Continuing the fifth anniversary of my “Predicting Future Hall of Famer” projects, we of course have the pitchers next. Here’s this year’s hitters article, if you need to get caught up first, though.
As a quick recap of how this works, I look at what the Hall median Wins Above Replacement is for starters at each age, look at how many total players had that much WAR at that same age (only for retired players who have had a chance to appear on the ballot, with pitchers still on the ballot factored out to account for their uncertain outcome), then take a percentage to figure out a rough numerical “chance” each active player has.
I’m interested especially in starting pitchers specifically, as relievers are their own sort of beast. The Hall has only inducted a handful of relievers, and the few they’ve inducted don’t adhere to a pattern quite as well as the starters, who correlate pretty strongly with career WAR. At every step of the way, I’ve filtered my numbers down to pitchers who started 10% of more of their games played; this seems low, but I wanted to factor in starters who were eased into the role via the bullpen, as some Hall of Famers were.
Additionally, I’ve filtered this just to Hall of Famers who debuted post-deadball era (1920 on). Starting pitching is a pretty constantly evolving role, and a lot of the earliest starters would really mess with our numbers; take, for instance, Old Hoss Radbourn, who debuted at 26, pitched for eleven seasons, including ones of over 13 and 19 WAR, and then retired. We simply aren’t going to have any pitchers today who have a career that looks like that, so it didn’t make much sense to me to include them. I’ve picked a hard cut-off for the sake of convenience.
And I’ll run through the standard disclaimers, which are even more relevant for the pitchers than for the hitters. This is solely based on precedent, which can be a fickle thing in Hall of Fame voting. This is especially true when you factor in that the players in each “not in the Hall of Fame” group still have a chance to reach Cooperstown in the future by way of the Veterans Committee, which is even less predictable than the standard BBWAA voting. And of course, this isn’t to determine who will wind up “deserving” of making the Hall of Fame, as plenty of deserving players get snubbed. On the flip side, this doesn’t mean any player has no chance, as half of the players in the Hall didn’t reach the median, by definition.
Okay then, onward to the modern starters with Hall hopes:
Age 20: 1.0 WAR Median, 15.38% inducted
Just under half of Hall starters had debuted and were starting regularly by age 20. The results, collectively, weren’t anything fantastic, but it’s worth noting how many started early. However, it’s also worth noting how many other pitchers who debuted that early didn’t make it to the Hall; unlike with hitters, the bust rate for young pitchers is much higher.
2016 marked not just the first time in three seasons a starter 20 or younger debuted, but also the first time a starter 19 or younger debuted since 2009*. Julio Urias of the Dodgers hit exactly this mark in 77 innings this season, meaning that, unless he slides back a lot this year, he’ll be appearing in next year’s edition as well.
*That someone will actually be mentioned later on in this article, in the Age 26 grouping.
Age 21: 2.3 WAR Median, 11.99% inducted
Of the 34 post-deadball starters in the Hall, 21 had debuted by the end of their age 21 season. They ranged from Bob Feller’s 29.2 WAR over 1100+ all the way down to Warren Spahn’s 15.2 innings of -0.6. Of course, the burnout rate is still pretty high at this age, even for the people leaps and bounds above the 2.3 mark. Just ask Dwight Gooden, or Frank Tanana, or Fernando Valenzeula, or any number of other young flamethrowers.
Only three starters this age pitched at all in 2016, and the one who fell just short of the mark will be out for the entirety of 2017. Cardinals’ top prospect Alex Reyes fell just 0.1 shy of the Hall median, but needs Tommy John surgery this year. There were also German Marquez (0.2) and fellow top prospect Lucas Giolito (-0.5), who didn’t come quite as close, but are both theoretically capable of making it for next year.
Age 22: 4.8 WAR Median, 17.57% inducted
There were more 22-year-old starters in 2016 than you can count on one hand, but only one was close to the 4.8 WAR median: Astros starter Lance McCullers. With 4.0 Wins so far, he could easily reach the age-23 mark if he stays healthy. And in any case, “only” being worth 4 Wins Above Replacement before the age of 23 isn’t anything to be ashamed of. You know who else was worth 4.0 WAR at the age of 22? Steve Carlton. He turned out to be pretty good. But also someone named Mark Lemongello. He was an Astro just like Lance, so does that make him more predictive?
Age 23: 7.0 WAR Median, 17.24% inducted
It’s interesting to note that the hitter median for this age is only 0.7 more, and yet, hitters of the median by age 23 make the Hall over twice as often (40.80% of the time) as pitchers. Also, all but five Hall of Fame starters had debuted by this age; the holdouts were Randy Johnson at age 24 (in 1988) and Phil Niekro (1964), Bob Lemon (1946), Carl Hubbell (1928), and Lefty Grove (1925) all at 25.
For active players, this is one of only two ages where we have two players currently above the median. Blue Jay Aaron Sanchez leads everyone with 7.9 WAR, while Met Noah Synergaard trails him by half a win in a similar amount of innings. And to think, they could have been teammates in Toronto if not for the R.A. Dickey trade.
First runner-up is reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Fullmer, who had a 4.9 WAR debut in 2016. Similarly, he could have been Syndergaard’s teammate with the Mets if not for the Yoenis Cespedes trade. And then, there’s Joe Ross, with 3.5 WAR. He also got to the Nationals by way of trade, but he never had a hypothetical opportunity to play with any of the other three, as he came over from San Diego.
Age 24: 9.75 WAR Median, 16.48% inducted
No active players this age have hit the median, but a pair of Cardinals lead the way. Carlos Martinez (9.3) has a chance to hit the 12.3 WAR he needs for next year; Michael Wacha (5.7) probably doesn’t. Plus, some trivia, this is the first year Bob Feller doesn’t lead all Hall of Famers, as Bert Blyleven sneaks by him, 37.4 to 37.3, with Feller leaving for World War II. This puts him 38.6 over Gaylord Perry, who’s bringing up the rear.
Age 25: 12.3 WAR Median, 18.28% inducted
Only Julio Teheran has cleared this bar, with 13.3 career Wins for him so far. However, note that next year represents a big step-up in the pace; after never even increasing by 3 WAR in any year, it suddenly jumps up by over 6. Teheran will have to improve on his career-best 2016 season if he hopes to continue treading water; the pace from here on is pretty unforgiving. Active players after Teheran on the list are Gerrit Cole and Shelby Miller.
Age 26: 18.4 WAR Median, 29.82% inducted
For the first time since all the way back with Julio Urias, we have a player who has a buffer. Madison Bumgarner, with 25.2 Wins Above Replacement, is set for 2017 and already working toward his 2018 goal. Not only that, but he’s the only pitcher of his age group even above 10 career WAR. Also, in addition to the jump in the median, note the jump of the odds for players of this age who make the median: after never even reaching 20%, it increases all the way to almost 30%.
Age 27: 22.8 WAR Median, 36.17% inducted
Chris Sale came awfully close to being set for the next two years. At 31.1 WAR, he’s just over a win and a half shy of where he’ll need to be at the start of the 2019 season. That’s still a pretty good place for a starter to be.
Sale’s former teammate Jose Quintana came within spitting distance of the median, finishing 2017 with 20.5 WAR. A good 2018 could bring him up to pace, although he’d need to have a career year to do it. But at least a realistic season could get him there; Stephen Strasburg (17.3) and Rick Porcello (16.3) are too far away for any reasonable expectation to assume they’ll wind up at the age 28 median next year.
Age 28: 27.05 WAR Median, 39.53% inducted
In the hitters article, I stopped to reflect upon the incredible numbers that Mike Trout has put up thus far and demonstrate how amazing he is in the great context of the game today and throughout history. I would now like to do the same for his pitching counterpart, Clayton Kershaw.
Since his debut way back in 2008, Clayton Kershaw has been worth 52.7 WAR. Only one pitcher active today, seven years his senior, has more. He has over triple the career WAR as the next closest pitcher his age. Only four Hall of Famers (Blyleven, Hal Newhouser, Feller, and Robin Roberts) had more Wins Above Replacement by age 28, with Pedro Martinez just behind him. Only one pitcher* has ever been more valuable through age 28 and not made it to Cooperstown: Roger Clemens (who’s still on the ballot, and looks to be in a good spot for getting elected in the near future). Kershaw, as is, is set until his age 33 season in 2021, so he has more than enough of a buffer to stay above the pace he needs. Plus, with 3 Cy Young Awards, he’s tied for fifth all-time, and he has a decent chance to move up from sixth in Cy Young shares (3.96) in the near future.
*Technically, if we count pitchers’ batting value, it’s two, but Wes Ferrell only passes Kershaw because of an incredible 10.7 WAR as a hitter.
Age 29: 32.7 WAR Median, 44.73% inducted
Yu Darvish leads this age group, but due to a late start and some injuries, he has a mere 15.4 career WAR.
Age 30: 37.55 WAR Median, 56.67% inducted
Felix Hernandez leads the way here, with 51.4 WAR, although it comes following a down season in which The King was worth only 1.6 Wins. Is this a short-term blip, or a sign of things to come? And while his total value is similar to Kershaw’s, his case does seem more assailable. Sure, everyone with more WAR by his age was inducted, but he’s also only 1.0 above Bret Saberhagen, who is decidedly not in the Hall of Fame. Sure, Hernandez is in a good position, but he’s also not a given should his 2016 indicate a larger, early downward trend.
David Price and Johnny Cueto are also 30, although neither makes the Hall of Fame median. Price has 32.2 WAR to date, while Cueto has 31.4. They don’t really have much of a chance of making the next few cutoffs, but if they age gracefully and pitch into their late 30s and early 40s, it could happen eventually. Plenty of pitchers have done it before. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on any specific pitcher to do it, but it does happen, and more frequently to pitchers who were at least good in their prime. If either winds up in the Hall, it’ll be likely be in part because they pulled that off.
Age 31: 41.2 WAR Median, 56.67% inducted
It feels like Max Scherzer should be further behind than he is. He didn’t debut until he was 23, he didn’t have a good season until he was 25, and he wasn’t regularly great until he was 27. But part of the secret is that, while he was never good, he also didn’t hurt himself too much, which let him catch up with his recent spate of amazing seasons (including two Cy Young Awards). Now, sitting at 37.3 WAR, he could conceivably tie the age-32 median. At the very least, it wouldn’t take a season too out-of-line with his last four.
Runner-up to Scherzer is Matt Cain. Once upon a time, when I started this series, he was not only above the mark, he was prepared for several years, coming off his third All-Star season at the age of 27. In the four seasons since then, he’s started in over 70 games and posted a 4.64 ERA, good for a 79 ERA+ (compared to 3.27/124 in his first 235 starts). I have no idea what happened here, but it’s sad to see all the same.
Age 32: 44.7 WAR Median, 60.71% inducted
This is that second year with multiple pitchers about the Hall’s WAR median that I mentioned way back in the age 23 section. Zack Greinke had a disappointing first season in Arizona, but it wasn’t all bad, and he’s only a year removed from his fantastic 2015 season that earned him a ridiculously large contract. With 50.9 WAR, he’s not too far from what he needs to reach for next year. Also, strange fact about all that WAR: nearly two-fifths of Greinke’s value comes from just two seasons, 2009 and 2015.*
Then, we’ve got Cole Hamels, with 49.8 WAR. Hamels has been remarkably consistent over his career, with his last seven seasons and nine of his eleven being worth 4 or more WAR. It’s like the exact opposite of Greinke’s sporadic dominance. And after that, in the near-misses category, there’s Jon Lester. With 41.0 WAR so far, he looks like another pitcher who will have to work for the better part of the next decade to claw his way towards induction. However, it’ll be interesting to see how any narrative around his case breaks out. With three World Series titles and a heartwarming story of overcoming cancer, there’s a good chance that he just needs to get his final numbers close to medians the final push from voters
*It’s worth noting that Fangraph’s version of pitchers WAR has Greinke with almost the same career value, but spread out much more evenly amongst the years.
Age 33: 51.25 WAR Median, 85.00% inducted
For the first time since age 22, the pitcher Hall of Fame median is ahead of hitters, 51.25 to 51.2. Pitching has a higher median at age 20, ties hitting at 21, regains its lead at 22, then precedes to trail the entire rest of the way until now. From this moment on, they will remain in the lead, while seeing sharper increases in year-to-year WAR needed than the hitters see along the way in the process. But a little more on all of that in the follow up…
Once again, we’re back to no pitchers making the pace, but there is some good news here. Three years ago, Verlander was still on the Hall of Fame pace. However, lackluster 2014 and 2015 seasons threw him off and made it seem like he wouldn’t have much of a chance to come back. Thankfully, he put aside all of that doubt in 2016, with a return to his peak performance that saw him finish as runner-up in Cy Young voting (and maybe should have even won him his second one). At 50.5 WAR, a good 2017 can officially put him back on pace, four years after he fell behind.
Age 34: 54.5 WAR Median, 94.44% inducted
No one makes it, and no one is even particularly close. Adam Wainwright leads the way, but he only has 34.4 WAR. Despite have four Top-3 finishes in Cy Young voting, he started late and has missed basically two entire seasons for surgery. He wouldn’t be the worst Hall of Famer by WAR at this point if he were elected, with three trailing him and a fourth just barely ahead. But on the other hand, one of those four pitchers was Phil Niekro, who pitched until he was 48, and another was Early Wynn, who made six straight All-Star Games starting at the age of 35 and won his only Cy Young Award at the age of 39, and those just aren’t the types of careers you expect. Meanwhile, there have been about 60 players just as good in their careers through age 34 who aren’t yet inducted, so it seems much safer to bet on that.
Age 35: 59.3 WAR Median, 100% inducted
Much like age 33, there’s one player who used to be ahead of the pace who has since slipped, but now stands a good chance of re-reaching those heights. CC Sabathia leads all active pitchers in Wins Above Replacement, sitting at 57.9. Believe it or not, last year was his only the first time since I’ve been doing this that he didn’t make it over the cutoff, despite the fact that he had three dismal seasons in a row there (from 2013 to 2015, he was worth 0.7 WAR). He just had that big of a lead built up from his young start and amazing first dozen years. Last year, he bounced back to an above-average 3.0 Wins, meaning that, if he can repeat it, he’s back on pace. Even if he doesn’t quite get the full 3.0 WAR, the gap between ages 36 and 37 is only 0.6, so he has a chance to pull it off the following year. I’m pulling for him; it’s a great story.
Age 36: 60.65 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Age 37: 61.25 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Age 38: 62.05 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Age 39: 63.55 WAR Median, 85.00% inducted
Age 40: 66.35 WAR Median, 85.00% inducted
Age 41: 67.4 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
Overall: 67.95 WAR Median, 89.47% inducted
These are listed more for the sake of completion. The list of active pitchers 36 and over with even half of a Hall of Fame case is pretty sparse at this point. Bartolo Colon has 49.5 WAR, but he’s starting his age 44 season. John Lackey is younger, at 37, but only has that much WAR (36.9 actually, but it was too much of a coincidence for me to not mention it). The only other “active” player with more than 30 career WAR is Freddy Garcia, who only fits in the loosest sense; he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013, and has spent the last three years appearing in AAA and the Mexican League. But hey, at least he helped Monterrey come a win shy of making the finals last year, so he has that going for him.
Given the high rate of induction for players over the median, it might be interesting to look at who all didn’t make the Hall at this point. You’ve got Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, and Curt Schilling obviously, but they weren’t counted, as they’re all still on the ballot (and looking like better chances to make Cooperstown eventually). So it comes down to just two players: Kevin Brown (68.5 WAR) and Rick Reuschel (68.2). Both just cleared the bar by under a win, and had other factors working against them that made them undervalued (Brown bounced around a lot and had steroid whispers, Reuschel was hurt by bad defense and bad teams). It seems the moral of this story is if you’re going to be underrated, you’d better make up for it by being way, way above the Hall median. And near misses like Luis Tiant (66.1 WAR), Tommy John (62.1), and David Cone (61.7) stood no chance. This is it’s own problem, though; I’ll dig further into it next time.