Way back in the day, in one of his writings, Bill James tried to figure out which player did the most to help his Hall of Fame candidacy during the season. Who did something that might prove to be the tipping point in a successful Hall campaign?
It remains valid to query who did the most to improve their chances at Cooperstown, so let’s ask it about baseball people in 2012.
For this analysis, a player who entered the year as a consensus pick for the Hall, someone like Derek Jeter, can’t make the list. If he began the year as a lock, then by definition he couldn’t have done much to improve his candidacy. Frankly, for almost all players that make Cooperstown, there is rarely one season you can point to that got them in, Hack Wilson and Jack Chesbro notwithstanding. It’s a cumulative effort, but some seasons increase a person’s odds more than others do.
Making this list, of course, doesn’t guarantee that a player will make Cooperstown. In some cases, it’s just about putting yourself in position to put yourself in position. After all, when the list goes 10 people long, you’re going to get a bit iffier at the bottom end.
So who did the most to help themselves?
This one is pretty obvious, right? I mean, Cabrera won a Triple Crown, something no one had done in either league in 45 years. And he won the MVP, which doesn’t hurt. Remember when some people figured he was a bad bet to age well based on how he drinks booze and gains weight? Well, even if he does age poorly after this point, he’s damn near a lock to go into Cooperstown.
But that isn’t the biggest reason Cabrera comes in No. 1. Instead, his main advantage is something much more formulaic. The 2012 campaign was Cabrera’s 10th season in the big leagues, and the Hall of Fame says a player must last 10 seasons to be eligible for induction.
Even before this season, Cabrera had won a batting title and an RBI crown and topped the league in homers—just not all in the same year. He was always a great hitter, a great slugger and a perennial All-Star. One more year like that just cinched up his case. Oh, he won a Triple Crown in the process? That’s just gravy. He’d be a shoo-in even if 2012 had been just another Miguel Cabrera season.
2. (tie) Bryce Harper and Mike Trout
No, they don’t have the 10 years under their belts yet, but the rookie wonders of the world showed the other vital thing needed for Hall of Fame induction, Hall of Fame talent. Boy, do they have it, and not just a little bit. They have it in bushels.
These two weren’t merely good; they were historically great at exceptionally young ages. Their performances are up there with the 1951 twosome of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle as a great one-two rookie class punch.
One (or both) could still blow Cooperstown, but he’d either need to have a suddenly shortened career or turn into a massive underachiever. Even if they fail to fully live up to the promise shown in 2012, Harper and Trout still have great chances at induction. Al Kaline was a rookie wonder who won a batting title with a .340 average at age 20 and then never came close to that level again. Though he never lived up to that initial promise, he got 3,000 hits and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Harper and Trout have shown they have the historical talent needed. Now they need to avoid being historic flame-outs and stay healthy.
3. David Wright
He came up years ago and quickly established himself as a fantastic all-around talent. In his first full season in 2005, Wright hit 27 homers while batting .306 with 17 stolen bases and over 70 walks while playing third base. He looked like a possible Hall of Famer, and over the next several years lived up to the billing.
Then in 2010, in what should’ve been the beginning of his prime at age 27, he slipped a bit, dropping 20 points from his career batting average. Well, it’s just one year, and batting average can vary from year to year. Then in 2011, it dropped nearly 30 points while Wright hit just 14 homers in a little over 100 games. Was Wright one of those players who peaked early and fizzled in what should’ve been his prime?
Well, maybe not. Last year he hit .306 with 81 walks and “only” 21 homers, but with 41 doubles. Wright still has oodles of talent, and as long as he plays decently into his 30s, Wright should put the qualms from 2010-11 to rest.
4. Buster Posey
In 2010, Posey won the Rookie of the Year Award. In 2011, he missed most of the season due to injury. How would he do upon returning? Well, pretty good, apparently. Posey won the National League batting title, and MVP and helped the Giants win their second world title in three years. He’s got the talent, and he survived an injury. Still just 25 years old, Posey’s prime should still be in the future.
He still has quite a ways to go until he’s a guarantee for Cooperstown, but then again, the guaranteed guys aren’t the ones who make lists like this.
5. Jose Reyes
Like Cabrera, Reyes enjoyed his 10th big league season in 2012, and thus he now qualifies for the ballot. He isn’t as strong a candidate as Cabrera, but then again, not many guys are.
What has Reyes done in 10 years? Well, let’s start with stuff he’s led the league in: batting average once, hits once, at-bats twice, stolen bases thrice, and triples four times. Not bad. And all that done while playing shortstop, the most important defensive position on the field.
I’m strongly tempted to rank him higher, but a few factors drive Reyes down a bit. First, it wasn’t that great a year (by his standards, anyway), batting .287 with an OPS+ of 111. Also, while he’s played 10 years, he’s been on just four All-Star teams. As great as Reyes has been, he needs more than 10 years to get into Cooperstown.
Still, he won’t turn 30 until next June, and he’s already almost halfway to 3,000 hits.
There aren’t many pitchers on this list, are there? In fact, Verlander is the only one. It’s harder for a pitcher to make it because of the greater chance for injury, so no pitcher as young as Posey would make this list. No clearly deserving hurler made it to 10 seasons in 2012. The most prominent older candidates didn’t do too much to really ensure themselves a Cooperstown plaque, either.
Verlander? He’s merely the best pitcher in baseball. Again. It was his fourth straight terrific season and sixth outstanding season out of the last seven. Injuries still can happen, but Verlander is in good shape right now, and 2012 just made his case that much stronger.
As for other pitching candidates, R.A. Dickey is a great story, but at age 37 is a little too old and has too few career accomplishments, even for a knuckleballer. Jake Peavy enjoyed a great comeback campaign, but he still needs to do quite a bit more. And someone with his injury history is always a concern.
7.(tie) Jim Leyland and Bruce Bochy
What’s this, a pair of managers? Sure, why not? They can enter Cooperstown, too, and both helped their Cooperstown credentials this year.
Bochy’s Giants, of course, won the World Series, their second in three seasons. Bochy has been managing non-stop for 18 straight seasons but has been overlooked for much of that time, spending most of it with undermanned San Diego squads. But winning two titles in three years is an excellent way to get attention. As it stands right now, Bochy won’t go into Cooperstown, but two titles puts him in position to possibly do it. If the Giants can continue their recent run, Bochy has a shot.
Oh, and this year’s 94-68 Giants team gave Bochy an overall career winning record: 1,454-1,444. Now, a winning percentage barely over .500 won’t get him into Cooperstown, but a winning percentage under .500 would pretty much guarantee he wouldn’t, and he’s gotten rid of that guarantee.
Bochy is only 57 years old. He could last another decade or longer. He’s just 546 wins from 2,000, and everyone at 2,000 is either in Cooperstown or will be soon. Add that to a pair of World Series rings, and his case keeps looking stronger. But that’s getting ahead of things. For this year, Bochy has done as much as he can to advance his Cooperstown case, something no one really talked about with Bochy just a few years ago.
Bochy’s Giants beat Leyland’s Tigers in the World Series. If Detroit had won it, I’d put Leyland in the top five of this list and leave Bochy off altogether. Leyland always has been the much bigger name and more well-regarded manager. He’s managed four teams, winning a World Series with one (the Marlins), winning a pair of pennants with a second team (the Tigers), and taking three division crowns with a third (the Pirates). Only the Rockies, who Leyland managed for just one year, failed to advance to the postseason with Leyland.
This is like the Harper-Trout-Posey selections, just not as strong a case. McCutchen isn’t as young as the Harper-Trout duo, and he wasn’t the MVP like Posey. No, but a guy who is supposed to be a terrific young talent had his breakout campaign at the still-tender age of 25.
McCutchen led the NL in hits en route to a .327 average along with 31 homers, 20 steals and 70 walks, all while patrolling an up-the-middle defensive position in center field. That’s a nice bit of well-rounded talent. If he maintains this performance, McCutchen will have a Hall of Fame-worthy prime, and then if he ages well, he’ll have an excellent shot at a plaque.
9. Billy Beane
It was a mighty nice year for Mr. Beane. He’d already made a nice reputation for himself as a GM during the A’s initial Moneyball days in the late 1990s and early 2000s. With his early embrace of sabermetrics, Beane had a great run early. Since then, the game has caught up with him, and the A’s have treaded water.
Going purely on accomplishments, Beane’s fellow Bay Area GM Brian Sabean has a better case for Cooperstown and did more this year to earn a possible plaque as his Giants won their second world title in three years. True, but popular reputation means a great deal, and Beane has been in the forefront of the public consciousness for a long time; Sabean is more in the background.
If the 2012 A’s, with all their young pitchers, turn into the start of a new run for Oakland—and if they win some postseason hardware during that time—Beane has an excellent shot to make Cooperstown. He’ll be a GM who won despite significant financial limitations and transformed the game in the process.
10. Adrian Beltre
Every generation has some players who make Cooperstown as everyone expected—Mickey Mantles and Ted Williamses.
Then there are the other guys, the ones no one expects to make it. These are the really good players who stay really good for longer than expected and end up posting some surprisingly fine career numbers.
Beltre hit .321 with 36 homers last year while winning a Gold Glove for his play at third base. After never making a single All-Star team in his 20s, 2012 was Beltre’s third straight time on the squad. He’ll turn 34 next April but already has 2,227 hits, 463 doubles, and 346 homers.