(Photo: Detroit Free Press)
Well, that was quite an amazing post-season. The Houston Astros won their first World Series title ever in a 7-game bout against the Los Angeles Dodgers. This October, things happened that we have never seen before. The two teams set an all time record for home runs. The classic Games 2 and 5 saw more blown leads or lead changes than you normally see in an entire post-season. The two managers (the Astros’ A.J. Hinch and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts) re-invented the way teams use their relief pitchers in playoff baseball. Roberts had the quickest quick hook we’ve ever seen in October while Hinch, with inconsistent performances from his core bullpen arms, navigated the post-season by using four different pitchers as both starters and relievers. The by the book bullpen strategy of the past three decades was obliterated.
Since the extra inning affairs of Games 2 and 5 were both won by the Astros, it’s an appropriate closure to the narrative of this Fall Classic that Houston ultimately prevailed. Add in the story of the prescient 2014 Sports Illustrated cover and the healing effect that the post-season had on the city of Houston after Hurricane Harvey and you have the perfect fairy tale story line.
About a week ago, espn.com’s David Schoenfield penned an interesting piece in which he noted the large volume of potential future Hall of Famers participating in this year’s World Series. It was an interesting read and its a testament to the fact that the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers are two terrific ball clubs. Both won over 100 regular season games, creating the first World Series matchup of 100-win teams since 1970.
Ever since I was sitting in the stands at Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series with one of my high school friends, I’ve always found it fun to contemplate the possibilities of who might be a Hall of Famer in the making. The ’86 post-season was one of the most thrilling in history; both the ALCS (between the Boston Red Sox and California Angels) and NLCS (between the New York Mets and Houston Astros) featured classic games, the kind of games that we saw this October. The first five games of the Sox-Mets match-up were not especially compelling but, of course, Game 6 was an all-time classic.
All in all, that Series featured just three Hall of Fame players: Gary Carter, Jim Rice and Wade Boggs. Roger Clemens, of course, would be a fourth if not for his links to performance enhancing drugs. In an ironic twist, long-time Mets’ great Tom Seaver was on the Red Sox roster, but a knee injury prevented him from appearing in October. The reason I bring up this story is that, at the time, it seemed like that ’86 Mets team had at least four Cooperstown-bound players. Besides Carter, Keith Hernandez looked like a possibility. He turned 33 in October, was a career .302 hitter at the time and already owned 8 Gold Gloves. But Hernandez only was able to play one more full season and three more partial campaigns.
Finally, there were the Mets’ golden boys, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. The 1983 Rookie of the Year (Strawberry) was just 24 years old; the 1984 ROY (Gooden) was a mere 21 and one season removed from one of the most dominant Cy Young campaigns in history. Sadly, both Straw and Doc were drug and alcohol abusers and never lived up to the immense potential that they showed in the mid-1980’s.
Anyway, the point of this story is that our feelings about the Hall of Fame worthiness of any active player ebbs and flows as their careers unfold. In Schoenfield’s piece about the 2017 Fall Classic, he lists Cody Bellinger (22 years old), Corey Seager (23) and Carlos Correa (23) as three of the nine potential Cooperstown inductees over the upcoming decades. Each player has started a career path upon which the foundation of many Hall of Fame resumes are built. But it’s early. If the 2014 Dodgers had made the Fall Classic, we would have been talking about Yasiel Puig as a future Hall of Famer. If the 2015 Astros had won the pennant, we would have been talking about Dallas Keuchel, who was coming off a 20-win campaign that would result in a Cy Young Award.
The other six players Schoenfield mentioned in his piece as potential Cooperstown inductees are Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Carlos Beltran, Chase Utley, Jose Altuve and Kenley Jansen. Let’s take a fresh look at this illustrious list and how they’ve burnished or tarnished their Hall of Fame resumes this October.
Clayton Kershaw (virtual Hall of Fame lock)
Despite once again disappointing Los Angeles fans in October, Clayton Kershaw is the greatest pitcher of his generation and it’s not even close. With three Cy Youngs, an MVP trophy and a career 2.36 ERA (best for any starting pitcher in all of MLB for the last 100 years), the Dodgers’ tall lefty has already authored a Hall of Fame career, no matter what he does in the future.
But what is the deal with Clayton in October?
Kershaw was actually having a solid October. In his first four appearances, he was 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA. He was especially sharp in Game 1 of the World Series, tossing 7 innings of 1-run ball with 11 strikeouts. While watching Sunday’s thrilling Game 5, I felt in the first few innings that we were watching Kershaw’s “Koufax moment,” the game and World Series in which he would emerge from the long October shadow of Sandy Koufax, who won three rings and two World Series MVP’s for the Dodgers over 50 years ago.
I was thinking Sunday night that this October for Kershaw would be anaIogous to Peyton Manning’s post-season run in 2007 (culminating in Super Bowl XLI) when he shrugged off years of post-season disappointments and won the big game. Even though I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area for most of the last 21 years, I’m not a Dodgers fan. I’m not an Astros fan either. Until I die, I’ll always root for my boyhood loves, the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. But I also root for great players, unless they’re jerks. Kershaw is anything but a jerk and I badly wanted him to have his Koufax moment in Game 5.
With a 4-run lead and three excellent innings under his belt, this felt like a game where he would turn the corner; the Dodgers would go on to win it all and, with two wins in the series, he would be the World Series MVP.
But it wasn’t to be. Kershaw blew a 4-0 lead in the 4th inning when he gave a three-run home run to the Astros’ Yuli Gurriel. Then, amazingly, after Bellinger gave him three runs back with a three-run jack in the top of the 5th, Kershaw couldn’t even get out of the bottom of the frame. Two walks on 18 pitches led to an early shower and the lead disappeared with the next batter, when Altuve hit a three-run bomb off Kenta Maeda. Although he came out of the bullpen on two days of rest to pitch four scoreless innings in Game 7, it was a shallow level of redemption since it was in a losing effort for his team.
Kershaw has never seen the 8th inning in 19 career post-season starts, despite having recorded at least one out in the 8th inning 87 times in his career during the regular season while completing 24 of those contests.
Since 1969, there have been 64 pitchers who have started at least 10 games in the post-season. Kershaw’s 4.45 ERA in those 19 starts is 57th best out of 64 or, put another way, 8th worst. Among the 20 pitchers who have started at least 15 October games since 1969, Kersh is dead last.
This is a stat nobody would think you would ever ascribe to the great Kershaw: he gave up 8 home runs this post-season, which is the most by any pitcher in a single post-season in the history of baseball.
Again, Kershaw is an all-time great and a virtually certain Hall of Famer. He’s not the first all-time great to struggle in October. Roger Clemens had a 3.81 post-season ERA; Randy Johnson went 5-9 with a 3.69 ERA. Greg Maddux was 11-14 with a 3.36 ERA.
Kershaw has just taken the all-time great October struggles to a new level and, this past Sunday, did it in the most painful and high-profile way, since it may very well have cost the Dodgers a World Series title. Just as I became a Peyton Manning fan by rooting for his regular season greatness to culminate in a Super Bowl trophy, I wish the same for Clayton Kershaw in the upcoming years of his Hall of Fame career.
Carlos Beltran (likely Hall of Famer)
I wrote quite a bit about Carlos Beltran, along with Kershaw, Verlander and Utley in the piece Ten Potential Hall of Famers Playing This October. Beltran burst onto the national consciousness in the 2004 post-season when, in his first go-around in Houston, he hit .435 in 12 October games while slugging 8 home runs and stealing 6 bases. That Astros team fell short of the World Series and Beltran would not get to the Fall Classic until 2013 with the St. Louis Cardinals.
This year, the 40-year old Beltran barely played in the World Series but did log a significant post-season moment in the ALDS against Boston when he delivered an RBI double off the Green Monster in the 9th inning of Game 4. The hit, off the Red Sox’ Craig Kimbrel, gave the Astros a needed insurance run in their 5-4 series-clinching victory.
Beltran has 435 career home runs and 1,587 career RBI; both marks are fourth best in history for any player who played at least 50% of their games in center field. The names he’s behind? For home runs, he trails Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mickey Mantle. For RBI, he trails Ty Cobb, Mays and Griffey.
His career post-season OPS is 1.021, 5th best ever (to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols and George Brett) for all players with at least 150 plate appearances. For players with at least 200 PA, only Pujols has a higher OPS.
Although he was a minor contributor on the field in the post-season that led to his first World Series ring, the veteran Beltran has been credited for being an invaluable clubhouse presence for a team featuring a lot of young players. He may or may not continue his career; if he is finished, it was a great way to go out.
Justin Verlander (likely on his way to the Hall)
There are times in October baseball when a starting pitcher takes the hill in an series elimination or clinching scenario and you just know for certain that the hurler is going to come up with a spectacular performance. Sometimes it’s a pitcher on an incredible roll that started in the last months of the regular season. Sometimes it’s a pitcher who has already established himself as a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher who has already delivered big game performances in the past. Sometimes its both. That’s the feeling that I (and likely many others) had about Justin Verlander Tuesday night before Game 6.
Verlander had the late-season run, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA with the Astros after being acquired literally seconds before the trading deadline. And he was on a roll in the post-season, going 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA in his first 5 appearances.
For five scoreless innings, it looked like the gut feeling was right. Verlander had allowed just one single, issued no walks and struck out 8 batters. But the Dodgers scored two runs off JV in the bottom of the 6th inning. With the game being played in Dodger Stadium under N.L. rules, he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the 7th and the Astros went on to lose 3-1. Even if the Astros had not actually went on to win the Fall Classic, it was another terrific October for the former Tigers’ right-hander. All told, in six different seasons, Verlander’s post-season record is 11-6 with a 3.07 ERA, including 150 strikeouts and just 38 walks in 135 innings.
Because he’s had some down years recently, Justin Verlander still has some work to do in the regular season to become a Hall of Famer but he’s getting close. He has 188 career wins and a 3.46 ERA, good numbers but not quite enough to earn a plaque. He has an MVP and Cy Young trophy to his credit (went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA in 2011) and is a six-time All-Star. Along with the memories of his run this October (in particular his complete game in Game 2 of the ALCS), these are things that will serve him well when his time calls to meet the Hall of Fame voters.
Until this fall, the good-looking 6’5″ right-hander may have been more famous for being supermodel Kate Upton’s fiancee but he’s become one of the three players who has dominated the narrative of the 2017 post-season for the Astros. Although he did not win the potential Game 6 of the World Series, when the story of the 2017 playoffs are told, Verlander’s role will forever be pre-eminent.
When evaluating a potential Hall of Famer’s role in a World Championship, the #1 question that should always be asked is, “could the team have won without him?” In the case of Justin Verlander, the Houston Astros were going to the playoffs regardless of whether they made that late-season acquisition or not. But it’s hard to see how the Astros could have won Game 2 of the ALCS without Verlander’s complete game victory, a rarity in today’s game. Add his ALCS Game 6 victory (an elimination game) and this is a ring that JV earned on the mound.
Jose Altuve (it’s early, but looking really good for the Hall)
Jose Altuve, an excellent player for many years and a MVP candidate this year, emerged as the biggest star of the 2017 post-season. He made an instant impact, hitting three home runs in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox.
You can read much more about Altuve’s magnificent month in Jose Altuve: Welcome to the Cooperstown Conversation. The short version about why he’s a good bet to eventually be a Hall of Famer:
- He will either win the 2017 MVP or finish second to Aaron Judge. Hall of Fame voters like trophies.
- He’s won three A.L. batting titles and gotten more than 200 hits four years in a row. Hall of Fame voters like 200-hit seasons and batting titles.
- He’s short (5 feet 6 inches tall) but has power. For a player of that height or shorter, only Hall of Famer Hack Wilson has more than Altuve’s 84 career regular season home runs. Hall of Fame voters like good stories and the story of a superstar height-challenged player is a good one.
- Because of his performance this October, for the rest of his career announcers will be talking about him as a future Hall of Famer. A Hall of Famer tag on a player who is seven years into his career can stick for awhile. Hall of Fame voters like to vote for players that they considered to be Cooperstown worthy through the bulk of their careers.
- He’s playing on a team with lots of great young players and, therefore, is likely to have many more October opportunities to shine. Hall of Fame voters like players who appear in multiple post-seasons.
- He’s won one Gold Glove (and might win another this year). Although the advanced metrics don’t show him as a superior defensive player, he’s getting the reputation. He made a few spectacular plays this post-season. Hall of Fame voters like (and remember) flashy glove-work in October.
The Venezuelan-born Altuve is just 5’6″. He’s just 27 years old and has only played 7 seasons in the major leagues but he’s proven to be very durable. I’d say it’s a good bet that we are in fact looking at a future Hall of Famer. Considering that he started Houston’s road to the Championship with his first inning home run off Chris Sale in Game 1 of the ALDS, it was fitting that the final out of the World Series was on a ground ball that was fielded by Jose Altuve.
Chase Utley (long shot for the Hall)
As a Hall of Fame candidate, Chase Utley is a sabermetric favorite. According to WAR (Wins Above Replacement), he was the second best player in baseball (to Pujols) from 2005 to 2009. He was good at all of the things that WAR measures that traditional batting statistics (BA, HR, RBI) don’t: he had a high on-base percentage, had great defensive metrics, was a good base-runner and played a key defensive position (2nd base).
I consider Utley a long-shot for the Hall because his career is nearly over, his “counting” stats are weak (258 HR, 1,850 hits) and his career batting average is a not-so-thrilling .276. OK, actually 258 home runs is pretty good for a 2nd baseman, the 7th most in history at the position. Here is the problem: there’s a second baseman currently on the Hall of Fame ballot who has yet to top 17% of the vote and his offensive numbers are vastly superior.
Utley is slightly ahead (very slightly) in On-Base Percentage but way behind in every other category except for WAR. So, even as we accept that Kent was not a slick fielder, it takes a pretty big leap of faith to argue that Utley had a more Cooperstown worthy career simply because his WAR is higher. Hurting his case, Utley has no Gold Gloves to match the defensive metrics.
With 5 home runs in the 2009 World Series, Utley used to have a reputation as a big-time October performer but, in recent years as a part-time player with the Dodgers, that shine has been tarnished. In 15 games spanning the last two post-seasons, Utley has been hitless in 30 at bats.
The man the Dodgers now refer to as the “Silver Fox” (he’s 38 years old and showing it in his hair) had a great peak from 2005-2009 but the rest of his career was rather pedestrian. He’ll be a favorite of the analytics community when his time comes on the BBWAA ballot but that community will likely not be voluminous enough to give him a fighting chance.
Kenley Jansen (too early to say but on a Hall of Fame path)
The most controversial Cooperstown cases often involve relief pitchers because people have a hard time reconciling the small number of innings pitched with the high leverage situations in which those innings occur. Kenley Jansen just turned 30 on September 30th and has already saved 230 regular games with a 2.08 ERA.
A native of the tiny island of Curacao, just east of Aruba and north of Venezuela, Jansen is the biggest big-time closer in MLB history. A 6 feet 5 inches and listed on his Baseball Reference profile at 275, the former catcher is the biggest relief pitcher of significance and Hall of Fame potential that the game has ever seen.
In what was sometimes a bit of a tangent from the principal focus of this site, I recently authored a seven-part series on the history of relief pitching. Jansen, along with the other top closers of today’s game, are pitching in an era in which there are seemingly four to five relievers per team that can throw nearly 100 miles per hour. Bullpen aces are delivering microscopic ERAs.
There are currently two closers from the one-inning closer generation (from 1988 to the present, see The History of Relief Pitching: Part Four) on the Hall of Fame ballot, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner. Hoffman finished with 601 career saves (2nd best all-time to Mariano Rivera) and will almost certainly be inducted into Cooperstown next summer. Wagner, with 422 career saves (6th best), has been on the ballot for two years and has earned barely above 10% of the vote (75% is needed for induction). Earlier this year, Lee Smith (with 478 saves) failed to make the Hall of Fame after 15 times on the ballot.
How relief pitchers will be judged by Hall of Fame voters 10-15 years from now is a big question but, for now, it’s clear that a 500-save minimum is the requirement for the modern closer. Considering how much easier it is for today’s stoppers to pile up saves (compared to the firemen of yesteryear like Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter), it’s not an unreasonable standard.
What you’ll find interesting here is that Jansen (along with Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Zach Britton) are, at this time in their respective careers, on a pace superior to both Hoffman’s and Rivera’s. The chart below shows the total number of saves (as well as a few other key stats) for several closers through their “age 29 seasons,” which is defined as each pitcher’s age on June 30th.
|Courtesy Baseball Reference||Boldface: Active|
The variety of outcomes that the top closers in the 20’s experienced in their 30’s is fascinating. Francisco Rodriguez struggled throughout his 30’s, more than once losing his job as the 9th inning closer. Beck battled substance abuse in his 30’s and died of cocaine intoxication at the age of 38. Street is still active but has only managed to stay healthy enough to pitch 26.1 innings in the last two years.
What’s most interesting is how far down this list Hoffman and Rivera are.
Kenley Jansen certainly is on a path that could wind up with a plaque in Cooperstown if he can maintain his current form through his 30’s. It would have helped immensely if he (with the Dodgers) had celebrated a World Series title. His blown save in Game 2 and loss in Game 5 create indelible images of failure, overwhelming a career filled with success. The Dodgers are a great team and he may have more opportunities in future World Series games but there is never a guarantee of that.
Corey Seager and Carlos Correa (third year players off to a great start)
Corey Seager, Carlos Correa and the Cleveland Indians’ Francisco Lindor are the late 2010’s version of the troika of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra from the late 1990’s. All six are in the image of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., powerful hitters at a young age at a premium defensive position. What Seager, Correa and Ripken also have in common is that they are or were uncommonly tall for the position, each standing at 6’4″ (Jeter and Rodriguez are 6’3″).
Jeter will be the only Hall of Famer from the 1990’s group although A-Rod certainly would have made it were it not for his multiple PED offenses. Nomar, through his age 29 season in 2003, seemed to be on a glide path to Cooperstown but his career fell off a cliff.
Seager, Correa and Lindor are all just 23 years of age. Seager and Correa have Rookie of the Year trophies on their mantles and all three have already appeared on the game’s biggest stage. All three were tagged for greatness from the beginning. Lindor was the 8th overall pick in the 2011 amateur player draft, Seager was the 18th overall pick in 2012 and Correa was the #1 pick overall that same year.
It’s just a question now of whether their careers follow the paths of Ripken and Jeter or the path of Garciaparra.
Here’s what each of the seven named shortstops accomplished through their first three seasons in the majors.
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
It’s early, but with Seager and Correa we are watching two of the greatest young shortstops of this generation on the World Series stage. It didn’t hurt either of them that they each played starring roles in the epic Game 5 contest.
Cody Bellinger (maybe a bit early to talk about Cooperstown)
OK, I know it seems a little silly to be talking about a first-year player as a potential Hall of Famer. In 1975, did it not seem as if Fred Lynn (the Rookie of the Year and MVP) was a Hall of Famer in the making? It did seem that way, and it didn’t happen.
It’s way, way too early but, since Schoenfield brought him up in his espn.com piece, we’ll take a look. What makes Cody Bellinger’s rookie season so magnificent is not only what he accomplished with the bat but that he did it at such a young age. This was officially Bellinger’s age 21 season, since he turned 22 on July 13th, shortly after the June 30th line of demarcation from which Baseball Reference lists each player’s age.
Bellinger, as a rookie, hit 39 home runs with 97 RBI and a 142 park-adjusted OPS+. There are only two other players in the history of baseball who, in their first MLB season, swatted over 30 home runs, drove in at least 90 and had a OPS+ of at least 130. Those two other players are Ted Williams and Albert Pujols.
To dig deeper, let’s take into account the fact that, in 2017, it was easier to pile up home runs than at most other times in baseball history. So let’s take a wider view and look at every rookie player (aged 22 or younger) who hit at least 25 home runs with 85 RBI and an OPS+ of 125 or better. To make a distinction, I’m eliminating the first-year seasons of players who did not qualify as a rookie. So, this list is for official rookies who were listed at age 22 or younger according to Baseball Reference. In order to make this relevant to Bellinger, I’m eliminating any player who turned 23 during their rookie campaign. This list is strictly for players who were 22 or younger during their entire official rookie season:
|*Age defined as age at midnight on June 30th|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
Well, this is also an impressive list. Pujols is still active but an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame. Longoria, the 10-year 3rd baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays, is also still active. He looked like a a future Hall of Famer starting with his Rookie of the Year campaign but has fallen back a bit in recent years. Longoria’s Cooperstown prognosis is cloudy. Dick Allen is not in the Hall of Fame but fell one vote shy on the Eras Committee vote two years ago; he’s a favorite of the sabermetric community and has a decent chance to get into the Hall in the future.
The only name that might be unfamiliar to most readers is Hal Trosky. After 47 plate appearances in 1933, the big right-handed hitter had a spectacular rookie campaign in 1934, playing first base for the Cleveland Indians. In his first seven full seasons, Trosky averaged 29 home runs with 122 RBI and a 136 OPS+. Trosky’s career started to go downhill in 1941, at the age of 28, as he started to be bothered by migraine headaches. He managed just 23 home runs over three seasons (1941, 1944 and 1946) in the tail end of his career.
Anyway, Bellinger’s fantastic rookie season puts him in pretty darned good company. He’s got a long way to go but also a long time to get there.
So, that’s Schoenfield’s list. It’s an impressive group, with 9 of the 50 players on the active rosters being potential Hall of Famers. I’m going to conclude by throwing out a few other names. On the Dodgers, there’s Yasiel Puig, the mercurial Cuban-born right fielder. Puig took the baseball world by storm, posting a .443 batting average and a 1.218 OPS in his first 27 games as a rookie in 2013. His career really went downhill in 2015 and 2016 but Puig had a nice comeback in 2017, setting career highs with 28 home runs and 74 RBI. He’s still only 26 with an immense amount of talent. The Wild Horse could still go on to have a magnificent career.
On the Astros, let’s start with Alex Bregman. In this, his first full season, Houston’s third baseman hit 19 home runs with 71 RBI and a 128 OPS+. During this post-season he’s emerged as a star, making several great defensive plays including a couple of great throws to nail base-runners at home plate and, of course, he was the hero of heroes of Game 5 of the World Series, driving in the winning run off Jansen in the bottom of the 10th inning to seal the Astros’ 13-12 victory. Bregman is only 23 years old and he was the #2 overall draft pick in all of MLB in 2015. Peter Gammons calls him one of the most intelligent and instinctive young players he’s seen in a long time.
Next, there’s Brian McCann. It’s easy to overlook the Astros catcher because there are so many younger and flashier players on the team and there’s also Justin Verlander. McCann is 33 years old and clearly in the decline phase of his career. It’s highly improbable that he will wind up in the Hall of Fame. I only mention him for two reasons. First, he is 7-time All-Star. Also, he is one of only four catchers in MLB history to hit at least 20 home runs in 10 different seasons. The others? Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench and Yogi Berra. Again, he is a long shot. McCann would have to last until his late 30’s and remain a productive player, at least on a 100 games per year basis. It’s not likely but he has some credentials that Hall of Fame voters might like, especially if he remains with the Astros for years and the team has multiple deep post-season runs.
Finally, you can’t ignore World Series MVP George Springer, whose 5 Fall Classic home runs tied the all time record with Utley (who did it in 2009 with the Philles) and Reggie Jackson, who famously hit 3 bombs in their clinching Game 6 in 1977. Four of Springer’s five post-season taters tied the game or gave the Astros the lead.
Springer’s career got off to a somewhat slow start but, in this his age 27 season, he emerged as an All-Star with 34 home runs, 85 RBI (as a leadoff hitter), 112 runs scored and an OPS+ of 144.
Regardless of which players between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros ultimately make the Hall of Fame in the decades to come, these are two teams featuring a multitude of star players and the seven World Series games were a joy to watch.
Thanks for reading.