Legends Among Us: National League Pitchers

Usually, when we talk about active players who are headed to the Hall of Fame, we’re referring to the obvious cases: think Greg Maddux or Manny Ramirez. There are plenty of those guys around right now, dutifully climbing the all-time lists, hitting milestones for MLB to celebrate (or not) several times per year.

Sometimes, we take a detour and look at marginal cases: think Jim Edmonds or Chipper Jones. These are the guys who still have a few years to make or break their case and, barring a late-career resurgence, will probably end up in the Jim Rice/Bert Blyleven zone of yearly near-misses.

Of course, there are plenty of future Hall of Famers in baseball right now who are nowhere near 500 home runs, 250 wins, or double-digit Gold Glove awards. For every 1938 Lou Gehrig, putting the finishing touches on an unmatched resume, there’s a 1938 Johnny Mize, just establishing himself as an annual MVP threat.

When we look back at 2007 in, say, 40 years, who will have a plaque in Cooperstown? The first step toward answering that question is figuring out just how many plaques there will be. To get a working estimate, I figured out what percentage of the MLB population ended up in the Hall of Fame for each year from 1876 to 1999. I set the bar at 200 at-bats or 50 innings pitched; that way we can ignore Gehrig’s final games as well as leave possible September callups such as Cameron Maybin out of the discussion.

I’ve posted more detailed results elsewhere, but it seems reasonable to assume that the percentage of players who will end up in the Hall of Fame is between seven and 10 percent. It was much higher in the ’20s and ’30s, largely thanks to the veteran’s committee, and while it’s currently lower for the ’70s, a couple more inductees (such as Rice and Blyleven) would get that decade into the zone as well.

In each of the last several years, there have been between 620 and 650 players who met my requirements, so there are likely 50 to 60 future Hall of Famers playing regularly in 2007. Let’s be generous and shoot for 60. Further, the ratio of position players to pitchers has varied between about 2-to-1 and 4-to-3, so it seems reasonable to divvy up those 60 plaques among 36 hitters and 24 hurlers, about 18 and 12 for each league.

The whole project will extend through multiple columns, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Today, let’s take a look at the current crop of pitchers in the National League and consider which of them are destined for enshrinement.

The Inner Circle

This couldn’t be easier. John Smoltz. Randy Johnson. Tom Glavine. Greg Maddux. Pedro Martinez. Any arguments? I didn’t think so. If Pedro never pitched another game, you could make a case that he’s the best pitcher in baseball history: think Sandy Koufax with a longer peak. Johnson and Maddux each have long stretches of dominance and, along with Roger Clemens, are pushing the limits of how long a non-knuckleballer can keep winning ballgames.

Smoltz and Glavine aren’t quite the slam-dunk choices that the other three are, but it’s hard to see them lasting more than a couple of years on the ballot. Glavine will make it to 300 wins, rendering the rest of his track record irrelevant. Smoltz won’t, but his switch to bullpen dominance and back again, along with his 2.65 ERA in 207 postseason innings, will ensure him a plaque five or six years after he hangs ‘em up.

The Peak Performers

I’m going to start hedging already: no matter how good a pitcher is in his late 20s, we have no idea of how he’ll be pitching in five years, let alone in 10. And it’s how he pitches a decade from now that may make or break his Hall of Fame case. That said, there are three guys that stand out from the pack: Roy Oswalt, Carlos Zambrano, and Brandon Webb.

If I had to put my money on one of the three, it’d be Oswalt: he weathered a potentially serious injury early in his career and has been dominant since. Two 20-win seasons (plus a 19-gamer in 2002) give him a head start on the candy that Hall voters feed on, and he’s locked up for several years in Houston, offering the possibility that he’ll have the same one-team, feel-good vibe that will aid Craig Biggio.

Webb and Zambrano have similar track records to this point; each has proven durable, and while Zambrano has a head start in counting stats (he’ll likely cross 1,000 strikeouts this summer), he’s been subject to that much more wear and tear, and at a younger age. Both are likely to pitch for winners in the next few years, which means they could start accumulating the rings that voters love.

The Wild Cards

I debated whether to put Trevor Hoffman in the inner circle, but given the unpredictable way Hall voters have treated relievers, the only no-brainer is (and likely will be, for quite some time) Mariano Rivera. Hoffman will be the first pitcher to reach 500 saves, though probably not the last. Counting against him are his innings totals (he’s only topped 80 three times) and a perceived lack of dominance: he’s only been an All-Star five times. With those caveats, I still think he gets in.

As I’ve already suggested, health is the biggest obstacle between talent and Hall-worthy career numbers, and there’s no better example of that than Ben Sheets. Few people would question that his arm could put him in Cooperstown; several weeks ago I wrote about his otherworldly peripheral stats. However, he faces an uphill battle: he’s 28, with a career record under .500 and Atlee Hammaker on his comp list.

In all likelihood, there’s more than one active NL pitcher under the age of 28 headed to Cooperstown; it’s just particularly tough to see who those guys are. Jake Peavy and Dontrelle Willis are early contenders: both have been durable, occasionally dominant, and have advantages beyond their talent. In Willis’ case, it’s a memorable motion and a winning personality; for Peavy, it’s a home park conspiring to make his numbers look pretty.

Even counting the wild cards, I’m only up to 12 pitchers: surely one or two of these dozen won’t make the cut. In all likelihood, others will emerge, perhaps from this year’s crop of rookies—Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo, Mike Pelfrey, and Homer Bailey—or even from last year’s Marlins rotation. But it’s also worth noting that compared to position players or American League pitchers, this group is the weakest, despite the impressive inner circle. There’s no law, of course, that plaques must be logically distributed, and if I had to guess, 2007 NL moundsmen won’t be well represented in the Cooperstown of the future.

They’ll Have to Buy a Ticket

There are several NL pitchers whom one could imagine as future Hall of Famers; in each of their cases, I just don’t see it happening. Perhaps the most obvious is Barry Zito; while he has never been as dominant as many of the pitchers I’ve mentioned so far, he has been consistent, he did start fairly early, and after only six full seasons, he’s won 100 games. If he makes it to age 40 at the same rate, he’ll win 300 games, in which case I’ll be convinced he’s Hall-worthy; I’ll be shocked, too.

Matt Cain and Cole Hamels deserve mention here: they both made my initial, “if the Veterans Committee starts electing everybody they’ve ever heard of again,” version of the list. I can see either pitcher having several solid years as a starter, then converting to relief, a la Tom Gordon, or possible a la Dennis Eckersley. Equally likely, especially in Hamels’ case, is a career-altering injury. Keep in mind that, a few years ago, Kerry Wood probably would’ve been on this list.

I was going to include Billy Wagner as a wild card until I looked up how old he is. If he lucks into a few Mariano-like postseasons before retirement, he might get in, but as is, he probably won’t catch Hoffman for the all-time saves lead, and he’ll be remembered as a slightly more dominant version of, say, Troy Percival. Like Hoffman, he’ll be handicapped by an awfully low innings count, as well.

Other guys worth a line or two: Chris Carpenter has the ring, but he started too late, and another injury would put the last nail in the coffin. Brett Myers is a nice dark horse, still only 25, with plenty of time to move to a more pitcher-friendly park. After Hoffman and Wagner, the closer most likely to be remembered for his dominance is Francisco Cordero, especially if he moves to a high-profile team after 2007.

On Friday, I’ll turn my attention to American League pitchers and continue filling out the Hall of Fame of 2050.

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