(photo: Baseball Essential)
When it comes time to decide on any baseball player’s worthiness for the ultimate honor of a Hall of Fame plaque, post-season heroics (or lack thereof) can often be a tie-breaker when it comes to the “in” or “out” decision of a voter. When we think about Hall of Fame players, there are images and moments that are conjured up in our brains, the images and moments that put the fame in a player’s Hall of Fame resume. Sometimes those moments are embodied in an entire season, a historically great MVP or Cy Young campaign. Sometimes it’s a milestone, a 3,000th hit or 300th win. Often those moments are made in October during the pursuit of a World Series title.
Many of the active position players who are no-doubt Hall of Famers (Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Ichiro Suzuki, Robinson Cano and Mike Trout) are on teams that missed the 2017 post-season party. In this piece we’ll take a look at the members of the ten post-season teams that have already shown that they’re on a potential track to the Hall of Fame who will have the opportunity to bolster their Cooperstown credentials with strong October performances.
In this piece, we’re going to feature ten players who are on the back nine of their careers and would be eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot if they retired at the end of the season. These ten have played the requisite ten minimum seasons. So, in this piece, we won’t be looking at Jose Altuve, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper or Chris Sale. Nor will be discuss the Cooperstown chances of young guns like Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa or Corey Seager. And no, we won’t be featuring rookies Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger.
In particular, what’s interesting about this post-season party is that eight of the ten teams have an ace starting pitcher who is on a career path that could result in a Hall of Fame plaque. Two of the ten teams have two starting pitchers who fit that description. Here are the ten pitchers, with their career numbers, ranked by career innings pitched:
For space purposes, I’m picking ten players total to feature in this piece, so I’m going to leave out David Price, Chris Sale, Stephen Strasburg, and Corey Kluber. Sale, Strasburg and Kluber have yet to pitch ten seasons so they don’t meet the criteria anyway.
As for Price, he just finished his tenth MLB season and is within a couple of years’ age of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Jon Lester. However, he’s accomplished less thusfar, including being saddled with a brutal post-season record of 2-8 with a 5.54 ERA. There are also injury concerns so he didn’t make the cut of ten.
Anyway, here are the ten players on the 2017 post-season teams that have already accomplished a majority of what they’ll need to do to achieve the ultimate honor in the future, a plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers): Age 29 (10 Years MLB service)
- Career: 144-64, 2.36 ERA
- 3-time Cy Young Award winner (2011, 2013, 2014)
- 2014 N.L. MVP: 21-3, 1.77 ERA
- Led all MLB in ERA four times
- 7-time All-Star
- Career 2.36 ERA is the best in all of MLB in last 100 years (min 1,500 IP)
- Career park-adjusted 161 ERA+ is best in all of MLB history (min 1,500 IP)
- Career WHIP of 1.002 is 3rd best in all MLB history (to Addie Joss and Ed Walsh)
- Career WAR: 57.4 (better than 23 Hall of Fame pitchers)
- Hall of Fame potential? VIRTUAL LOCK
If Clayton Kershaw decided to retire at the end of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ post-season run, he would almost certainly be inducted into the Hall of Fame Class of 2023. What he has already accomplished is Cooperstown worthy. Simply put, he’s been the best pitcher in baseball for last seven years. He’s not just a future Hall of Famer, he’s an all-time great.
From 2011-2017 (among the 43 pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched), Kershaw is best among all MLB pitchers in ERA, park-adjusted ERA+, WAR (Wins Above Replacement), WHIP, SO/BB ratio, BAA (Batting Average Against), complete games, shutouts, and won-loss percentage. (Please take a look at the Glossary if you’re not familiar with some of these statistics).
Due in part to some time missed due to injury in the last two campaigns, he’s merely second (to Max Scherzer) in two categories (wins and strikeouts) over that seven year period but in all of the other categories, not only is Kershaw leading, he’s leading by a mile.
|2011-17||Category Leader||2nd Best|
|WAR||Clayton Kershaw||45.8||Max Scherzer||38.8|
|ERA||Clayton Kershaw||2.10||Johnny Cueto||2.94|
|ERA+||Clayton Kershaw||179||Chris Sale||138|
|WHIP||Clayton Kershaw||0.913||Chris Sale||1.049|
|SO/BB||Clayton Kershaw||5.73||Chris Sale||5.19|
|BAA||Clayton Kershaw||.200||Jake Arrieta||.218|
|CG||Clayton Kershaw||24||James Shields||18|
|SHO||Clayton Kershaw||14||Adam Wainwright||8|
|W-L%||Clayton Kershaw||.742||Zack Greinke||.737|
|Wins||Max Scherzer||120||Clayton Kershaw||118|
|SO||Max Scherzer||1725||Clayton Kershaw||1623|
|Courtesy Baseball Reference|
So, in my humble opinion, based on this 7-year stretch of brilliance, Kershaw would be a Hall of Famer under the “Koufax rule” if he retired at the end of this season. Sandy Koufax, the brilliant Dodger lefty from the 1960’s, had a similar run of dominance from 1961-1966 and retired at the age of 30 because of increasing pain and pending arthritis in his golden arm.
Kershaw is not likely to hang up his spikes right now. The Claw is only 29 years old and is guaranteed over $106 million in the next three years on his contract. The only blemish on Kershaw’s “Cooperstown Cred” is a poor record in post-season baseball (4-7, 4.55 ERA). Although he has vastly better regular season numbers than another big lefty pitching in California (San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner), it’s Mad-Bum’s three rings and heroic performance in the 2014 World Series that put him higher on the fame meter than Kershaw. Don’t be surprised if Kershaw has his Hall of Fame moment this October.
Justin Verlander (Houston Astros): Age 34 (13 Years MLB service)
- Career: 188-114 (.623 WL%), 3.46 ERA
- 6-time All-Star
- 2006 A.L. Rookie of the Year (17-9, 3.63 ERA)
- Won 2011 A.L. Cy Young and MVP awards (24-5, 2.40 ERA, 250 K, 0.920 WHIP)
- Led A.L. in strikeouts four times
- Career WAR: 56.9 (better than 22 Hall of Fame pitchers)
- Hall of Fame Potential? ON TRACK
A late-season pickup, joining the Houston Astros’ pursuit of its first World Series title, is one of the greatest starting pitchers of his generation, Justin Verlander. The 34-year old right-hander, a long-time member of the Detroit Tigers, agreed to waive his no-trade rights and was dealt to the Astros literally just seconds before the trading deadline of midnight on September 1st.
After the 2013 season, which included his sixth All-Star berth in eight seasons and three superb post-season starts (giving up just one run in 23 innings), Verlander seemed like he was on a glide-path to the Hall of Fame. But an injury while working out in December 2013 resulted in the need for core muscle surgery and he just wasn’t right in either 2014 or 2015. He was flat-out mediocre in 2014 (posting a 4.54 ERA in 206 innings) and missed much of 2015, in which he went 5-8 with a 3.38 ERA in 133.1 innings. Not than anyone was feeling sorry for him, with a $28 million annual income and a girlfriend (now fiancee) named Kate Upton.
Still, if Verlander had remained the mediocre pitcher that he was in 2014 and 2015, it’s unlikely that Cooperstown would ever come calling. Verlander was always the guy who managed to save a few bullets late in his starts where he could approach 100 miles per hour but, after that core muscle surgery, he wasn’t the same, his fastball velocity declining to 92 MPH from a high of 95 in 2011.
In 2016, however, Verlander’s fastball velocity started creeping back up. Although used infrequently, he also developed a cutter and started using his slider more. In his 2011 MVP campaign, according to his FanGraphs page, he threw his slider 8.6% of the time. In 2016, his slider was featured 17.1% of the time; in 2017, he used it on 21.1% of all pitches thrown, all while maintaining his curveball but de-emphasizing his change-up. At the same time, remarkably, Verlander’s average fastball velocity this year is back up to 95.6 MPH, the highest total since his MVP season of 2011.
For two years now, Verlander has once again shown something approaching his 2011 form, the form that made him a dual MVP/Cy Young Award winner. In 2016, he went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA and finished 2nd in the A.L. Cy Young voting. He fell back a bit in the first five months of 2017 (a 3.83 ERA in 28 starts with Detroit) but the trade from the rebuilding Tigers to the contending Astros rejuvenated the hard-throwing righty. In five starts with Houston, Verlander went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA.
This will be Verlander’s sixth post-season: he’s started 16 games across five post-seasons with Detroit (including two pennants but no World Series titles). In his first October, as a rookie in 2006, Verlander was a little shaky, posting a 5.82 ERA in four starts, which included losses in Games 1 and 5 of the World Series to the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals. He was equally shaky in 2011 (his MVP campaign), with a 5.31 ERA in four starts in the ALDS and ALCS. Since then, he’s has sported a 1.76 ERA in 8 starts but that record includes one notable blemish, his Game 1 loss in the 2012 World Series. In that contest, he gave up 5 runs in 4 innings, including two of the three home runs swatted by the San Francisco Giants’ Pablo Sandoval.
So, clearly, for Verlander, there’s some unfinished business in October baseball. He may never become as famous as his fiancee but if he keeps pitching as he has since joining the Astros, there’s a good chance that he could bolster his Cooperstown credentials with a starring role in a championship title run.
Unlike Kershaw, Verlander has more work to do (in future regular seasons) to secure his Hall of Fame plaque but the outlook is really bright right now.
Zack Greinke (Arizona Diamondbacks): Age 33 (14 Years MLB Service)
- Career: 172-107 (.616 WL%), 3.40 ERA
- 4-time All-Star
- 3-time Gold Glove Award winner
- 2009 A.L. Cy Young Award winner (16-8, 2.16 ERA, 242 K)
- 2nd in 2015 N.L. Cy Young voting (19-3, 1.66 ERA, 200 K), led MLB in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP
- Career WAR: 57.2 (better than 23 Hall of Fame pitchers)
- Hall of Fame Potential? ON TRACK
I’d wager good money that, if you went to 100 baseball writers and asked them, if they had to pick one, would they pick Justin Verlander or Zack Greinke as a future Hall of Famer, 80% would pick Verlander. This despite the fact that they’re nearly the same age (Greinke will turn 34 this October) and they have remarkably similar career numbers.
These guys just have a lot in common. Besides their similar statistics, they each have $200 million contracts and each have a beautiful blonde in their lives. The difference is that even non-baseball fans know who Justin is because of his relationship with Kate Upton while Zack has been a married man since 2009, when he tied the knot with the former Emily Kuchar. Mrs. Greinke, while not a Sports Illustrated cover girl, is a former Miss Daytona Beach and a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
The reason that Verlander seems like more of a future Hall of Famer is that Greinke has mostly labored in obscurity, even though he pitched three full seasons in Los Angeles. Greinke, who made only one All-Star team in his first 10 major league seasons, pitched his first seven seasons for the playoff-starved Kansas City Royals. The highlight of his Royals years was his Cy Young campaign in 2009.
Unable to follow-up his 2009 season with another sterling one (he posted a 4.17 ERA in 2010), Greinke was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in December 2010 and pitched one and a half seasons with the Brew Crew. After a mid-season trade to the Los Angeles Angels in 2012, Zack signed a big free agent contract with the city’s other team, the Dodgers. How do you pitch in relative obscurity in the nation’s second biggest city? You do it because you’re in the shadow of Clayton Kershaw, the best pitcher on the planet.
In his three seasons with the Dodgers (2013-2015), Greinke pitched brilliantly, sporting a 2.30 ERA (park adjusted to a superb 156 ERA+). With the last of those three years being truly magnificent, Greinke opted out of his paltry $147 million contract (which had three years left on it) and inked a new six-year, $206.5 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Initially, it looked like Greinke’s D-Backs deal would be a franchise killer. His first season in Phoenix was decidedly mediocre: he went 13-7 with a 4.37 ERA, including an unsightly 4.81 ERA in his home ballpark. Clearly, Chase Field was not as friendly as Dodger Stadium, where Greinke had logged a 2.01 ERA from 2013-15. Fortunately for the Arizona organization and its fans, Greinke rebounded in 2017, going 17-7 with a 3.20 ERA, park adjusted for a 149 ERA+, the third best mark of his career.
One knock against Greinke’s potential Hall of Fame candidacy is that, despite two fantastic seasons (2009 in K.C. and 2015 in L.A.), he has mostly not been a top 10 pitcher. If you take a blended average of a variety of statistics (both basic and advanced), Greinke was clearly the best pitcher in baseball in 2009, his Cy Young campaign. It will be an eternal debate about the relative worthiness of Greinke, Kershaw and Jake Arrieta in 2015 but, at the very least, Zack was the 3rd best pitcher in the game. At best, he was number one.
Until 2017, Greinke never had a top 10 season other than the brilliant ’09 and ’15 campaigns. In 2013, he was 10th in the league in ERA+ but that was with a low innings total of 177.2. But Greinke did have an excellent year this season, finishing in the top 10 in a dozen statistical categories. Personally, I’d rank him the 6th best in MLB this year, behind Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg.
Anyway, if Greinke is able to maintain something close to his 2017 form for a couple of seasons, he has a good chance to eventually earn the honor of giving a speech in the summer in a little town in upstate New York.
In his first nine MLB seasons, Greinke was only able to perform in October once, with Milwaukee in 2011. In his three years with the Dodgers, despite the perennial disappointment of not making the Fall Classic, Greinke pitched well, going 3-3 with a 2.38 ERA. Zack will be pitching in the N.L. Wild Card game on Wednesday, giving him another chance to shine on the post-season stage which could bolster his overall Hall of Fame resume.
CC Sabathia (New York Yankees): Age 37 (17 Years MLB Service)
- Career: 237-146 (.619 WL%), 3.70 ERA
- 6-time All-Star
- 2007 A.L. Cy Young Award winner (19-7, 3.21 ERA)
- Five times in top 5 of A.L. Cy Young Award voting
- Member of 2009 World Series Champion Yankees (4-1, 1.98 ERA in 5 starts)
- Career WAR: 60.6 (better than 23 Hall of Fame pitchers)
- Hall of Fame Potential? UNCERTAIN
If you look at the career numbers of CC Sabathia, it’s clear that he’s in the zone of a potential Hall of Fame pitcher but, based on recent voting trends, would probably fall a little bit short.
After the 2012 season, when he was 32 years old, it looked like Sabathia was on the path to Cooperstown. When listing baseball players by age, Baseball Reference uses midnight on June 30th as the cutoff date to determine what age year to put on each page. Since Sabathia was born on July 21, 1980, when we talk about his “age 31 season” (2012), we’re talking about the season in which he started at the age of 31 and finished at the age of 32.
Anyway, through his age 31 season, Sabathia had a 191-102 record with a 3.50 ERA which, due to pitching in the American League and during the end of the PED era, resulting in a ERA+ of 125. His career WAR was 54.1 after 2012. Through the age 31 seasons of every Hall of Fame pitcher, only 24 had a higher WAR by that point in their respective careers. 43 others had not yet progressed to that WAR number (including recent inductees Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Randy Johnson, not to mention luminaries like Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax).
CC also had established a big-game reputation. In 2008, after a trade from the Cleveland Indians to the Milwaukee Brewers, he put the team on his big back, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts, a run that included 7 complete games and 3 shutouts. Despite the fact that he was about to become a free agent and had hundreds of millions of reasons to protect his left arm, CC took the hill on three days of rest in his final three starts, something unheard of in today’s game. All in all, the Brew Crew edged the New York Mets by one game to win the N.L. Wild Card spot, the franchise’s first post-season berth in 26 long years. This would not have been possible without the efforts of CC Sabathia.
Sabathia was rewarded with a mega-deal from the New York Yankees and a ring in the 2009 championship season; in the ’09 post-season, CC went 4-1 with a 1.98 ERA. Sabathia followed that up with three more quality years, winning 55 games with a 3.17 ERA from 2010-2012.
In his career up to that point, Sabathia had averaged 16 wins per season. If had managed to duplicate that success from 2013-2017, not an unreasonable expectation given that he was pitching for the deep-pocketed New York Yankees, Sabathia would now have 271 career wins and would be on the doorstep of the Hall.
Unfortunately, because of a combination of injury, alcohol abuse and the natural aging process, CC had three average to awful years from 2013 to 2015. Fortunately for his future employment and Cooperstown chances, Sabathia had a renaissance campaign in 2017, going 14-5 with a 3.69 ERA (with a very good 122 ERA+). This was a follow-up to a decent 2016 when, despite a 9-12 record, CC posted a respectable 3.91 ERA (and a better than average 110 ERA+). Sabathia, now listed at a full 300 pounds, has reinvented himself as a pitcher, just as it has been for many Hall of Fame pitchers when they enter their late 30’s.
It’s my view that Sabathia, in order to punch his ticket to Cooperstown, will need to build on his 2017 campaign with a few more respectable seasons. He doesn’t need to recapture the form that made him one of the top three pitchers in the game from 2006-2012. He just needs to build on his current numbers. A significant percentage of all Hall of Famers got to Cooperstown by a combination of dominant peak years with other seasons in which they were merely average. In baseball, if you’re average, you’re still helping you team.
Sabathia’s contract expires at the end of the 2017 season so it’s uncertain where he’ll be pitching in 2018. The answer to that question will have an impact on his potential career win total which, despite the disdain of the analytics community, remains an important number that a large number of writers look at when deciding whether to confer a Hall of Fame vote. Another big post-season moment would also help.
Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals): Age 33 (10 Years MLB Service)
- Career: 141-75 (.653 WL%), 3.30 ERA
- 5-time All-Star
- 2013 A.L. Cy Young Award winner (21-3, 2.90 ERA)
- 2016 N.L. Cy Young Award winner (20-7, 2.96 ERA)
- Six consecutive seasons with 230 or more strikeouts
- Pitched 2 no-hitters in 2015
- Career: 44.7 WAR, 127 ERA+
- Hall of Fame Potential? ON TRACK
In his first five major league seasons, there was nothing that would make anybody think that Max Scherzer was a future Hall of Famer. In those five seasons (with Arizona and Detroit), Max posted a respectable 52-42 record with a 3.88 ERA. Not bad, but not Hall of Fame worthy.
In 2013, armed with a new curveball that helped him against left-handed hitters and whose mere existence served to make his fastball and slider more effective, Scherzer emerged as one of the top starters in the game. If you look at his FanGraphs page and look at his “Pitch Velocity” and “Pitch Values” you’ll see that his fastball became vastly more effective even as his velocity ticked down every so slightly.
Scherzer led the Tigers to the A.L. Central title in ’13, going 21-3 en route to the A.L. Cy Young Award. The following April, there was a rather famous piece in Sports Illustrated with a cover headline that said “Mad Max’s $144 Million Bet,” a reference to his decision to turn down Detroit’s $144 million offer to extend his contract.
Baseball history is replete with one-hit wonders, pitchers who had one extraordinary season amidst others of more pedestrian caliber. I thought Scherzer was nuts to turn down $144 million: this was a guy who had, at the time, never thrown a complete game in his life. The previous October, in Game 2 of the ALCS, he was pulled after 7 innings of one-run ball (with 13 strikeouts). He had thrown 108 pitches and Tigers manager Jim Leyland determined that he had had enough, opting to go with his bullpen. That move culminated with David Ortiz’ game-tying grand slam home run off Joaquin Benoit in the 8th inning and an eventual walk-off win that turned the series around for the Boston Red Sox. I could just imagine Jack Morris throwing things at his TV when Scherzer was yanked after seven innings.
Anyway, Scherzer bet on himself and parlayed a solid 2014 campaign (18-5, 3.15 ERA) into seven-year, $210 million contract with the Washington Nationals.
There are 9 pitchers in the history of baseball who have won three or more Cy Young Awards:
- Roger Clemens (7 times)
- Randy Johnson (5)
- Greg Maddux (4)
- Steve Carlton (4)
- Clayton Kershaw (3)
- Pedro Martinez (3)
- Tom Seaver (3)
- Jim Palmer (3)
- Sandy Koufax (3)
Of these nine illustrious hurlers, all were first-ballot Hall of Famers except for Clemens (due to his PED use) and Kershaw (who is still active). If Scherzer wins his third Cy Young Award trophy this November (he is the front-runner in my mind), he’ll join that group, which may very well grant him a Hall of Fame plaque in the future.
By a wide variety of metrics, Scherzer has been the second best pitcher in the game for the last five seasons (second to Kershaw). He doesn’t need to maintain this level of performance to get into Cooperstown. He just needs keep pitching well. If Scherzer were to simply finish the last four seasons of his contract as an average pitcher, he should accumulate the numbers to warrant his induction.
But I wouldn’t bet on him to be simply average. Scherzer is one of the most cerebral pitchers in the game. I’d count on him to find a way to compensate as he ages and perhaps loses a little speed off his fastball. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he competes for more Cy Young Awards late into his 30’s.
Another October opportunity now looms for Max Scherzer. Since that ill-fated no-decision in the ALCS, Scherzer has not lived up to his status as an ace in October baseball. Since that start, Scherzer has gone 0-4 with a 4.56 ERA in four starts with Detroit and Washington. He enters this post-season with a sore hamstring so whether he can build on his regular season legend with a strong October performance remains to be seen.
Jon Lester (Chicago Cubs): Age 33 (12 Years MLB Service)
- Career: 159-92 (.633 WL%), 3.51 ERA
- 4-time All-Star
- Three times in top 4 of Cy Young Award voting
- Member of three World Series Champions (2007 & 2013 Boston Red Sox, 2016 Chicago Cubs)
- Post-season career: 9-7, 2.63 ERA in 22 appearances
- Career: 42.0 WAR, 122 ERA+
- Hall of Fame Potential? STILL HAS WORK TO DO
Of the six pitchers featured in this piece, Jon Lester is the one who is furthest from the Hall of Fame. He has two great big fat intangibles going for him. The first is that he has three World Series rings and he was a key contributor to all of those titles. The second is that he’s a cancer survivor, which is the kind of feel-good story that could be worth a few bonus points for any writer who’s on the fence.
Still, although Lester is just a few months younger than Greinke and six months older than Scherzer, he’s behind both statistically speaking.
Lester has more innings pitched and wins than Scherzer but Max is on a roll; he’s about to win his third Cy Young Award in five years. The better comparison is Greinke, who is nearly the same age but has logged 272.1 more innings because he made his MLB debut when he was just 20 years old. Their career ERAs are comparable, with the park-adjusted numbers being nearly identical (Lester has called Fenway Park and Wrigley Field home). So why is Greinke so far ahead in WAR? The first answer is that he’s thrown more innings but that’s only part of the story. The other part is that the metrics rate Lester as having had a huge advantage in the quality of the defensive clubs playing behind him. Greinke pitched in front of some weak defensive squads in his early years in Kansas City.
Lester did not have a good year in 2017: he went 13-8 with a 4.33 ERA, which is ballpark adjusted to an average 100 ERA+. Greinke had a 149 ERA+ in 2017, meaning that he was 49% above average.
As more and more baseball writers start looking at WAR when evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, Lester still has a bit of work to do to become a viable Hall of Famer.
OK, now on to four position players on this season’s post-season rosters who have got a good shot at a Hall of Fame plaque:
Carlos Beltran (Houston Astros): Age 40 (20 Years MLB service)
- Career: .279 BA, 435 HR, 1,587 RBI, 1,582 runs, 2,725 hits, 312 SB
- 4th most HR all-time for center fielders (behind Mays, Griffey, Mantle) (minimum 50% games played in CF)
- 4th most RBI all-time for center fielders (behind Cobb, Mays, Griffey)
- Career SB success rate (86.4%) is best in MLB history (minimum 200 SB)
- 9-time All-Star
- 3-time Gold Glove winner
- 1999 A.L. Rookie of the Year (.293 BA, 22 HR, 108 RBI, 27 SB)
- 4th in 2006 NL MVP vote (41 HR, 116 RBI, 127 runs scored, 150 park-adjusted OPS+)
- Career post-season: .323 BA, .432 OBP, .646 SLG, 16 HR, 41 RBI in 235 PA
- 3rd highest post-season OPS (1.078) in MLB history (min. 150 PA) (Ruth, Gehrig)
- Career WAR: 69.9 (best for CF not already in the Hall of Fame)
- Hall of Fame potential? LIKELY IN
After toiling for the first seven seasons of his career with the playoff-absent Kansas City Royals, Carlos Beltran was traded (on June 24, 2004) to the Houston Astros. At the time, the Astros had a 38-34 record. A little over two weeks later, at the All-Star break, they were 44-44 and 10.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the N.L. Central. Manager Jimy Williams was fired (replaced by Phil Garner) and the Astros proceeded to go on a 48-26 tear to edge into the playoffs as the wild card team, finishing with a 92-70 record that was one better than that of Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants.
During that second half 74-game push for the post-season, the Astros’ newly acquired center fielder scored 59 runs, slugged 17 home runs, drove in 41, and swiped 27 bases without getting caught a single time. Of course, it was in the 2004 playoffs that Beltran emerged from a career shrouded in obscurity and became a legend of October baseball.
As the 2004 playoffs began, you have to remember that the Astros had been perennial post-season bridesmaids. In the previous seven years, Houston was on the losing end of the N.L. Division Series four times, with three of those losses at the hands of the Atlanta Braves. The two future Hall of Famers on those Astros teams (Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio) had hit a combined .139 (in 108 at bats) in those four losses. The addition of a fourth “killer B” to the Houston lineup (the third being Lance Berkman) changed the Astros’ fortunes, with Beltran overshadowing his more famous teammates.
In the 2004 NLDS (again against Atlanta), Beltran hit .455, slugged 4 home runs, drove in 9 and scored 9 in the Astros’ five-game series win over Atlanta. In the decisive Game 5 (a 12-3 laugher), Beltran went 4 for 5 with 2 homers and 5 RBI. Although the Astros would fall in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, Beltran was again the hitting star, hitting .417 with another 4 home runs and 12 runs scored.
All told, Beltran’s 8 post-season home run belts tied for the most in single post-season with Barry Bonds (who did it in 2002 with the benefit of also playing in the World Series). A post-season legend was born and Beltran parlayed his October success into a 7-year, $119 million contract with the New York Mets. Of course, those of us who are fans of the Mets will forever remember Beltran’s lowest career moment, the at bat in which he struck out looking against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS.
The switch-hitting Beltran, now 40, is back in Houston and will get another chance at post-season glory with the Astros this October.
Although another October memory would be a nice capstone, it’s pretty clear to me that Carlos Beltran has already accomplished enough in his 20-year MLB career to warrant a Hall of Fame plaque. He never won an MVP and was only in the top 10 of his league’s vote twice; this will bother some voters. But when the writers remember that he spent the majority of his productive career playing in center field, his career numbers are short only of legends like Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. His career WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is 69.9, which the 7th best in MLB history for center fielders (behind only the aforementioned four plus Tris Speaker and Joe DiMaggio).
Add in his already-earned reputation as post-season force and you have the makings of a Coopertown-worthy player.
Dustin Pedroia (Boston Red Sox): Age 34 (12 Years MLB Service)
- Career: .300 BA, 140 HR, 724 RBI, 920 runs, 1,802 hits, 114 OPS+
- 4-time All-Star
- 4-time Gold Glove Award winner
- 2007 A.L. Rookie of the Year
- 2008 A.L. MVP (.326 BA, 17 HR, 83 RBI, 118 runs, 213 hits, 54 doubles)
- Member of 2007 and 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox
- Career: .9914 fielding percentage (3rd best all-time for 2nd basemen)
- 5th best fielding 2nd baseman all-time since 1953 according to Baseball Reference’s “Zone Runs Above Average”
- Career WAR: 52.2
- Hall of Fame Potential? DECENT CHANCE
Dustin Pedroia is one of those players that just exudes the title “Hall of Famer.” Perhaps generously listed at 5’9″, Petey is one of those gritty, hard-playing, uniform is always dirty guys you can’t help but respect. He can hit, hit with decent power (he dubbed himself “Laser Show” early in his career), field his position brilliantly and can run fairly well too. And he’s a winner. He acts like a winner and, as a member of the 2007 and 2013 Boston Red Sox, actually has the rings to go with his winning persona.
One of my favorite articles ever written in Sports Illustrated was a profile of Pedroia, penned by Tom Verducci in 2011. Here’s how Verducci started his piece, edited a little bit for space:
Kelli and Dustin Pedroia and their cheeky two-year-old son, Dylan, live across the street from Fenway Park, and one reason why is clear from the view out their 13th-floor windows… The Pedroias can see the centerfield scoreboard and, through a crack in the asymmetrical grandstand, first base.
Kelli will catch her little guy pulling the drapes aside and checking the status of the gate. Is it open? How about now? Now? “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “He paces until it’s open. He’s not calm until he’s at the ballpark.”
And at last when his surveillance is rewarded—the gates swinging open six, seven hours before the game is scheduled to begin—the little guy is happy, for he knows it is finally time to go out and play. He is out the door and across the street in no time.
Dustin Pedroia even takes Dylan with him sometimes.
That is the essence of Pedroia. He loves baseball. He loves Fenway Park. He loves playing baseball for the Boston Red Sox and those of us who are fans of the team love him for it.
The #1 question about whether Pedroia will wind up in the Hall of Fame is how his body holds up over the next several years. Pedroia plays the game hard. Nobody dives for ground balls or chases after pop-ups like Petey. This season, he only managed to play 105 games mostly because of a sprained left knee, which seems like the kind of injury that may become chronic.
Pedroia has four years left on his contract and is a legend in Boston so he’ll be given every opportunity to keep playing regularly to build his career numbers. Still, you have to wonder how fast the inevitable regression phase of his career will come upon him. When his career ends and it comes time to vote on the Hall of Fame for Pedroia, he’s going to have a lot of goodwill going for him. He will gain a lot of votes based on the intangibles. The question is whether his numbers will match. I think he’s close, but one or two more All-Star level campaigns would help a lot.
In the meantime, another October stage awaits. Pedroia is missing the signature hitting moments in his post-season career (he has a .242 average in 47 games) but, of course, he’s made several spectacular defensive plays in aid of his teams’ two championships. He’s the only player on the current team who was part of the 2007 championship squad and, interestingly, he’s one of only two players left from the 2013 title team (the other being Xander Bogaerts).
Chase Utley (Los Angeles Dodgers): Age 38 (15 Years MLB Service)
- Career: .276 BA, 258 HR, 1,011 RBI, 1,085 runs, 1,850 hits, 118 OPS+
- 6-time All-Star
- Member of 2008 World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies
- Hit 5 home runs in 2009 World Series (tying Reggie Jackson for all-time best for a single World Series)
- Career: 151 SB, 21 CS (88% success rate is best all-time for all MLB players with at least 100 steals)
- 3rd all-time in modern game (since 1901) for 2nd basemen in WAR Runs from Fielding (behind Joe Gordon, Bill Mazeroski)
- Career WAR: 65.4
- Hall of Fame Potential? POSSIBLE
Chase Utley didn’t become a full-time player until 2005 and, from that year through 2009, he was one of the best players in the game. Playing with the Philadelphia Phillies, according to WAR he was the 2nd best player in baseball during those five seasons, behind only Albert Pujols. Utley occupies that lofty perch primarily because of defensive metrics that place him as the best defensive player in the game during those five years. In addition, Utley in his prime was a superb base-runner. Finally, he was an excellent hitter, especially for a 2nd baseman. For those five seasons, he led all 2nd sackers in home runs, RBI, runs scored, on-base%, slugging% and OPS, by large margins in most of those categories. He averaged 29 home runs with 101 RBI and 111 runs scored while batting .301 during those five great seasons. Throw in a World Series ring with the 2008 Phillies and his Jackson-esque performance in a losing effort in 2009 and you had the foundation of a Hall of Fame case.
Unfortunately, starting in 2010, Utley started to battle injuries and he’s struggled to put together a full season. From 2010 to 2017, Utley has averaged just 120 games per season. During those seasons, Utley hit .258 with an average of 12 home runs and 53 RBI per season, along with a 106 OPS+, still above average but far below the 135 OPS+ he posted from 2005-2009. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015 and now has the opportunity to pursue another World Series ring.
As a future Hall of Fame candidate, since he’ll be turning 39 years of age this December and is no longer a full-time player, it’s unlikely that the “Silver Fox” will able to bolster his low career numbers of hits or home runs. In essence, he has the same “counting stats” problem as Dustin Pedroia but without much time left and without some of the intangibles. That’s not to say that Utley has not also been a gritty, hard-nosed player, as Pedroia has been. He’s played the game hard throughout his career, famously captured by his slide into 2nd base in the 2015 NLDS which resulted in a broken leg for New York Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada and a new MLB rule about slides into 2nd base. He’s also taken one for the team 199 times; only seven players in history have been hit by more pitches.
So, with relatively low career counting stats and a not-so-sexy career batting average of .276, Utley will be a highly controversial Hall of Fame candidate when his career comes to an end. His case will be a peak-performance and sabermetric case. Utley’s high career WAR is based largely on superb defensive metrics in the fielding component of WAR from 2005 to 2010, which mark him as the best defensive player in baseball for those years.
The problem is that Utley does not have the hardware to match the metrics. He’s never won a Gold Glove in his career, losing to Luis Castillo, Orlando Hudson and Brandon Phillips during those years. If he missed out on Gold Gloves because he was 2nd to another future Hall of Famer that would be one thing but that’s not what happened. Gold Glove award voting has historically favored players who were also good hitters playing for good teams (Derek Jeter won fives Gold Gloves despite brutal defensive metrics) but Utley didn’t win once despite the advantage of being the best hitting player at the position.
So, when Utley becomes a Hall of Fame candidate, there are going to be a lot of voters who dismiss his candidacy as not having enough volume and there are others whose viewpoint will be something like, “are you going to believe the metrics or your lying eyes?”
Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins): Age 34 (14 Years MLB Service)
- Career: .308 BA, .391 OBP, 137 HR, 875 RBI, 954 runs, 1,986 hits, 126 OPS+
- 6-time All-Star
- 3-time Gold Glove Award winner
- 2009 A.L. MVP (28 HR, 96 RBI, led A.L. with .365 BA, .444 OBP and .587 SLG)
- Top 10 in MVP voting 4 times
- 2nd best batting average (.323) from 2004-2013 (to Miguel Cabrera)
- Three-time A.L. batting champion
- Hit over .300 eight times in his career (over .320 five times)
- Career: 6th best fielding percentage for all catchers, 5th best for all first basemen
- Career: 53.4 WAR
- Hall of Fame Potential? DECENT CHANCE
When Joe Mauer finished the 2013 season, the thought that he would not eventually be a slam-dunk Hall of Famer would have seemed absurd. He was a career .323 hitter who owned a 135 OPS+, a 44.2 WAR, he was a six-time All-Star, a former MVP, and he was a catcher. Only four catchers in the history of the game had a higher WAR for their first ten seasons (Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane).
In the Twin Cities, Mauer is a hometown hero, having attended high school in St. Paul; he was the #1 overall draft pick by his hometown Minnesota Twins in the 2001 amateur draft. He became the team’s full-time starting catcher in 2005 and became a star in 2006, when he hit .347 and finished 6th in the A.L. MVP voting.
In 2009, Mauer was a nearly unanimous choice as the American League’s MVP. His 28 home runs, 96 RBI, 191 hits, .365 average, .444 on-base% and .587 slugging% were all career highs. Mauer did his best work at his home ballpark, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where he hit. 388 and slugged 16 of his 28 taters.
In 2010, two things changed in Joe Mauer’s life. First, the Twins moved from the much-maligned Metrodome to a brand new outdoor ballpark, Target Field. The second was that the normally cost-conscious Twins, with the new revenue stream afforded by their sparkling new park, decided to pony up for their hometown hero, inking Mauer to an eight-year contract extension worth $184 million.
But something went wrong in this master plan. Target Field turned out to be a more elusive home target for the left-handed hitting catcher than the previous indoor venue known as the Homer-Dome. A year after hitting 28 home runs overall (16 of them in the Metrodome), Mauer’s home run total sagged to just 9, with only one of those dingers at his new home ballpark.
All told, in 2010 and the seven years since, Mauer has hit just 27 home runs at Target Field, this in 2,209 plate appearances, the equivalent of four full MLB seasons. All told, Mauer’s overall home run high has been 11 in the eight years since his MVP campaign. Compounding the power outage problem, in 2014 Mauer shed the tools of ignorance and moved to first base, a position where power hitting is expected. Mauer and the Twins agreed to the move after the 2013 season when a late-season concussion ended his season prematurely.
Mauer’s move to first base coincided with a decline in his offensive statistics. Although he qualified for the batting title with 518 plate appearances, he posted paltry numbers, hitting a career-low .277, slugging just 4 home runs while driving in 55. The 2015 season wasn’t much better: he hit .265 with 10 home runs and 66 RBI. His park-adjusted OPS+ was 98, the first time he posted a below-average number. Mauer revealed in 2016 that, in the years since moving from behind the dish to first base, he continued to suffer from blurred vision, a residual symptom from his 2013 concussion.
Anyway, after a brilliant eight-year run as a future Hall of Fame catcher, Mauer has been a light-hitting first sacker. This past season, he hit .305, his first campaign with a batting average above .300 since his final year behind the plate. He’s turned himself into a very good defensive player and, while still lacking the power you would like to enjoy from a first baseman, is hitting and fielding well-enough to be a respectable option at the position.
Mauer’s contract expires at the end of the 2018 season and, needless to say, there will be no more 9 figure deals in his future. Considering that the Twins are a budget-conscious team and that Mauer values playing in his hometown, I would expect him to sign a team-friendly contract, a goodwill gesture to make up for what turned out to be a Mauer-friendly contract. Even without the power, Mauer is still more valuable than half of the other first basemen in the league. Unless his offensive production regresses again, he could spend several seasons helping the team while building the counting stats for a Hall of Fame resume.
In some minds, because of his peak offensive performance at a premium offensive position he’s a Hall of Famer already but today’s voters are tough. It really comes down to how long he keeps playing and what his final numbers look like. Although he will get credit for his good numbers as a catcher, it should be noted that, even when catcher was his primary position, Mauer started a lot of games at first base or as the team’s designated hitter. Mauer only caught 100 games five times in his career. His 920 career games behind the dish are just 145th in the history of the game, according to Baseball Reference. Compare that to Yadier Molina, the other active catcher considered a future Hall of Fame candidate. Molina has caught 1,715 games, nearly double Mauer’s total and 18th most in history.
In my opinion, if Mauer can surpass 2,500 hits (he’s currently at 1,986) and keep his career batting average over .300 (right now he’s at .308), he’ll probably make it into the Hall of Fame.
Thanks for reading.