Back in January 2012, I attended a forum on the Hall of Fame candidacy of Minnie Minoso, arguably the second-best player in the American League during the 1950s. It was in the big conference room at whatever it was the Chicago White Sox called their ballpark then. The Sox set it up to raise awareness about Minoso, who was up for consideration by the Hall's Golden Era Committee.
Minoso, then 86 or 89 (he was cagey about his age), was on hand, along with fellow Latino greats Tony Perez and Luis Tiant. Former White Sox teammates like Billy Pierce, Jim Landis and Jim Rivera were there, too. A mini-parade of historians, statisticians and experts made presentations. Some were on baseball. Some were on Minoso's considerable place in the cultures of both baseball and the Latino community. By the time it was all over, I was not only convinced that Minoso belonged in the Hall of Fame, but was appalled that he wasn't. It was a good day, though, and hopefully gave Minoso a hint of the recognition he deserved, that his contributions had not been forgotten.
Minoso will never stand on the stage overlooking the grounds behind the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown to deliver what would surely have been an unforgettable acceptance speech. Six-and-a-half years and two committee votes later, Minoso still isn't in the Hall, and if he gets in through the work of some future committee -- 2021 is the next opportunity -- he won't be around to enjoy it. Minoso died in 2015. For me, this is one of the most glaring absences in Cooperstown, particularly in light of his essential cultural legacy as the first black Latino in the majors. Historians have called him "the Latino Jackie Robinson."
For me, the really sad part of Minoso's Hall snub is that you don't even need to overemphasize the intangible factors in his case -- integrity, sportsmanship, character and all those nebulous propositions listed by the Hall as qualities to consider for each candidate. Minoso was rich in all of those qualities, of course. Still, just on the basis of his performance record alone, Minoso's case is strong. His career was relatively short, and certainly, if Minoso had flanked that wonderful decade of the 1950s with four or five more high-quality seasons, we wouldn't be having this discussion so many years after he retired, and three years after he died.
The Minoso case raised a question I've never quite been able to answer with any degree of certainty: When it comes to the Hall of Fame, how much is enough? You can call it peak years, but that's not exactly right. In this context, I'm not referring to that upper end of a player's aging curve, often those sweet seasons between 26 and 30 when players historically have tended to be at their best. It would be more clear to ask: How long does a player have to be elite to be a Hall of Famer?
To apply modern metrics that Minoso never knew about, he produced 51.4 fWAR (FanGraphs WAR) during the best 10-year period of his career. Is that good? Yes, it's very good -- ranking 121st all time. That puts him in the 96th percentile of the 3,286 players who have seen action in at least 10 big league seasons. The 10-year definition is a great filter in itself, as the vast majority of players don't stick around that long. For Minoso, the problem is that outside of those 10 campaigns, he played below-replacement baseball. We shouldn't overlook seasons Minoso spent playing overseas and in the Negro Leagues -- seasons that, in a more enlightened age, would have seen him in a big league uniform. But that, too, is something about Minoso that has tended to be overlooked.
The work of Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs tackles the issue of peak value head-on. His JAWS system seeks to balance both the career and the peak WAR values in a player's career. Jaffe has tweaked his system over the years, and he currently defines peak as a player's seven best seasons. It's a reasonable judgment, and I follow JAWS closely, in conjunction with Bill James' suite of Hall metrics. All of these can be found at baseball-reference.com.
According to JAWS, Minoso ranks 14th among left fielders by the seven-years definition of peak, which is a little below-average for the 20 players at that position in the Hall. He's worse in career WAR, and at the bottom line, Minoso's JAWS score ranks him as the 23rd-best left fielder of all time. He's ahead of some Hall of Famers, such as Jim Rice and Heinie Manush, but his inclusion would lower the standards of the position in that system.
After years of wrestling with the problem of peak versus career value, I started to consider a third data point as a kind of middle ground. The notion springs from the very instructions that the Hall gives to the voters each autumn: To be eligible for enshrinement, a player has to have played in at least "10 championship seasons," as the Hall words it. For me, this has led to the first question I consider when gauging a player's career: Was there a 10-year stretch in which this player was a Hall of Famer?
Minoso's candidacy isn't the only reason to ponder this. There are several Hall of Famers who barely cleared the 10-year playing-time threshold, for a range of reasons. Tops among them was Jackie Robinson, who played 10 seasons in the majors on the nose, because of racism at the beginning of his career and because, at the end of it, legend has it that he didn't want to play for the hated Giants, to whom he was traded after the 1956 season. (That's more folklore than anything; Robinson was going to quit anyway.) There was Hank Greenberg, who missed three full seasons because of World War II. There was Dizzy Dean, my favorite historical player, who had just nine seasons in which he made more than one appearance. There was poor Addie Joss, the great Cleveland pitcher of the early 1900s, who died of tuberculosis at 31, and is the only player to have had the 10-year minimum waived in order to get him in.
Then there was Sandy Koufax, whose historical dominance during the 1960s was punctuated by his retirement at age 30 because his arm was going to fall off, at least metaphorically. Koufax's career is viewed through the prism of his six-year run at the end, the last five of which may be the best half-decade any pitcher has ever had. During those six seasons, Koufax was 129-48 with a 2.19 ERA. Other than that, Koufax went just 36-40 over six seasons with a 4.10 ERA during a prolonged development period in which he struggled to harness his command.
During Koufax's best 10-year stretch, he put up 50.3 fWAR, which ranks 144th all time and puts him in the 95th percentile. Most of that value was put up in the last six years, but you can still point to a full 10-year run during which Koufax performed at a Hall of Fame level. Thus, he flew into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility, earning 86.9 percent of the votes from the BBWAA.
Let's say that Koufax had managed to stay around five or six more years in the majors, perhaps, say, because he had access to some of the modern medical techniques that help prolong pitchers' careers in today's game. But let's say those last six years were more like his first six than his second six, leaving him with a career mark of 201-127. He would have tacked on another six or seven WAR to his career total, but still, the overwhelming portion of his value would have been produced during his six best seasons. Would voters have held those last six years against him? Should they have?
For me, the answer is no. If a player is a Hall of Famer for a 10-year stretch, then he's in the pool of candidates I will consider for enshrinement. It's just a first step when looking at a candidate. The second leads me into JAWS scores, then the James metrics, then the Keltner list, and finally, a consideration of those soft factors that are so subjective and so dependent on the voter's age and background. But that 10-year peak value measurement is my first filter.
What does that look like in practice?
Among those already inducted into the Hall, the average 10-year peak value by fWAR is 50.7; the median is 50.1. Round numbers are great, so those figures are close enough to 50 that we can say that if a player produces 50 fWAR over a decade, he's a viable Hall candidate. That also happens to be very close to the cutoff for those who rate in the 95th percentile or better. The actual percentile cutoff is closer to 49 10-year fWAR than 50, but let's stick with 50 because it's easy to remember and players just below the cutoff are going to still emerge for consideration if their full-career metrics demand it.
There have been 156 players who have posted at least 50 fWAR over a 10-year period at some point of their careers. Of those, 113 (72.4 percent) are in the Hall. Of the 43 players who have hit that mark but are not in Cooperstown, we can easily account for 24 of them. Ten remain on the Hall ballot and 10 more are still active. Three more are retired but not yet eligible -- Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez. And two are on the permanently banned list -- Pete Rose and Joe Jackson.
That leaves us with 19 snubs:
Kevin Brown (57.8 10-year fWAR)
Dwight Gooden (56.3)
Jim Whitney (55.6)
Dick Allen (55.1)
Jim Edmonds (53.6)
Graig Nettles (52.9)
Sal Bando (52.6)
Bobby Abreu (52.4)
Bobby Grich (52.4)
Minnie Minoso (51.4)
Bobby Bonds (51.3)
Mickey Lolich (51.3)
Keith Hernandez (51.0)
Wes Ferrell (50.6)
Bob Caruthers (50.4)
Rafael Palmeiro (50.3)
Sherry Magee (50.1)
Brian Giles (50.1)
Ron Cey (50.1)
Not all of these players should necessarily be headed for Coopertown, but all are worth discussing. Jim Whitney, who pitched in the 1800s, should be honored if only because of his nickname of "Grasshopper." Well, maybe not. Grich and Allen have had their advocates over the years.
Brown should merit a close second look when he becomes eligible for consideration through the Today's Game committee. (A player's 10-year window for BBWAA consideration has to have elapsed, even if he's been dropped from the ballot. Otherwise, a player like Brown, who was dropped after his first year of eligibility, could end up being inducted before a contemporary who lingers on the ballot for a long time.) Brown's 10-year run that ended in 2001 was an especially dominant one, ranking 71st all time, and he put up 18.2 nonpeak WAR as well, which ranks 102nd. Yes, Brown was named in the Mitchell report, but even if you care about such things, it was suggested in that report that his malfeasance began near the very end of his window of dominance.
Gooden is an interesting case as well. His off-the-field troubles were well-documented. However, I tend to think that if Gooden had retired after his 10th season because of arm trouble, like Koufax, he would already be in the Hall. At that point, he was 154-81 with a 118 ERA+. That's a very Koufax-like stretch. After that, Gooden went 40-31 with a 96 ERA+ over six seasons, a denouement that I suspect gets held against him. His case is exactly the kind I'm concerned about. Let's focus on what he was at his best, then get to the rest. At his best, few have been as good as Gooden.
Minoso of course falls into this group of snubs, which is where we started. At his best, Minoso played Hall of Fame-level baseball for a full decade. Is that enough? I think it should be.
What the numbers say
Which active players are future Hall of Famers?
There are Hall of Famers among us, still gracing ballfields from coast to coast. Thankfully, there always are. A side benefit of tracking the 10-year-peak metric is that it can help us pinpoint possible candidates long before they near the end of careers that can stretch to 20 years or more.
These are the active players who have posted a 10-year peak fWAR of 50 or greater:
Albert Pujols (77.4 10-year-peak fWAR, all-time rank: 15)
Clayton Kershaw (60.0, 59th)
Chase Utley (57.9, 70th)
Miguel Cabrera (57.6, 72nd)
Ichiro Suzuki (53.2, 102nd -- he was active earlier this year and could play again)
Joey Votto (52.8, 106th)
Justin Verlander (51.8, 113th)
CC Sabathia (51.4, 119th)
Zack Greinke (51.1, 128th)
I wouldn't necessarily call these guys no-brainers, but I'd put them all in the Hall if we were voting for them today and there was no limit to how many players I could put on a ballot. This includes Utley, who recently announced that he was retiring at the end of this season. That news spurred many "Is Utley a Hall of Famer?" pieces. By this method, he clearly was Hall-worthy during the best decade of his career.
Just below this group are four players in the 48-49 range:
Adrian Beltre -- Beltre topped out at 48.8 fWAR for his peak 10-year stretch, but outside of that peak, he has also posted 35.2 fWAR. Only 25 players have posted more. It's an unusual career shape, but his case is a no-brainer.
Max Scherzer -- I've prorated 2018 numbers, and Scherzer's 10-year peak will include his season. That is to say, we don't know what his best decade will be because he just keeps getting better. Barring injury, Scherzer is likely to enter into no-brainer land in a few years as well.
Evan Longoria -- Longoria's injury-marred 2018 season is a bad omen. He has produced no value beyond his best decade (he's in his 11th season). With this replacement-level season on his record, it's going to be hard for him to up that 10-year peak number. Longoria needs a few more high-level seasons to improve what is at best a fringe candidacy.
Felix Hernandez -- King Felix is badly in need of a second act. Can somebody please slip him Verlander's phone number?
The real excitement being generated in the game right now is from players on a Hall trajectory who don't yet have a 10-year peak fWAR because they haven't yet played 10 years. Just for fun, here are three players who will hit 50 fWAR for their first decade, if their current early-career season averages persist:
Mike Trout -- Seven-and-a-half seasons in, Trout is on pace to hit 80.2 fWAR by the time he reaches the 10-year mark. That figure would rank 12th all time, right between Stan Musial and Mike Schmidt. But Trout keeps getting better, and if he keeps having seasons like 2018, he could also surpass the peak values of Mickey Mantle and Walter Johnson. Yeah, those guys. Here is the all-time top 12, with Trout's projected total included:
Babe Ruth (110.2 10-year-peak fWAR, all-time rank: first), Rogers Hornsby (97.2, second), Lou Gehrig (92.8, third), Barry Bonds (92.6, fourth), Willie Mays (92.2, fifth), Honus Wagner (90.5, sixth), Ted Williams (88.7, seventh), Ty Cobb (88.4, eighth), Mickey Mantle (83.6, ninth), Walter Johnson (83.6, 10th), Stan Musial (83.4, 11th), Mike Trout (80.2, 12th)
Kris Bryant -- It's early, but Bryant is on a historic trajectory. He's young enough that his best seasons may still be ahead of him. As it is, if he maintains his current pace, Bryant would reach 59.2 fWAR after 10 seasons, ranking 65th all time.
Mookie Betts -- Betts would hit 53.5 fWAR at his current pace, ranking 101st.
And one more:
Bryce Harper -- It's been an uneven career start for a player with Hall potential. Right now, he's on pace to reach 36.6 fWAR by the end of his 10th season. He's young for an eight-year veteran, so Harper could compile a lot of nonpeak WAR, and he also may have better 10-year stretches than he will have for his first 10 seasons. Right now, though, Harper does not appear to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory.
Since you asked
Keeping with our Hall theme, here are my favorite quotes from last Friday's teleconferences with each of the 2018 inductees:
Vladimir Guerrero (via translator Jose Mota): "My other great memory that will never leave me is my last season, when I was saluting the fans and I get an ovation, and before you know it, the ovation gets bigger, and I didn't realize it was because my son was next to me. Little Vlady was next to me, so he was drawing the attention of so many people. And I thought they were clapping for me, and they were actually clapping for him. I'll never forget that."
Note: "Little Vlady" is of course Vladimir Guerrero Jr., one of baseball's top prospects, who so far this season is hitting .402 in the top two levels of Toronto's farm system. He may not be finished stealing his father's spotlight.
Trevor Hoffman: "You know, 'Hells Bells' was a great entrance song. It did not come alive until '98. We had a great season as a team. I think that coincided with the excitement. But I could always rely, no matter how draggy I was coming back from a road trip, or in the middle of a long home stand or what have you, I could always rely on that energy that I would get when the bullpen door would open up."
Chipper Jones: "It's a tremendous honor to be the first ['90s-era Braves] position player to go in. Hopefully I'm not the last. Hopefully, Andruw Jones gets some conversation and some play over the coming years. I feel like he certainly deserves it. Somebody had to score some runs for [that] pitching staff. And in lots of times the onus of the offense fell on the shoulders of the Jones boys in the middle of the lineup there."
Note: As you will see, Chipper is on to something when it comes to Andruw.
Jack Morris: "You know, I would love to see the commissioner install a rule that you can only have a maximum of 12 pitchers on the roster. That would force managers to let the starters go deeper, and that might help cultivate more complete games. But that's not going to happen unless something else changes, and the way it's played today, it looks like we may be getting even further away from that happening."
Jim Thome: "With strikeouts, for me, I think the most proud ... look, I did strike out a lot. But I think what I feel most proud, is that I was able to walk, and get on base, and have a good on-base percentage. I think at the end of the day, that means a lot. You know, the old cliché they used to say, a walk is as good as a hit. And that was the case. I took a lot of pride in being patient but also trying to be aggressive."
Alan Trammell (on Jack Morris): "We're going to kind of rehash some of this stuff, which is good stuff, and good memories. The story about whatever year it was when Sparky came out, and he had his little Sparky-ism that when he went out to get the ball from the pitcher, he kind of clapped his hands twice and put his hand.
"Jack being the competitor that he was didn't realize what he did, but he was so hot he didn't want to come out of the game, and he slammed the ball in Sparky's hand and he broke some blood vessels. We soon found out. We didn't know that initially. When he came off later on, [Sparky] confronted Jack, and he made his point about 'you'll never do that again. There's a protocol on how we do things.' And it kind of woke Jack up. Often times, Jack was very remorseful after the fact. But his hot blood, that kind of inside, that stuff that was there. It was real."
Coming right up
Upcoming names to watch
The 2018 Hall of Fame class is a big one -- Guerrero, Hoffman, Jones, Morris, Thome and Trammell will all take their places among the immortals this weekend after what promises to be a long day of speechifying in Cooperstown. I'll be there posting about pretty much everything I see. Sending me to the capital of baseball history is kind of like sending Norm Peterson to the Lagunitas brewery.
After that, we can resume debating about the next Hall class. As has been the case for several years, the next ballot will be an overstuffed one. As a teaser, here are the likely candidates on that ballot who have cleared my 50 fWAR barrier for peak-decade performance, along with two others who were very close:
Barry Bonds (92.6 10-year-peak fWAR, all-time rank: 4th)
Roger Clemens (66.7, 33rd)
Andruw Jones (61.0, 52nd)
Curt Schilling (59.7, 61st)
Roy Halladay (58.1, 69th)
Sammy Sosa (54.9, 93rd)
Scott Rolen (54.6, 95th)
Mike Mussina (54.4, 96th)
Todd Helton (50.7, 136th)
Edgar Martinez (50.3, 148th)
Lance Berkman (49.6, 160)
Manny Ramirez (49.5, 163)
Obviously, there are names on that list who aren't in the Hall for reasons that have nothing to do with performance record. Sigh. This drives me insane, but we'll save that rant for another day.
There are 12 names on that list, and it doesn't include Mariano Rivera, who is a cinch to be elected in his first year of eligibility. (Coming up with a way to properly value great short relievers is another thing we need to get a handle on, because WAR doesn't cut it.) Voters can list 10 names. You see the problems that the backlog is causing. Martinez will be in his 10th and final year of eligibility before he becomes the subject of a veterans committee, though after he received 70.4 percent of the votes last year, I suspect he'll get in this time around.
In addition to the BBWAA ballot, the Today's Game committee will convene. Some of the more compelling possibilities for that ballot, such as Brown, aren't yet eligible. The leading candidates this time around include Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Bret Saberhagen and Orel Hershiser.