the majority of his career—56% in terms of plate appearances—at the spot, but thanks to his time at first base, his two AL MVP awards and his squeaky-clean reputation with regards to performance-enhancing drugs, he was elected on the first ballot in 2014. Both his 73.7 career WAR and 45.2 peak WAR were well above the marks of the average Hall first baseman; he’s measured there because the positional penalties intrinsic to WAR show that he had more value when he took the field.
By contrast, Ortiz has spent 87% of his time at DH, and while he’s been an outstanding hitter (.283/.377/.542 with 482 homers and a 138 OPS+), the extra five runs a year that WAR docks him for being more or less a full-time DH instead of taking the field takes a big bite out of his value on both the career and peak fronts. His postseason adventures (.295/.409/.553/with 17 homers, three rings, an ALCS and World Series MVP trophies) help to bridge that 14-point JAWS gap, but marshaling the 75% consensus necessary for election could be tough. That’s without addressing The New York Times' report of his failed survey test in 2003, given that no player with similar allegations has been elected yet.
That said, the likelihood of Mike Piazza (who received 69.9% on the ballot in 2015) and Jeff Bagwell—both of whom admitted to using androstenedione in the late 1990s, when it was still legal under U.S. law and MLB policy—gaining entry in the next few years will begin the inevitable softening of all but the hardest-line BBWAA voter, so time is on Ortiz’s side. Getting to the 500-homer mark wouldn’t hurt, either. Still, he’s not automatic.
Two years ago, Beltran was amid his second strong season in a row with the Cardinals, one that would finally take him to the World Series; along the way, he added two more homers to a postseason resumé (.333/.445/.683 with 16 homers) to rival that of Big Papi. Ninth among centerfielders in JAWS and closing in on 400 homers, he seemed even more likely to make tracks towards Cooperstown when he signed a three-year deal with the Yankees in December 2013. The short rightfield porch, the big spotlight of a New York homecoming … it all fit together.
Alas, Beltran has bombed in the Bronx thus far due to age and injuries, namely a bone spur in his right elbow that required surgery last fall and then an oblique injury that sidelined him earlier this month. He’s hit a combined .245/.307/.414 with 22 homers and -0.7 WAR (including -16 Defensive Runs Saved) in 177 games in pinstripes, and while he still ranks ninth in JAWS, he’s 1.6 points below the average Hall of Fame centerfielder (statistically, a top-heavy bunch), and he's no lock to close the gap with another 3–4 WAR before his contract runs out. Adding insult to the injury from which he just returned this week, he’s now sitting against lefties in favor of Chris Young. A strong rebound that pushes him to 400 homers (he’s at 380) and 2,500 hits (he has 2,380) would almost certainly help the perception of his candidacy in the same way it has for the once-disappointing Beltre.
Despite not racking up even a 300-plate appearance season until age 26, the combination of Utley’s impressive peak—eighth among second basemen all time—and his 2013–14 rebound put him in position for a shot at the Hall of Fame, but the wheels have fallen off this year. Before going on the disabled list with right ankle inflammation in late June, he hit just .179/.257/.275 for a 49 OPS+, the lowest mark of any NL position player with at least 200 PA, a performance so awful that he made my Vortices of Suck Anti-All-Star team.
While Utley could start a rehab assignment next week, embattled Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has suggested that he won’t regain the full-time second base job, which will prevent him from reaching the 500 PA threshold for his $15 million option for 2016 to vest. He needs a trade out of town—something he’d be foolish not to accept, as he can read the handwriting on the wall—to get back on track, as well as at least another 392 hits to get to 2,000, since the writers have yet to elect a position player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than that. Otherwise, he runs the risk of being this generation’s Bobby Grich, a star second baseman whose greatness on winning teams was overshadowed by big RBI men, whose career ended early due to injuries, and who vanished without a trace when he first hit the BBWAA ballot in 1992.
CC Sabathia, Yankees (35 years old)
Career WAR/Peak WAR/JAWS: 55.0/40.4/47.7
Average HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1
As he closed in on his 200th win two years ago, Sabathia appeared to be the most likely active pitcher to reach 300, but since then, the innings and years have caught up to the big man. Limited to eight starts last year due to season-ending surgery on his right knee, he’s been dreadful this season, making 18 starts but going 4–8 with a 5.25 ERA and 4.33 FIP. If the six-time All-Star and former Cy Young winner weren’t making $23 million this year with at least another $30 million due for next year and his 2017 buyout, he’d already be in the bullpen or on the waiver wire.
This past winter, for the first time since 1987, the BBWAA elected a starting pitcher with fewer than 268 wins—two of them, in fact, in Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. So from the traditional standpoint, Sabathia, who has 212 wins, doesn’t need to climb quite so high as previously believed. But for a hurler who’s now in his third year as replacement-level fodder, nothing short of a return to at least his 2012 form (15–6, 3.38 ERA, 3.5 WAR) for a few more years will do, and that version of Carsten Charles Sabathia isn’t going to walk through that door.
As for other active pitchers, 40-year-old Tim Hudson (57.8/38.4/48.0, 219 wins) is on his last legs, and 36-year-old Mark Buehrle (59.9/35.8/47.8, 210 wins) has spoken of retiring after this season as well. At least one pitcher from among the Kershaw/Zack Greinke/Felix Hernandez trio—all with at least 43.0 JAWS, 105 wins and one Cy Young award—is more likely to make a run at Cooperstown than any of those three, but the perilous road of any pitcher due to injury risk means that it’s too early to dig into their cases at length.
Yadier Molina, Cardinals (33 years old)
Career WAR/Peak WAR/JAWS: 30.6/26.0/28.3
Average HOF C: 52.5/33.8/43.1
ESPN’s Buster Olney, who’s as plugged into the industry as anyone, is among those who believe that Molina is already a lock for the Hall of Fame, but despite the catcher's seven All-Star appearances, seven Gold Gloves and starring role on two championship teams and three pennant winners, I have to disagree. While his reputation as this generation’s best defender at the position is secure even if he never adds to those credentials, his bat is already in decline from his 2011–13 peak (.313/.361/.481, 130 OPS+); over the past season and a half, he’s hit .286/.330/.378 for a 97 OPS+, including 91 this year. Consider his credentials relative to the last generation’s star defensive backstop, 14-time All-Star and 13-time Gold Glove winner Ivan Rodriguez:
Along with a World Series ring from his time with the Marlins in 2003, Pudge (who becomes eligible in '17) owns the all-time hits record for a catcher (2,749) as well as an MVP award, something Molina doesn’t have. Signed through '17 with a club option for '18, Molina still has ample time to bolster his career totals, but at his age, the likelihood is that his best years are behind him, and statistically, he doesn’t have enough great ones under his belt to match up.
Furthermore, note that 27-year-old Buster Posey, who’s got three rings and an MVP award within about half of Molina’s total of plate appearances, is nipping at his heels on the JAWS front (27.4./27.4/27.4) and stands to go much higher once his 2009 and '11 seasons (52 games and 1.3 WAR total) are replaced within his peak score. As with Kershaw, Trout and company, a true reckoning regarding his case is several years away.
Moved off of catcher at the end of the 2013 season due to concerns about the mounting toll of his concussions and other injuries, Mauer is nonetheless in better shape than Molina relative to JAWS. A three-time batting title winner and an MVP as well, he’s surpassed the peak score of the average Hall backstop, and with 3 1/2 years to go on his contract, he figures to surpass the JAWS standard even if he remains an overpaid, light-hitting first baseman (.277/.342/.393 for a 101 OPS+ this year). What he needs most is that 2,000th hit; he’s 364 away.