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Surprise Hall of Famers Are Living Among Us

Garsh! Sha-zam! Gawley! Would you look at them fellers.

Garsh! Sha-zam! Gawley! Would you look at them fellers.

It’s easy to predict Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera will achieve baseball’s highest honor. But as he entered his thirties, who would have predict that for Ozzie Smith? Seeking surprise candidates of just this sort is what we’re going to do in this piece (on hitters) and a follow up on pitchers.

David Schoenfield’s recent article “Which Active Players Are Hall of Famers” sparked a lively discussion at Baseball Think Factory, in turn inspiring this piece. In comment 13, Davo’s Favorite Tacos Are Moose Tacos suggested that someone in the league will surprise us just like Paul Molitor did on the way to Cooperstown. No, wait, Paul Molitor? Of the 3,000 hits? Of the 70+ Wins Above Replacement? What’s the surprise?

Through age 29, Molitor accumulated only 30 WAR—nothing you’d hang a Hall of fame prediction on. Injuries cost him 300 to 400 games. He was a first-round pick with Hall of Fame talent but little ability to stay on the field. He put it together in his early 30s, but after more injuries in 1987 and 1990, the Brewers finally made him a DH/first baseman, allowing him to chase down 3,000 hits. Without a huge second decade, Molitor is just another underachiever. Instead, he’s a surprising Hall of Famer.

Surprise, surprise, surprise!

So I looked for players like Molitor. Here were my criteria:

  • Career took place after World War II
  • Pre-30 total under 40 WAR
  • Pre-30 WAR total representing at most 40% of career total.

Only four current Hall members fit this bill, so I added four more players who Miller and I see as credible candidates. All statistics are adjusted to a 162-game schedule.

                DEBUT  PRE 30  PRE 30  POST 30  30/31/32    DRAFT
NAME             AGE     PA     WAR     WAR       WAR       ROUND
Roberto Clemente 20    5896     38.2    57.3   7.1/8.2/8.9   ---
Jose Cruz        22    2943     15.3    40.0   5.3/4.6/4.7   ---
Jim Edmonds      23    2951     20.4    37.9   6.3/5.8/6.7     7  
Jeff Kent        24    3151     16.0    40.7   4.4/3.5/7.2    20
Edgar Martinez   24    2086     18.9    51.8   0.2/4.5/7.9   ---
Paul Molitor     21    4706     30.0    47.5   6.0/5.2/5.7     1
Ozzie Smith      23    4453     24.3    51.8   6.4/5.6/6.4     4
Willie Stargell  22    3562     18.5    39.2   2.5/7.9/4.1    ---
AVERAGE         22.4   3617     22.4    45.1   4.8/5.5/6.3     8
MEDIAN          22.5   3257     19.7    43.3   5.7/5.4/6.6     7

It’s a fairly eclectic group. But they do (mostly) share three traits:

  1. an up and down pattern in their twenties
  2. at least one All-Star type season before their 30th birthday (a season of 5+ WAR)
  3. they began their thirties with a bang.

We won’t find that everyone meets all the averages in the table or the three traits above, but let’s sift through them to see what we can find.

Less surprising than they used to be

What players are already in the midst of a late-career kick that will turn them into surprise Hall of Fame candidates? Let’s start with those already well into their thirties.

              DEBUT  2014   PRE 30  PRE 30  POST 30  30/31/32    DRAFT
NAME           AGE    AGE     PA     WAR     WAR       WAR       ROUND
Jose Bautista  23     33      2721    6.9    21.8   8.1/3.5/4.2    20
Adrian Beltre  19     35      5788   35.6    36.6   3.3/7.8/5.8   ---
Matt Holliday  24     34      3638   23.7    20.9   5.9/3.9/4.0     7
Ian Kinsler    24     32      3446   27.7    12.4   2.4/4.5/5.5    17
David Ortiz    21     38      3584   15.4    32.2   5.7/6.4/1.7   ---
Ben Zobrist    25     33      1784   12.4    24.2   8.7/5.7/4.8     6  
  • Jose Bautista: First All-Star level season at 29 and has raked since. Injuries have sapped late-peak value, and with so little to start from, he’s unlikely to have enough of a career to be a compelling candidate.
  • Adrian Beltre: Simply, he’s on the Clemente path to the Hall.
  • Matt Holiday: Normal decline off a late start: a consistent 3 to 5 WAR player who lately has dropped into the 3 to 4 WAR range. Nothing to see here.
  • Ian Kinsler: Not as far down the line as these other guys, but maintaining several years of All-Star production would make him a very interesting stealth candidate.
  • David Ortiz: Twins monkeyed around with him early on, but a beast since. Hall voters will love his clutchy narrative of Jeteresque proportions. But will they ding him for an alleged positive test?
  • Ben Zobrist: The anti-Ortiz. Quiet, overlookable, value from his versatility, flexibility, and subtle batting skills. Long way to go and is clearly coming off his tremendous peak, but he’s played at an All-Star level for six straight seasons. Needs three or four more to sniff the borderline of the Hall.

Beltre and Ortiz are the plays here, but Kinsler and Zobrist are interesting.

About to surprise us?

Here are some fellows between 29 and 31 resembling our profile or already showing signs of a surprise candidacy.

               DEBUT  2014   PRE 30  PRE 30  POST 30  30/31/32    DRAFT
NAME            AGE    AGE     PA     WAR     WAR       WAR       ROUND
Melky Cabrera    20     29     4857    17.2    ---         ---      ---  
Shin-Soo Choo    22     31     2965    21.3    4.3     4.2/0.1/---  --- 
Edwin Encarncion 22     31     3722    11.5    7.8     4.2/3.6/---   9
Brett Gardner    24     30     2228    19.2    4.0     4.0/---/---   3
Alex Gordon      23     30     3753    22.0    6.6     6.6/---/---   1
Matt Kemp        21     29     4496    21.3    ---         ---       6
Howie Kendrick   22     30     3745    22.2    5.4     5.4/---/---  10 
Russell Martin    24     23     3674    20.3    9.8     4.3/5.5/---  17
Yadier Molina    21     31     4060    21.0    5.3     4.3/1.0/---   4
Hanley Ramirez   21     30     4760    32.9    3.5     3.5/---/---  --- 
  • Put your money on Alex Gordon. An athletic, former first-rounder who struggled early and was mismanaged, but after a position switch, has settled in as an excellent player.
  • Russell Martin is making his run. Catcher WAR totals are lower, so those two post-29 seasons are All-Star level years. The question will be durability as a backstop.
  • Ditto Yadier Molina, who is returning from injuries that cost him 50 games in 2014 but was an MVP candidate in 2013.
  • Hanley Ramirez, former top prospect and three-time All-Star has had the injury bug. Moving to left field, the DH league, and an organization accustomed to dealing with big personalities may help him stay in the lineup and produce consistently.
  • Brett Gardner found power at age 30, and he’s played at a near-MVP level before. Had a long break-in period to the Yankees’ veteran-laden rosters, lost a year to injury, and shuttled between left field and center field. A poor man’s Molitor.

On the other end, Matt Kemp’s lost the ability to play the outfield effectively and is playing in a more spacious park, and he’s shown a propensity for injury…. The outlook ain’t great among the tweeners. Howie Kendrick didn’t play at an All-Star level before age 30 (though close in 2011). Unless he follows up 2014 with an All-Star season in 2015, I’ll be skeptical because the Jeff Kent path is fairly rare…. Melky Cabrera played like an All-Star once, and and got busted that year for PEDs, curtailing his value. We’ll see…. Edwin Encarnacion looks a lot like teammate Jose Bautista, but he has yet to climb to the heights Joey Bats has. Tick, tick, tick…. Finally, Shin-Soo Choo’s injury-plagued 2014 makes 2015 a question mark, but he needs to be better than he’s ever been to get on the surprise-candidate pathway.

Some other players just miss, including Gardner clone Jacoby Ellsbury, and could be on this list with a strong 2015.

Surprise me!

It’s silly to predict anything for guys under 26, but what about the 26–28 crowd? Among the many we could choose from, here’s some with that surprise-candidate feeling.

               DEBUT  2014   PRE 30  PRE 30  DRAFT
NAME            AGE    AGE     PA     WAR    ROUND
Michael Brantley 22     27    2838    13.2     7
Jay Bruce        21     27    3951    14.3     1 
Lorenzo Cain     24     28    1369    12.2    17
Matt Carpenter   25     28    1785     9.9    13
Josh Donaldson   24     28    1691    16.6     1 
Brian Dozier     25     27    1670     9.6     8
Todd Frazier     25     28    1846    10.9     1
Carlos Gomez     21     28    3364    21.8    ---
Carlos Gonzalez  22     28    3107    18.7    ---
Austin Jackson   23     27    3230    20.3     8
Adam Jones       20     28    4487    23.9     1
Jason Kipnis     24     27    2035    11.8     2
Jonathan Lucroy  24     28    2346    15.3     3      
Justin Upton     19     26    4314    20.0     1

In the interest of brevity, just my top five.

  • Josh Donaldson: From number-one-pick bust to MVP-level player in a hurry. If the pixie dust doesn’t wear off, his thirties will be fun to watch.
  • Carlos Gomez: Emerged as MVP candidate at 27. At 28 was merely All-Star level. It’s mostly about the glove, but his bat went from a negative to a positive in short order. The changes appear to be real. He’s squaring up the ball more often and hitting it hard in the air. His groundball rates have plunged, and his line drive rate has spiked. If he can hang onto his speed and glove to go with the newly found bat, there’s a lot of opportunity for special seasons.
  • Carlos Gonzalez: If he’s traded as rumored, it could be the best thing for the injury-riddled outfielder. Colorado is no place to try to stay healthy, but when he has been healthy, he produces. Free Cargo!
  • Austin Jackson: Has had seasons where he’s hit well, run the bases well, and fielded well, but never all at once. If Jackson puts it all together, his thirties will feature lots of All-Star seasons.
  • Jonathan Lucroy: Like many catchers, Lucroy’s bat developed later than his glove. Strikeout rates have decreased every year since 2011, walk rates and percentage of hits for extra bases have risen every year of his career. A well regarded backstop with improving offense: we’re going to see a lot of him during July exhibition games.

Each generation sees two or three surprise-candidate hitters. It looks like Beltre and Ortiz are now treading this unusual and difficult path to glory. Gordon, Martin, Molina, Ramirez, and Gardner may be starting down it. Donaldson, Gomez, Gonzalez, Jackson, and Lucroy are approaching and hoping the future is better than the past. As likely as not, someone I haven’t mentioned will be the guy. That’s how surprises work, right?

Watch out next time for pitchers!




2 thoughts on “Surprise Hall of Famers Are Living Among Us

  1. I’m too lazy to look this up, but are Stargell’s age 30-31 seasons when the Pirates moved out of Forbes Field and into their new cookie cutter stadium? I remember he had a real jump in power when he got out of Forbes and its bus ride to the fences outfield.

    Posted by verdun2 | January 12, 2015, 9:32 am
    • Good call. The Bucs moved out of Forbes field midway through 1970, no doubt helping Stargell’s game quite a bit. Few hitters have been so mismatched to their home field. It’s one thing for Yankee Stadium to be tough for righties, it’s a whole ‘nother thing when not only is a power hitter playing in a cavernous park, but he’s also slow footed in a place known for increasing players’ triples.

      Posted by eric | January 13, 2015, 7:55 pm

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