Which veterans in their twilight have the best shot at Cooperstown?
Sunday night’s matchup in the Bronx featured two teams heading in opposite directions this season—the Red Sox toward a playoff berth, the Yankees toward ignominy—and two well-decorated sluggers nearing the ends of stellar careers in David Ortiz and Carlos Beltran. With the 2016 Hall of Fame induction set for Sunday, July 24 in Cooperstown, it’s worth checking in on their progress and those of other late-career players who might be so honored someday, as Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. are this year.
For this, I'm breaking out my JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) system, just as I do every winter for the annual Hall of Fame voting. You can find a lengthy introduction here, but the short version is that JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the Baseball-Reference version of Wins Above Replacement to estimate a player's total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring levels that have occurred throughout the game's history and from ballpark to ballpark.
A player’s JAWS is the average of his career WAR total and that of his peak, which I define as his best seven years; those numbers are compared to the averages of the enshrined players at each position, which I refer to as the standards. For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility—and thus less overall value—as they age. The system makes no attempt to account for postseason play, awards and other honors, league leads in important categories, career milestones and historical importance, but that information is all germane to the Hall of Fame discussion and I’ll incorporate it into these evaluations.
For this piece, I'm looking only at active players 35 and older, those whose peaks have by and large passed. I'll take a look at some mid-career players who are working towards Cooperstown—Clayton Kershaw, Buster Posey, Mike Trout and more—in an upcoming post. The players are listed in descending order of career WAR. All statistics are through Saturday unless otherwise indicated.
Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (118.2 career WAR/64.2 7yr-peak WAR/91.2 JAWS)
Average HOF SS: 66.7/42.8/54.8
Like Ortiz and Beltran, A-Rod played in Sunday night’s game, but he’s not getting into Cooperstown anytime soon thanks to his 2014 full-season drug suspension. Though he’s a 14-time All-Star, a three-time MVP, the second-ranked shortstop in JAWS (even having spent the past decade at third base and DH) and one of three players ever to reach the dual milestones of 3,000 hits and 600 homers (Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are the others), none of that will mean much to the majority of BBWAA voters because of the stigma of that suspension. At some point, a player who has been disciplined under the game’s drug policy will be elected, opening the door for others to be reconsidered; even then, it’s more likely to come from a first offender on a minimum penalty than one whom MLB considered banning for life.
Albert Pujols, Angels (99.8/61.6/80.7)
Average HOF 1B: 65.9/.42.5/54.2
Pujols’s stay in Anaheim hasn’t gone according to plan. In 4 1/2 seasons there, he’s battled injuries and shown that he’s clearly in the decline phase of his career, hitting for a 122 OPS+ overall and a career-low 99 (on .244/320/.409 hitting) this year, compared to a 170 mark in St. Louis. Nonetheless, the strength of his 11-year tenure as a Cardinal alone—a span during which he hit 445 homers, won three MVP awards and led the team to two championships, tallying 86.4 WAR—is enough to merit a spot in Cooperstown. He’s second among first basemen in WAR and JAWS behind only Lou Gehrig (112.4/67.7/90.0). While it now seems unlikely he’ll compile another 20 WAR to overtake the Iron Horse, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer nonetheless, and likely as part of the 3,000/600 club as well; he has 2,751 hits and 577 homers, including two on Sunday.
Adrian Beltre, Rangers (86.8/48.8/67.8)
Average HOF 3B: 67.5/42.7/55.1
The combination of a debut at 19 years old, elite defense and a renaissance during his six seasons as a Ranger has solidified Beltre's berth in Cooperstown. Though he has never won an MVP award and his All-Star and Gold Glove totals are modest (four apiece), the 37-year-old is closing in on 3,000 hits (he has 2,857) and already has 425 homers. What's more, his dazzling defense, which carried him through lean stretches in Los Angeles and Seattle, is backed by the metrics; he's second at the position in fielding runs (221) behind only Brooks Robinson (293), which has propelled him to fifth in JAWS, just ahead of likely 2018 enshrinee Chipper Jones. Having signed a two-year, $36 million extension earlier this year, Beltre will likely close out his career with the Rangers and wear a T on his bronze plaque.
Carlos Beltran, Yankees (69.5/44.3/56.9)
Average HOF CF: 71.1/44.5/57.8
Almost exactly a year ago, Beltran’s career appeared to be on the ropes: He had been limited to just 109 games and a 98 OPS+ in 2014 and had endured a sluggish first half of '15 before landing on the DL due to an oblique strain. He salvaged his season upon returning, and in his age-39 campaign, Beltran has been the Yankees’ best hitter in 2016, batting .294/.332/.539 with 19 homers and a 129 OPS+, good enough to make his ninth All-Star team.
Beltran is no lock for Cooperstown, but with 2,546 hits, 411 homers, 311 steals, three Gold Gloves and a magnificent postseason line (.332/.441/.674 with 16 homers in 223 PA), he's got a solid case on the traditional merits, and he’s eighth among centerfielders in JAWS, less than one point below the standard. Strong play through the remainder of this season—ideally, with a trade to a contender—plus some further padding of his totals next year could push him above the standard and perhaps past Duke Snider (58.2 JAWS) for seventh at the position. He'll benefit from an electorate that grows more savvy to advanced statistics with each passing year.
Chase Utley, Dodgers (63.6/49.1/56.4)
Average HOF 2B: 69.3/44.5/56.9
The criminally underappreciated Utley ranked among the NL's top three in WAR every year from 2005 to '09, yet watched the MVP trophy go to teammates Ryan Howard ('06) and Jimmy Rollins ('07) for seasons during which he delivered significantly more value. Thanks in part to outstanding defense (+143 runs) and base running (+43), Utley already has the eighth-highest peak score among second basemen; 13 of the 14 eligible players with the highest peak scores are already enshrined.
Unfortunately, the exception, Bobby Grich, provides the template for the battle that Utley faces when it comes to enshrinement. Grich played “only” 17 seasons and, like Utley, drew a ton of walks to go with his power and great defense, finishing with 1,833 hits; he's seventh at the position in JAWS. Alas, no player with fewer than 2,000 hits whose career took place in the post-1960 expansion era has been elected to the Hall. The 37-year-old Utley, who didn't play 100 games in a season until his age-26 year (2005), has just 1,725 hits to his name and has already been through the wringer in terms of leg injuries that limited him to an average of 116 games from 2010 to '15. The good news is that after struggling through last year, he's shown that there's still life in those legs and that bat, hitting .260/.341/.375 en route to 1.3 WAR. He'll keep getting work if he wants it, but election to the Hall of Fame will be a challenge even if he does reach 2,000 hits.
Ichiro Suzuki, Marlins (59.8/43.6/51.7)
Average HOF RF: 73.2/43.0/58.1
Despite not coming stateside until 27 years old, Ichiro’s run of 10 straight 200-hit, Gold Glove seasons put him into Hall consideration, and his 2001 AL Rookie of the Year/MVP tandem and his '04 single-season record of 262 hits probably would have been enough to gain him entry to the Hall of Fame even if he were short in terms of advanced metrics. With three hits on Sunday, however, the 42-year-old international hit king is just six away from 3,000 stateside, and the joy of it is that after spending most of 2011–15 as a below-average player (netting a combined 3.8 WAR in that span), he's currently hitting a sizzling .347/.423/.406 in part-time duty. He'll go in on the first ballot.
CC Sabathia, Yankees (57.1/40.4/48.4)
Average HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1
Not too long ago, Sabathia appeared to have a shot at 300 wins, but with a trio of injury-wracked seasons, he's fallen behind Bartolo Colon for the active lead (226 to 219); in that 2013–15 span, he notched just 23 wins, posting a 4.81 ERA and 0.7 WAR. Even with a modestly resurgent 2016 season (5–7, 3.94 ERA, 1.4 WAR), it would appear to be an extremely tall order—like, a return to his 2009–11 form, when he averaged 20 wins and 6.1 WAR—to get him back on the Cooperstown track.
David Ortiz, Red Sox (54.0/33.6/43.8)
Average HOF 1B: 65.9/42.5/54.2
Ortiz came into Sunday hitting .330/.423/.670, leading the league in both on-base and slugging percentages as well as doubles (34) in a season that may wind up as the best finale ever by a position player (Sandy Koufax’s Cy Young-winning 1966, with its 1.73 ERA and 10.3 WAR, gets the nod among pitchers). He owns most of the major records for a designated hitter, has hit .295/.409/.553 with 17 homers in the postseason and .455/.576/.795 with three homers in three World Series. Even so, a spot in Cooperstown is no certainty.
It was only two years ago that Frank Thomas became the first player elected having taken a majority of plate appearances as a DH (57%); he had won two MVP awards as a first baseman before making that transition, and over his career, he accrued far more value (73.7 WAR) than Ortiz because of the steep positional adjustment penalty the system assesses for DH work. Likewise for current candidate Edgar Martinez (68.3 WAR), who put in 564 games of more or less average work at third base and took “only” 72% of his PA as a DH.
In terms of JAWS, there's no standard for DHs; the candidates for whom it’s been a factor—Thomas, Martinez, Paul Molitor and lesser ones—have been compared based on where they spent their time in the field. Voters aren’t bound by that, but they should bear in mind that if Thomas and Martinez are the closest comps, both were significantly more productive after adjusting for park and league scoring levels, via a 156 OPS+ for Thomas and a 147 for Martinez, compared to Ortiz's 141.
That's one matter; the other is that in 2009, The New York Times reported that Ortiz failed a supposedly anonymous survey test in '03 used to determine whether to implement mandatory drug testing. In the eyes of baseball, that doesn't count as an offense, and while the same is true for Sammy Sosa, who has been more or less run off the BBWAA ballot, there's actually a bit of wiggle room in Ortiz's case. At least one supplement that was legal in 2003 (19-norandrostenedione) was known to contain a steroid (nandrolone) that could have triggered a positive result, and the union planned to contest some of the 96 positive survey tests but never did because the threshold to trigger the mandatory testing had already been exceeded. Long story short, even MLB cautioned in 2009, “Given the uncertainties inherent in the list, we urge the press and the public to use caution in reaching conclusions based on leaks of names, particularly from sources whose identities are not revealed.”
None of which entirely clears Ortiz's name, but it does conform that his explanation that it was at least plausible, and potentially valid. By the time he becomes eligible in 2022, with Piazza and Jeff Bagwell (both of whom admitted to using androstenedione back in the 1990s, when it was still legal) and perhaps Ivan Rodriguez (alledged to have used PEDs by Jose Canseco in Juiced) and even Barry Bonds in Cooperstown, the survey test might be a footnote. The current farewell love-fest certainly suggests that at least some writers will see it that way.