“If he keeps it up, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame.” “At this rate, he’ll be in Cooperstown five years after he retires.” “The ways he’s going, this guy is a sure-fire Hall of Famer.”
You’ve doubtlessly read variations on that theme countless time about numerous players. A guy gets off to a terrific start to his career, he gives no indication of slowing down, and his future looks clear. Induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame appears to be no more than a formality.
But then something happens. Injuries, drug problems, or the ever-unexplainable dropoff in performance that often can be explained quite simply: baseball is really difficult, and staying among the elite takes a rare, special combination of skill, endurance, adaptability and good fortune.
Those who survive this gantlet become Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt or Tom Seaver. Those who don’t become Darryl Strawberry, Dale Murphy or Fernando Valenzuela—players who for one reason or another didn’t make it through the labyrinth without being devoured by the minotaur.
What about today’s players? Sure, we can see those who are all but guaranteed their spots in Cooperstown—Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Albert Pujols, to name but three. But what of those whose path is still somewhat unclear, those who at various times have elicited comments similar to those above, but since have seen their destinies become more cloudy?
Those are the players of interest today. And while you may not share the same opinion of whether these ballplayers are future Hall of Famers, it should make for some interesting discussion.
Utley began his Phillies career with two mediocre partial seasons in 2003-04, but then he got a full-time job and took off. From 2005 to 2009, he received MVP votes in five seasons, was tabbed for four All-Star appearances, and was a four-time Silver Slugger winner. Utley also finished in the National League top five in bWAR in every one of those seasons, coming in as high as second in ’08 and ’09.
He provided an excellent combination of average, power, speed, and defense, a total package nearly any player would be envious of. He wasn’t even afraid to take a pitch to the body, leading the league in hits-by-pitch for three consecutive years.
One small concern is that Utley’s career started a bit late, meaning that his first full season of 2005 was his age-26 campaign. Most Hall of Famers have been starters for several seasons by that age. However, after that half-decade of dominance, Utley was only 30 and had plenty of time to add to his impressive resume.
Since that time, though, Utley has seen his playing time and performance drop as knee problems have limited him. He hasn’t topped 115 games played since ’09, his best home run total has been 16, and his OPS+ has been 123, 110 and 113 after ranging between 125 and 146 in his prime.
Coming into the 2013 season, Utley’s career marks were a .288/.376/.500 triple-slash line with a 126 OPS+, 199 home runs, 739 RBIs, 779 runs scored, 121 stolen bases. Those are all solid, but his rate stats have been falling ever since 2010, though this year he’s off to basically a career-average start.
Unless you’re Bill Mazeroski, you’re not getting into the Hall as a defensive second baseman, and Utley’s injury history has reduced his effectiveness in the field a bit, and his increasing age will reduce it further, so he’s going to have to hit his way into Cooperstown. At age 34, it’s looking less and less likely that this will happen. Utley is a terrific ballplayer, but barring a significant upswing in performance, he’s not a future Hall of Famer.
It’s interesting that so many people—even those who are sabermetrically inclined—question the decision to move a pitcher from the bullpen to the rotation, even if the player came up through the minors as a starter. It’s odd because Earl Weaver, a darling of saber circles, was renowned for doing this as a manager. It’s also odd because it’s the path Santana took as his career grew from killer reliever to top-notch starter.
Similar to Utley, Santana began his major league career with two partial seasons, mostly coming out of the Twins’ bullpen, but starting on occasion, too. He wasn’t very good in those initial campaigns, but things started to click in his third year, 2002. Santana was a starter in about half of his appearances, and overall he threw 108.1 innings with 137 strikeouts, a 2.99 ERA and a 150 ERA+. The next season featured similar usage and success, but with better control, over an additional 50 innings.
In 2004, Minnesota took the reins off, and Santana began a reign of terror on hitters everywhere. He had a three-year run in which he won 20, 16 and 19 games, lost a grand total of only 19, and led the American League in strikeouts, ERA+ and WHIP all three years—and his WHIP never topped 1.00 in that time. He also won two Cy Young awards and came in third the other season.
The next two seasons, one with the Twins and the next following a trade to the Mets, were very impressive, if slightly less so. Santana did lead the NL in ERA and innings pitched in his Mets debut in 2008, and the following two years also were very good, though his innings totals fell short of 200 for the first time since ’04.
Then the injury bug, which has nibbled at Santana from time to time, bit hard. A torn anterior capsule in his throwing shoulder cost him all of 2011. He came back in 2012 to pitch rather poorly over a half season, and now he’s staring at a potential career-ending second tear of his left anterior capsule.
To this point, Santana has a mere 139 wins (against 78 losses, for a .641 winning percentage), 1,988 punchouts in 2,025.2 innngs, a 136 ERA+ and WAR totals of 50.7 (Basball-Referece, 96th all time among pitchers) and 47.4 (FanGraphs). A huge problem for Santana is that, “to this point” may equate to “he ends his career with…” as a return is far from certain, particularly with the guaranteed portion of his contract expiring this year.
If he comes back at all, that dreaded combination of age and injury indicate Santana is highly unlikely to recapture his former glory. What once looked like a career that could rival Roberto Clemente as the best ever by a Rule 5 acquisition now looks like it is all but over, and unquestionably shy of Cooperstown’s standards.
Oswalt didn’t dawdle at the start of his career like Utley and Santana. Instead, as a starter for the Astros, he led the NL in winning percentage his rookie year with an .824 (14-3) mark, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, was fifth in the Cy Young tally and even received some MVP votes. With a strikeout-per-nine rate of 9.1, only 1.5 walks per nine, a 170 ERA+ and a 1.06 WHIP, the future looked quite bright for this righty hurler.
And the next several seasons were very impressive as Oswalt won 20 games twice and 19 games another time in Seasons Two through Five, along with 17, 15 and 14 victories in the following three years. His ERA+ never was lower than 119 during his first nine campaigns, and though he never captured a Cy Young award, he was in the top five a total of five times. A mediocre 2009 was followed by a strong 2010 split between Houston and Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, things have petered out quickly since then. Oswalt was solid in 2011 with a 104 ERA+, but over only 139 innings. Last season with Texas was a disaster, as his 5.80 ERA and 79 ERA+ in 59 innings demonstrate. Oswalt reportedly is considering pitching again this season in what would be his age-35 campaign, though whether he can both find a job and perform effectively is highly debatable.
Once again we have a player who started out strong—even more so than the others—and put up a string of terrific seasons, but couldn’t maintain that pace, or even a presence on the field that would boost his counting stats. If Oswalt is done, he finishes with 163 victories, a .629 winning percentage, 3.28 ERA and 130 ERA+ over 2,213 innings. WAR puts him at 50.8 (B-Ref, 95th all time among pitchers) and 48.8 (FG).
Overall, Oswalt’s numbers looks pretty similar to Santana’s, and if they aren’t good enough to put the latter into the Hall, they won’t be good enough for the former, either.
Now here’s a guy who started out like a house afire. A nice-sized cup of coffee in 1997 was the prelude to Helton’s explosion onto the scene. For the next decade, Helton batted over .300 each season, peaking at a league-leading .372 in 2000. He stroked 20 or more home runs for eight consecutive years, maxing out at 49 in 2001, and he had a five-year stretch of over 100 RBI, topping out with 147 in 2000 and 146 in 2001. His OPS+ over his first 10 full seasons ranged from 118 to 165, giving pause to anyone who claimed Helton was a Coors Field creation.
Though some people certainly remained skeptical about the home-field benefits he enjoyed, enough voters appreciated Helton’s game to make him a runner-up for Rookie of the Year, five-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger, three-time Gold Glover and recipient of MVP votes in six seasons, peaking with a fifth-place finish in that phenomenal 2000 campaign. (In addition to leading the league in average and RBI that year, he topped the senior circuit in hits, doubles, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases.)
Helton tapered off somewhat as he entered his early 30s, with back and hip issues and a host of other maladies slowing him down. Though he produced a couple of solid seasons in 2009 and 2011, Helton has been essentially average at the plate for the past five years, and his first-base defense isn’t what it used to be. And the words “Helton” and “speed” will not share a sentence unless a phrase such as “lacking in” is included.
The difficulty for Helton is that the bar for elite first basemen is set so incredibly high. Being very good for a long time is impressive, but being awesome for more than a decade is the minimum required to be a Cooperstown-level first sacker. A career triple-slash line of .320/.418/.544 and OPS of 963 look mighty fine, but Denver’s thin air limits Helton’s OPS+ to a solid-but-unspectacular 135. His homer total of 355 is light, too, particularly given his home park, and his bWAR mark of 61.6 (fWAR of 56.6) is only 108th among hitters, tied with Sal Bando. (Interestingly, Mark McGwire is just a touch ahead of Helton at 62.0 bWAR.)
Durability is Helton’s bugaboo. Had he the health and stamina to maintain the power stroke of his 20s—and maybe if the video-game numbers of the early 2000s still were prominent—Helton would have a much better Hall of Fame case. As is, though, he was merely a terrific player for a decade and a decent one over the following seven seasons. That kind of resume should ensure Helton’s legacy in Colorado and beyond, but not all the way to upstate New York.
I didn’t want to lead off with Halladay, because I figured those who think he’s already a Hall of Famer might have stopped reading right then. And while I’ll concede he is a good candidate for enshrinement, I don’t know if Halladay is the slam dunk many seem to think he is, if he has the resume Hall of Fame voters are looking for. Hear me out.
On the plus side, Halladay has won 66.3 percent of his decisions, with a 3.33 ERA, a 1.33 ERA+, and a 3.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’s a two-time Cy Young award winner with two other runner-up finishes and a total of seven top-five finishes, and he has made eight All-Star squads. Additionally, his top season win totals of 22, 21, 20 and 19 are such to catch the eye of traditionalists.
On the other hand, Halladay has “only” 201 total victories and a middling 6.9 strikeouts-per-nine mark, whiffing just 2,086 batters in his career, a number A.J. Burnett is close to. He’s had only two middling seasons since his atrocious 10.64 ERA year in 2000 (mentioned primarily to show how well he bounced back from adversity), though one was last year, and his 2013 campaign has begun poorly.
Given the increased emphasis on bullpens and the decreased emphasis on pitcher wins, it’s likely many voters see Halladay’s value. He’s currently 40th all time in bWAR with 66.3 and has accumulated 68.3 fWAR, and another three WAR would push him into Baseball-Reference’s top 30. Basically, if he can keep going at even a workmanlike pace for two or three more years, it’s difficult to see a scenario in which Halladay does not get voted into Cooperstown not long after his career ends.
There were a few other active players I considered investigating further, but I declined for a variety of reasons. Tim Lincecum was stellar for four years, but that’s not enough time to establish an interesting case. Alex Rodriguez is in his own bizarre category—in this discussion and many others. Manny Ramirez is still going, though on the other side of the world, and his two suspensions complicate his case in a unique manner. Lance Berkman may be worth studying, too, but he didn’t seem to have that strong mid-career support these other fellows did.
So, what do you think? Which of these players are headed to Cooperstown? Who else fits this description and deserves mention? The Comments section awaits your input.