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Nolan Arenado is (still) on a Hall of Fame trajectory

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This is worth saying again and again

Doing something ultra-specific like, say, writing about a single baseball team on an internet weblog, means you circle back to the same theme from time to time. And when that happens, you have to find a new anchor for what you have to say and have already said. I’ve written the “Nolan Arenado is on a Hall of Fame trajectory” article at least three times.

This is the fourth, and this is my anchor. In the third base State of the Position article, the question about signing Arenado to an extension came up in the comments. Among Rockies fans, there’s some ambivalence about whether or not the team should lock Nolan up through his mid-30s.

That’s due to two reasons. First, the Troy Tulowitzki contract turned out very poorly, and doing that dance over again might be a bad idea. And second, the Rockies have minor league infield depth. A couple commenters made the last point using a word that stuck out to me: Replacement. To be fair, these commenters weren’t claiming that depth options would be as good as Arenado — only that they could be good replacement options. But, I counter, players on a clear path toward the Hall of Fame are irreplaceable. If Nolan leaves, he can never truly be replaced.

So where does Arenado stand in his Hall of Fame chances right now? I’ll use the same methodology I’ve been using in my past articles to make the case. In 2013 Sam Miller devised a way to determine whether or not a player has about a 50/50 chance of making it to Cooperstown given any moment in one’s career. The idea is to determine the age-WAR correlation that results in about 50% of players making the Hall of Fame. For example, when Miller did his first analysis of this after the 2013 season, 83 of the 166 players with at least 23 WAR through their age 27 season made the Hall of Fame. It’s still not perfect, but it gives us some grounding to understand where we are.

I’m doing it slightly differently than I did it last time around. I’m only going to look at inactive players, and then we’ll look at where Arenado stands against active players separately.

Among all inactive position players in baseball history, 210 have accrued 22.5 WAR through their age 27 season. Out of those 210, 104 are in the Hall of Fame. Of the 106 non-Hall of Famers, I judge four to be sure things to make the Hall of Fame at some point: Barry Bonds, Álex Rodríguez, Adrián Beltré, and Derek Jeter. There are other non-sure things, like Todd Helton and Joe Mauer. That shakes out to at least 108 Hall of Famers and 102 non-Hall of Famers who had 22.5 WAR through age 27.

Nolan Arenado’s 2018 was his age-27 season. He has 33.1 career WAR. He’s comfortably in the 50/50 threshold, but remember, this just means he’s still on the right path. Let’s see how he compares to some of the specific players on these lists.

Compared to Hall of Famers

If we were to sneak Arenado on to the list of Hall of Famers, he’d be about in the middle. He’s right at where George Sisler and Frankie Frisch were in their careers, but pre-integration player comparisons aren’t as useful as more modern ones. If we look for those comparisons, Arenado has a half win more WAR than Eddie Murray did at that point in his career, and he’s about a win behind where Andre Dawson and Frank Thomas were. Finally, and promisingly, he’s a couple wins ahead of recent inductees Vladimir Guerrero and Alan Trammel.

Arenado also has more WAR at this point in his career than slam dunk Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, who had an elegant 27 WAR through his age 27 season.

Compared to non Hall of Famers

It’s much more fun to say “Arenado had six more WAR than Chipper Jones through his age-27 season.” It’s less fun to say “Arenado had 12 less WAR than Andruw Jones, who received 7.5% of the vote on his second year on the ballot, through his age-27 season.” But that’s why it’s just a 50/50 shot right now. Still, it’s easy to look at this list and feel hopeful. He has more WAR than all but 16 players on the list, and three of those 16 are among the sure thing future Hall of Famers (Rodríguez, Bonds, and Jeter).

Notably, Arenado has more WAR through age 27 than the player who is perhaps his closest comparison, Adrián Beltré, despite having played 402 fewer games.

Compared to active players

Twenty-nine active players, including Arenado, fit in the parameters here. Two of them aren’t good comparisons because they’re on another level. Mike Trout, with 64.1 WAR, could retire with a Hall of Fame career tomorrow, and he hasn’t even played his age 27 season yet. Similarly, Arenado doesn’t compare to Albert Pujols’s 54.9 WAR through age 27.

But those are the only higher tier players. The other 27 players have between 35.9 and 23.3 WAR. I’d guess that there are only three other sure thing Hall of Famers on the list: Miguel Cabrera, Buster Posey, and Robinson Canó. There are also a lot of other “Hall of Fame trajectory” guys, like Giancarlo Stanton, Mookie Betts, José Altuve, and Francisco Lindor. They look like part of the 50% of the list that will eventually make the Hall of Fame.

There are also players who used to be on the Hall of Fame trajectory, but are now in murky territory — players like Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, and David Wright. And then there are the players who were incredible for a time but are not going to make it. A couple 2007 rookies seem to fit in this category: Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki.

Arenado is still on a Hall of Fame trajectory. At 28 years old, he needs a few more peak seasons and a graceful decline in order to elevate himself away from the “trajectory” to “future Hall of Famer.” We’ve never been able to say that about any Rockies player. If Arenado doesn’t sign a contract extension and starts to play elsewhere, it’ll likely be a long time before we can even ask these questions again.