Active players: who's going to Cooperstown?

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Merry Christmas! Through the wonders of pre-scheduled posting, this gift to you on this snowy morning (note: snow subject to availability) comes as I am still tucked up in bed, unwrapping presents, nibbling on cookies, or flicking through the channels in search of a Yule log.

With the results of this year's Hall of Fame voting due to be announced on January 6th, here's something for you to contemplate in between decking the halls and fa-la-la-la-la-ing. What currently active players do you think will make it to Cooperstown after the end of their career? After the jump, I'll give you my list of the thirty I think have got the best shot at a plaque in the Hall.

The first thing we have to do is decide how many players are we looking for? At any given time, the number playing who end up in the Hall of Fame is surprisingly high. Before looking into this, I'd have expected maybe a dozen HoFers to be playing in any season, but it has generally been a lot more than that over the history of the game. The graph below plots the number of active players in the Hall of Fame against the year - note that "active" can mean as little as a single at-bat or inning pitched.

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From the end of WW2 through 1984, the number was never less than 29 or more than 39. The all-time peak is 1928-29, when fifty-six would eventually be in Cooperstown. It's startling when you consider that in 1928, only 505 players appeared in the majors, so almost one in nine ended up enshrined. The most on a single team in one year is nine, several times by the Yankees in the inter-war era. Their 1931 team may have been the most HoF-friendly ever, with an everyday lineup including six future inductees (C Bill Dickey, 1B Lou Gehrig, 2B Tony Lazzeri, 3B Joe Sewell, OF Earle Combs and Babe Ruth) and 102 starts from pitchers Lefty Gomez, Herb Pennock and Red Ruffin. Yet they didn't even make the post-season, finishing 13.5 games back of Philadelphia, who "only" had five HoFers: Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Waite Hoyt and Al Simmons.

Numbers have steadily declined since 1982, in part due to a smaller pool from which to draw. I also suspect doubts about the steroid era will make it harder for players who flourished then to get the necessary votes. My first thought was to pick 30 active players; one for each team. This appealed, because it would mean I'd get to stiff Lincecum on the 2009 Giants, in favor of the Big Unit. That lasted until I looked at the 2009 Pirates roster: tumbleweeds roll across the field there, with regard to potential inductees. My next thought was 25, matching roster-size, and picking current players to fill it. However, a normal roster typically has seven relievers and five starters, when it's a lot harder for bullpen guys to get into Cooperstown, so would end up being contrived or unrealistic.

In the end, I decided we should revert back to 30, but split it up differently. I'd pick ten players near the end of their career; ten in their prime; and ten players who are just starting off, who I think have the best changes to reach the Hall of Fame in due course. The dividing line I've used to decide the categories is simply age-based. Anyone 35 or older goes into the "veteran" group, and anyone 25 or younger is classified as a youngster, with their age being taken as at June 30th, 2009.  Everyone else goes into the middle group. For each, I've added a few quick comments with regard to their candidacy. Note that I'm concentrating on numbers which seem to factor in HoF consideration: HR and Wins are more important than OBP and WHIP.

Twilight of Idols

Easiest to judge are those whose careers are (more or less) winding down, because we can get the best handle on their complete accomplishments. I would be astonished if the vast majority of the players below do not find their way into Cooperstown, and it's quite possible all ten might do so eventually.

  1. Randy Johnson
    303 wins. Including the post-season, over 5,000 K's, second all-time. Five Cy Youngs - and should have had at least one more. Any questions?
  2. Mariano Rivera
    Career ERA+ of 202, the highest in baseball history by any pitcher with 1,000 IP. The next best is all the way down at 154.
  3. Chipper Jones
    426 HR, behind only Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray among switch-hitters, with a career OPS+ of 143 and six top-ten MVP finishes. 
  4. Pedro Martinez
    After the past few injury-ravaged years, easy to forget his total dominance: in 199 starts from 1997-2003, he went 118-36, with a 2.20 ERA and 0.94 WHIP.
  5. Ken Griffey Jr.
    Active home-run leader at 630, a monstrous 152 OPS+ during the nineties, part of a streak of 17 consecutive years above 100.
  6. Ivan Rodriguez
    Thirteen Gold Gloves, more than any position player bar Brooks Robinson. Seven Silver Sluggers. One MVP. OPS+ of 120 from 1995-2004. By a catcher.
  7. Ichiro Suzuki
    Nine seasons, All-Star games, Gold Gloves and times with 200+ hits. Gave everyone a year's start and still had ninety more hits this decade than anyone else. 
  8. Trevor Hoffman
    All-time saves leader, career ERA+ of 147 (4th best, min. 1,000 IP). Injury in 2003 cost him a chance for 15 straight 30-save years.
  9. Manny Ramirez
    No denying the talent or numbers here, but will a widely-perceived bad attitude and the 50-game drug ban hurt his cause at all?
  10. Jim Thome
    One of the most intimidating hitters ever, should end up in the all-time top ten for HR - and without a whisper to connect him to any drug lab.

Prime Time

These are not quite as certain locks as the first group, because there is still a chance injury or other unforeseen circumstances could derail their career. However, they are among the best in the game, and have been so for long enough that I am fairly confident, if they continue a normal arc, their overall numbers will be worthy.

  1. Albert Pujols
    .314 BA. .955 OPS. 32 HR. 103 RBI. 9th in the MVP voting. Those are Albert's worst season numbers since he made his debut in 2001.
  2. Chase Utley
    Only three 2B in the modern era have had a career OPS over .900 at their age 30 season. Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie and Utley.
  3. Alex Rodriguez
    The likely future home-run king, steroids may have dented his crown somewhat, but will probably merely delay his induction.
  4. Roy Halladay
    Five Top 5 Cy Young finishes, and 148 wins - after 12 seasons on a team that finished third or worse in the division all but once.
  5. CC Sabathia
    136 wins already. Since 1980, just Dwight Gooden had more by age 28. Might have a shot at 300, especially if he stays in New York.
  6. Miguel Cabrera
    Six men had 200+ HR and a career BA above .310 at age 26. Four (Aaron, Mantle, Foxx, Ott) are in Cooperstown. Pujols + Cabrera are the others.
  7. Johan Santana
    Career ERA+ is 143, trailing only Pedro among active starters, as is his W% of .670. Four times in the top three for Cy Young voting.
  8. Joe Mauer
    His career BA of .327 is #1 all time at the position. Last season's .365 has been beaten once by a qualifying catcher since 1895.
  9. Francisco Rodriguez
    Saves may be over-rated, but only Rod Beck (260) had more to age 30 than K-Rod's current 243. Oh, and Francisco won't turn 30 until 2012. 
  10. Brandon Webb
    Webb's chances may depend on where he ends up after next season - and his shoulder holding up. Career ERA+ of 142 is 3rd among active starters.

Young Guns

For obvious reasons, this is the hardest part of all, because so much can happen to a young player: injuries can derail any career, and early promise can just easily flame out. Conversely, players can be late bloomers, such as Cooperstown resident Kirby Puckett, who through age 25 had an OPS+ of only 86. Similarly, over Randy Johnson's first four years, taking him to his 28th birthday, the Big Unit had made 98 starts and his ERA+ was hardly special, at only 99. He had led the American League the previous two years...but in walks, not strikeouts. Now, of course, he's a first-ballot lock. So it's possible there are gems of talent still currently buried in mediocrity. Or even Pittsburgh.

You'll notice a heavy (in fact, near-complete) National League bias, and also a skewing toward the NL West. This wasn't intentional, but I think simply reflects that those are, far and away, the young players I see most, and to whom I pay greatest attention. As a result, I will be particularly interested to see what other suggestions people might have in this area.

  1. Tim Lincecum
    Every pitcher to win multiple Cy Youngs is/will be in the HOF, except Denny McLain. If Timmy can avoid the off-field issues, he'll join them.
  2. Justin Upton
    Since 1901, seventeen qualifying players 21 or younger have had an OPS of .899 or better. Of the dozen now eligible for Cooperstown, ten are in.
  3. Hanley Ramirez
    Only three SS in history have had 100 HR by their age 25 season. A-Rod, Ripken and Hanley. At .316, his BA is the best of that trio.
  4. Zack Greinke
    Exploded from serviceable starter to near-unanimous Cy Young winner this year. Could be one of those late bloomers.
  5. Prince Fielder
    Youngest player ever to have a 50-homer season, only one in the third category to have four 25 HR years already.
  6. Ryan Braun
    At 143, best career OPS+ of players in this group. 3-for-3 in thirty HR years and a .308 career BA, despite a move to the outfield.
  7. Jair Jurrjens
    At age 23, his ERA+ is 130 - as context, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens at the same age were 128 and 134 respectively.
  8. Clayton Kershaw
    One other pitcher in baseball history has thrown 250+ ML innings by age 21, while striking out more than a batter per inning.
  9. Huston Street
    Two closers ever (K-Rod and Gregg Olson) have picked up more saves by the end of their age 25 season than Street's 129.
  10. Pablo Sandoval
    At 137, has a better OPS+ than Hank Aaron (134), Lou Gehrig (133) or Reggie Jackson (126) did at the same point in their careers.
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