What Could Keep Gunnar Henderson and Bobby Witt Jr. From Making the Hall of Fame?

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, this is the clickbaitiest headline I could think of for this premise. It’s the first week of January, the free agent market has seized up due to lack of routine maintenance, and the sun hasn’t come out since the Aquaman sequel was released, perhaps as divine punishment for humanity’s crimes. So let’s find pizazz where we can.

Though in all honesty, it shouldn’t be that difficult, because Gunnar Henderson and Bobby Witt Jr. are pretty exciting all on their own. We just saw a Rookie of the Year campaign from the former and a breakout season from the latter. Here’s something that might sound like hyperbole, but really isn’t: Both players are on a Hall of Fame track now.

In case you needed a refresher:

Witt Plus Gunnar Equals a Solid Action-Comedy Movie
Gunnar Henderson BAL 150 622 28 100 82 10 .255 .325 .489 123 4.6
Bobby Witt Jr. KCR 158 694 30 97 96 49 .276 .319 .495 115 5.7

Both Henderson and Witt needed a minute to adjust to the majors, but by two-thirds of the way through this past season, it seems like they’d figured things out. (You can read Dan Szymborski on Witt’s supergalactic summer here.)

Five WAR, give or take, and a wRC+ in the high 110s or low 120s is obviously great work, particularly from a shortstop, and even more particularly from a shortstop who’s young enough to still be living with his parents. But it’s rarer than you’d think.

Since the start of the live ball era, there have only been 223 seasons in which an AL or NL shortstop, age 23 or younger, has even played enough to qualify for the batting title. Only 39 of those seasons involved the shortstop in question posting 4.5 WAR or more; only 42 times did the shortstop have a wRC+ of 115 or better. Witt and Henderson accounted for two of the 33 seasons in which the player did both.

Those 33 seasons belong to 25 individual players. (Sorting the leaderboard this way will return the names “Ripken” and “Rodriguez” a lot.) Here they are, with their standing in relation to the Hall of Fame. “HOVG” stands for “Hall of Very Good,” i.e. a player who’s in the 40 career WAR neighborhood, with multiple All-Star appearances or high MVP finishes, but who didn’t make the Hall of Fame. A-Rod got his own unique designation:

Great 23-and-Under Shortstop Seasons
Player Team Seasons Disposition
Bo Bichette TOR 2021 Active
Bobby Witt Jr. KCR 2023 Active
Corey Seager LAD 2016, 2017 Active
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP 2021 Active
Francisco Lindor CLE 2017 Active
Gunnar Henderson BAL 2023 Active
Manny Machado BAL 2016 Active
Arky Vaughan PIT 1933, 1934, 1935 HOF
Cal Ripken Jr. BAL 1982, 1983, 1984 HOF
Joe Cronin WAS 1930 HOF
Joe Sewell CLE 1921 HOF
Lou Boudreau CLE 1940 HOF
Travis Jackson NYG 1927 HOF
Bobby Grich BAL 1972 HOVG
Hanley Ramirez FLA 2007 HOVG
Jim Fregosi CAL 1964, 1965 HOVG
José Reyes NYM 2006 HOVG
Nomar Garciaparra BOS 1997 HOVG
Vern Stephens SLB 1944 HOVG
Cecil Travis WAS 1937 No
Chris Speier SFG 1972 No
Denis Menke MIL 1964 No
Johnny Pesky BOS 1942 No
Ron Hansen BAL 1960 No
Alex Rodriguez SEA 1996 Don’t Start
Qualified for batting title; Min. 4.5 WAR; Min. 115 wRC+

If you’re a young Orioles shortstop and you don’t have an All-Star caliber season by age 23, apparently something’s wrong with you.

Six of 16 eligible players on this list are in the Hall of Fame already. Two others — Grich and Rodriguez — would be if I were dictator of the world. And even A-Rod’s greatest detractors would concede that his on-field record alone is worthy of enshrinement. (Okay, maybe not his greatest detractors. People get really weird about A-Rod. But you get the point.)

Two other retired players, Reyes and Ramirez, haven’t yet had their Cooperstown fates decided, but I expect both to fall into the Hall of Very Good category when everything shakes out. Among active players, Bichette and Tatis are too early in their careers to make serious projections on, but one nice thing about working here is I get to peek at Jay Jaffe’s homework on Hall of Fame issues. This summer, he weighed in on the progress of both Machado and Lindor. Machado still has some work to do, but is in really strong shape, while Lindor probably needs at least one more monster season and some hang-around value in order to get into comfortable Hall of Fame territory. If I had to bet, I’d say Lindor gets in, but it’s not a sure thing. (Feel free to call me out in 20 years if I turn out to be wrong.)

Seager is an interesting case that went unremarked-upon in Jay’s midseason analysis. The rule of thumb is that 40 WAR over a player’s seven best seasons results in about a 75% chance of getting into the Hall at some point. Seager’s best seven seasons only total up to 29.9 WAR now, but his career has been doughnut-holed by injuries and the pandemic. He’s coming off a second-place MVP finish and just became a two-time World Series MVP, and he’s still only 29. He still has a pretty good chance of making it to Cooperstown as well.

Let’s say that two of Machado, Lindor, and Seager make the Hall of Fame and take the kids out of the equation entirely. Basically, a 23-and-under shortstop who posts 4.5 or more WAR and a wRC+ of 115 or better is a little less than even money to either become a Hall of Famer or to have a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Nevertheless, that path can be precarious. Based on their careers through age 27, Garciaparra and Ramirez looked like absolute stone cold locks to make the Hall of Fame. But Garciaparra suffered a wrist injury in 2001 and an Achillies tendon injury in 2004. These ailments cost him the best parts of two prime seasons, prevented him from getting the 3-0 comeback shine from the 2004 Red Sox, and genuinely diminished him as a player. The same goes for Ramirez, whose body started falling apart in 2011 after a torrid start to his career.

That’s the shadow looming over both Witt and Henderson — that any athlete is just one false step or one bad collision from a career-altering injury. Sometimes the margins aren’t even that thin.

Jim Fregosi was the manager of the first baseball team I was ever interested in, the 1993 Phillies. (I was also watching a lot of The Wonder Years around that time, so between him and Dan Lauria, I thought male authority figures all looked like that when I was a little kid.) I did not know then that Fregosi had been a star player in his time, and even if you remember that he was once traded for Nolan Ryan, you probably don’t remember how good he was.

For some context, let’s go back into Dan Szymborski’s bag of tricks and pull out this 2021 article, which used ZiPS to imagine a world in which Fregosi did not come down with Morton’s neuroma in his foot after his age-28 season. Fregosi was coming off a 6.8 WAR season, but was never the same afterward: 41.6 WAR in parts of 10 seasons before the tumor, 2.6 in parts of eight seasons thereafter. Fregosi was an all-time great, just not for long enough to consolidate a Hall of Fame case.

And then there’s World War II, which influenced the careers of three shortstops on this list: Stephens, Pesky, and Travis.

Stephens missed the Hall of Fame despite putting up monster numbers through his prime with the Browns and Red Sox, including a ludicrous 159-RBI season with Boston in 1959. But even at the time his reputation did not match his numbers. Stephens drove in all those runs hitting behind Dom DiMaggio (.383 career OBP), Pesky (.394 OBP), and Ted Williams (.482 career OBP). And his best seasons in St. Louis were viewed as the product of beating up on competition weakened by stars going off to war.

Stephens’ defense was likewise not well-regarded. His SABR bio quotes a minor league manager as saying, “Stephens will never play shortstop in the major leagues as long as he has a hole in his ass.” One could argue that no major league shortstop has ever lacked that attribute, but scouting was apparently different in the 1930s. At any rate, Stephens also declined rapidly in his early 30s and never put up the raw numbers to force a Hall of Fame case. That decline was variously attributed to failing eyes, failing knees, or the result of hard partying as a young man.

Pesky didn’t come close to having a Hall of Fame case, even though his historical proximity to Williams makes him notable in baseball history. Nevertheless, he led the league in hits and finished third in MVP voting in 1942, then missed his age-24, age-25, and age-26 seasons due to military service. When he came back, he led the American League in hits again and finished fourth in MVP voting. The effect of losing such a big chunk of his early prime could’ve been greater on Pesky than we can appreciate just by backfilling the numbers.

That’s certainly true for Travis, whom Bill James once singled out as an obvious example of a Hall of Fame career lost to World War II. Travis was a star with the Senators in his early 20s, and in his age-27 season, he hit .359/.410/.520, a 142 wRC+ and 6.3 WAR by the standards of the time. Unfortunately, that was 1941; Travis went into the service and not only missed the last four seasons of what should’ve been his prime, he suffered severe frostbite at the Battle of the Bulge and almost had his feet amputated.

The ramifications of such an injury on a professional athlete would be obvious, to say nothing of the fact that Travis returned to Washington at 31 years old, after an extended layoff. He was never a productive baseball player again.

Travis and Pesky were two of the five shortstops I flagged as not even achieving Hall of Very Good status, but those five all had extended, productive careers. That seems to be the absolute floor for Witt and Henderson based on the available evidence. Maintaining their current level of production brings them into Hall of Very Good territory, with only modest development needed to start a conversation about Cooperstown several years down the road.

That road is long, and obviously strewn with obstacles. But barring the outbreak of another World War, it’s straighter than you’d think.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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4 months ago

…Is Gunnar Henderson actually a SS though? He played more innings at 3B last year, and I don’t think the plan is to keep him there long term with Holliday right behind him?

4 months ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

Probably depends upon the near-term performance of Westburg and Mayo. If Mayo pulls an Austin Riley and forces his way as an everyday 3B, Henderson can stick at short and Holliday would likely shift to second. If Mayo struggles at the plate or can’t stick at third, then Henderson most likely surrenders SS to Holliday.

4 months ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

Exactly, plus he has never hit lefties. You don’t have to squint too hard to see a future where he’s a .250 hitting 3B with 30 HRs a year who probably shouldn’t play against tough lefties. That’s not bad, but certainly not HOF material.

4 months ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

His UZR is better as a SS and his OAA is only marginally worse in ~equal innings as a SS and a 3B in his career. (Only like 10 games worth in difference between the two positions.)

Unless Ortiz ends up at short he might be the best SS likely to come up with the big club. There are questions about Holliday’s arm strength for short. He might end up at 2nd with Westburg at 3rd.

4 months ago
Reply to  LesVegetables

I’d vote in Henderson right now.