Seven Pitchers (and Some More Position Players) Who Have Most Helped Their Hall of Fame Cases in 2021

On Wednesday, I took a swing at a question often asked of me: Which players have helped their Hall of Fame cases the most this year? In that piece, I highlighted 10 position players, some of whom have gained significant ground via JAWS, others who reached major milestones or simply returned to productivity after injury-plagued stretches. For this dispatch, I’ll first turn my attention to the pitchers, then backtrack to cover a handful of others — position players and pitchers — in a more lightning-round fashion.

For this exercise, I’m focused mainly on mid- or late-career players rather than early-career ones. All of the starters have a JAWS of at least 42.0; roughly speaking, that’s the equivalent of seven six-win seasons, a point at which I start to take mid-career pitchers seriously. JAWS and peak (WAR7) gains are the major drivers of this, but positional standards, traditional milestones, and ordinal rankings are considerations as well. For relievers, I’m using the WAR-and-WPA hybrid stat via which I’ve examined recent candidates such as Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner. All WAR (and WPA) figures here refer to the Baseball Reference version, unless otherwise indicated.

One other thing to note: since my reference point for “old” WAR and JAWS figures dates back to January 2021, some portion of these players’ gains may be due to updates to bWAR itself, particularly via changes to ’19 and ’20 park factors and tweaks to 2017–20 Defensive Runs Saved that were announced in March, but also due to a second update to 2020 park factors that just went live on Tuesday.

Jacob deGrom, starting pitcher
(43.5 career WAR | 40.9 7-Year Peak WAR | 42.2 JAWS, + 4.1 JAWS)

The two-time NL Cy Young winner began his season by reeling off one of the most amazing runs of any pitcher in recent memory, posting an 0.50 ERA and 0.87 FIP through his first 12 starts. The performance was unsurprisingly unsustainable. For starters, no pitcher can stay that good for that long. And while deGrom continued to blast 100-mph fastball after 100-mph fastball past hitters even while missing turns here and there due to what were believed (by the Mets, at least) to be minor and disconnected injuries, he finally landed on the IL in early July with forearm inflammation. After suffering a setback around the trade deadline, he only returned to throwing on August 25; the Mets are holding out hope that the 33-year-old righty can rejoin them by mid-September.

deGrom has already racked up significant value even while qualifying for the ERA title only five times in eight seasons. This year he was so good that he accrued 5.1 WAR (including 0.6 on the offensive side) in his 15 starts before going down, his fourth-highest total. Because he didn’t debut until about five weeks before his 26th birthday, he’s short in the two traditional stat categories, wins (77) and strikeouts (1,505), that tend to matter to voters, but as I’ve argued, particularly if he can nab a third Cy Young, his will be something of a Koufaxian candidacy, where his career totals will matter less than the peak dominance.

Max Scherzer, starting pitcher
(66.3 career | 48.2 Peak | 57.3 JAWS, +1.9 JAWS)

Of the four active starters who are within hailing distance of the JAWS standard (61.1), none has done more to help himself in 2021 than Scherzer, who has been stellar in his age-36 season, pitching to a 2.40 ERA and 3.12 FIP in 146 innings for the Nationals and Dodgers. He’s produced 5.0 WAR with his pitching but -0.6 WAR with his hitting with a remarkable .000/.000/.000 line — taking this no-hitter thing a bit too literally — through 50 PA; on Wednesday night, he surpassed Wei-Yin Chen’s record for season-opening futility, set in 2016.

Focusing on what he’s better at: Scherzer is just 19 strikeouts away from 3,000 and should reach the milestone this month, surpassing the likes of Juan Marichal, Roy Halladay, and Bob Feller on the JAWS leaderboard. Between that, his three Cy Youngs, and eight All-Star appearances, he’s probably punched his ticket even before getting to 200 wins (he’s at 187).

Clayton Kershaw, starting pitcher
(71.8 career | 49.7 Peak | 60.7 JAWS, +1.0 JAWS)

After slaying the October beast that had haunted him for so many years, Kershaw pitched reasonably well through the first three months of the season, posting a 3.39 ERA and 2.98 FIP — the latter his lowest mark since 2016 — in 106.1 innings. Alas, just before the All-Star break, the 33-year-old southpaw landed on the injured list due to inflammation in his left forearm and hasn’t even gotten to the point of a rehab stint yet after suffering a setback in late July.

With eight All-Star selections, three Cy Young awards, and a World Series ring, Kershaw is probably a lock for election already, but reaching and surpassing some major career milestones would further elevate him in the pantheon. Before going down, he made solid progress towards the 200-win and 3,000 strikeout milestones; he’s at 184 and 2,653, respectively, the latter thanks to a 30.1% strikeout rate, his best since 2016. His 2.2 WAR, meanwhile, edged him closer to the career standard (73.3). He probably won’t gain much more ground this year even assuming he does return, and as with the pitchers on either side of him in this list, free agency looms, though it seems unthinkable the Dodgers will let him depart.

Zack Greinke, starting pitcher
(74.1 career | 48.1 Peak | 61.1 JAWS, +0.9 JAWS)

Despite dealing with shoulder soreness and some rough stretches, Greinke — the active leader in JAWS — has pitched an AL-high 159.2 innings, though he will probably get overtaken after landing on the COVID-19 IL on Tuesday. Pitching to a 3.66 ERA and 4.45 FIP, he’s produced a respectable 2.2 WAR, though he’s still 0.6 points below the JAWS standard. He surpassed 200 wins in 2019 (he’s at 219 now), but with his strikeout rate dipping from 24.5% last year to 17.0% this year, he’s still 201 strikeouts away from 3,000 and will probably need two seasons to reach the milestone instead of one. Will the game’s most enigmatic Hall of Fame candidate, a pending free agent this winter, stick around to get it? We’ll have to wait and see.

Chris Sale, starting pitcher
(46.4 career | 39.5 Peak | 43.0 JAWS, + 0.6 JAWS)

Sale went two years and a day between major league outings due to elbow inflammation, a flexor tendon strain, and Tommy John surgery, but he’s made a solid return so far, with a 2.53 ERA and 27.9% strikeout rate through four starts. It hasn’t moved him very far in the JAWS rankings, but he’s nonetheless seventh among active pitchers behind Greinke, the injured Justin Verlander (60.8), Kershaw, Scherzer, and two other pitchers who’ve effectively taken zeroes in 2020 and ’21, Cole Hamels (48.4) and Félix Hernández (44.3).

The good news is that Sale is missing bats and taking names, offering hope that the 32-year-old lefty can resume a quest for Cooperstown that was beginning to come into focus before he was injured. He’s racked up four seasons worth 6–7 WAR, plus a fifth at 5.7 and a sixth at 4.9; to improve that peak score substantially, he needs big seasons. He’s got a long ways to go to reach 200 wins (he has 112), but he’s already at 2,031 strikeouts. If he’s still got the stuff and durability to get to 3,000, the rest of the numbers might fall into place.

Craig Kimbrel, relief pitcher
(21.6 career WAR | 24.8 career WPA | 13.1 career WPA/LA | 19.8 R-JAWS, +1.9 R-JAWS)

As noted above, for the past few election cycles, I’ve turned away from reliever JAWS in favor of a hybrid metric using WAR, WPA, and WPA/LI. It’s my belief that this as-yet-unnamed metric — which I’m hoping to formalize in time for the upcoming election cycle — does a better job of emphasizing closers rather than starters-turned-relievers who racked up significant WAR in the rotations before making the move to roles more fireman-like than closer-like; it bumps the likes of Tom Gordon, Ellis Kinder, Bobby Shantz, and Kerry Wood down several pegs.

By either that mark or traditional reliever JAWS, the 33-year-old Kimbrel is the biggest gainer this year. After nearly two seasons in the wilderness, he regained his dominant form with the Cubs, and while he’s scuffled since being traded to the White Sox while pitching in a setup role in front of Liam Hendriks, his 2.02 ERA, 2.24 FIP, and 43.2% strikeout rate make this his best season since 2017 and put him in line for another substantial free-agent payday if the White Sox decline his $16 million club option. By what I’ll provisionally call R(eliever)-JAWS, he’s climbed from 22nd all-time to 15th, which is still well below the standard for the eight enshrined relievers (29.7). He’s also climbed from 12th to ninth in saves (372) and should easily move past Joe Nathan (377) and Dennis Eckersley (390) within the next year. If he can maintain this kind of dominance for a few more years, he’ll get to Cooperstown.

Kenley Jansen
(17.5 career WAR | 23.4 career WPA | 14.1 career WPA/LI | 18.3 R-JAWS, +1.3 R-JAWS)

Though he’s overcome health scares and worked hard to expand his arsenal to become less reliant upon his cutter, Jansen has continued to take Dodgers fans on a rollercoaster this season. He’s actually been tougher to hit than in any season since 2016, but his 14% walk rate has created more traffic than ever, and he’s blown five of 35 save chances, though three of those were in consecutive outings in mid-July, accounting for seven of the 16 earned runs he’s allowed. Still, his 2.60 ERA is his lowest since 2017, and his strikeout rate is a solid 29.8%.

Jansen’s 30 saves have pushed him to 14th on the all-time list, five away from the next rung and 26 away from cracking the top 10. As for R-JAWS, he’s entered the top 20, but as he approaches both his 34th birthday and free agency, the question of how many more years he’ll be trusted to handle the ninth inning looms.

Roundup

Even having covered the progress of 17 mid- and late-career players in these two installments, there are a handful who have posted JAWS gains that would fit on the leaderboards and about whom people have questions regarding their Hall progress. In the spirit of giving my readers what they want, here’s a lightning round, where I’ll keep things uncharacteristically brief.

José Ramirez, third base (32.8 career | 31.5 Peak | 32.1 JAWS, +4.0 JAWS). With a big age-28 season (5.2 WAR and counting) driven by his 31 homers, 138 OPS+, and 9 DRS, Ramirez is making notable progress toward Cooperstown, particularly given that he’s already banked two seven-win seasons. He’s got three seasons of 3.0 WAR or less as part of his peak score and has a good shot at continuing his big strides in the next few years.

Paul Goldschmidt, first base (49.1 career | 40.6 Peak | 44.9 JAWS, +2.2 JAWS). A two-homer, two-walk game on Wednesday added half a win to what’s now his seventh-best season (4.5 WAR); with a big finish, he can approach the peak standard (42.7 WAR). His 133 OPS+ is a step down from his 2012–18 prime (146), but his .493 SLG is his best since leaving Arizona. With 273 homers, Goldschmidt could reach 300 by the end of next season, though with 1,539 hits, the 2,000 milestone and real clarity on his fate is probably three seasons away. At least he’s in better shape than 31-year-old Freddie Freeman (41.8/32.1/37.0, +1.5 JAWS), who only recently surpassed last year’s 3.3 WAR.

Josh Donaldson, third base (43.8 career | 41.2 Peak | 42.5 JAWS, +1.5 JAWS). DRS changes, injuries, and the shortened season have dealt the slugging third baseman’s case a set of blows in recent years, making it even harder to overcome his late start. The good news is that even with a modest 2.6 WAR this year, he’s in his seventh-best season and can make tracks towards the third base peak standard (43.1 WAR). The bad news is that he’ll finish his age-35 season still short of 1,200 hits (he’s at 1,156), meaning that he’d have to average at least 160 — a total he hasn’t reached since 2016 — through his age-40 season just to reach the all-important 2,000.

Nelson Cruz, right field (42.2 career | 30.1 Peak | 36.1 JAWS, +1.3 JAWS). As his 136 OPS+ and 26 homers attest, he can still rake even at age 40, but with 443 career dingers, he’s two seasons away from reaching 500 (42% odds, via ZiPS). Even if he does that, he’s well short of the JAWS standard or even the 55.7 career WAR of David Ortiz, plus he has the stigma of his 2013 PED suspension to overcome. Don’t hold your breath.

Mike Trout, center field (76.2 career | 65.1 Peak | 70.6 JAWS, +0.5 JAWS). He just turned 30 on August 7, and he’s already fifth in JAWS and third in peak among center fielders, but this has been largely a lost year due to a right calf strain that’s already required the longest recovery time in at least six years. It’s a shame because he was off to a great start to his season, with 1.9 WAR and a 195 OPS+ in just 36 games. Here’s hoping this isn’t the start of a Ken Griffey Jr.-like slog through the second half of his career.

Yadier Molina, catcher (58.1 career fWAR (incl. pre-2008 adjustment) | 39.5 Peak fWAR | 48.8 fJAWS, +0.3 fJAWS). Via his 10 All-Star selections, nine Gold Gloves, two World Series rings, and reputation for handling pitching staffs, Molina’s already been anointed presumptive first-ballot honoree status. I’m far less convinced he deserves that, but using FanGraphs’ framing-inclusive WAR for catchers (supplemented by Baseball Prospectus’ pre-2008 framing data), it’s clear that he deserves a boost beyond off-the-shelf JAWS. Even so, five catchers — including the younger and still-productive Buster Posey — outrank him in the framing-inclusive version of my metric, and with an 80 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR this year, plus plans to retire after 2022, he might not even catch Russell Martin (49.1) or Joe Mauer (49.3) in the rankings.

Adam Wainwright (44.0 career | 35.5 Peak | 39.8 JAWS, +2.1 JAWS). The just-turned-40-year-old is currently in the midst of a late-career renaissance (2.97 ERA, 3.1 WAR), leaving many to wonder what might have been if not for the injuries that effectively cost him three seasons from ages 29 to 36. Maybe he has it in him to stick around for another 20 wins to get to 200, but he might not even crack the top 100 in JAWS while doing so.

Aroldis Chapman (18.5 WAR | 19.9 WPA | 12.0 WPA/LI | 16.8 R-JAWS, +0.6 R-JAWS). Chapman notched his 300th save on August 26, but he’s had an unimpressive season, walking 16.2% of hitters en route to a 3.68 ERA and 4.16, all career worsts. He’s 28th in R-JAWS, 1.2 points behind the lowest-ranked enshrined reliever (Bruce Sutter), and at age 33, needs to rebound if he’s to have a shot at election — that is, if voters will overlook his 2016 suspension under MLB’s domestic violence policy, which is uncharted territory for Hall candidates.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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scotth855
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scotth855

Kimbrel has an option for next year, which I think is likely to be exercised, so he won’t be a free agent until 2023.

rhdx
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rhdx

And if the Sox do pick up his option, he is by no means a lock to pass Eckersley in saves next year if Hendriks gets most of the chances.