Which Active Players Are Going to Cooperstown?

The Hall of Fame announces its results tomorrow, and the next few days will be filled with voters publishing their ballots online, giving you ample opportunity to shake your head in wonder at the thought process of some voters. But, instead of getting frustrated by decisions made by other people we have no influence over, I’d like to do something else while waiting for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and maybe even Frank Thomas to be acknowledged as all time greats. So, today, let’s update a post I did a few years ago, and look at which players currently active are going to eventually end up in Cooperstown.

Before I started picking names, though, I was curious as to what the historical precedent was for active Hall of Famers in any given season. I noted a few weeks ago that, historically, between 1-2% of all players have been inducted in the Hall of Fame, but because the best players have long careers and end up crossing over eras, it would make sense that there are more than 8-15 Hall of Famers playing in any given season. So, with assistance from Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, I pulled the number of players in every season of baseball history who were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.

I won’t reproduce the whole list here, since it covers 134 seasons even after you exclude the nine recent years in which no one has yet to be elected, but I will note that the most Hall of Famers ever in one season is 53, back in 1928-1929-1930. There were 52 in 1926, 1927, and 1932. In fact, there are only 15 seasons in baseball history where there were 40 or more active Hall of Famers in that season, and those 15 years are every season from 1923 to 1937. Here are those 15 seasons, with rank being their position on the all time leaderboard for seasons with most Hall of Famers active.

Rk Year #Matching
15 1923 40
11 1924 47
8 1925 51
6 1926 52
5 1927 52
3 1928 53
2 1929 53
1 1930 53
9 1931 48
4 1932 52
7 1933 51
10 1934 47
12 1935 44
14 1936 41
13 1937 41

I think we can safely say that the era of Babe Ruth has been romanticized more than any other in baseball history, and agree that there are probably some players in the Hall of Fame who were simply the recipients of some fortuitous timing. That kind of representation of an era is not normal.

But, interestingly, the median number for active Hall of Famers in a season doesn’t really change much even if you throw out that entire time period. Including all the years in which there were any active players who have already been inducted into Cooperstown, the median is 30. If you throw out the 1923-1937 era, the median only drops to 28. If you limit the years to just the 20th century, the median is 33. No matter how you slice and dice the data, you’re going to end up with a historical norm around 30 active players. So, let’s set that as our target, and try to identify 30 players who will take the field in 2014 who might have a decent shot at ending up with a plaque in the Hall of Fame.

Already Earned Their Way

1. Albert Pujols, +87 WAR
2. Derek Jeter, +74 WAR
3. Ichiro Suzuki, +55 WAR

Barring a late career PED test failure, the first two are absolute locks, and Ichiro’s close enough to 3,000 hits that, with the bonus he’ll get for not coming to the U.S. until age-27, he’ll meet the Fame threshold for most voters.

Would Be a Lock, Except PEDs

4. Alex Rodriguez, +111 WAR

My guess is, at some point in the not too distant future, the Hall of Fame will adopt rules regarding players who were suspended for PED usage, and those rules will determine whether or not Rodriguez is eventually enshrined in Cooperstown. On performance alone, he obviously belongs.

Almost There, Just Don’t Suck for a Few More Years

5. Miguel Cabrera, +55 WAR
6. Carlos Beltran, +64 WAR
7. CC Sabathia, +62 WAR

Thesse guys have the rate stats to get inducted, and essentially just need to ensure that their counting stats get up near Hall of Fame levels for voters who prefer milestones. They don’t even have to be good for the next few years, as long as they stay healthy and keep playing most everyday. Adding in a decent 1,500 plate appearances or 500 innings would push them over the top for most voters, based on what they’ve already done.

On Track, but Not Quite There Yet

8. Adrian Beltre, +65 WAR
9. David Wright, +50 WAR
10. Joe Mauer, +44 WAR
11. Justin Verlander, +44 WAR
12. Felix Hernandez, +41 WAR
13. Robinson Cano, +37 WAR
14. Evan Longoria, +36 WAR
15. Dustin Pedroia, +34 WAR
16. Joey Votto, +33 WAR

These nine are guys that have played at a Hall of Fame level to this point in their career. You could potentially make a case for Beltre in the tier above this, but because so much of his value is tied to defense, he probably needs to do a bit more offensively to get over the hump. The rest mostly just need to age well.

Could Make it With Strong Finish

17. David Ortiz, +42 WAR
18. Chase Utley, +55 WAR
19. Cliff Lee, +45 WAR

These guys are all going to need to put up more great seasons in their late-30s in order to push themselves into the conversation, but they’ve done enough to at least make it possible.

Off to a Great Start

20. Clayton Kershaw, +29 WAR
21. Andrew McCutchen +27 WAR
22. Mike Trout, +21 WAR
23. Yadier Molina, +29 WAR
24. Zack Greinke, +37 WAR
25. Bryce Harper, +8 WAR
26. Giancarlo Stanton, +14 WAR
27. Buster Posey, +18 WAR
28. Manny Machado, +8 WAR
29. Stephen Strasburg, +11 WAR

The next generation of superstars — and Molina, who has made himself a potential candidate with his last few seasons — as best as we can tell right now. Some of these guys will get hurt or fall apart, but if I was going to pick the cream of the crop for the future candidates, these guys would probably be it.

The Reliever

30. Craig Kimbrel, +9 WAR

Voters have traditionally favored closers with longevity, but Kimbrel’s run of dominance is something we’ve never really seen before. His career ERA- is 37; Mariano Rivera only had three seasons in which he matched that mark. He’s going to have to stay healthy for another decade or so, but his peak was so high that he only really needs to have a couple more dominant years and then hang around as a save gatherer to go down as the best closer of his generation.

That’s my 30, anyway. It might skew too much to the older generation, and perhaps I’d be better off excluding guys like Utley and Lee in favor of super premium prospects who might get a cup of coffee, but this is the definition of an inexact science, so feel free to quibble with my picks and put your own in the comments.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

Which active players are going to Cooperstown?

At this rate, “Derek Jeter, because the game was better when I was a kid.” – average BBWAA member.

Don Zimmer's jowl sweat
10 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

“Players nowadays don’t play the game the right way. Now Jack Morris…he was something special”

gabriel syme
10 years ago

That’s an appalling slur on Don Zimmer’s jowl sweat.

snack man
10 years ago

Guys, it’s the hall of fame, not the hall of really high WAR. I personally disagree with Jack Morris, but I understand the intentions. He pitched a 10 inning game 7 shutout. It will never be done again, and it’s going to be top 2 in anyone’s WS history. I could understand someone saying, “it’s just not the hall if the pitcher that did that isn’t there.”

Don Larsen
10 years ago
Reply to  snack man

I wonder if I can get in on that…

10 years ago
Reply to  snack man

Seriously. If we’re picking guys based on their performance in one game, why don’t we elect Mark Whiten while we’re at it?

10 years ago
Reply to  snack man

Right, it’s the not the hall of WAR, it’s the hall guys who pitched a 10 inning shutout in the WS.

Fernando Tatis
10 years ago
Reply to  snack man

Hey guys! I’m writing my induction speech as we speak…

Chan Ho Park
10 years ago
Reply to  snack man

You go to heck, Tatis!

10 years ago

Thurman munson belongs in, he was better than fisk. don’t penalize him for a 10 year career

10 years ago
Reply to  anthony

If HOF is going to be heavily weighted toward post-season play, Thurman Munson should be a shoo-in. In 3 post-season ALCS series he batted .339 and in 3 World Series he batted .373. In the 1976 WS the Reds could not get him out as he went 9/17.
He was an All-Star 7 of his 10 Maajor League seasons. Rookie of the year 1970 and MVP 1976. That he is not in the HOF is a JOKE.

10 years ago

jim kaat deserves to be in, also billy martin better then torre he was lucky,better then weaver

10 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

The true irony is that players today are probably nearing the absolute limits of what humans can do on the baseball diamond in terms of throwing hard, running fast, etc – while also having unprecedented amounts of information, video, etc available to them to make them better at the game. Every generation is probably getting better and reaching higher peaks (and floors) than the previous due to advances in the way we think about the game, the way we scout it, the way the players train for it.

But, to the average BBWAA member, (and golf writer) today’s players are not great, and don’t deserve to be remembered in baseball’s designated museum for the greats.

One Thing
10 years ago
Reply to  AK7007

I agree with most of what you said, except “The true irony is that players today are probably nearing the absolute limits of what humans can do on the baseball diamond in terms of throwing hard, running fast, etc”

I bet they thought that in the 80s, and 60s, and 50s, and so on.

10 years ago
Reply to  One Thing

True. It’s more likely that we’re still on some upward-trending curve that could continue to rise with future developments in drugs, genetics, nutrition, and biometrics.

But it’s safe to say that we have better athletes now than any generation in baseball’s past, so for the number of players inducted into the HOF to decline is just wrong.

10 years ago
Reply to  One Thing

The only reason this fact isn’t 100% obvious is because, with a sport like baseball, a player’s skills can only be measured in comparison to his opponents. You look at timed/measured sports like track and field, swimming, weightlifting, marathon running, cycling, etc, and records are continually being broken and it is obvious that today’s competitors are better than years past.

10 years ago
Reply to  One Thing

These are all fine points and I don’t necessarily disagree with them. However, I think we have to judge a player relative to peers since there is just enough noise around different eras to make inter-generational comparisons difficult.

Counting stats should get tossed out for the most part. I don’t want to reward players for advances in medicine and nutrition that promote longer careers. I also don’t want to reward them for entering the game at a more advanced stage that benefits from the learning process achieved through earlier eras. At the same time, I don’t want to penalize players who played in a far more international sport with a greater overall pool of talent, especially vis-a-vis a segregated era. Throw in things like higher mounds, smaller/larger ball parks, etc. and the best measurement is performance relative to peers. This dominance over peers should be the basis we use to compare players across generations.

At the absurd extreme, do we start arguing that Kenny Rogers should be a hall of famer because his absolute talent is such that he would’ve dominated hitters in the 1930s?

10 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

Are you saying that Derek Jeter is only a deserving HoF’er because of nostalgia? I mean… really?

Also, the problem of the overstuffed 1920s-1930s in the Hall has a lot of reasons, but the really egregious reason comes down to one man: Frankie Frisch. Frisch was the most vocal member of the Veterans’ Committee in his later years. Even before he joined the Veterans’ Committee, he was a vocal supporter of a lot of his old teammates for the Hall. Let’s take a look at all of Frisch’s teammates who made it to Cooperstown:

Ross Youngs
George Kelly
Dave Bancroft
Casey Stengel
Travis Jackson
Hack Wilson
Bill Terry
Freddie Lindstrom
Mel Ott
Chick Hafey
Rabbit Maranville
Jesse Haines
Pete Alexander
Jim Bottomly
Burleigh Grimes
Dizzy Dean
Ducky Medwick
Leo Durocher
Rogers Hornsby
Dazzy Vance
Johnny Mize

So that’s 21 players that Frisch played with at one time or another who ended up in the Hall of Fame. Of those, two (Stengel and Durocher) were inducted as managers. Of the remaining 19, the only ones with rock-solid, iron-clad cases for the Hall, are Ott, Alexander, Medwick, Hornsby, Vance, and Mize. The other 13 range from pretty strong, but arguable, cases (Terry) to absolutely no business whatsoever being in the Hall (Lindstrom, Jackson, etc.). Frisch didn’t have a hand in all of the other selections — Maranville was considered to be Ozzie Smith before there was Ozzie Smith; looking at his year-by-year MVP voting is really a fascinating exercise — but he had a hand in a lot of them.

So, a big part of the “the 20’s and 30’s are overrepresented in the Hall of Fame” argument can be rephrased as “a lot of people in the 20’s and 30’s happened to be teammates with Frankie Frisch.”

10 years ago
Reply to  JimNYC

I don’t believe (s)he was saying that.

10 years ago
Reply to  JimNYC

I wasn’t at all saying that. Jeter isn’t an inner-circle member, but it’s pretty clear he deserves to be in Cooperstown, and even Small Hall guys would probably agree with me on that. The problem lies with uninformed (not necessarily all – or exclusively – old-school) sportswriters who seem to inexplicably believe there has been a decline in the level of on-field talent since the 1970s. It simply is not possible to be intellectually honest and submit a ballot that doesn’t contain 10 names.

10 years ago
Reply to  gnomez

This list is great but the only guy I would disagree with is Utley, the guy is in his mid 30’s and isnt even half way to 3000 hits yet. replace him with Michael Young who i believe is only 3 decent years away from being a HOFer and i think the list is perfect. some consideration could be made for Paul Konerko as well but i think he will fall just short.