To help ease ourselves through the homestretch of this incredibly mild Hot Stove Season, I’m going to return to the ongoing subplot of the Hall of Fame and current Astros who might one day make it. A few weeks ago, I covered Justin Verlander’s case. I think Justin has already sewed things up, although it might take one or more seasons to pad his numbers and sway the more obstinate voters. Still, most people seemed to agree with my assessment that Verlander is already Cooperstown-worthy.
That’s something that had always bugged me a little bit, though; for the most part, people only start referring to active players as potential Hall of Famers when they more or less have the type of numbers that would guarantee them induction even if they retired right at that moment. I sort of understand that, since a player could always get injured or see their performance fall off sharply.
But at the same time, that’s sort of an understood risk of talking about any player, regardless of how close they are to the Hall borderline, and there are plenty of ways to talk about players as being on a Hall of Fame pace without also saying that they’ve already locked up their plaque. Additionally, sure, any player could see their career derailed by injuries or a random fall-off in skill or something, but unless they have a long injury history or something, it’s probably fair to just leave that as a sort of assumed background risk for any given player.
Also, it’s worth noting that, while those cases do exist, they’re a lot less common than you’re probably thinking, at least on the position player side of things. A few years ago, I started a project to look at the chances of younger players to one day make it to Cooperstown. I wanted it to be something rather straightforward yet relatively comprehensive, and easy to demonstrate, so I used WAR. To pick a cutoff for the most promising young players, rather than deciding on some arbitrary round number, I decided to look at what the median career WAR was for Hall of Fame position players across every year of their careers. So, for example, of the 153 Hall of Fame batters who have played in the major leagues by the age of 25, the median eventual-Hall of Famer already has 16.1 WAR.
Then, I looked at how many players in history had 16.1 WAR or more through their age-25 season, while factoring out players who are still on the ballot or haven’t been retired for five years since we don’t know their ultimate fate. The last question then becomes: how many of the remaining total went on to the Hall of Fame?
It doesn’t seem like it should be that high; after all, the median position player elected to Cooperstown has 63 WAR, so even this elite subset of players will mostly be around 40 WAR short or more. And yet, even by 25, we see that, historically, just shy of half of these players (49.68%) have wound up getting elected to the Hall of Fame.
That might feel way too overconfident, but it makes a degree of sense once you think about it more. If you look at any list of, say, “Best Age 24 Seasons by WAR” to see how Alex Bregman’s 6.9-Win 2019 stacks up, the list is already mostly Hall of Famers. There have been 74 age-24 seasons of 6 WAR or more from players who have been eligible for the Hall of Fame, and 45 of those 74 are in the Hall right now. Changing to cumulative WAR rather than one season just ends up removing the occasional one-season wonder, like Mike Greenwell or Billy Grabarkewitz. Really good players will have really good seasons, and Hall of Famers will of course have multiple really good seasons. It’s still not a guarantee or anything, but it’s a solid starting point.
And in case you needed any more evidence that the Astros are a strong team at this point, this method confirms the Astros are have a truly historic core to their lineup. Jose Altuve is of course the most notable, with 35.1 WAR through his age-28 season. That puts him solidly above the 31.6 median for Hall of Famers at his age, and within easy striking distance of next year’s mark. Just under two-third (65.57%) of players who have reached the age-28 median have gone on to Cooperstown.
Of course, this backs up what we’d expect by most other methods too. He’s already halfway to 70 Wins Above Replacement (which is sometimes seen as first-ballot territory), he’s going to get his 1500th hit this year with even merely adequate health, and most Hall-specific stats like JAWS or Black Ink put him well on his way to election. This isn’t even the first article here to touch on that point this offseason!
But Altuve isn’t the only Astros infielder who’s on a historic pace; Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman both are as well. Bregman just passed the median this season, thanks to that aforementioned 6.9 WAR that landed him a top-five finish in MVP voting. That landed him at 12.7 for his career, just over the 11.1 line for 24-year-olds. He’s going to have to stay healthy to remain above the age-25 cut-off, but he only needs 3.4 to make it. Even a disappointing follow-up could be more than enough to hit that; a full-on repeat could set him up through 2020. 24-year-old players who match that 11.1 mark have historically been elected 43.5% to Cooperstown of the time.
Carlos Correa is even better positioned than Bregman, despite his weaker 2018, thanks to an earlier debut and a strong first three seasons. He’s six months younger than Bregman as well, which makes this his age-24 season (the cutoff for determining player ages is June 30th) and means that he’s already achieved this year’s benchmark. With 18.3 WAR to his name thus far, Correa has room to work with for now, although the median pace picks up fast in the late 20s, so it would be better to pad that lead now.
Like I said, this isn’t everything; strong early seasons can still fade away thanks to injury. Troy Tulowitzki, for instance, stayed above the median for years thanks to an early head start, and only fell below the mark two years ago. It can also give too much credit to players who debut early without ever really peaking. Elvis Andrus, for example, rode a solid debut at age 20 all the way to his age 26 season before his lack of MVP-caliber seasons caught up with him and dropped him below the median mark.
But again, cases like that have been less common than you might think, and many of them tend to fall behind over the years as injuries take away their playing time, or the Hall of Fame pace picks up. Most players who can play at a Hall of Fame pace at or through their peak continue at that pace.
And of course, this clearly isn’t a death sentence to the Hall dreams of any player who doesn’t reach the mark; after all, half of the players in the Hall obviously fell below the Hall median. A sustained run of good seasons come at any age, and sometimes even pull a player back over the median pace after a slow or late start. Joey Votto, for instance, only managed that for the first time last year.
That’s good news for George Springer, who like Votto debuted at 24, and has 18.7 WAR to date. Also inspiring for Springer’s chances has to be this year’s inductees: Edgar Martinez stood at 12.3 WAR at this age, coming off just his second full season, while Harold Baines was at 18.2 WAR in nearly 500 more games. Anything can happen, and Springer certainly has a high enough ceiling that it isn’t totally out of the question, although his chances are obviously a lot lower than the other trio’s odds.
But even leaving aside Springer’s outside chances, there’s a decent chance the 2019 Astros lineup will be fielding two or three future members of Cooperstown even barring something like a surprise signing of Bryce Harper. It’s easy to forget, given the number of injuries that slowed production in 2018. But a healthy 2019 could see some historic results from this bunch, and you might be able, twenty or thirty years down the line, to brag about getting to see a lineup full of Hall of Famers every night.