Last week, I decided to look forward at which active position players might be on a Hall of Fame pace, something that’s become an annual tradition of mine. This week, let’s take a look at the other half of the equation, pitchers. Surprisingly, the path to the Hall is really different for starting pitchers, despite the relatively similar endpoint of 60-70 Wins Above Replacement; we have a much better idea of which hitters in their 20s are on pace for the Hall.
But first, let’s recap the method. I first look at every player inducted (divided by position player or pitcher, as mentioned), then look at their spread of WAR (Baseball-Reference version) by age. Then, I pick the median, and from there, look at how many total players in history have matched or bettered that total at every age (excluding players who are still active, not yet eligible, or still on the ballot, since their fates are still up in the air). Then look at what percentage of that total group eventually went on to Cooperstown.
There are a few added twists I use in accounting for pitchers as well. First, I limit my study to just pitchers from the liveball era (1919 on). Pitching has changed a lot since baseball began in the 1800s, and at a certain point, pitching careers just did not resemble what they are today. Picking the liveball era is kind of arbitrary, and I suppose you could just as easily pick something like founding of the American League or whatever, but the end numbers aren’t going to move too drastically, so I just stick with that. Also, it’s worth noting that I try and separate out starting pitchers from relievers, since the two have wildly different standards for induction the latter’s are still developing.
With all of that out of the way, which active starters are pitching at a Cooperstown pace?
Age 20: 1.0 WAR Median; 14.81% of all players at this mark elected
There were only four pitchers age 20 or younger in the majors last year, including Elvis Luciano, the first major leaguer born in the 2000s; none of them reached even half a win.
Age 21: 2.1 WAR Median; 11.46% of all players at this mark elected
Mike Soroka (5.7 WAR)
The runner up for NL Rookie of the Year leapt past the 2.1 Win cutoff, setting him up through this year. Between Soroka, Ozzie Albies, and Ronald Acuña Jr., that gives Atlanta three players 23 or younger this year who have appeared on these two lists. No one else hit even 1.0 WAR, but the age 22 bar is realistic enough that a good season could get a young pitcher over it.
Age 22: 4.3 WAR Median; 15.91% of all players at this mark elected
Another empty age bracket, with no players within 2.0 Wins of the mark.
Age 23: 6.75 WAR Median; 17.20% of all players at this mark elected
Jack Flaherty (8.2 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Brad Keller (6.2 WAR)
Flaherty’s breakout 2019, where he led the NL in WHIP and finished fourth in Cy Young voting, was good enough that it almost got him to 6.75 WAR by itself. But he also had a solid 2018 on top of that, although those two combined still aren’t quite enough to get him to the age 24 boundary. On the other side of Missouri, Brad Keller fell just short of the 6.75 mark, with two above-average seasons rather than one above-average and one fantastic.
Age 24: 9.6WAR Median; 17.35% of all players at this mark elected
German Márquez (11.7 WAR)
Honorable Mentions: Shane Bieber (5.9 WAR), Lucas Giolito (5.4 WAR), Walker Buehler (5.3 WAR)
No other player this age or younger has anywhere close to Márquez’s 552.2 innings, which is a part of why he towers over everyone else so far. He hasn’t been bad, but he’s going to have to improve on his 2018 form if he wants to keep this up, rather than the regression he saw in 2019. Bieber and Giolito’s big 2019s look like good reasons to be encouraged for their cases, although they’re probably two seasons away even if they don’t fall back.
Age 25: 12.25 WAR Median; 17.65% of all players at this mark elected
Luis Severino (12.4 WAR)
Severino missed almost the entire season due to injuries, recording only 12 innings across three starts at the end of the year. But, he recorded just over half a win in that short time, just getting him over the 12.25 WAR he needed. Still, the odds for getting into the Hall at this point are still only just above 1 in 6; next year is where the odds begin to climb. And Severino’s injured 2019 means he’s going to need a big 2020 to stay ahead of the pace.
Age 26: 18.65 WAR Median; 30.00% of all players at this mark elected
Aaron Nola (20.3 WAR)
As mentioned, the odds of eventual induction for surpassing the pace nearly double at this age, to about 3 in 10. A big part of that is likely the increase of the median by nearly of six and a half wins in one year; that’s steeper than any one-season increase that position players face, and the second-biggest year for pitchers (with the largest coming up still). Anyone without a substantial lead built up already needs a breakout year. Aaron Nola’s 2019 might not have been as impressive as his 2018, when he finished third in Cy Young voting, but it definitely got him the buffer he needed to stay ahead of the game. In contrast, we have first runner-up Noah Syndergaard, who’s injured 2017 and disappointing 2019 left him at 14.1 WAR, well below the mark.
Age 27: 22.55 WAR Median; 33.33% of all players at this mark elected
We have a bit of a reprieve after the large leap that is age 26, but it still wasn’t enough to help anyone in this group. Carlos Martinez is the leader of this age group, but he’s still only at 14.3 WAR.
Age 28: 26.5 WAR Median; 35.85% of all players at this mark elected
Gerrit Cole was relatively close, but he’s still only at 23.4 even after his last two seasons. And with the median returning to increases of five or more WAR per year after this two-year slow down, Cole might need to have his best season yet to make it onto the 2021 list.
Age 29: 31.8 WAR Median; 41.30% of all players at this mark elected
Madison Bumgarner (32.5 WAR)
The new Diamondback has managed to stay just ahead of the curve, thanks to starting as a productive major leaguer at age 19, but there’s good reason to be skeptical that he’ll be on this list much longer. The relentless pace doesn’t slow down from here, yet Bumgarner hasn’t topped 3.1 WAR since 2016. It’s not hard to see him being one of the nearly three-fifths of players who make it to the median at this age but fall short. Of course, maybe he does that and still makes the Hall anyway by staying healthy long enough to build up big counting stat totals that wow the electorate when combined with his postseason resume. But that would be a very different route than just outperforming half of the Hall’s starting pitchers, so let’s just keep that possibility in our back pocket for a few years to see how applicable it may become.
Age 30: 37.0 WAR Median; 54.29% of all players at this mark elected
Chris Sale (45.4 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Stephen Strasburg (32.6 WAR)
Chris Sale has far and by far the biggest buffer of any pitcher we’ve seen so far, being set up through two more full seasons. And he has another interesting thing going for him: a few years ago, I looked at Hall of Fame pitchers and determined that late-career success (usually anything after age 33) was crucial in getting elected to Cooperstown. However, if a player was good enough in their early days, voters tended to support them as well, presumably viewing their peak seasons as strong enough to override career totals that may have been lower. That line was roughly “55ish WAR by the age of 33”, which is definitely a total Sale could muster in the next three seasons if he’s healthy.
Stephen Strasburg, in contrast, will probably need to stay productive into his mid-to-late-30s, and have at least a couple more seasons like 2019. But at least the line isn’t totally out of his reach yet. Unrelated to either of those two starters, it’s worth noting that this is our first age bracket where the percentage of players above the median who went on to the Hall is above 50%.
Age 31: 41.5 WAR Median; 55.88% of all players at this mark elected
Clayton Kershaw (65.4 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Jacob deGrom (32.7 WAR)
Clayton Kershaw still isn’t technically above the overall median for liveball starters; that’s 68.0 WAR, a full 5 Wins above the median for Hall position players. But even another season like 2019 gets him over the line. And as I mentioned with Sale, Kershaw is well into the territory of “high-peak young pitchers” that tends to garner instant induction. Of course, the trio of Cy Young Awards probably told you that, too.
Jacob deGrom makes for an interesting comparison to Kershaw; despite being the same age, he debuted a full six seasons after Kershaw. His Rookie of the Year campaign back in 2014 came at the relatively late age of 26. And despite that, he’s amassed exactly half of Kershaw’s career value in just six years; only a dozen active pitchers have him beat there, and only Kershaw and Sale are his age or younger. His back-to-back Cy Young campaigns are at least the makings of a strong case for the Hall based on peak, if not a good chance that he’ll make it to a normal career Hall of Fame WAR total.
Age 32: 45.4 WAR Median; 61.29% of all players at this mark elected
Lance Lynn leads his age bracket, but with just 23.1 WAR.
Age 33: 52.4 WAR Median; 86.36% of all players at this mark elected
Honorable Mentions: Numerous
No one here quite makes the cut, but there are a lot of interesting cases. Leading the way is Felix Hernandez, who, for the first time in his fifteen-season career, is not above the Hall median for his age. When Felix debuted in 2005, he was a 19-year-old who posted nearly 3 full wins in under 85 innings, starting him on a path to accumulating exactly 50.0 WAR by the end of his age 29 season. Since then, though, things have fallen apart to an extreme degree. His next two years, the 2016 and 2017 seasons, saw him add just over 2.0 WAR in total, and 2018 and 2019 saw him cost his team almost as much. Now, he’s no longer in Seattle, having accepted a Spring Training invite from the Braves, and hoping to reverse four years of aggressive decline. It would be great to see him turn it around, if only a little bit.
After him is new Dodger David Price, with 40.0 WAR. He has a while to go still, obviously, but like I said earlier, Hall of Fame starters cement their case around this age. He was pitching at an All-Star level just a year ago, so one or two more seasons like that plus a few other decent years could make his case interesting. It’s not unprecedented, and you could do worse than “40 WAR and a recent 4-WAR season”, although I wouldn’t call him likely or anything so much as one to keep an eye on.
I’ll throw a mention to Johnny Cueto (34.4 WAR), but only because I feel weird mentioning every player around him while skipping him entirely. 34-year-olds with less than 70 innings their previous two seasons probably aren’t the best bet to have late-career resurgences. Immediately after him is Corey Kluber, though. He still has a ways to go, with just 33.2 WAR coming off of an injury, but he also has the best recent track record of these four, with a third-place Cy Young finish in 2018 and a first-place finish the year before that. Like deGrom, Kluber was a late start, not making the majors until he was 25 and not breaking 100 innings until he was 27, but his run from 2014 to 2018 is the type of peak you’d like to see in a Hall of Fame case. Now, he just needs the other seasons to go with that, which might be a taller order for him at this point following multiple arm problems. Let’s see how he rebounds from injury this year, but I see more potential upside here than with any of the other three.
Age 34: 55.6 WAR Median; 95.00% of all players at this mark elected
Max Scherzer (58.7 WAR)
Scherzer’s the second player on this list that I would say has his case basically sewn up. Winning three Cy Young Awards (without steroid connections) seems like the type of thing that makes someone a first ballot lock, although I guess there’s a chance voters change their minds on that for whatever reason (I would have said that about 3000 hits prior to 2013, too, and we see how that turned out). Still, he probably has several more decent (at least) seasons in him, he’ll keep padding those career totals (expect him to be the next 3000 strikeout club member), and it’s getting harder and harder to see reasons to keep him out of Cooperstown.
Age 35: 60.0 WAR Median; 100% of all players at this mark elected
Zack Greinke (66.7 WAR)
Honorable Mention: Cole Hamels (58.7 WAR)
The first pitcher to top Kershaw’s WAR total is his old teammate and the Astros’ big trade pickup of 2019, Zack Greinke. Greinke still hasn’t passed the overall median for liveball starters (68.0 WAR), but he’s close enough that you should expect that sometime this season. And if that’s not enough to sway voters, he’s about two seasons away from 3,000 strikeouts, a much more notable milestone. I’m not sure if voters are as sold on his case yet as they are for Kershaw or Scherzer, but I would bet he wins over a few people on the fence in his final few years.
If he has a few more good years here, Cole Hamels might run into an even more extreme version of that problem. Greinke hasn’t had a multi-year run like some others, but he’s at least had some years like that (like 2010, or 2015). Hamels, though, has only received Cy Young votes in four seasons, and never finished above fifth. There’s no season that makes you look back and go, “Oh yeah, that was the year he just dominated the league”.
He makes up for it with a pretty remarkable, above-average consistency. In his fourteen years as a Major Leaguer, Hamels has never topped 6.6 WAR, but he’s also only fallen below 2.0 once: in 2009, when he was worth 1.9 Wins as a 25-year-old coming off 262.1 combined regular season and playoff innings (he also won both the NLCS and World Series MVP awards the year before, so it was even more excusable). And not only that, but there’s only been one other year where he failed to reach 3 Wins (2006, where he threw 132.1 innings as a 22-year-old Rookie). Meanwhile, he’s beaten the 4.0 WAR mark in nine of his fourteen years. Only twenty-two pitchers to debut in the liveball era have matched that, and the only ones to not make the Hall when they came up for induction have been Roger Clemens (steroids), Curt Schilling (getting in within the next two years), and Kevin Brown (steroids again). If Hamels were to retire right the second from injury or something, I doubt he’d get elected, but if he can add a couple more solid seasons, I’m curious to see what the convention wisdom on him will be.
Age 36: 60.7 WAR Median; 90.48% of all players at this mark elected
Justin Verlander (71.4 WAR)
The final player on our docket today is the reigning AL Cy Young and newest member of the 3,000 strikeout club, Justin Verlander. Honestly, I would say that he’s a lock, except I have no idea how the sign stealing scandal is going to play out, especially given that Verlander is a pitcher rather than a hitter. Maybe Hall voters decide to withhold votes like they do with steroid users, maybe they don’t, maybe they just decide to hold off for a year (as they did with Roberto Alomar). That’s all still a while away, though; right now, we know he has good enough numbers.
The induction rate holds pretty steady from this point on, although as mentioned, the median increases to around 68 Wins Above Replacement. Either way, with the retirement of CC Sabathia, there aren’t really any viable starters after this point (barring a surprisingly strong, extend, late-career run from Adam Wainwright, I guess)