Earlier this month Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement from baseball as a member of the Seattle Mariners, the team he broke in with. Ichiro should be a first ballot Hall of Famer. In the traditional sense. Staggering stats, an iconic player, and if you factor in his time in Japan you simply shake your head at the numbers he amassed. All-Time Great. Period. There was a time when “First Ballot” meant something, when that rarified air was reserved for the Ichiro’s of the game, and I hope we get back to those days soon.
As a baseball traditionalist, there’s a lot of issues I struggle with. The DH is pushing 50 years old, and I still don’t like it. Make the pitchers hit. I’ll save all the arguments around that one for another time, but you get the idea. At least they ditched that astro-turf idea years ago and gave us back real grass. I like a pitchers duel, and the hit and run, and long for the days when you had to be a “no doubt about it” all-time great to earn entrance into the MLB Hall of Fame (and All-World to get in on the first ballot).
Ichiro’s retirement got me thinking about who’s going to follow him into The Hall over the next decade-plus. It seems to me that we are at an odd point in the National Pastime’s history, with very few current stars assured of Hall of Fame entry (at least under my rigid standards, more on that in a second). As in any era, there are dozens of young stars who today appear Hall of Fame bound, but the key variable here is sustainability of that excellence over an entire career. That’s the differentiator for so many, so with that in mind I decided to take a look at the current baseball landscape. I sorted this discussion by category: the Locks, the Debatables and the More Wood To Chop’s:
I see three of them. Albert Pujols leads the way, with his 3000+ hits and 600+ HR’s being simply staggering stats, even in today’s homer happy era. Back in the day he also had a mean glove, and he was a winner (at least when he was a Cardinal). To me he’s an example of a First Ballot, no-doubt-abouter. Drop the mic.
Adrian Beltre is also a lock, although in my world of tougher grading, he isn’t a first-ballot candidate. Tremendous defensive player who also amassed 3000 hits and had well above average power. Beltre’s eccentric “don’t touch my head” thing makes for fun baseball lore, too, which baseball desperately needs more of these days.
My third lock is Miguel Cabrera. I believe if he retired today he’d get in. Barely. Over 2600 hits and nearing 500 dingers, with a couple of MVP’s thrown in along the way. I’m biased here, because he happens to be one of my favorite major leaguers, having witnessed up close how engaging and genuinely warm he is with the fans when visiting Oakland, and from afar his highly publicized battle with alcohol, which he overcame with dignity (here’s hoping he keeps that one at bay). He’s likely to get to 3000 hits in a year or two, and it would be fun to see a contender in need of a big bat and stabilizing clubhouse leader rescue him from the toilet that is the Tigers current tank season.
This whole Robinson Cano suspension thing fascinates me as it pertains to the Hall of Fame. I had Cano approaching “lock” status despite my bias against his Yankees years (just because), his penchant for not hustling, and his shameless pursuit of a dimmer spotlight (and bigger check, but we can’t really blame him for that, right?) that triggered his move to Seattle. But hey, the guy played seemingly every day and had absurd stats for a second baseman (and yeah, he won, too…). Now what?
The voters seem to be softening on the steroid cheats, which obviously helps him (by the way, props to Mark Texeirra for calling out his former teammate after the steroid news hit, pointing out that Cano’s best friends on the Yanks — A-Rod and Melky Cabrera — both got popped for PED’s, and candidly stating he wasn’t surprised Cano went down also). We must assume he’s got a few more strong stat years in him once he returns from his suspension, even if they do take place in the relative anonymity of the Pacific Northwest, and that should firm up his stats for the voters. Will there be a PED hangover? Right now, on my ballot (man I wish I got to vote on this one), he’s on the outside looking in.
Will a starting pitcher ever gain entry again? If I am correct in my belief that the 300-game winner has gone the way of the dinosaur, then the voters will need to redefine HOF entrance criteria for starting pitchers in our new world of “quality” starts, pitch count ceilings and innings restrictions. All that being said, how about C.C. Sabathia? Statistically he’s the closest. Literally a bigger than life character (again, at a time MLB needs more of this), Sabathia’s won big as a power pitcher and now seems to be successfully reinventing himself as a crafty lefty. To me, he’s right on the doorstep.
Even accounting for my distaste for all things Yankees, and my tendency to tarnish anyone associated with the Evil Empire, C.C. gets a pass here. His Indians tenure was often spectacular without the same dominant supporting cast he’s had in the Bronx, plus his publicized admission of the need to skip a playoff series to address his alcohol issues sent a message on life and priorities that didn’t garner nearly the attention it deserved at the time.
He’s sitting on 239 wins right now. If he extends his career through next year and gets to around 260 he gets my vote. He’ll (unfortunately) have likely added another World Series ring by then also, and his history of always wanting the baseball, often on short rest, cements his case for me.
One issue for Sabathia’s supporters to consider: if you are in agreement with my assessment on the “Hefty Lefty” and The Hall, then how do you approach Bartolo Colon? As of this writing Big Sexy has 242 wins (most in the bigs), and despite a “fast”ball that seems destined to dip below 80 MPH any minute now, seems to keep finding ways to grind out wins. Yes, he had the PED suspension years back, too, but he’s Big Sexy for gosh sakes! Everybody loves Big Sexy. To me he belongs in that Hall of Very Good purgatory where the long-career accumulators hang out (and by the way, that’s the Hall where Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Tim Raines would be hanging in right now, if not for the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality of too many of today’s HOF voters).
More Wood to Chop
This category is always the longest when the future HOF conversation comes up. Every generation is loaded with awesome talents who appear on a collision course with The Hall. But funny things happen on the way to 20-year careers of sustained greatness. Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and Kirby Puckett are old-time examples of those who at a frozen moment in time appeared locks on their way to Hall of Fame induction, only to have injury or tragedy derail them. Look at Joe Mauer for a present day example.
However there are several current studs beginning to separate themselves from the pack. I would argue that Justin Verlander (apologies to Max Scherzer fans) and Clayton Kershaw are the best righty and lefty starting pitchers in the game today, who have also provided sustained excellence over the past several years. And both of them would find themselves on the outside of The Hall looking in if an injury forced them into retirement today.
Verlander is closest, with 193 wins to his credit, plus the “team on my back” World Series win with the Astros last year. But he needs a few more years to even get into the debatable category, and a couple of more middling, end of career 10-win seasons after that to seal it statistically. Kershaw “only” has 145 wins right now and a cranky back, plus the looming overhang of his poor postseason track record. If I had to bet today, I’d say he doesn’t get there, despite these last seven years of other-worldly performance.
From the batter’s box point of view it would appear Joey Votto is on his way to strong Hall of Fame consideration. He boasts an MVP in 2010, 1600+ hits and a lifetime .313 batting average (and his on base percentage is .427, the same as Tris Speaker’s, for crying out loud). Despite toiling in relative anonymity in Cincinnati (albeit a big-time launching pad ballpark), Votto should put himself in the HOF conversation with another five good years. Of course a lot can happen in half a decade, but let’s hope he stays healthy and keeps this statistical trajectory, because he is on the verge of mind-blowing career numbers if he maintains his current pace.
A Few to Watch
The “projection” part of my Hall of Fame evaluation has to start and stop with Mike Trout. The “best player in the game today” sure seems well on his way. Video game stats plus unreal defense in centerfield? It seems only injury can stop him, and the entire world of baseball holds it’s collective breath that doesn’t happen. Let’s also hope this current Angels upswing continues, as it would be a lot of fun to witness Trout in the postseason while Pujols is still hanging around and Ohtani is filling the seats both as a pitcher and a hitter. Fun times in Anaheim!
Others I’d put in the category of Hall-worthy trajectory: Buster Posey, Aroldis Chapman, Paul Goldschmidt/Freddie Freeman (I put them together, because they seem mirror images of one another — check this out: Goldschmidt hits righty and has 1000+ hits for his career with 180 HR’s and a .294 career average. Freeman hits lefty and has 1100+ career hits with 174 HR’s and a .291 career average), Manny Machado and Charlie Blackmon (try playing out those Coors Field numbers over a 20-year career!). But it is a long road from here to there. The cool part is how much fun it will be to see these paths play out in seasons to come.
Speaking of the Hall of Very Good
I know the dangers of comparing players across eras, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to do it anyway. When Tim Raines got in The Hall on the basis of great speed and strong (but not All-Time Great) stats I had to go back and compare. Take a look at the following:
Raines: .294 BA, 2605 hits (accumulator figures though, as eight of his last nine years in the league he was a part-timer), 808 stolen bases and five monster years with the Expos early in his career.
Maury Wills: .281 BA, 2134 hits (not an accumulator — from his second year in 1960 to his second to last year in 1971 the guy played every day at one of the most demanding positions on the diamond) with 586 career stolen bases. He had 7-8 monster years and was a key cog on those great Dodger ball clubs of the early-1960’s. He didn’t pad his stats by hanging around in a utility role for an extra five years, which dimmed his HOF credentials.
Wills was one of the best shortstops of his era and an outstanding player. And he is a solid member of the Hall of Very Good. Raines should be there, too, not in the Hall of Fame.
A couple more:
Jim Rice: .298 BA, 2452 hits, 382 HR’s, 1451 RBI’s, 8 hellacious statistical years for the Sawx. Average defensive outfielder.
Andre Dawson: .279 BA, 2774 hits, 438 HR’s, 1591 RBI’s, 8 superstar years between his time with the Expos and Cubs. Cannon of an arm in right field in his youth. His stats were accumulated in 600 more games played than Rice (roughly 3 1/2 season’s worth).
So what about:
Dave Parker: .290 BA, 2712 hits, 339 HR’s, 1493 RBI’s, 7 incredible years mostly with the Pirates (and the We Are Family championship season of ’79). Tremendous defensive right fielder with an arm at least as good as Dawson’s. Played in 200 fewer games than The Hawk, as well.
Dick Allen: .292 BA, 1848 hits, 351 HR’s, 1119 RBI’s, 8 massive statistical years and a couple of others that were simply really strong (even though his lifetime stats are below the other three in this comparison due to a shorter career, I just had to find a way to include Dick Allen in this conversation — the guy was so cool, with the glasses and always wearing that batting helmet).
Do Parker, who was a central figure in the cocaine scandal in the mid-’80’s, or Allen, who was a well known clubhouse malcontent for multiple franchises, belong in the Hall of Fame? I don’t put either in, but I’d rank Parker ahead of both Rice and Dawson. Hall of Very Good staples to me, not Hall of Famers.
Today’s voters are making it too easy, and thus the standards are dropping. And now we are running the risk of letting the steroid cheats who desecrated the statistical history and integrity of the game into Cooperstown? Where’s Goose Gossage when you need him? Somebody do something, please!