Legends Among Us: American League Pitchers

What will the Hall of Fame of 2050 look like? That’s the question I started to answer in an article earlier this week. To briefly recap: based on historical data and a few reasonable assumptions, 50 to 60 active players probably will find themselves enshrined in Cooperstown eventually. On Wednesday I looked at the NL hurlers who may make it; today, I want to turn to pitchers in the junior circuit.

The Inner Circle

For the purposes of this article, I’m considering Roger Clemens an active American League player. When he starts pitching in the AL East in six weeks, I’m sure you’ll agree.

There are two absolute lock, first-ballot choices: Clemens and Mariano Rivera. Clemens may retire as the best pitcher in baseball history. Rivera’s case is more vulnerable, but that won’t stop the writers from giving him just as many votes. I would imagine that when Rivera gets in, the youngest generation of sabermetricians—the ones who had started paying close attention to baseball right about now—won’t quite understand, and they may well have a point. But no one combines the “winner” mystique and the “closer” mystique quite like he does. And even with those caveats, his stats ought to be enough.

Both Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are sure-fire Hall of Famers, as well. They might miss out on the first ballot, but they won’t last long. The best thing they have going for them is the diminishing expectations of durability. Neither will reach 300 wins, but both probably will cross the 250 mark. After Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine are out of baseball, there may be more 300-game winners, but they’ll be much more rare.

A 250-win career never will become the magical threshhold that 300 wins is—for instance, David Wells might make it to 250, but he doesn’t have a rotund snowman’s chance in hell of making it to Cooperstown—but it will confer a lot more respect upon the players who make it. Neither Mussina nor Schilling has the record of dominance that, say, Bob Gibson (251 wins) does, but either would stack up nicely against Carl Hubbell (253 wins).

Combine that semi-magic number with strong peaks and extensive postseason experience, and you’ve got a pair of automatic Hall of Famers. The only obstacle will be for Mussina: If he doesn’t make it by the third ballot or so, he could be dwarfed by the endless procession of Yankees on the ballot. That hasn’t stopped the writers from electing huge swathes of Yankee rosters (and Dodger rosters and Giant rosters) in the past, but you never know.

The Peak Performers

The four non-lock AL pitchers with the clearest paths to enshrinement right now are Andy Pettitte, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and C.C. Sabathia. As you’re no doubt already thinking, it’s a little awkward to put those four in one group, so let’s break it down a little further.

If Pettitte retires in the next two or three years, he doesn’t have a chance: He’s had the sort of middle-level success that Hall voters need you to sustain for a couple of decades. However, if he sticks around until he’s 40, making it to about 225 wins, perhaps with a couple memorable postseason performances along the way, he’ll find his face on a plaque.

I wrote in Wednesday’s column about the inherent problems in predicting enshrinement for 20-something pitchers, but if there’s ever a safe bet (there’s not, by the way), it’s Johan Santana. Apart from the difference in win totals, Santana’s last four years nearly put him in the company of Sandy Koufax. I would imagine it’s not necessary to list his qualities for this audience, but consider, in about four years’ worth of starts, he’s struck out more than a batter per inning, is tied for second-highest ERA+ among active players and should already have three Cy Young Awards. He’ll need to keep that up for a little while longer, but if his next four years look like the last four, he can quit early and still be a first-ballot electee.

Halladay and Sabathia each have a chance for very different reasons. When healthy, Halladay has been nearly as dominating as Santana; his problem is that he hasn’t always been healthy, and compared to many of the other players who have a chance, he got started late. Halladay probably won’t reach 100 wins before his 30th birthday in May, but if he puts up another six-year stretch like his 2001-06 (preferably without the injuries), he’ll have a very impressive peak.

Sabathia’s case rests less on dominance than on durability. CC is more than three years younger than Halladay and has only 13 fewer wins. While he has topped 200 innings only once, he’s made 28+ starts and thrown 180+ innings every year since he was 20 (!), and had his best season yet in 2006. He doesn’t quite dominate the way Carlos Zambrano does, but if I had to pick any 25-30 year old to reach 300 wins, it’d be him. By the time he retires, that would be an impressive feat indeed.

The Wild Cards

Unlike in the National League, there isn’t one mid-career pitcher I can imagine putting things together and turning into a Hall of Famer. Perhaps Halladay belongs in this group; his chances are certainly lower than that of the other three pitchers I put in the previous category.

Thus, we need to turn to the incredible crop of young hurlers in the AL right now. If ever there was a 21-year-old pitcher who was projectable as a Hall of Famer, it’s Felix Hernandez. Perhaps Philip Hughes will emerge this year into the same group. He’ll certainly have the run support to start building his win total, as well as the media exposure to make sure his feats get national attention.

Jered Weaver and Scott Kazmir have shown promise early. While Weaver had a much more successful rookie campaign, Kazmir is a year younger, and was nearly as good in his partial season last year.

Speaking of pitchers who are younger than they seem: Jeremy Bonderman has a head start in counting stats over most of his peers. He turned 24 in the offseason, yet already has racked up 45 wins and more than 600 strikeouts. He’ll need to grow into all his potential before becoming a serious part of this discussion, but given how important counting stats are (and likely, always will be) to Hall of Fame voters, it’s tough to ignore someone with a substantial head start on the field.

The wildest wild card of them all is Daisuke Matsuzaka. Early returns are so early as to be meaningless, but he’s likely to be the first pitcher to test how Hall voters weigh non-MLB experience. Depending on just how long Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui stick around, that road may already be paved, but all three candidacies will depend heavily on it.

On the other hand, Matsuzaka is still young enough—and pitching for a high-profile team that will give him plenty of run support—that he could build a substantial case purely out of his MLB record. Again, it’s far too early to make any kind of judgment, but as a reference point, Halladay had only 37 wins before his age-26 season; if Matsuzaka stays healthy, he’ll have no problem catching up.

They’ll Have to Buy a Ticket

I was tempted to call Jon Papelbon a wild card, but every day he remains in the bullpen lessens his chances of making the Hall someday. Perhaps he’s a better reliever than he would be starter, but based on what we’ve seen so far, the most optimistic take puts him in a class with Francisco Rodriguez: dominating stuff with best-case scenario putting him in the 300-, maybe 400-save club someday, when that accomplishment counts for less.

Behind those two closers is the Francisco Cordero of the AL, Joe Nathan. He started as a closer too late to amass impressive counting stats, and even if he does, say, go to New York and become Mariano Rivera’s heir apparent, it’ll take a World Series MVP or two to get him any substantial number of votes.

There are plenty of guys in the league who could take a turn for the better and put together a Kevin Brown-like career—Josh Beckett comes to mind—but aside from the closers, no one seems likely to be taken very seriously. Don’t worry, though; the American League will be well-represented with position players, as we’ll discuss in a future installment.

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