Ten Position Players Who Have Most Helped Their Hall of Fame Cases in 2021 by Jay Jaffe September 1, 2021 Which players have helped their Hall of Fame cases the most this year? The question comes up in almost every chat of mine, and sometimes in radio spots as well. You’d think I’d be used to this by now, but I rarely have more than an answer or two at the ready unless one of those players has recently been in the headlines for reaching a milestone. But with the end of the 2021 season in sight, and with the COVID-delayed Class of 2020 Hall of Fame Induction Day ceremony just a week away, it’s worth digging deeper for answers. For this exercise, I’m focused mainly on mid- or late-career players rather than early-career ones. Yes, the five-win seasons of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Juan Soto, and Fernando Tatis Jr. are solid steps towards attaining the ceilings we envision — and likewise for Shohei Ohtani given his singularly remarkable two-way season — but all of those players are at least half a decade away from the point when we can start to get real about their chances. JAWS and seven-year peak WAR gains are the major drivers of my selections in this piece and a companion one for pitchers, but positional standards, traditional milestones, and ordinal rankings are considerations as well. With one exception, all of the players below have surpassed 35.0 JAWS; roughly speaking, that’s the equivalent of seven five-win seasons, a point at which I start to take mid-career position players seriously. All WAR 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 2019 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. Carlos Correa, Shortstop (32.7 Career WAR | 32.7 7-Year Peak WAR | 32.7 JAWS, +6.7 JAWS) Between some favorable changes to his DRS totals and an AL-leading 5.9 WAR (surpassed by Ohtani’s two-way total of 7.7), the 26-year-old Correa has boosted his JAWS more than any position player. It’s come at a particularly opportune time for the Astros, who bid adieu to George Springer this past winter and lost Alex Bregman for a good chunk of this season yet enjoy a comfortable five-game lead the AL West. It’s come at a good time for the shortstop as well, as he’s on the precipice of a big payday in free agency. Correa has gained traction in part because he’s already played in more games (121) than any season since 2016, his first full one in the majors, and he’s done all of this — hitting for a 132 OPS+, with 14 DRS — in the face of a whole lot of boos for his connection to the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Whether voters 15 or 20 years from now will forgive his involvement is unknowable; the best he can do is put up good numbers and stay out of trouble going forward, and hope that’s enough. Given his 99-game rookie season and his other injury-shortened (and pandemic-shortened) ones, his peak score is filled with low-hanging fruit; he has three seasons with 3.7 WAR or less, but now three of 5.9 or higher, and should continue gaining ground on the shortstop peak standard (43.2 WAR) if he can stay on the field. Bryce Harper, Right Field (38.6 Career | 34.3 Peak | 36.4 JAWS, +4.0 JAWS) Harper has now played in 10 major league seasons, meaning that he’s cleared the most basic qualification for election. And while he’s a ways from clinching a berth in Cooperstown, unlike his 2012 Rookie of the Year counterpart Mike Trout, he’s recovered some of his lost mojo, hitting for a 175 OPS+, good for second in the NL and his highest mark since his MVP-winning 2015 season. Both his .420 on-base percentage and .594 slugging percentage rank second as well, and he’s also generating MVP discussion. He’s still got a long ways to go to secure a plaque, but as he nears his 29th birthday, he’s more than halfway to 500 homers (258, 26% odds according to ZiPSmaster Dan Szymborski). From a value perspective, it would be to his great benefit to stop leaking runs defensively; he’s at -7 DRS this year and counting. Mookie Betts, Right Field (50.0 Career | 47.7 Peak | 48.9 JAWS, +3.5 JAWS) Even in a season in which he’s battled injuries — most notably, a bone spur in his right hip that will probably require offseason surgery — and struggled with inconsistency, Betts has hit for a 143 OPS+ with 19 homers and 4.2 WAR in 93 games. On Tuesday night, as I was writing this piece, he had another one of those tour de force games, where he demonstrated his batting, baserunning, and defensive excellence with a home run, a home run robbery, and then a mad dash to score what proved to be the decisive run in the Dodgers’ 3-2 win over the Braves. Despite this being in just his eighth major league season, Betts owns the highest peak WAR of any active position player this side of Trout (64.9), Albert Pujols (61.7), and the currently-suspended Robinson Canó (49.4), and that total will continue to increase as the season goes on. His JAWS isn’t far off from those of current BBWAA candidate Gary Sheffield (49.3) and recent honoree Vladimir Guerrero (50.3). Can you believe the Red Sox traded this guy? Manny Machado, Third Base (44.5 Career | 38.2 Peak | 41.4 JAWS, +3.5 JAWS) It feels like Machado has been around forever; like Harper, he’s now in his 10th season, but it’s still just his age-28 campaign (he turned 29 on July 6). Overshadowed somewhat by Tatis and the Padres’ slide out of the NL West race, Machado has quietly produced an exceptional season, with a 130 OPS+, 6 DRS, and 4.4 WAR. This is already his fourth most-valuable season; like Correa, he’s got some low-hanging fruit (three seasons of 3.8 WAR or less) to improve that peak score and approach the standard (43.1). Nolan Arenado, Third Base (43.4 Career | 39.5 Peak | 41.5 JAWS, + 3.2 JAWS) With his recovery from last year’s power-sapping left shoulder injury and escape from the dismal Rockies franchise, Arenado has put himself back on a Hall of Fame track with a solid offensive season (26 homers, 119 OPS+, one point below his career mark). If there’s a concern, it’s that the 30-year-old hot cornerman’s defense hasn’t been up to his usual standards; his 6 DRS would be a career-worst, even relative to last year’s 48-game season (13 DRS). Even so, he’s already eighth all time in defensive runs among third basemen (135), should surpass Graig Nettles (140) in the not-too-distant future, and is just one run behind NL third base leader Austin Riley, suggesting that his winning a ninth straight Gold Glove is hardly out of the question. And since you’re probably wondering, 72% (13 out of 18) of eligible players with at least nine Gold Gloves have been elected, with Ichiro Suzuki poised to raise that rate once he reaches the 2025 ballot. Jose Altuve, Second Base (40.3 Career | 37.3 Peak | 38.8 JAWS, +3.1 JAWS) After a miserable age-30 season in which he hit for just a 71 OPS+ with -0.2 WAR, Altuve is back in black, hitting for a 122 OPS+ with 25 homers and 3.3 WAR. Even with three batting titles and an MVP award, he still probably needs at least one or two more big seasons (5.0 WAR or more) to push his peak score closer to the second-base standard of 44.7 WAR. As for traditional milestones, his 133 hits thus far has pushed him to 1,743. As of late June, his ZiPS-driven odds of reaching 3,000 stood at 31%, down from 40% late last season despite his comparative durability; he served only a 12-day stint on the IL this year, due to a COVID-19 infection, where IL stints knocked him out for 26 days in 2018 and 39 in ’19. While Altuve was said to have not participated much, if at all, in the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme — a claim recently amplified in Andy Martino’s Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing — the far-fetched buzzer/tattoo theory continues to float through the ether. Like Correa, Altuve will need more time to distance himself from the scandal; winning a championship without controversy, whether it’s this year or sometime down the road, would probably help that cause. From below this point, my selections are driven less by JAWS gains and more by the aforementioned other considerations; there are a handful of players with gains of less than 3.0 JAWS (Nelson Cruz, Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson, and Freddie Freeman) that I’ll round up in Part 2. Giancarlo Stanton, Right Field (43.5 Career | 34.8 Peak | 39.1 JAWS, +1.2 JAWS) After playing in just 41 games in 2019-20, the 31-year-old Stanton has been healthy enough to play 111 games this year and to bash 25 homers while producing a 137 OPS+ and 2.5 WAR. What’s more, after not playing the outfield at all in 2020 and the first half of this season, he’s made 14 starts at the corners in the past five weeks, generally in the service of the Yankees’ “Jumbo Package” outfield alongside Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo. That he hasn’t crumbled to dust while doing so is good news; an above-average fielder prior to injuries, Stanton can produce more value even by semi-regularly playing the field than parking at DH, as his 4.4 WAR while making 72 starts at the corners in 2018 attests. Via Szymborski, Stanton’s odds at reaching 500 home runs, and possibly Cooperstown, dropped from 48% prior to the pandemic to 26% as of last week, though with seven homers in his last 13 games, he might have already restored a point or two to that figure. Buster Posey, Catcher (44.1 Career | 36.6 Peak | 40.4 JAWS, +1.2 JAWS) After playing just 219 games in 2018-19 and then opting out last year, Posey looked as though he might be nearing the end of the line, but he’s provided vintage-grade offense, hitting .304/.397/.507; his 16 homers are the most he’s hit since 2015, while his 142 wRC+ is his highest ’14 campaign. What’s more, after three straight sub-.500 seasons, in what was supposed to be another rebuilding year, the Giants have surprised the baseball world by producing the majors’ best record through the season’s first five months. Odd-year magic? Note that while Posey already clears the peak standard (34.8) and ranks 14th in JAWS among catcher, the figures above don’t include pitch framing, which I’ve argued will be essential to considering his Hall case and those of his contemporaries. Via my home-brewed FanGraphs Framing-Inclusive JAWS methodology for catchers, which uses FanGraphs’ version of WAR for the pitch-tracking years and Baseball Prospectus’ “retro-framing” methodology for the 1988-2007 period, Posey is over 11 points higher (51.7), and 2.0 points above his preseason total, well ahead of Yadier Molina (48.9) and within sight of Ivan Rodriguez (53.9) if not the leader, Mike Piazza (62.3). With seven All-Star selections, three World Series rings, MVP and Rookie of the Year awards as well as a Gold Glove, he’s already got a Hall of Fame resume; the question is whether the 34-year-old backstop can get the (gulp) 527 hits he still needs to reach 2,000. That’s a sneaky-important milestone, as no player with less than 2,000 hits whose career took place in the post-1960 expansion era has been elected, either by the writers or the committees. Joey Votto, First Base (63.4 Career | 46.9 Peak | 55.1 JAWS, +0.6 JAWS) Currently tied with Salvador Perez for the major league lead in home runs since the All-Star break, Votto is in the midst of his best offensive season since 2017, hitting .269/.367/.549 (133 OPS+) with 28 homers and 2.3 WAR. Earlier this month, within the span of a few days, the going on 38-year-old surpassed the JAWS standard for first basemen and collected his 2,000th hit. As I noted just a couple weeks prior to that, such a combo generally puts a candidate in no-doubter territory, as the only players outside the Hall who meet both criteria and are currently eligible for election (five years retired, in other words, and not on the ineligible list) are Barry Bonds, Bill Dahlen, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, and Scott Rolen — three candidates stymied by their PED links, a long-lost candidate for the Early Baseball Era Committee (Dahlen), and a player who has shot from 10.2% in his first year on the ballot to 52.9% in his fourth (Rolen). Particularly given his resumé — six All-Star selections, an MVP award, and a Gold Glove — and popularity with writers, I don’t see Votto languishing on the ballot. Miguel Cabrera, First Base (69.0 Career | 44.8 Peak | 56.9 JAWS, -0.3 JAWS) At the outset of the season, after his Opening Day home run in the snow, I noted that Cabrera had a chance not only to become the seventh player to reach the twin milestones of 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, but to become the first player to reach both in the same season. He hit no. 500 last week, but he’s currently in the midst of his fifth straight season with less than 1.0 WAR, and his second in that span below replacement level (-0.2 WAR), all of which is to say that his 3,000th hit is likely to come next year, as he needs 39 in the Tigers’ final 30 games, which ain’t happening for a .247.313/.385 hitter who runs as though he’s carrying the Molina brothers — Bengie and Jose as well as Yadier — on his back. Between his sub-zero showing and the WAR adjustments, he’s actually lost ground in JAWS, though he’s still comfortably above the first base standard (54.8), and his milestones and accolades — 11 All-Star appearances, four batting titles, two MVP awards, a Triple Crown — will carry the day. I’ll be back with a small batch of pitchers and, briefly, a few more position players in my next installment.