Ten years ago today, Barry Bonds hit the 756th home run of his career. For a decade now, a known steroid user has owned arguably the most hallowed record in American sports. Incredibly, the world has continued to spin.
The moralists mew. The apologists excuse. Everyone else comes to that blissful place that recognizes an uneven playing field is not right but so-called performance-enhancing drugs are, in many cases, no more advantageous for a player than substances deemed legal by the sport. These days, PEDs are just another quarter in the outrage machine. Pop it in, turn the knob, manufacture hypocrisy so strong it might as well be on a cycle of Deca Durabolin.
Right or wrong, one segment of the population is slowly but surely turning on the matter. More than half the Hall of Fame voters last year gave Bonds a checkmark – up from just over a third two years earlier. Five years in, Bonds stands at 53.8 percent. Five years left, and 21.2 percent to go.
History says Bonds gets in, though his case is so unique it renders prior order moot. The Hall is a tricky, odd beast, and predicting who’s going to get in is the domain of fools.
Thankfully, the keeper of 10 Degrees majored in foolishness, minored in foolery and is willing to start off a column on the subject by saying he believes …
1. Jose Altuve will be a Hall of Famer someday. Now, this is awfully presumptive, seeing as Altuve is barely 27 years old, and neither scouts nor statisticians are consistently adept at projecting how a player is going to age.
Perhaps there is some prisoner-of-the-moment emotion at work here, too, because what Altuve has done over the last six weeks is otherworldly. On June 14, he was hitting .312/.381/.496 – an All-Star caliber line for anyone. Over the 42 games since, Altuve is hitting .439/.484/.676 and striking out in less than 9 percent of his plate appearances. The league-wide batting average is .255 and the strikeout rate is 22 percent.
With a .364/.424/.570 line, Altuve is cruising to his third batting title in four seasons, and while the Hall of Fame electorate today is skewing more toward on-base percentage as a marker, the ability to hit for average in a high-strikeout environment is evermore impressive. Altuve logged another three-hit game Sunday, his 21st this season. He’s got a good shot at the most since Ichiro Suzuki’s 34 en route to a record 262-hit season.
Altuve’s evolution from an Ichiro-like speed-and-singles player into a true rarity – the 1.000-OPSing second baseman, of which there have been just 10: Nap Lajoie, Joe Morgan, Jeff Kent and Rogers Hornsby seven times – could seal his candidacy as much as anything. There just aren’t a whole lot of great second basemen, and Altuve, particularly if he wins the American League MVP this season, could launch himself into that echelon. Of course, that means holding off Aaron Judge and hoping …
2. Mike Trout cuts out this whole Patriots-being-down-28-3 thing. Trout missed more than six weeks with a thumb injury – the same amount of time, practically, in which Altuve hit .433. And as much as that would seem to nullify his chances, here comes Trout, with another home run Sunday, with his slash line up to .343/.463/.703, which would be the highest single-season OPS since Bonds put up the highest of all time, 1.422, in 2004.
All of this is just another argument in favor of a point that may be unpopular but is difficult to dispute: Mike Trout is a Hall of Famer right now. No, he doesn’t have the 10 years of service necessary, so, technically, he can’t be. But what Trout has done in his seven seasons is so overwhelming, so otherworldly, that it would take a never-before-seen collapse to tarnish a résumé that sparkles like a diamond graded IF.
Trout has been the best player in baseball for six straight years. The only other player in history who can claim as much is Babe Ruth. The title is subjective, of course, but those inside front offices and on the field agree: Since his first full season, Trout has held it and nobody has proven himself good enough to take it away.
And so he joins six others who any reasonable person would agree are active players with no-doubt Hall of Fame careers. Ichiro Suzuki is nearing the end of his amazing career. Same with Carlos Beltran, whose longevity has given him the counting stats to match his underappreciated peak. Albert Pujols cinched his place long ago. Adrian Beltre did the same in theory, but his 3,000th hit ensured it. Clayton Kershaw’s incredible first decade was like Sandy Koufax, only better. And then there is …
3. Miguel Cabrera, whose confounding 2017 season has done nothing to nullify his previous 14 years but remains unlike anything the baseball world has seen from him – and it has been watching since Cabrera was barely out of his teenage years.
Whatever the case for Cabrera’s drop-off – aging or concerns about the ruin in his home country of Venezuela or something the public doesn’t know or something else he simply can’t explain – it has been stark. Never has Cabrera finished a season with a batting average below .292. This year, it’s .256. His .415 slugging percentage is nearly 100 points lower than his previous worst. His strikeout rate is back above 20 percent, a level unseen since 2004, when he was 21 years old.
Today, Cabrera is 34 – not old, by any means, but no longer an age at which players tend to thrive. In the last decade, only 11 times has a player 35 and older finished the season with an OPS over .900. Four of those years belonged to David Ortiz. It’s possible. Just not terribly likely.
And it makes Cabrera’s contract downright depressing for the Tigers, who owe him $192 million for the next six seasons. Perhaps this season is an anomaly, like Ortiz’s age-33 season, from which he rebounded with aplomb. After all, just look at …
4. Joey Votto, who turns 34 in a month, hitting .311/.435/.596 after a classic homer-and-a-walk game Sunday. That this is more or less a par-for-the-course Votto season puts him in the category just beneath the no-doubters.
Joining him there are Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, the two pitchers of this generation with both the peak and counting stats to seemingly overcome any late-career downswing, and Robinson Cano, whose offensive output and position make up for his lack of high-ranking MVP finishes.
Because he’s a first baseman, Votto faces a far higher threshold. And he has exceeded it for a decade. Votto’s 250 home runs and 808 RBIs aren’t Hall of Fame numbers. His .425 career on-base percentage overcomes whatever lack of counting stats may befall his candidacy.
Here is the list of players with at least 5,000 career plate appearances and a .425-plus OBP: Ted Williams, Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bonds, Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker. All but Bonds are in the Hall. Let’s even bake in a late-career dip. Pujols’ OBP, for example, has dropped 22 points since his age-33 season. Even if Votto ends up at .410, that list consists of just 23 players – and all but Bonds, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Edgar Martinez, Todd Helton, Manny Ramirez and Eddie Stanky are in the Hall.
While Votto’s contract is nearly as onerous as Cabrera’s – six years, $157 million guaranteed – it doesn’t look all that imposing. If he were a free agent after this season, Votto probably would get even more on the open market. Of course, contractual situations have no bearing on a player’s Hall of Fame résumé, seeing as …
5. Chris Sale and Max Scherzer couldn’t have more diametrically opposed deals and still find themselves in the same category: on their way. This is a bit of a catch-all group, admittedly, with disparate résumés but similar feelings: He may not be there quite yet, but he’s pretty close.
Sale is in the midst of his finest season yet and his sixth consecutive turn as an All-Star. He’s the AL Cy Young favorite and should become the first AL pitcher to reach 300 strikeouts since Pedro Martinez in 1999. The vagaries of pitching could claim him as they did so many others who were brilliant like Sale through age 28 – Johan Santana and Frank Tanana and plenty more – but the list of those with numbers similar to Sale at that age includes mostly Hall of Famers.
In this category with him: Madison Bumgarner and his three rings, Buster Posey and his three rings (plus an MVP trophy), Joe Mauer and his MVP trophy (but an iffy back half of his career and position change, both of which make him a unique case), and Craig Kimbrel, who almost belongs with …
6. Bryce Harper in the next grouping: Young but good bets. At 29, Kimbrel doesn’t quite qualify, though it’s worth noting he’ll hit 300 saves soon, has averaged nearly 15 strikeouts per nine for his career and has a 1.83 ERA over 448 innings. If a closer from this generation is likeliest to go in, he’s it.
As for Harper, he still qualifies for this (completely arbitrary) assemblage because of his crème-de-la-crème ability, MVP trophy and age (24). The other MVP in the group, Kris Bryant, doesn’t have quite the length of Harper’s career yet but packs a fair bit of heft in his three years. At 26, Nolan Arenado pushes the age boundary and doesn’t have an MVP award to his name but is arguably the best fielding third baseman in the game and, should he leave Colorado as a free agent, could prove his bat wasn’t just a creation of Coors Field, where his OPS is nearly 170 points higher. The other candidate for best third-base glove is Manny Machado, who at 24 has years to put together an offensive profile like the other three.
Each has years to build on his, though as …
7. Yadier Molina proves, it doesn’t necessarily take scintillating offensive numbers to draw consideration as a Hall of Famer. Much to the consternation of the Best Fans in Baseball, I’m not on the Molina Hall bandwagon. Much as I appreciate his ability behind the plate – an ability I don’t believe defensive metrics take into account, thus leaving his Wins Above Replacement total lower than it ought be – Molina already is a below-average offensive player for his career, and those numbers are likely to get worse as he ages.
For me, Molina is in a borderline category that is loaded with difficult choices. It includes older guys (Chase Utley and CC Sabathia), another defensive wizard (Andrelton Simmons, this generation’s Ozzie Smith/Omar Vizquel), closers (Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen), infielders with either great peak years or consistent excellence but not both (Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki), starting pitchers (Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester) and one of the most underrepresented positions today, an outfielder (Andrew McCutchen).
At the very least, all are in the Hall of Very Good right now. A few will separate themselves with a couple more great seasons and put themselves square in Hall of Fame consideration. All it takes is playing like …
8. Corey Seager has the last two years, and they’ll be right there. All Seager has done this year is bump his walk rate from 7.9 percent to 12.8 percent, hit for more power and play the same excellent defense at shortstop he did last season when he finished third in National League MVP voting. As incredible as Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner have been for the Dodgers, Seager is the one who has played every day and been the font of consistency.
He’s at the forefront of the young-but-good-start crew, with youth being a fairly malleable number. Four of the guys on the list (Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman and Salvador Perez) are 27. Mookie Betts’ bat-glove combination could age well, and he’s just 24. At 23 and 22, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa look like players who could head into their age-30 season with half a Hall career in the books. And odd as it is to consider a 22-year-old closer with a scar on his elbow already, Roberto Osuna’s first three seasons have been so exceptional that ignoring him would show a true bias against closers.
(Full disclosure: I legitimately do have a bias against closers. Respect their abilities, don’t believe the job carries enough value to warrant a spot in the Hall, except in unique circumstances, which is why I will vote for Mariano Rivera in 2019.)
Rivera, actually, is the perfect case of someone who at 25 years old didn’t look like he was going to amount to much, and then, nearly two decades later, he’s a no-doubt. Even if …
9. Paul Goldschmidt proved himself a bit earlier in his career and still has plenty of years to go until he’s in that Hall of Fame realm, he is in the small group of late bloomers with a chance.
Certainly this season isn’t hurting his prospects. The 29-year-old Goldschmidt is slashing .323/.438/.593, and were the season to end today, he almost certainly would win NL MVP, particularly with the Dodgers’ and Nationals’ stars preventing the others from appearing at the top of a ballot.
The rest of this list isn’t long. Corey Kluber showed signs of elite ability at 27 years old, broke out at 28 and at 31 is in the midst of his best season yet, which is saying something, seeing as he won the Cy Young three years ago. If he usurps Sale for another, he jumps off this late-bloomer list and puts himself in prime position for someone who wasn’t even on prospect lists half a decade ago.
At 31, Josh Donaldson has a case staked on an MVP award and the likelihood of him securing a long contract when he hits free agency after 2018, giving him the chance to pile up numbers well into his 30s. It’s a long shot, longer than most on this list, but then the idea of Donaldson not having a full-time big league job until his 27th birthday and winning an MVP award two years later wasn’t altogether likely, either. Sounds a lot like …
10. Jose Altuve, 5-foot-5 second baseman, becoming the purest hitter in baseball. It’s true. Trout is a better all-around offensive player, Stanton more powerful, but Altuve’s combination of bat-to-ball ability and power is, at the moment, unmatched.
Add in the fact that he’s spending the 2018-19 seasons in Houston, the perfect ballpark for him to rake, and that should be two more years of big offensive numbers, padding a case that already is looking good. By the end of the season, Altuve should have somewhere around 29 Wins Above Replacement, and while WAR should not be the barometer for a Hall of Fame case, per se, they do give a sense of historical equals.
In the last 30 years, 30 players have reached 29 WAR by their age-27 season, like Altuve. Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Frank Thomas, Robbie Alomar, Ken Griffey Jr. and Pudge Rodriguez are in the Hall of Fame. Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, Beltran, Beltre, Pujols, Cabrera and Trout will be. Scott Rolen, Mauer, Longoria, McCutchen and Stanton could be. Bonds and Alex Rodriguez should be. The only misses are Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, Will Clark, Chuck Knoblauch, Eric Chavez, David Wright and, in all likelihood, Jason Heyward, and a majority of those cases were because of injury.
In other words, if Jose Altuve stays healthy, he will be in the conversation and has quite the good shot of being in. It’s not a guarantee, not close. As Barry Bonds will attest, nothing, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, is. But for a kid whose signing bonus was $15,000 and whose big league expectations were nil, it ain’t half bad.
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