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Evaluating the Hall of Fame Cases for Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Other Playoff Participants

Did any players enhance their Hall of Fame cases during the 2017 postseason? In the case of Justin Verlander and Carlos Beltran, the answer is ... maybe.

Justin Verlander couldn't finish the job on Tuesday night, failing to collect his first individual World Series “W” for the fifth time in his 13-year major league career, but his teammates rallied early on Wednesday, defeating the Dodgers 5–1 in Game 7 of the World Series. The 34-year-old righty finally has the championship that eluded him in Detroit, one more credential in a career whose resurgence may carry him to Cooperstown.

The Astros’ World Series title isn’t only going to benefit Verlander. Carlos Beltran went hitless in three pinch-hitting appearances, but the 40-year-old designated hitter, who had been to the postseason seven times with five different teams (not counting the Astros twice), did his part as a veteran mentor and clubhouse leader to earn the first World Series ring of his spectacular 20-year career. Beltran confirmed the suspicion that Dodgers starter Yu Darvish, who was KO’d in the second inning in Games 3 and 7, was tipping his pitches. Beltran has yet to decide if he’ll return for 2018, but whether or not he does, his Hall of Fame case is now that much more complete. 

Verlander and Beltran are just two players whose appearance on the October stage rekindled debate about their Hall of Fame cases. Having fielded my share of inquiries on the topic via Twitter and elsewhere in light of my JAWS system—a tool for Hall of Fame comparisons that uses the Baseball-Reference version of Wins Above Replacement on both career and peak scales as a starting point—and my recent book, The Cooperstown Casebook, I thought it would be worthwhile to round up my thoughts on some grizzled veterans who spent time in the postseason spotlight. We can talk about Mike Trout, Buster Posey and Yadier Molina another day, and we’ll soon have plenty to discuss regarding this year’s Era Committee and BBWAA voting, but while the champagne dries, these nine playoff participants are worth a closer look.

Within the pitcher and position player subsections, the players are listed in reverse order of their rankings, which are available for every position at Baseball-Reference.


Justin Verlander, Astros

56.6 career WAR/43.5 peak WAR/50.0 JAWS (73rd among SP)

Avg HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1

The last time I went into any sort of depth regarding Verlander's Hall case was on July 19, 2016, a point at which he was beginning to emerge from a two-year funk caused by injuries and decline. Carrying a 3.91 ERA at the time, his modest 2.2 WAR had already matched his total from 2015, the year a triceps strain limited him to 20 starts and ended his run of eight straight 200-inning seasons. Pressed for both space and time in the overlong, overdue manuscript for the first draft of the Casebook, delivered just a couple weeks later, I did not include Verlander in the "Further Consideration" section of the starting pitchers chapter; among active pitchers whose cases were coming into focus, only Clayton Kershaw and CC Sabathia made the cut.

Verlander posted a 2.00 ERA with 4.4 WAR over the remainder of the 2016 season, nearly winning his second Cy Young award (he got 14 first place votes to winner Rick Porcello's eight, but lost a squeaker nonetheless). This year, between Detroit and Houston, he posted a 3.36 ERA and added another 6.3 WAR. WAR-wise, both 2016 and '17 count towards his seven-year peak score—they're his third- and fourth-best seasons by that measure—advancing his case considerably. He pushed his career win total from 166 to 188 in the same span, which doesn’t hurt matters.

A six-time All-Star with an AL MVP award as well as a Cy Young, not to mention 11 career postseason victories accompanied by a 3.07 ERA (even while going 0–4, 5.67 ERA in the World Series), Verlander still has work to do to earn his Cooperstown plaque. Reaching 300 wins is a longshot, as he’s not going to average 18 per year for his age 35–40 seasons, or even 14 per year for his 35-42 seasons. Since the 1991 election of Ferguson Jenkins, the writers have elected just three pitchers with fewer than 300 wins:

• Bert Blyelven, with 287 wins and the number 16 spot in the starting pitcher JAWS rankings, needed 14 years on the ballot, not to mention a grassroots effort to promote his candidacy and a small-scale cultural war involving the introduction of advanced statistics into Hall of Fame debates (the subject of one Casebook chapter).

• Pedro Martinez, with 219 wins and the 21st highest JAWS, was an easy first-ballot call given his three Cy Youngs and 3,154 strikeouts.

• John Smoltz, with 213 wins, 3,084 strikeouts and a Cy Young, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer thanks in part to a dominant stretch at closer, a move that helps to explain why he ranked just 58th in JAWS.

Still on the outside looking in are Mike Mussina (270 wins, 28th in JAWS) and Curt Schilling (216 wins, 27th in JAWS); neither won a Cy Young but both have strong postseason resumés — the latter the best of his generation — not to mention the top two strikeout-to-walk ratios of any pitchers with at least 3,000 innings since the distance to home plate was set at 60' 6" in 1893. Both have received at least 50% of the vote in one election, a strong indicator of future enshrinement, but they’re a few years away from 75%.

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All of which is to say that just getting to 200 wins, which now seems likely, for Verlander, won't guarantee his election. That plus 3,000 strikeouts (he has 2,416), a milestone reached by just 16 pitchers—all enshrined save for Schilling and Roger Clemens—would help, as would a third no-hitter. Still, it would take another three seasons of nearly the caliber of these past two for Verlander to match the career WAR standard for starters, hardly a guarantee.

By the time Verlander becomes eligible in the late 2020s or early 2030s, the writers will have begun reckoning with the impact of the pitch count era in the form of a fairly barren slate for starters. Roy Halladay, eligible in 2019, is the only upcoming candidate who's anywhere near the JAWS standard (he's 42nd at 64.7/50.6/57.6), but he has just 203 wins to go with his pairs of Cy Youngs and no-hitters. Kershaw and Zack Greinke (both below) are 60th and 61st in JAWS and younger than Verlander, the latter by about eight months, while Sabathia (also below) is 68th, with a beefy 237 wins but a three-year age difference and a balky knee. With a solid finish to his career, Verlander’s candidacy could play up against that backdrop, just like one of his late-game fastballs.

CC Sabathia, Yankees

61.5/40.4/51.0 (68th among SP)

Avg HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1

Though limited to 27 starts and 148 2/3 innings this year, the big man turned in his best season since 2012 by traditional standards (14–5, 3.69 ERA) but just his second of more than 1.0 WAR in that span (2.8, down from 3.0 in 2016). Sabathia’s performance, which helped the Yankees to the postseason for just the second time since 2012, marked an inspiring rebound from his arm and knee injuries, not to mention his battle with alcoholism, which he acknowledged after pitching the Wild Card clincher in late 2015. That game also capped a strong five-start run in which Sabathia became accustomed to wearing a bulky brace on his right knee, from which he's lost so much cartilage that he has bone-on-bone arthritis. The added stability has been the key to his resurgence.  

A free agent at 37, Sabathia pitched well enough to get another multi-year contract if he wants one, perhaps even from the Yankees, who value his clubhouse presence as well as his mound work. Still, the question is how much further the 6'6" 300-pound southpaw can push his body. He needs just 13 wins to reach 250, and 154 strikeouts to reach 3,000 (he had 120 of the latter in 2017, 152 in ’16), so this could be a two-season proposition. Postseason wise, his efforts in Cleveland, Milwaukee and New York have amounted to a modest 10–6, 4.20 ERA line with highs (2009 ALCS MVP and a 1.98 ERA in five starts en route to a World Series ring that year) and lows (three non-quality starts in 2007, when the Indians fell one win short of the World Series; a 3 2/3 inning pounding in 2008, after he put the Brewers on his back and carried them to their first postseason in 26 years). With the lowest peak score among the quartet of active pitchers here, not to mention a modest 117 ERA+, he's more of a compiler than a dominator. There's no shame in that, but no guarantee of enshrinement.

Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks

60.7/46.1/53.4 (61st among SP)

Avg HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1

Like Verlander, Greinke missed the Casebook cut amid a mediocre 2016 season (13–7, 4.37 ERA, 2.3 WAR) that followed a splendid 2015 (19–3, 1.66 ERA, 9.3 WAR) with the Dodgers and the inking of a six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Diamondbacks. Greinke rebounded this year, making his fourth All-Star team while going 17–7 with a 3.20 ERA and 6.0 WAR, his third-best season by the latter measure; his 10.4 WAR in 2009 is the majors' highest since 2002. He helped Arizona to a Wild Card berth, but was chased early in that game, and didn't pitch well enough to keep his team from being swept by the Dodgers in the Division Series. He now owns a 3–4, 4.03 ERA line in limited October duty, and unlike the other pitchers here, has never reached the World Series.

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With 172 wins through his age-33 season, Greinke should blow past 200 before his current contract expires, at least if he remains healthy, which is never a given for pitchers. He could get to 3,000 strikeouts under this contract as well (he's at 2,236, including 215 this year). With a peak score that's more top-heavy than most, he could move up the JAWS rankings with some speed. A trio of 5.0-WAR seasons, for example, would push him to 75.7/49.2/62.5, 32nd all time, just above the average enshrined starter.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

59.4/48.7/54.1 (60th among SP)

Avg HOF SP: 73.9/50.3/62.1

By contrast to Sabathia, Kershaw—who won't turn 30 until next March 19—has the domination part down. With his 10th season under his belt, he's got enough major league time to be eligible for enshrinement, and while he’s notched just 144 wins, his other major accomplishments put him in rare company. Kershaw’s career 161 ERA+ is the highest of any pitcher with at least 1,500 innings. With this year’s 2.31 ERA, he has now led the league five times; only Lefty Grove and Clemens have more such titles. Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson have the same number as Kershaw, just in case you’re curious about the company he’s been keeping. When combined with his league-leading 18 wins this year, Kershaw stands a reasonable chance of winning his fourth Cy Young, that despite missing six weeks due to a lower back strain. New hardware or no, he’s one of only two three-time winners on the outside of Cooperstown, the other being Clemens, whose omission is related to performance-enhancing drugs.

Kershaw's postseason résumé (7–7, 4.35 ERA) is the one knock against him. His October starts have been pored over more closely than the Zapruder film, but even while acknowledging that the Dodgers' chances in this World Series would have been much greater had he held the four-run lead to which he was staked in Game 5, he chased some of his ghosts away during LA’s run. His six-inning, one-run performance in NLCS Game 5 helped close out the Cubs to give the Dodgers their first pennant in 29 years, and he followed that by winning a taut Game 1 pitchers' duel opposite Dallas Keuchel via a sterling seven-inning, one-run performance. Though not on the level of Bob Gibson or even Schilling, his lone World Series win is one more than Verlander. It’s also more than Jenkins, Gaylord Perry or Phil Niekro put together, and he already has as many Cy Young awards as that trio combined.


Position Players

Jose Altuve, Astros

29.6/29.6/29.6 (56th among 2B)

Average HOF 2B: 69.4/44.5/56.9

With just seven major league seasons under his belt, it's hardly a surprise that Altuve is short of Cooperstown-level credentials, no pun intended. The five-time All-Star and three time batting champion is just 27 years old, and figures to have a shot at 3,000 hits if he stays healthy and productive, but with just 1,250 under his belt, he's less than halfway there. His three batting title-winning seasons (2014, '16 and '17) are his three best from a WAR standpoint, worth a combined 22.0, so he is making progress. Note: while several eligible three-time batting champions are outside the Hall (Ross Barnes, Pete Browning, Tony Oliva and Larry Walker, not to mention the ineligible Pete Rose and the still-active Joe Mauer), the only one of the 13 eligibles with four titles who's outside is Bill Madlock, a dreadful defender (-107 runs) who collected his hardware from 1975–83.

Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox

52.2/42.4/47.3 (19th among 2B)

Average HOF 2B: 69.4/44.5/56.9

With a 201-hit, 5.7-WAR 2016 season at age 32, Pedroia reinvigorated his Hall of Fame chances to the point that I included him in the Casebook, but after being limited to just 105 games, a 101 OPS+ and 1.5 WAR in 2017 due to a chronic left knee problem, his candidacy is back on the ropes. Last week, with the Red Sox still smarting from their second straight Division Series elimination, he underwent cartilage restoration surgery, which will likely sideline him for the first two months of 2018. Even if he returns on schedule, it will be the fourth season out of five in which he's played 135 games or fewer.

Though his JAWS doesn't hold a candle to that of Chase Utley (see below), Pedroia has MVP and Rookie of the Year awards as well as four Gold Gloves to go with his two championship rings, and he needs just 198 hits to reach 2,000. All of which is to say that of the trio of second basemen here, he's the horse to bet on, and since he’s under contract though 2021, he figures to stick around much longer than Utley.

Chase Utley, Dodgers

65.4/49.1/57.2 (10th among 2B)

Average HOF 2B: 69.4/44.5/56.9

The 38-year-old Utley may have reached the end of the line, though he's still a good enough defender, baserunner and clubhouse sage to justify his presence. After hitting a modest .236/.325/.405 with eight homers, 92 OPS+ and 1.0 WAR this year, he went 0-for-15 in the postseason. His biggest contributions were a hit-by-pitch in Game 6 and a leaping catch of Marwin Gonzalez's sixth-inning liner.  

Utley's major league career got off a late jump, which hurts him from a Hall of Fame standpoint. He didn't debut until age 24 (2003) and didn't get more than 300 PA in a season until two years later. Even so, he made five straight All-Star teams (2006–10) and helped the Phillies to five straight NL East flags (2007–11), with a championship (2008) and another pennant ('09) during that run; in the latter year, his five home runs tied Reggie Jackson’s World Series record. Criminally underappreciated during his prime, Utley ranked among the NL's top three in WAR every year from 2005–09, yet watched the MVP trophy awarded to teammates Ryan Howard ('06) and Jimmy Rollins ('07) for seasons during which he delivered significantly more value. Thanks in part to outstanding defense (+142 runs) and base running (+44), he has the ninth-highest peak score among second basemen; 13 of the 14 eligible players with the highest peak scores are already enshrined.

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As noted previously, 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, and Grich fell off the ballot with less than 5% of the vote when he appeared in 1992. Utley, with 1,850 hits, has averaged 94 hits over his past three seasons, with 73 in 2017, so he could well fall short. Even with 258 homers and some serious sabermetric cred, he's at risk of being left on the outside.

Carlos Beltran, Astros

69.8/44.3/57.1 (8th among CF)

Average HOF CF: 71.2/44.6/57.9

One of the top postseason players of his time (.307/.412/.609 with 16 homers in 256 PA), Beltran was reduced to an afterthought this October, going 3-for-20 in part-time duty overall and 0-for-3 in the World Series. That follows a sub-replacement level season in which he hit just 231/.283/.383 with 14 homers, 84 OPS+, and -0.6 WAR.

But even if the end of the line is near, Beltran did a fair bit in 2015–16 to shore up his Hall of Fame credentials after a dismal 2014 with the Yankees. With 2,725 career hits, 435 homers and 312 steals (with a record 86.4% success rate), not to mention nine All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves, he's got a good case on the traditional merits alone. He's one of 18 outfielders with at least 2,500 hits and 400 homers; 13 are enshrined, and Vladimir Guerrero will make it 14 either this year or next after receiving 71.7% of the vote last year. The other three besides Beltran are Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield, all kept out by PED connections, while Beltran’s record in that area is clean. Add to that his eighth-place ranking among centerfielders in JAWS, less than one point below the standard, and again, his excellent postseason line, and he looks to be in good shape among an electorate that grows more savvy towards advanced stats with every passing year.

Joe Mauer, Twins

53.4/38.5/46.0 (7th among C)

Average HOF C: 53.4/34.4/43.9

Post-concussion woes and other injuries led the Twins to move Mauer from catcher to first base after the 2013 season, and it wasn't until this year that his bat did enough to hold up its end of the bargain. The 34-year-old Mauer hit .305/.384/.417 for a 116 OPS+ and 3.4 WAR while helping the upstart Twins to a Wild Card berth, though he went just 1-for-5 in their defeat at the hands of the Yankees.

It's what Mauer did as a catcher that will get him into Cooperstown: six All-Star appearances, three Gold Gloves, three batting titles (the only catcher who can make that claim) and an MVP award. The year he won that award, 2009, his .365/.444/.587 line made him the first (and to date only) catcher to win the "Slash Stat" Triple Crown; his batting average and on-base percentage from that season are tops for any catcher since World War II.

Even with just 920 games behind the plate, Mauer's 38.5 peak WAR ranks fifth among backstops behind Gary Carter, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, all enshrined, and yes, Mauer’s seven best seasons are all from his catching days. With the additional time at first base, he's climbed to seventh in JAWS among catchers (players are classified by the position where they accrued the most value), the only one in the top 10 who's outside the Hall. He'll surpass 2,000 hits early next season (he’s 14 shy), his final year under the eight-year, $184 million contract that has made him a target of Twins fans who don't appreciate the rarity of his accomplishments.