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Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado is on a Hall of Fame trajectory

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Arenado’s chances look brighter by the year

It’s never too early to start thinking about about the Hall of Fame. From judging “Hall of Fame talent” early in a career to wondering whether or not a few extra mediocre seasons will tip the scales, the question is always relevant. There’s just more room for error early in a career. I first asked about Nolan Arenado and the Hall of Fame before the 2015 season, as he was preparing to begin his third major-league season. I wrote in Rockies Magazine that Arenado’s Baseball Reference WAR was pacing some of the best third baseman of all time, such as Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. I wasn’t designating hime for the Hall of Fame. I was saying that it was neither unreasonable to ask, nor to conclude that Arenado was on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Both the question and the answer are getting less provocative by the season.

I revisited that article in early 2017 and updated it with a revised methodology. Instead of looking at Arenado’s rWAR at a given age along with other Hall of Famers at the same age, I used Sam Miller’s 50/50 judgment. The goal here is to identify the combination of age and rWAR at which about half the players make the Hall of Fame.

After completing his age-26 season, Arenado’s chances look great. About 50% of position players to accrue 19 rWAR through their age-26 season are Hall of Famers—Arenado has 27.4 rWAR. There have been 166 such players to meet or exceed 19 rWAR by age-26, and 76 are currently enshrined in Cooperstown. I took some liberties and added a few players who are either not on the ballot yet or are on the ballot and are trending towards election. They are: Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Barry Bonds, Scott Rolen, Jim Thome, Álex Rodríguez, and Derek Jeter. That makes 82 Hall of Famers out of the 166 found here.

When I did this analysis in January, Arenado was just ahead of the pace for players through age-25. At the time, it was about 18 rWAR, and Arenado had accrued about 20. Posting a 7.4 win season in 2017 has catapulted Arenado forward. That’s not to say Arenado has become anything close to a slam dunk. Remember, this search identified players with 19 or more rWAR through age 26. A lot of players had a lot more than just 19, including players both in and not in the Hall of Fame.

It may also be useful to think about similar players to Arenado from both sides. The Hall of Fame third baseman who stand out most are George Brett, Ron Santo, Mike Schmidt, and Eddie Matthews. Matthews, however, was way ahead of Arenado at the same point in his career. He had 45.3 rWAR through age-26. Similarly, Santo and Brett were both around 35 rWAR at Arenado’s age. While Brett cruised into the Hall of Fame, Santo was elected posthumously via the Veteran’s Committee. Notably, Arenado has the exact same number of wins as Schmidt had through his age-26 season.

A look at the non-Hall of Famers who meet the criteria reveals some cautionary tales. César Cedeño had 40.2 WAR through age-26, but he started declining soon after and really dropped off in his 30s. With 31.5 WAR, Dick Allen was creating a Hall of Fame-like career. He should probably be in, but he can’t crack through the current iteration of the Veteran’s Committee. The same goes for Bobby Grich, who had 30 WAR. The present for Allen and Grich is the future for players like Alan Trammel and Lou Whitaker, who had 28.4 and 25.9 WAR, respectively, through their age-26 seasons. Finally, there’s Nomar Garciaparra, who had 27.9 WAR. He also had a steep decline once he hit 30.

While we can legitimately lump Arenado in with the likes of Schmidt and Santo, it’s well worth remembering that for any individual player, the past is not necessarily prologue. It’s worth keeping Garciaparra and Grich in mind, too. Nolan Arenado is on a Hall of Fame track, but there are a myriad of things that can still stand in his way, from unanticipated early decline to unjust treatment from voters.

It’s also worthwhile to look at Arenado along with his peers. There are currently 28 active position players to have at least 19 WAR through age-26. There are only a few no-doubt Hall of Famers on the list: Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrián Beltré. Yet others are good bets not to make it: Austin Jackson, Nick Markakis José Reyes, Justin Upton, Elvis Andrus, and Hanley Ramírez. The rest are either veterans making borderline cases and players as young or younger than Arenado. Here’s the full list:

WAR through age-26

Player WAR/pos ▼
Player WAR/pos ▼
Mike Trout 55.3
Albert Pujols 46.1
Jason Heyward 32.7
Evan Longoria 29.8
David Wright 29.3
Manny Machado 28
Giancarlo Stanton 27.5
Nolan Arenado 27.5
Joe Mauer 27.3
Andrew McCutchen 26.9
Adrian Beltre 26.6
Troy Tulowitzki 26.5
Ryan Zimmerman 26.2
Miguel Cabrera 26
Bryce Harper 26
Hanley Ramirez 25.9
Mookie Betts 24
Carlos Beltran 22.4
Freddie Freeman 22.1
Anthony Rizzo 21.8
Andrelton Simmons 21.4
Jose Altuve 21.3
Jose Reyes 21
Justin Upton 20.5
Elvis Andrus 20.4
Kris Bryant 19.7
Nick Markakis 19.3
Austin Jackson 19

Joe Mauer and Andrew McCutchen both once looked like sure things, and they are about where Arenado is right now through 26. There are cautionary tales here as well. Namely, Troy Tulowitzki, who has Hall of Fame talent but will have to have to be excellent in his mid-30s to do enough to make a case. And that’s if he can stay healthy.

Comparisons are great, but it’s ultimately best to take Arenado on his own terms. The reason it’s never too early to start asking far-flung questions about the Hall of Fame, though, is that it can unearth deeper appreciation of what’s happening right now. As it stands, it’s reasonably to suggest that Arenado just might end up being the best player to ever wear a Rockies uniform. And, finally, whether or not the Rockies logo will be on Arenado’s bronze Hall of Fame plaque, if he does end up making it, is up to the team. But that’s a different article altogether.