It’s Hall of Fame season. Larry Walker won’t get in, but another player to whom Walker compares to very well, Vladimir Guerrero, just might. Voters appear to be getting over the the barriers preventing them from voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Now, it looks like they’ll be voted in sometime in their final five rounds of eligibility. The 2017 inductees will be announced on January 18.
Here, we’re going to look farther ahead than a week and a half from now. Sometime in the next 15-20 years, Nolan Arenado should be eligible for the Hall of Fame. What can we say about his chances right now?
I’ve written about this before. Prior to the 2015 season, after Arenado’s second, I wrote for Rockies Magazine that Nolan already was on something of a Hall of Fame track. I drew that conclusion because, as I wrote, “of the nine current Hall of Fame third baseman, Arenado has more Baseball Reference WAR through two seasons than every player except for Wade Boggs and Eddie Mathews.” Looking back, this methodology is faulty. It ignores all the other third baseman with that much rWAR through two seasons who never ended up as Hall of Famers.
Erstwhile Effectively Wild co-host and current ESPNer Sam Miller realized the fault in this approach back in 2013. Instead, he aimed to identify the age and rWAR threshold at which 50 percent of players ended up in the Hall of Fame. For instance, at the time Miller conducted this analysis, 20 of the 40 players who had accrued 2.1 rWAR through their age 20 season ended up in the Hall of Fame. This suggested that active 20-year-olds Manny Machado and Bryce Harper were on the Hall of Fame trajectory, and at least one of them was likely to make it.
Arenado just completed his age-25 season. The magic number here is 18. That means that 50 percent of the position players who had accumulated at least 18 rWAR through age 25 have made it into the Hall of Fame—56 out of 112. Arenado is slightly past this mark. He has 20.1 rWAR through his first four seasons and through age 25. Right now, he has about a 50 percent chance of making the Hall of Fame.
The 112 count only includes inactive players. That means that about half of the active players to have broken the 18 rWAR threshold through age 25 are likely to make the Hall of Fame. These players are:
Hall of Fame half life
Historical and mathematical precedent states that half of these active players will make it, but we can make qualitative judgments to separate the players into a few buckets.
By my judgment, five of these players have stamped their Hall of Fame ticket and would be inducted if they retired tomorrow: Mike Trout, Álex Rodríguez (who has retired but is included here because he still shows up as active on Baseball Reference), Albert Pujols, Adrián Beltré, and Miguel Cabrera. That cuts the list down to 15 players. The other bucket includes players who have trailed off and are extremely unlikely to do enough with their time remaining to make a Hall of Fame case. These players include Hanley Ramírez, Carl Crawford, José Reyes, Ryan Zimmerman, and Elvis Andrus.
That leaves us with 10 players—half of where we started, naturally. The ten players remaining have different questions attached to them. The commonality is that they can’t be separated into either of the two high-confidence buckets. The questions here are whether or not the players will have a graceful enough decline to find their way to Cooperstown—Evan Longoria, David Wright, Troy Tulowitzki, Joe Mauer, and Andrew McCutchen—or if they can maintain their promising career starts into their late 20s and turn to the 30s—Jason Heyward, Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Nolan Arenado.
Notably, we can pull third baseman from each grouping here, which makes it easier to think about where Arenado sits and who his close comparisons are. The sure-thing Hall of Fame third baseman is Beltré, a player Arenado admired while growing up and sought to imitate. But in the sure-thing not going to make it grouping we find Zimmerman. Injuries and a quicker-than-you-might-think turn into a poor player got him off track, and off of third base altogether. Longoria, Wright, and Machado are Arenado’s closest peers in the maybe/maybe not class. If only two of those four make it, my guess is that it will be Machado and Arenado. But that’s a cop-out guess because they’re both in their primes and we haven’t been forced to imagine them turning for the worse yet.
It’s never too early to start thinking about the Hall of Fame for current players. Not just because doing so is fun, but also because there’s information and precedent to make credible cases, regardless of how young a player is. Right now, we can say with confidence that Nolan Arenado has a 50/50 shot to be a Hall of Fame third baseman. Remember that when watching him in 2017.