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Is Justin Verlander Already a Hall of Famer?

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Is the Astros’ ace already a lock for Cooperstown?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

We’re undoubtedly in a slow part of the offseason, between the lull in major signings and two weeks until the Hall of Fame announces its Class of 2019. So I wanted to use the latter as a springboard for one of my favorite topics, the future of the Hall of Fame and which current players it will induct.

For several years now, I’ve been taking an annual look at which active players have the best chance at making it to Cooperstown. In my opinion, no one on the Astros’ roster has as good of a chance right now as Justin Verlander. He’s certainly come a long way from his Rookie of the Year campaign thirteen years ago, but is he already Hall-worthy? If not, how much more does he have to go? And if he is already worthy, what are the chances he gets inducted by the writers (something that has clearly become a separate question over the past few years)?

The Basics

Let’s just start with at the highest level; win totals and Cy Young Awards still seem to matter a lot to Hall voters. Over the past three decades, every starter the BBWAA has inducted without substantial time as a closer has had either 300 wins or 3 Cy Young Awards except for two, 1991 inductee Fergie Jenkins (who won 284 games) and 2011 inductee Bert Blyleven (who won 287 games and had a rather notable campaign behind his candidacy). Verlander has 204 wins right now; 300 is probably out of the question right now, and even 280 looks far off. He also has just a single Cy Young Award somehow, although maybe voters will be more sympathetic to his three second-place finishes (especially since he had a serious argument for winning all of them).

Of course, that “300 Wins/3 Cy Young” factoid doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The Veterans Committee, through all of its iterations, has also inducted a few starters in that time, including Jack Morris and Jim Bunning. “Substantial closing experience” has to cover for both Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz, and while I think their time closing expedited their cases, I don’t think either would have been totally locked out if they had stayed decent starters. Given that we’re dealing with a rather small number of cases in the first place, those exceptions shift percentages quite a bit!

Still, even with those “near-misses”, the BBWAA can be finicky about who gets those exemptions. For instance, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, and (so far) Mike Mussina haven’t gotten the nod despite being close to 300 wins, and while three-time Cy Young winners like Pedro Martinez and Jim Palmer sailed in on the first ballot, two-time Cy Young Winners Bret Saberhagen and Johan Santana fell off entirely after their first ballots.

But there is reason to think the writers are changing in this regard. The recent clean-up of voters years out of baseball coverage, combined with the addition of more advanced writers from places like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, seems to have had a positive impact on the electorate. And moreover: two-time Cy Young winner Roy Halladay looks like a lock to get in on his first try this year, Mike Mussina has a good chance to join him, and Curt Schilling seems poised to join them next year, all based on early returns. That would be three new players who don’t fit either of those two criteria I listed. So Verlander may not be totally out of luck even if he falls short.

The More Advanced Stuff

Even if not every voter has been paying attention beyond wins, we have years of people developing other standards to look at for Hall merit. 3000 strikeouts has been somewhat adopted as a second milestone for pitchers. While it’s not the automatic induction that 300 wins is, it still appears to have some value. Verlander looks poised to become the eighteenth member of the club sometime in early 2020 (CC Sabathia will almost certainly beat him to it). And at 2706 Ks, if he can somehow improve on his career high last year, he might even reach it this year.

Moving up a little from that in complexity, we have a variety of scales devised by Bill James for his 1994 book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?. These were designed to cover a variety of Hall-related questions, which I’ll try and briefly summarize here, but if any of them sound interesting, I would definitely recommend checking out the book yourself.

The first are the Black and Gray Ink tests. These refer to leaderboard appearances (black indicating the bold print that indicates a league leader, and gray expanding the circle to include top-ten finishes), which are good for seeing how a player performed in relation to his peers. Baseball-Reference has a summary for which stats are included here. Verlander basically laps the current competition, leading all not-yet-eligible pitchers in Gray Ink with 197 and finishing behind only Clayton Kershaw in Black Ink with 56. Both figures surpass the average Hall of Fame starter.

Then there’s the Hall of Fame Monitor. This one is more of a system to compare what stats and totals voters have looked at in the past when voting in players, rather than explicitly comparing them against their peers like Black Ink. Again, the exact description can be found here, but the long story short is, Verlander again measures up well. He has a 148 in the Monitor scale, 18 points above what’s usually considered a Cooperstown lock. I think these three give good insight into the “narrative” the voters will have when voting on players, which is important in voting. Going just by stats, for example, it’s difficult to draw the conclusion that, say, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling aren’t first ballot selections while John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Roy Halladay are, but those three all come out similar or better using these tests, which might explain why the voters view them as far-and-away better pitchers.

Then, if you’re interested in looking at career value, there’s the wide variety of stats for that to choose from. If you just care about career counting totals, Verlander grades out by WAR pretty well. Baseball-Reference’s version rates JV as the best active pitcher, with 63.8 WAR putting him 44th all-time and well into Hall territory. Sure, not everyone near that total made it, but more of them are in than out. Fangraphs’ 63.6 WAR actually rates him even better historically, at 40th all-time (although it has CC Sabathia ahead of him among active players). I’d be a little more cautious when using that version, as the FIP-based version of WAR probably doesn’t line up as well with the average writer’s assessment of a player as Baseball-Reference’s runs allowed-based version does, but Verlander seems fine either way.

And if you’re the type that likes to see longevity AND dominance, there are stats like JAWS and Hall Rating. Both are mathematical attempts to build Hall-standards based on Wins Above Replacement, although they go about it in different ways. JAWS averages a player’s seven best years and career value to get a rating, then compares it against the average Hall of Famer at that player’s position. Verlander actually comes out a little wanting in this comparison, with his JAWS rating of 54.8 putting him 58th all-time. That’s not awful, considering there are 63 starters used in the ranking, but also not as overwhelming as other standards we’ve looked at.

But there are some caveats here. First, Verlander is in a tight clump and could easily jump up the list. A 6.0-WAR 2019 (doable, coming on the heels of 6.5 in 2017 and 6.2 last year) would move him all the way up into a tie for 36th all-time. Moreover, though, I have a few problems with JAWS when it comes to starters; because it uses B-R’s version of WAR, which highly values innings, it skews a little heavily to early pitchers who racked up high inning totals. I understand Jay Jaffe’s decision to not try and re-weight things, since that requires a whole bunch of judgment calls and he wants a straightforward recounting of what voters have elected, but I think it’s also fair to note that this system has a full third of the top 36 pitchers all-time debuting in the 1800s. A system like that does seem a little skewed against JV.

The Hall of Stats, another metric that tries to account for both career and peak value, does see creator Adam Darowski trying to weight stats to some extent to account for era, and the result is a system that has a much more well-mixed leaderboard across eras. Going by his system, Verlander is already qualified for the Hall of Stats, with a 126 Hall Rating indicating that he’s 26% better than the Hall of Stats’ borderline player (which, since it’s explicitly built around WAR, is slightly better than the real Hall of Fame’s statistical borderline). That ties him with Jim Palmer and Ted Lyons at 42nd all-time, and means he could even break into the top 30 all-time with a strong season.

The Conclusion

To be totally honest, I entered this piece thinking that Verlander already deserved to be a Hall of Famer based on his standing against the rest of his era, but thinking that he might need to put up one or two more good seasons to avoid a multi-year stay in ballot purgatory. Voting on pitchers has been a little unpredictable as of late, after all, and Verlander fell a little short on the two major yardsticks traditionally used to evaluate starters as candidates (albeit through no fault of his own).

But after looking into it more deeply? I think he might already have things locked down, actually. His candidacy looks at least somewhat like John Smoltz and Roy Halladay, both of whom did/are doing well their first go-around, and his performance on in the Hall Monitor and Blank Ink tests is a lot higher than you might expect from someone who is still a ways off from either of those two milestones. It doesn’t seem like too unreasonable that voters who care about “narrative” in determining who to vote for already think of him as The Ace of his era, and that’s been the main factor in getting that type of voter on board (and this isn’t even accounting for the evolving of the voting body; I think more statistically-advanced writers will break for him, no problem). Based on that, I’d say that Justin Verlander is already Cooperstown-worthy, and anything from here on out is just icing on the cake.

Poll

Is Justin Verlander already Hall-worthy?

This poll is closed

  • 77%
    Yes
    (279 votes)
  • 21%
    Needs one or two more good years
    (79 votes)
  • 0%
    No
    (3 votes)
361 votes total Vote Now