The New Members of the 40 WAR Club

If you go to our leaderboards and click on “career,” you’ll get a sample of 3,879 qualified position players, and 2,988 pitchers. If you lower the playing time threshold down to zero on each, you end up with 16,824 and 9,127. Now, obviously there’s some overlap in those numbers, but the point is that at least 16,000 players have suited up for a major league game. In that context, when I note that only 472 players total (314 position, 158 pitcher) have crossed the 40 WAR threshold, you can see it’s a big deal. It’s more or less the top-500 players in the game’s history (you can fill in the gaps — and probably then some — with Negro League players for whom we don’t have WAR or any advanced metrics).

That’s not to say there’s a lot of fanfare with getting to 40 wins. No one throws you a party, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the person. But since we know that 50 WAR is sort of the dividing line for whether a player can be a Hall of Famer (as I noted recently, there are plenty of players in the Hall of Fame who barely cracked the 50 WAR plateau, and I believe there are even some in who are below it), then 40 WAR is sort of the dividing line for whether we’ll argue about a player being deserving of the Hall of Fame. Well, for everyone except relief pitchers, anyway.

While there are plenty of active players in the 40+ WAR club, only five of them — all position players — joined the ranks in this past season. Let’s take a look at them. (In case you’re curious, there are a few players — A.J. Burnett, Zack Greinke and Jose Reyes in particular — who are in the low 40s currently, but were either at or just over 40 WAR when the 2015 season started.) We’ll start with the oldest.

Curtis Granderson, OF (Profile)
Age: 34
After 2014: 36.3 WAR
After 2015: 41.4 WAR

Last season really changed the narrative for Granderson. Before 2015, he had had a couple of really great seasons, but it had been awhile since he was that guy, and for whatever reason, his popularity has never carried him into the All-Star Game when he wasn’t performing spectacularly. Last year was no exception in that regard, as not even a 157 wRC+ in June (ninth-best in the National League, and the guy at the top got hurt) could vault him into the Midsummer Classic. But by the end of the year, it was his resurgent season. After posting a 115 wRC+ in the first half, he went hog wild in the second half, for a 152 wRC+. That latter mark was good for sixth-best in the NL, and Granderson’s bat was a big reason why the Mets made it to October. Granderson’s 5.1 WAR is the 20th-best mark for a 34-year-old in the last 30 years. Not too shabby. It’s not super likely at this point, but if Granderson has a few more years like 2015 left in him, he might eventually garner a good bit of Hall of Fame consideration. Being beloved by three fan bases plus 50+ WAR (if he gets there) might not be the best resume, but it’s a good start.

Dustin Pedroia, 2B (Profile)
Age: 32
After 2014: 38.6 WAR
After 2015: 41.1 WAR

Joey Votto, 1B (Profile)
Age: 32
After 2014: 34.2 WAR
After 2015: 41.6 WAR

I thought I’d group these two together, since they’re both the same age. If you ever wanted a good example of recency bias, here it is. Despite my noted handicap of being a Boston sports fan, it’s been awhile since I thought of Pedroia as a potential Hall of Famer. In fact, my fear is that he would end up a poor man’s Nomar Garciaparra. Check this out:


Source: FanGraphsNomar Garciaparra, Dustin Pedroia

They got there in different ways, but by the end of their age-31 seasons, both Nomar and Pedroia had limped into the 40 WAR club. Garciaparra wouldn’t do much more in his career, and there’s a legitimate concern that despite his proclamations of health, Pedroia won’t either. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. He is, after all, only two seasons removed from being a four-win player.

Getting back to the recency bias, check this action out:


Source: FanGraphsJoey Votto, Dustin Pedroia

While Pedroia hasn’t sniffed a 6 WAR season since he was 27 (aka, 2011), Votto has been over or very close to 6 WAR in three of the past four seasons. Thus, the feeling that Votto might be the better bet for Cooperstown, even if they’re pretty much in the same exact spot in their careers (and the bar for first baseman is higher, too).

Either way, if both players manage to stay healthy for the next five years — far from a given — we might just be talking about them for a long time.

Evan Longoria, 3B (Profile)
Age: 29
After 2014: 38.6 WAR
After 2015: 42.8 WAR

Through age 29, Longoria has been on par with Wade Boggs, better than Chipper Jones, and has become one of just 14 third basemen to join the 40 WAR club by that age. We don’t talk as much about Longoria these days. There’s probably a couple of reasons for that. One, the Rays aren’t as interesting of a team when they’re not winning. Second, Longoria’s best seasons happened when he was 23 and 24. Third, and probably most importantly, Longoria has had a pronounced decline offensively.

After posting a wRC+ between 128 and 146 in each of his first six seasons (and between 132 and 146 in his second through sixth) he has dropped down to 105 and 110 the last two. That’s solid of course. Combine that with good defense and you have a three- or four-win player. But we generally prefer to talk about standout performances instead of solid ones. With Longoria no longer elite at any one thing, he has sort of faded into the background — he hasn’t been an All-Star since 2010. Still, four or five more three- to four-win seasons will put him squarely in the Hall of Fame conversation.

Andrew McCutchen, OF (Profile)
Age: 28
After 2014: 34.5 WAR
After 2015: 40.3 WAR

Longoria made it to the 40 WAR club in eight seasons; McCutchen did it in seven. Simply put, McCutchen has never been bad. He posted a 3.4 WAR season in his rookie year, and has been better than that in every subsequent season. He came up just short of a fourth consecutive 6 WAR campaign last season, but considering how much knee pain he battled early in the year, that’s perfectly understandable. His advanced defensive stats were in the red for a second straight season in 2015, but looking at the components, that seems mostly due to his range. That might be his new normal, but I’m not willing to count him out just yet. Certainly if he needs to switch positions, he’ll have the bat for a corner outfield spot.

McCutchen really is a joy to watch — he seemingly does everything well. The biggest blemish I can find on his offensive resume from 2015 is that he didn’t hit changeups as well as he had in the past, but he hits well against nearly every pitch. He hit fewer infield pop-ups than he ever had in 2015, and he is the only player in the majors to post at least a .400 on-base percentage in each of the last four seasons. Of all the players on this list, McCutchen seems like the surest bet for induction (assuming good health, of course).

UPDATE:
As commenter “Regression is Mean” noted, I actually did miss two pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Cole Hamels. A huge oversight on my part. Here are paragraphs on them. Let’s pretend this never happened.

Clayton Kershaw, SP (Profile)
Age: 27
After 2014: 38.4 WAR
After 2015: 47.0 WAR

It’s easy to forget sometimes that we’re watching one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, especially this season when voters got tired of awarding him the Cy Young Award for some reason. Through age 27, which is where Kershaw ended the season, only six pitchers have compiled more WAR than has Kershaw — Walter Johnson, Bert Blyleven, Kid Nichols, Christy Mathewson, Hal Newhouser and Dwight Gooden. And given that Nichols accumulate the bulk of his value before 1900, you could make the argument that only five pitchers have thus far bested Kershaw.

Kershaw’s ERA- at this stage of their respective careers is better than Pedro Martinez; they have the same FIP-. He was one of just five pitchers this year to derive a fastball value higher than 20, but he also topped 15 runs in value from his curveball and slider. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a major league baseball player, but I do often feel bad for those who are tasked with trying to battle with Kershaw. With good health, he’ll likely sail into the Hall of Fame.

Cole Hamels, SP (Profile)
Age: 32
After 2014: 36.7 WAR
After 2015: 40.9 WAR

A model of consistency, Hamels has posted no less than 3.5 WAR and no more than 4.9 WAR for each of the past nine seasons (every season of his career except his rookie season, when he didn’t have the innings bulk to get there). In fact, he posted the same 4.2 WAR in 2015 as he did in 2014, despite the notable issue of switching teams midseason. This past season, he also came within one strikeout of his career high, which again is pretty good considering he switched teams. I know such a move shouldn’t be a big deal, but when you’ve pitched in one ballpark for nine-plus years, it’s probably a little jarring to have to switch. As an added bonus, Hamels has gotten back to the groundballing game he had flashed in 2011 before quickly abandoning it. And last year, his 12.0% infield fly ball percentage ranked 13th in the majors. One thing that is interesting to note is that in Texas he abandoned his cutter in favor of a two-seam fastball. Unless that is a data error, it will be interesting to see how that development affects him going forward.

Given Hamels’ consistency, it will be interesting to see just how long he pitches. If he ends up pitching this well for another decade, he might just have a Hall of Fame case. Of course, it would help him if he was noticed more. Like Granderson, Hamels seems to fly under the radar. While he has that World Series MVP in his trophy case, he’s only made the All-Star team three times, and his best finish for the Cy Young Award was fifth place back in 2011. Perhaps further postseason glory will be the best way for him to make his mark. If Yu Darvish comes back the same pitcher he was, and the Rangers offense produces like it did in the second half, Hamels might just get a few more chances to shine on the October stage.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Robert Lmember
6 years ago

Amazing that Trout will likely join this club in either late-April or early-May of his age-24 season

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
6 years ago
Reply to  Robert L

Man. Imagine if he can stay in top shape into his 40’s like me.

hypnotoad
6 years ago
Reply to  Robert L

I’m hoping he *skips* the 40 WAR club.