Hall of Fame Candidates by Birth Year, Part 2
OK, time for Part 2 of our Hall of Fame series of picking Hall of Famers by birth year … and this is definitely the trickier part. Most of the players in Part 1 have played the bulk of their careers. A few still have a chance to enhance their Hall of Fame cases, but for the most part, the die is cast.
Here, we’re talking about players 34 and younger. Players have done AMAZING things after age 34. Randy Johnson went 179-98 with 66.1 bWAR after age 34. Ozzie Smith won four Gold Gloves, made seven All-Star Games and secured his first-ballot Hall of Fame status after age 34. There are countless examples—not all of them from all-time greats. Raul Ibanez hit 200 homers after age 34. Jamie Moyer won 197 games.
And so the later the years get, the more we have to project.
Also, a reminder that in honor of our one-year anniversary, we’re making all posts free this week. So, hey, you know how you can help … I’m adding a Donate button because so many of you have been kind enough to donate one or more subscriptions, and it has been so much fun giving those out to people who cannot afford one right now. They’re SO grateful, it’s really special.
Here we go:
Locks: Clayton Kershaw.
Projects as a Hall of Famer: Jacob deGrom.
On the right path: None.
Longshots: Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman.
Not impossible: None.
Not quite Hall of Fame but very good players: Starling Marte, DJ LeMahieu, Elvis Andrus, Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Yasmani Grandal.
Oh, what might have been: Stephen Strasburg.
As we get closer and closer to present time, we obviously will have fewer and fewer locks—I think after Kershaw there’s only one left (and you can guess who that is). Essentially going forward, we’re trying to guess the ending after reading half (or less) of the book, so, you know, there are going to be some serious misses.
I think deGrom is going to the Hall of Fame—even if he’s one of those players who is always a little bit older than you think he is. He turned 34 a few weeks ago, and he has only 79 victories and has pitched only 1,285 innings. The only two Hall of Famers who come close to that profile are:
Dazzy Vance (64 wins and 867 innings through age 33)
Babe Ruth (92 wins and 1,203 inning through age 33)
Vance essentially had an impossible career—the story goes that in 1920 he was a 29-year-old minor league lifer with a blazing fastball and a constantly throbbing elbow. That year he played in a poker game, slammed his hand on the table in frustration, felt a searing pain that was so intense he went to a doctor who did something or other and the pain went away and Vance became the best pitcher on earth, leading the league in strikeouts every year from 1922 through 1928, in wins twice and ERA three times and winning an MVP award. He pitched until he was 44 years old.
Ruth, uh, you know that story … and it had little to do with pitching.
So, deGrom is definitely charting his own path. He has never won more than 15 games in a season—and he only did THAT once. He has thrown fewer than 200 innings total since the end of the 2019 season.
And yet, we know, he’s one of the most dominant forces we’ve ever seen in baseball. Since 2018, when he turned 30, he’s got a 1.95 ERA, 811 strikeouts in 604 innings and just 120 walks. His WHIP is 0.867. He’s like pitching perfection. He obviously has to stay healthy, and even if he does he will probably end up nowhere near 200 victories. But I think he’s going to the Hall of Fame.
Kimbrel and Chapman—eh, I don’t even want to try and project relievers. They are certainly two of the hardest throwers in baseball history; Chapman, based on his otherworldly mph stats, can credibly lay claim to fastest ever title. But both of them seem to be at or near the end, I’m guessing neither has done quite enough.
Stephen Strasburg is probably the most-hyped draft prospect in my lifetime. At times, certainly, he lived up to the billing—he led the league in strikeouts one year, in wins another, he was terrific in the World Series when he needed to be. But there has always been a missing piece—health, motivation, something. I don’t mean that as a knock; this has just been his destiny.
I remember once talking to a pitcher who managed to stay in the big leagues for a few years even though he lacked stuff. He was telling me about a teammate who had a high-90s fastball, a dazzling slider, a good changeup … but somehow he couldn’t get outs.
“I know this is bad because he’s trying his best,” the pitcher said. “But I look at that guy and think, ‘If I had his stuff I’d be going to the Hall of Fame.’”
That other pitcher was not Stephen Strasburg. But it could have been.
Projects as a Hall of Famer: Freddie Freeman.
On the right path: Giancarlo Stanton.
Longshots: Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner.
Not impossible: Anthony Rizzo, George Springer.
Not quite Hall of Fame but very good players: Sonny Gray, Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, Andrelton Simmons.
Oh, what might have been: Matt Harvey.
Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo have roughly the same number of home runs (287 for Freeman, 279 for Rizzo). They started their careers at roughly the same time, and from 2011 to 2019, they were essentially the same player.
Rizzo: .273/.373/.488, 218 homers, 130 OPS+, four Gold Gloves, 34.0 bWAR.
Freeman: .293/.379/.504, 227 homers, 136 OPS+, one Gold Glove, 35.1 bWAR.
Freeman has a couple of slight edges here, but Rizzo was also a key player in the Chicago Cubs finally winning a World Series. I’ll bet that if you asked around baseball after the 2019 season, every bit as many people would have taken Rizzo as Freeman.
But in the last three years, Freeman has taken a quantum leap forward and become one of baseball’s elite players. He won the MVP in the COVID season with his absurd .342/.462/.640 line, while Rizzo couldn’t get anything going. In 2021, the Cubs traded Rizzo while Freeman put up another glorious season (leading the league in runs), and he helped lead Atlanta to a surprising World Series triumph.
And this year, Rizzo is hitting a few bombs and getting hit by pitches while Freeman is making another MVP case in Los Angeles (hitting .324/.400/.521 and leading the league in hits and doubles).
It happens that fast. Now Freeman is on track for the Hall of Fame—he just needs to keep this going for a while.
And Rizzo … he seems destined to be the guy on the Hall of Fame ballot that almost nobody votes for but everybody notes was “really good.”
Giancarlo Stanton has 371 home runs. Assuming he can be moderately healthy, he will get to 500. I don’t know if 500 homers gets a player into the Hall of Fame anymore, but he’s certainly a slugger in the Harmon Killebrew class, and Killer is in the Hall of Fame.
There are certain things that happened in baseball that, even now, don’t seem quite real. As I’ve mentioned before: Roger Clemens threw a baseball bat at Mike Piazza. In a World Series game. And he didn’t get thrown out of the game. I will NEVER get over that.
I will also never quite get over what happened to Matt Harvey in 2015. Just as a reminder, he came back that year from Tommy John surgery. He pitched great, but his agent, Scott Boras, wanted to be sure that Harvey didn’t pitch too many innings and put his future at risk. His surgeon, James Andrews, apparently said that he should have a 180-inning limit.
Remember: This was only Harvey’s third year in the big leagues, and he was still making more or less the league minimum.
And the Mets were sort of, kind of, trying to keep him at that 180-inning limit—he ended up pitching 189 innings (with a 2.71 ERA and a 5-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio). But here was the problem: The Mets were going to the playoffs. And that meant more innings—and not just any kind of innings but high-stress innings.
For a time, Harvey seemed to be hinting that he would skip the playoffs the way another Boras client, Stephen Strasburg, had in 2012. And that possibility set off a massive panic attack in New York, talk radio waves were exploding all over the city, and eventually Boras and Harvey said, no no no, they had ALWAYS intended for Harvey to pitch in the playoffs.
He did, 26 innings worth of high-caliber baseball.
Here’s the part that I think about most: In Game 5 of the World Series against Kansas City, Harvey was absolutely lights-out for eight innings. The Mets led 2-0. Harvey had thrown 100 pitches. And Mets manager Terry Collins told Harvey that he would be taken out of the game and the Mets closer would come in.
And then, the crowd started chanting Harvey’s name.
And Collins CHANGED HIS MIND. It still absolutely blows my mind. He decided to put Harvey back in the game, watched him walk Lorenzo Cain in a tough, seven-pitch at-bat, watched Cain steal second and then watched Hosmer crack a double that scored Cain. Only then did he take Harvey out after 111 pitches, in the 215th inning of his season after having reconstructive surgery.
Did any of that have anything to do with Harvey’s subsequent injuries and collapse as a viable big-league starter? I don’t know that you can draw a direct line—Harvey has had his issues off the field—but I do know that Harvey was something else as a pitcher and the way the Mets treated him is all-time terrible.
Projects as a Hall of Famer: None.
On the right path: Gerrit Cole, Jose Altuve.
Longshots: Salvador Perez, Zack Wheeler.
Not impossible: None.
Not quite Hall of Fame but very good players: Anthony Rendon, Nathan Eovaldi, Mike Clevinger, Marcus Semien, Kevin Kiermaier, Max Muncy, Didi Gregorius, Kolten Wong, Jean Segura.
Oh, what might have been: Yasiel Puig
Jose Altuve is, like, still REALLY good. I don’t know why this should be such a surprise to me, but it is … after the whole Houston cheating scandal, it kind of seemed like Altuve had been exposed. That whole not taking off his jersey controversy seemed to really wreck him. During the COVID year, he was basically an out. It just didn’t seem like he was ever going to be the incredible player he was from 2014 to 2017, when he hit .334, won three batting titles, an MVP award, led the league in hits every year and even won a Gold Glove.
I don’t know that he ever will be THAT player again … but the player he is now is awfully good. This year, he’s hitting .280/.366/.504 with a 141 OPS+, he’s hit 20 homers, he’s stolen 12 of 13 bases, he’s among the league leaders in offensive WAR. His defense has fallen off some, certainly, but he’s still competent at second base, and among his top comps through age 31 are Ryne Sandberg, Derek Jeter and Robbie Alomar. He still has a lot of work to do for Cooperstown—and you do wonder how voters will view the sign-stealing scandal—but he absolutely is on the path.
So is Gerrit Cole, though he’s having an oddly middling season this year. He leads the league in starts and strikeouts, but he hasn’t really been dominant … the Yankees are 4-6 in his last 10 starts, and he has mixed some good outings with some tough ones. His last start, on Aug. 20, kind of told the story: He took a no-hitter into the fifth and then had a disastrous inning, with six straight Blue Jays reaching base. When Cole is right, he’s the best in the world, I think. But I don’t know, it feels like we’re still waiting for Cole to put together his masterpiece season.
As for Salvador Perez … his stats do not point to the Hall of Fame—30.7 WAR, 104 OPS+ . But he is a five-time Gold Glove winner who has hit 217 career homers and, perhaps most of all, is a true team icon. I don’t know what he has left. But he’s signed for three more years, at least, and last year he set a club record with 48 home runs and, well, I wouldn’t write him off.
In Yasiel Puig’s first 30 big-league games, he hit .420 and slugged .706. It was absolutely remarkable. I went to a Dodgers game during that stretch, and it was electric at the ballpark. It was like a miniature version of Fernandomania. Puig is problematic in any number of ways, and obviously his story lost its sparkle. But he was something to see at the start.
Locks: Mike Trout.
Projects as a Hall of Famer: Nolan Arenado.
On the right path: None.
Not impossible: Christian Yelich.
Not quite Hall of Fame but very good players: J.T. Realmuto, Julio Teherán, Kevin Gausman, Kiké Hernandez, Jonathan Schoop, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman.
Oh, what might have been: Yordano Ventura.
Here’s our last sure thing—Mike Trout is not only a sure Hall of Famer at age 31, he hasn’t really added much to his case in THREE YEARS because of COVID and injuries. You have to go all the way about 2016 to find the last time he played in 150 games. That tells you how great he was from 2012 through 2016—in those five years, he accumulated 47.3 wins above replacement, more than 9 WAR per year.
When word leaked out a few weeks ago that Trout has a congenital back problem—and he basically had to publicly tell everybody his career wasn’t over—I started thinking about those players of recent vintage who at, say, age 28, seemed legitimate candidates for best ever.
Here are a few of those players (through their age 28 season):
— Mike Trout (74.3 WAR, 3rd all-time)
— Alex Rodriguez (71.2 WAR, 5th)
— Ken Griffey Jr. (65.8 WAR, 8th)
— Albert Pujols (64.1 WAR, 13th)
— Barry Bonds (60.2 WAR, 16th)
I bring this up because all of these guys had a rough time in the second half of their careers … well, two of them didn’t have a rough time ON the field. Alex Rodriguez was a big-time player into his mid-30s. And we know about Barry.
This makes you wonder: Is it physically possible in today’s game to sustain such greatness without some help? Legends like Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente, they just kept going and going, putting up fantastic years well into their late 30s and occasionally even into their 40s. But that seems much harder now.
Griffey’s last great year was at age 30.
Pujols’ last great year was at age 31.
We all hope that Mike Trout still has some greatness to display.
I actually don’t know that it’s possible for Christian Yelich to get back on the Hall of Fame track, but I’d like to believe. In 2018 and 2019, he was about as good as anyone in baseball not named Trout.
Yordano Ventura was a ray of light for the Kansas City Royals. Big smile. Huge fastball. Guts galore. When his car crashed in the Dominican Republic and he was pronounced dead before the police even arrived, it was as if the lights just turned out on the Royals.
Projects as a Hall of Famer: Mookie Betts, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado.
On the right path: Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez.
Longshots: Xander Bogaerts.
Not impossible: Trevor Story.
Not quite Hall of Fame but very good players: Kris Bryant, Luis Castillo, Javy Báez, Blake Snell, Carlos Rodón, Nick Castellanos, Willson Contreras.
Oh, what might have been: Noah Syndergaard
I was tempted to put Mookie into the lock category—I see the locks as no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famers—but he’s been in the big leagues for only nine years and there’s a little bit of work to be done. I mean, if he retired tomorrow he wouldn’t even be ELIGIBLE for the Hall of Fame.
But, yeah, Betts is going to the Hall of Fame. I feel sure of that.
I think Bryce Harper is going to the Hall of Fame, too, but he does need to stay healthy for that to happen. Harper has played only 64 games this year because of that injured thumb and injured right elbow. It looks like, at the plate, Harper has now pulled through the odd and inexplicable lulls that marked his mid-20s. Since the beginning of the 2021 season, he’s hitting .312/.415/.610.
As for Machado, he no longer looks like a true MVP candidate this year—not with the Padres collapsing again and Paul Goldschmidt threatening a Triple Crown—but he’s still having yet another fantastic season, and he’s at 50 WAR before his age-30 season. He’s one of just 36 players in baseball history to get to 50 WAR by that age, and the only eligible players not in the Hall of Fame are Barry Bonds and Andruw Jones. Bonds, we know the story. Jones completely fell off the map.
I’ve been asked to talk a bit about Aaron Judge’s Hall of Fame case, which is tougher because even though he’s actually older than Harper and Betts*, he hasn’t been in the league nearly as long. Judge didn’t play his first full season until he was 25 (though he made up for lost time by cracking 52 home runs that year).
*Harper and Betts were born nine days apart in 1992.
With Judge—and this is true for all Hall of Fame candidates, but particularly Judge—the key will be staying healthy. He had only partial seasons in 2018 and 2019, and he, like everyone else, lost 2020 to COVID. The Hall of Fame, alas, waits on no man. We are seeing this season what Aaron Judge can do when healthy: He’s a terrific fielder, controls the strike zone like few others, and he will probably hit 60 home runs in a year when the baseball has been dampened and home run numbers are quantifiably down from the last six or seven seasons.
If he stays healthy over the next five or six seasons, I think he will go to the Hall of Fame, and I think he will go first-ballot.
If instead, he averages 110 games or something like that … it’s going to be tough.
I don’t think anyone has ever enjoyed throwing a baseball as hard as he could more than Noah Syndergaard. This guy would show up first day of spring training firing 102-mph fastballs. So I suppose the arm problems shouldn’t be a surprise. Still, you can’t help but wonder how great he could have been if his arm had stayed together. His 2016 season was truly incredible—he struck out 218 in 183 innings, walked just 43 and allowed only 11 home runs. He threw about as hard as anybody ever has, and his fastball wasn’t even his best pitch; it was his slider.
On the right path: Francisco Lindor, Trea Turner.
In the range: Aaron Nola, Matt Chapman.
Oh, what might have been: Byron Buxton.
We are now talking about players who have not even turned 30 yet, so the predictions will be significantly shorter and less certain. Francisco Lindor is a wonder; Trea Turner is one of the most beautiful players to watch I’ve ever seen, they each have a lot of Hall of Fame work to do, but out of this group they are the two who stand out.
Byron Buxton … I’ll bet at least once a week I’ll wander over to his Baseball-Reference page and think: “How good could this guy have been?” He was one of the greatest defensive outfielders I’ve ever seen. He was the fastest guy in baseball. He’s showing now that he has immense power. How good could he have been?
Answer: He could have been Eric Davis good. Over 162 games in 1986-87, Eric Davis hit .308/.406/.622 with 47 homers, 149 runs, 123 RBIs and 98 stolen bases. Alas, injuries derailed Eric Davis’ Hall of Fame train, too.
His own category: Shohei Ohtani.
On the right path: Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman.
In the range: Corey Seager, Max Fried, Corbin Burnes.
Oh, what might have been: Walker Buehler?
Ohtani is in his own category here because he’s in his own category in baseball history. There has never before been a player so dominant as a hitter and pitcher at the same time, and so none of the old rules seem to apply. Should he win the MVP every year or never win it? Does he have to play 10 years in the major leagues to qualify for the Hall of Fame, or can he do it in less time because he’s two players in one? The questions just keep going on and on.
One thing I feel sure of is that if Ohtani keep doing what he’s doing, he will be going to the Hall of Fame first-ballot and probably unanimously.
It hurts my heart to put Walker Buehler in the what-might-have-been category, and he’s still young enough to get out of it. But this guy is SO good when he’s healthy, and he can’t stay healthy—he’s having his SECOND Tommy John surgery now and won’t pitch again until 2024. He will turn 30 that season. Baseball really can break your heart.