The State of the Fame: 2020 Baseball Edition
One of my favorite sports topics is the question of sports “immortality”, as in, “who belongs in the Hall of Fame”, or “who’s the greatest of all-time” at a given position. Baseball and football are the two sports I feel most qualified to speak about, knowledge-wise, and with baseball gearing up to finally get going in 2020, I thought it might be fun to take this moment in time and consider current players in relationship to their chances at making the Hall of Fame. I’ve divided them into a number of different categories (each of which are explained); tell me where I’m wrong. Let the fun begin!
I’ll begin with the “locks”:
Hit by a Bus Tomorrow: (This player would be in the Hall of Fame if he were hit by a bus; he currently has already compiled a Hall of Fame resume, and it’s only a matter of time.)
Albert Pujols – The great Albert Pujols is the current active leader in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and nobody is all that terribly close to him. There was a time when his pace was such that he could have made a run at Lou Gehrig as the greatest all-time first sacker. Ironically, his leaving my beloved Cardinals for the Angels–a move I greatly rued at the time–was perfect timing; he’s never really had a season in L.A. like the ones he had in St. Louis, and of course he never will. But he’s not only a first-ballot Hall of Famer; his election should be unanimous.
Miguel Cabrera – I wasn’t sure we’d ever seen another Triple Crown winner. Miggy pulled it off, and though he’s of course on the downside of his career, his place in Cooperstown is secure.
Clayton Kershaw – Kershaw is the premier pitcher of this era. His lifetime WAR is well ahead of Sandy Koufax, though he’s played more seasons than Koufax was able to. Still, for all his accomplishments, he’s only 31 years of age, and has time to cement a place, not only in Cooperstown, but in the high rent district of Cooperstown.
Mike Trout – There are simply not enough superlatives to say about Mike Trout. Babe Ruth is the greatest player of all time; I’m not sure it’s even close, and Mike Trout won’t displace him. That said, could we talk about Trout in the same breath as Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, one day? He’s that good. He has to stay healthy, but the numbers he’s putting up make him baseball’s best player, and he’s only 27 years old.
Justin Verlander – I think that this year put Verlander over the line. 90th all-time in WAR, with those numbers sure to rise, Verlander is already ahead of Hall of Famers such as Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, and John Smoltz. Nobody’s keeping this guy out.
The Numbers Say So, but I Just Don’t Know: (These guys are close and might make it, but…)
Zach Greinke – Greinke trails Verlander in lifetime WAR by less than one win, but honestly, he just doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer; I just don’t think of him nearly the same way I do Verlander or Kershaw (whom Greinke actually leads, but who is four years Greinke’s junior). I think he makes it, particularly as sabermetrics continues to rise in popularity. But do you think of Greinke as a shoe-in? Maybe it’s me.
Robinson Cano – Bonehead move of a career: getting caught with PEDs. Robbie is another guy who, I don’t know, I just don’t think of as a Hall of Famer, but his stats don’t lie. Unfortunately, Cano’s stupid move might cost him Cooperstown.
Missed it by THAT Much: (The Hall of Very Good)
I don’t see any of these guys getting in. They’re all pretty good ballplayers, and some have had one or two exceptional seasons, but I don’t see any crossing that threshold. If I had to pick one, it’d probably be Felix the Cat; Hamels has a stronger case than you might imagine, such that if he were to have a couple more really nice seasons, he might show up on some Hall of Fame radars. McCutchen is young enough to tally Hallworthy stats, but his career seems to have peaked, and he’s on the downside. Still, if he could turn things around, I’m not absolutely certain it’s too late for him. But it probably is.
Keep Up the Good Work: (Stay on pace and they are in)
Joey Votto – He still has, in my judgment, just a little bit of work to do. If he fell off this season into mediocrity, I say he doesn’t make the Hall, but if he can have a good short season this year and follow it by a reasonably good one or two (at age 37 and beyond), I think he gets the lifetime achievement award and the call to the Hall.
Max Scherzer – If I were to add a sixth player to my “Hit by a Bus” list, it’d be Max Scherzer. To me he’s right on the border of the Hall with his career to date, and if he were hit by that bus, he’d get enough sympathy votes to make it, I think. One more season of Max being Max, and he can punch his ticket, if it isn’t punched already; he’s that close.
Chris Sale – I grabbed Chris Sale early on my 2019 fantasy team, and he proceeded to ruin my season. Suffice it to say that if he keeps duplicating 2019s for a couple more seasons, his name falls off this list and onto whatever list Bret Saberhagen and Tim Lincecum are on. But he showed some signs of pitching better toward the end of the year, as I recall, so we’ll call 2019 an aberration and assume that if he resumes his pace, we’ll one day hear his name called.
Paul Goldschmidt – I could almost write the same things about Goldy as I did about Sale. The Cardinals didn’t get their money’s worth in 2019 by any means, but we’ll say he was just getting adjusted to being in St. Louis, and that he’ll bounce back to normal, which in his case means building a Hall of Fame resume.
Mookie Betts – In six short seasons, he’s already putting up incredible numbers. A lot can happen, of course; at this point in his career, Andruw Jones looked like a lock for the Hall, and now he’s an afterthought. Still, Mookie is well-positioned if he can keep it up.
Buster Posey – He’s 32, and so he has a few years remaining, we should assume. He isn’t in yet, and if his career tailed off pretty quickly from here, he’ll have to buy a ticket like the rest of us. That said, he shouldn’t have to put up massive numbers from here on out to have a good shot at the Hall. I don’t feel as confident about this pick as I do about most of the rest.
Giancarlo Stanton – Nor about this one. He had that one absolute monster season, and he’s still only 29. His career doesn’t scream “Hall” yet, and like several on this list I’ve already mentioned, he’s still got some work to do. I feel certain, by the way, that of these ones about whom I’ve expressed apprehension, some will make it and some won’t. It’s just hard to say who.
Nolan Arenado – We might be looking here at the most underrated player in the game. The glove, the bat; it’s all there. He’s still young (28), and is putting up great numbers (in a great place to do it). His name was linked to my Cardinals in off-season trade rumors, and I was salivating. Nothing happened, to my chagrin. But to the point: Arenado keeps up this for a few more years, and he could be a first-ballot guy.
Jose Altuve – As could this guy. But cheaters make me sick.
Manny Machado – Will the real Manny Machado please stand up? Hard to know what to make of this guy. He has the tools, but something’s got to click in for him to really reach all his potential. He might well belong on the next list down, but for now, I’ll keep him here.
Christian Yelich – He’s really come on lately, one of the ten best position players in the game, I think. I see a path to Cooperstown for him.
So You’re Sayin’ there’s a Chance: (Gotta pick up their game a bit)
Josh Donaldson – Time lost to injury hurts Josh’s chances, and at his age, he’d have to yet have several more years like this past year in Atlanta. The shortened season might be enough to doom whatever slim shot he had.
Freddie Freeman – As it stands right now, Freddie is a prime candidate for the Hall of Very Good. Every year, he’s very good. An MVP season and/or a Braves championship, and he might get enough oomph to make it over the line. Absent that, I think he falls a tad short.
Jacob DeGrom – He just got started too late. Great pitcher, but with only six seasons under his belt at age 31–and the shortened 2020 season–his only chance is to find a way to dominate into his late 30s, which is a tall order for most players.
Anthony Rizzo – See: Freddie Freeman.
Stephen Strasburg – Exactly the same lifetime WAR as Rizzo, but a year older. Hyped as the next Nolan Ryan, he is going to fall short of the Hall unless his 2019 season (along with the playoffs) represented Strasburg really getting it all together, in which case yeah, I’m saying there’s a chance.
Bryce Harper – When you make the cover of SI at age 16, the expectations are off the charts. He’s put in 8 major league seasons, and he’s only 26. And he’s got an MVP award as well. Still, is the career Bryce Harper is putting together the career you expected him to? Not me. Even yet, though, if you pinned me down, I think he’ll do enough–barring injuries, a big “if”–to make it to Cooperstown.
Anthony Rendon – He’s really playing great baseball now, and if he keeps this up in his new Anaheim digs, Rendon could hear his name called. Still got a lot of work to do, but the trend lines are all heading up.
I Just Really Don’t Know:
Yadier Molina – The Cardinals homer in me wants to say, “absolutely, Yadi belongs in the Hall”, but the numbers don’t really support that. If you look at all the players grouped around him in lifetime WAR, he’s in the company of the very good, but not the great; hardly any of these folks (people like Dave Concepcion, Andy Messersmith, Moises Alou, Dave Parker, and Albert Belle) made the Hall. He is just ahead of Ernie Lombardi, a Hall of Fame catcher. He’s not a bad hitter for a catcher, of course; he’s contributed offensively at points during his career. But of course his calling card is his glove and, particularly, that arm. He’s 36 years old, which is approaching ancient for a catcher, and he doesn’t hit enough to justify moving him to another position to prolong his career (plus, he still has the cannon). I’m honestly not certain he should be voted into Cooperstown, but my guess is that he will be, particularly if he can have a couple more reasonably good seasons.
On His Way to the Stars: (Two years minimum)
These guys are all off to great starts, putting up the type of numbers which suggest superstardom. I didn’t realize until I looked at the numbers that Alex Bregman belonged in this group, but he absolutely does; if there’s one player on this list I’m the least convinced about, it’s Aaron Judge. Soto is an absolute beast, and Acuna is right there with him.