Missed Time and the Hall of Fame, Part 2

Mike Trout is going to be fine. Yes, for all kinds of reasons it would be a complete and total bummer if the 2020 season never gets started due to the the current pandemic, but Trout would hardly be the first elite player in his prime to miss at least a full year due to reasons far beyond his control. Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio were just a few of the dozens of major leaguers who lost entire seasons due to military service, but given their elite performances throughout their careers, their absences didn’t cost them when they became eligible for election to the Hall of Fame.

Which isn’t to say that missing a full season, or even a significant chunk of one, in such fashion comes without cost. For the 28-year-old Trout, who already ranks fifth among center fielders in JAWS, major milestones could be at stake, though it’s far too early to suggest that a lost season will cost him a shot at 600 homers (as service in World War II and the Korean War did Williams) or even 700 (as the Korean War did Mays), or 3,000 hits, or whatever. For other players whose chances to reach Cooperstown are less secure, however, the loss of even a partial year could make a difference — at least temporarily — particularly if it leaves them short of certain plateaus.

That’s one of the take-home messages from my previous piece, which looked at the ways that time lost to military service during World War II and Korea, or to strikes in the 1981, ’94 and/or ’95 seasons, delayed or derailed certain players. Aided by additional chances in front of the voters, both with longer eligibility windows on BBWAA ballots and more frequent appearances on those of the Veterans Committee, it appears that the vast majority of borderline candidates who lost time to wars are in, leaving only a small handful of what-ifs. On the other hand, players who missed time due to strikes and fell short of notable hit and homer plateaus — not just 3,000 of the former or 500 of the latter, but also 2,000 or 2,500 hits, and 400 homers — have seen their chances take a hit. The much-derided 2019 election of Harold Baines, who fell short of 3,000 hits while missing time in all of the aforementioned strikes, suggests that voters have begun reckoning with that era’s impact on career totals, not that doing so will automatically make for strong selections; both Baines and Fred McGriff, who missed time in 1994-95, finished with 493 home runs, and could benefit similarly on the 2022 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, are well below the JAWS standards at their positions.

As we look to the current landscape to see which players might be most vulnerable to a lost season, we should keep those lessons in mind. Younger players such as Trout, Mookie Betts, and Francisco Lindor have plenty of time to make up the lost ground, not that losing a prime season — if we’re talking the nuclear option here, which may be premature — would help. It’s the older guys who are running out of chances that have the real concerns. Here I’ll take a spin through the position players, working alphabetically, with the pitchers to come tomorrow. All WAR totals refer to the Baseball-Reference version.

José Altuve

The youngest player here — he doesn’t turn 30 until May 6 — Altuve already owns three batting titles and is more than halfway to 3,000 hits (he has 1,568). With Ian Kinsler retired, Dustin Pedroia likely done, and Robinson Canó probably ruled out due to his PED suspension, the pint-sized Astro is the only active second baseman with an apparent path to election. He’s still got a ways to go on the advanced stat front (35.8 JAWS, 21.2 points below the standard), and the fact that he hasn’t cleared 5.0 WAR since 2017 due to injuries that have limited him to just 261 games over the past two seasons rates as a concern, all the more so if he misses a year, given the tendency of second basemen to peak early. If there’s good news for Altuve, it’s that the current outage is deflecting attention away from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal and his weird tattoo story.

Miguel Cabrera

With 2,815 hits, 477 career homers, and the number 10 ranking in JAWS among first basemen (69.5/44.8/57.2, above the standards across the board), Miggy is pretty much a lock for Cooperstown even given his recent struggles. He’s signed through 2023, with vesting options for ’24 and ’25, and while his recent years have been an injury-marred slog (.270/.345/.404 with 31 homers and just 304 games played from 2017-19), he’ll still have plenty of time to join Mays, Hank Aaron, Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, and Albert Pujols as the only players to reach 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Just don’t bet on 600 dingers.

Josh Donaldson

In the recent update to Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, Donaldson took the biggest hit among active players, losing 3.8 WAR due to the way Defensive Runs Saved now credits infield shifts to teams rather than individuals. Thus, his career/peak/JAWS line slipped from 44.8/43.8/44.3 to 41.0/40.5/40.8, and where he was 0.8 WAR above the peak standard among third basemen, he’s now 2.6 below. The good news is that he does have a 1.5-WAR season counting as part of his peak score, something that he should easily be able to improve upon.

JAWS is one problem for the 34-year-old Donaldson, who just signed a four-year-plus-option deal with the Twins, but it’s not the only one. A late bloomer due to his conversion from catching, he played just 89 major league games before his age-27 season, and additionally lost nearly a year’s worth of playing time due to injuries in 2017-18. Thus, he’s just over halfway to 2,000 hits (he has 1,048), has made just three All-Star teams and has yet to win a Gold Glove, though his MVP award is a bigger deal than that. If he’s to have a serious shot at Cooperstown, and if he doesn’t get to play at all this year, he’d need to average 159 hits — a total he last reached in 2016 — from ages 35-40 just to get to 2,000 hits. As I’ve noted several times in this space, no player from the post-1960 expansion era with fewer than 2,000 hits has been elected by either the writers or the small committees.

Yadier Molina

With nine All-Star appearances, nine Gold Gloves, a reputation as the era’s best defender, and a prominent role on three pennant winners and two champions, the 37-year-old Molina is widely viewed as a future Hall of Famer, and score of 162 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, which succinctly summarizes all of those credentials, backs that notion. He lags in the B-Ref version of WAR and thus JAWS, ranking just 24th in the latter category (40.1/28.8/34.5) and well off all three standards. That potentially sets him up for a polarizing fight between traditionalists and statheads, à la Jack Morris and Omar Vizquel though it’s important to acknowledge that pitch framing isn’t accounted for in those numbers; on that front, he’s one of the best, ranking fourth in Baseball Prospectus’ version (177 runs), which goes back to 1988. In my clunky attempts to integrate that into JAWS, he fares better, though so do contemporaries Russell Martin and Brian McCann, and few people besides me are banging the Cooperstown drum for them.

On the traditional front, Molina is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he was lousy with the bat (.270/.312/.399, 85 OPS+). He’s just 37 hits short of 2,000, and his contract expires this winter. Just before the 2020 season was postponed, The Athletic’s Mark Saxon reported that he was nearing an extension for one or two years, which obviously would give him time to surpass 2,000 hits. Even if he yields the starting job during that span, he’s likely to get the kind of sendoff that reinforces the notion he’s a future Hall of Famer.

Buster Posey

At 33 years old, Posey has already checked off some significant boxes when it comes to the Hall of Fame. He’s been the starting catcher on three World Series winners, won MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, made six All-Star teams, and won a Gold Glove (sharing a league with Molina has its consequences). His seven-year peak of 37.0 WAR is tied for eighth-best among catchers, and is 1.9 WAR above the average Hall of Fame backstop, though he’s still five points below the JAWS standard, below 11 of the 16 enshrinees. All of that’s before considering his elite pitch framing, which is value not even accounted for in the B-Ref version of WAR. He’s 123 runs above average in our version, which goes back to 2008; that’s seventh in terms of total in that span, and fifth in terms of rate among catchers with at least 4,000 innings behind the plate.

It’s already clear that age is catching up to Posey, who thanks in part to season-ending surgery to repair a torn right hip labrum in 2018 has played in just 219 games over the past two seasons and totaled just 12 homers and 3.9 WAR. At the plate, he was a shadow of himself last year, hitting .257/.320/.368 for an 84 OPS+. Like Donaldson, the biggest concern with regards to his Hall chances is his hit total, as he has just 1,380. If he’s only averaging 125 hits per year, which is right about where our Depth Charts projected him this spring, that’s a five-season pace, and while the extended break may help to heal his weary body, that still means he has to be productive through his age-38 season. A move to first base once Brandon Belt’s contract runs its course (after the 2021 season) may be necessary, though the risk of Posey being the second coming of Joe Mauer, with a light bat for that position, is a concern, too.

Joey Votto

From an advanced-stat standpoint, Votto is in excellent shape, with a 62.0/46.9/54.4 career/peak/JAWS line at a position where the standards are 66.9/42.7/54.8; his peak score ranks ninth among first basemen, higher than anybody outside the Hall save for Pujols. Likewise, his 150 OPS+ is ninth among first basemen with at least 7,000 PA, though that mark fell five points after a career-worst season in which Votto hit just .261/.357/.411 (98 OPS+) and had his worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.62) since his 2008 rookie campaign.

The big concern for Votto is his counting stats. Thanks to his elite plate discipline, he’s never collected more than 185 hits in a single year despite a career batting average of .307. Through his age-35 season, he’s still 134 hits short of 2,000, not to mention 16 homers short of 300. Signed through 2023 (with an option for 2024 that right now looks like a moot point), he’ll still have three more chances to pad that total, but if this season is a washout, it seems likely he’ll fall short of 2,500 hits. That won’t wreck his chances; Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, and Jeff Bagwell were all elected with fewer, but all had far more homers (Bagwell’s 449 trails that group) than Votto is likely to wind up with.

Before moving on to pitchers, which I’ll do in my next installment, there’s one position player whom I neglected to mention in Part 1 who could stand a closer look, namely Dominic DiMaggio. The youngest of the three DiMaggio brothers who played in the majors (and the youngest of nine siblings overall), “The Little Professor” — who measured 5-foot-9 and 168 pounds compared to Joe’s strapping 6-foot-2 and 193 pounds — spent his career in the shadows of both his older brother and of Williams, his teammate on the Red Sox during his career (1940-53). An above-average hitter and excellent baserunner with a strong defensive reputation in center field, DiMaggio made seven All-Star teams while spending most of his career as a leadoff hitter ahead of Williams. He scored 110 runs or more six times, leading the league twice; led the AL in stolen bases once, with an absurdly low total of 15; placed in the top 10 six other times with totals as low as nine; and placed in the top 10 in batting average and on-base percentage three times apiece. For his career, he batted .298/.383/.419 (110 OPS+) with 87 home runs, 100 steals, and 33.1 WAR.

DiMaggio finished in his league’s top 10 in WAR only in 1942, with 5.3. That was his age-25 season; he missed the next three while serving in the Navy despite initially being classified as 4-F due to his nearsightedness. Had that five-win season represented the start of a sustained peak, perhaps producing 15-18 WAR over the three missing years and likely pushing him past 2,000 hits (he had 1,680, it’s not hard to imagine him being elected, as teammate Bobby Doerr — a nine-time All-Star who lost just one full season to the war and finished with 2,042 hits and 51.1 WAR — was in 1986, Williams’ first year on the Veterans Committee. However, that what-if is a pretty big one; in DiMaggio’s first season back, he was worth 4.4 WAR, and after that had four seasons in the mid-to-high threes but no five-win seasons. While I’m sympathetic to the possibility that his service cost him a shot, he looks a lot more like a Mike Cameron/Torii Hunter type than a true Hall of Famer.

Tomorrow I’ll return to my examination of active players, with a look at the pitchers whose paths to Cooperstown might be affected by baseball’s 2020 hiatus.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

Molina is gonna be an all timer in the “Right guy gets into the Hall for all the Wrong Reasons” wing.