The ’26 Standard

How many active MLB players are future Hall of Famers? A portion of the BBWAA might answer “none”. History might tell us there are 30, 40, even 50. In fact, a certain interpretation of history might suggest that there are about 200.

How might one arrive at something like 200? Let’s take a look at 1926. There were 52 players active in the major leagues in ’26 who are now in the Hall of Fame. That’s not a record. In fact, two years later, there were 53 future Hall of Famers in MLB uniforms. But let’s not forget that not every future Hall of Famer in 1926 was playing in the white major leagues. Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Pop Lloyd, and their ilk were plying their trade in the Negro Leagues. 21 players active in the Negro Leagues in ’26 are now in the Hall. That means 73 men who played professional baseball at the highest level they were allowed to achieve are now immortalized in bronze in Cooperstown.

Should 73 active players from today’s integrated game make the Hall? Probably not, but even if they did, that wouldn’t even approach the lax standard the Hall established in evaluating the candidacies of players active in 1926. The population of the United States in 1926 was about 117.4 million. In 2013, it was 316.16 million, or 2.69 times the 1926 count. So if we aim to represent a consistent percentage of the population in the Hall of Fame today, we’d need to elect 197 players. That ignores the globalization of the game that has brought future Hall of Famers like Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols to these shores. While one might make the case that the pool of potential MLB players is now in the billions, or more than ten times what it was 87 years ago, let’s ignore the Cambodians and Senegalese and assume that most potential big leaguers are American.

You may argue that there are a lot more athletic opportunities for Americans today, who can make millions playing football or basketball and even collect endorsements as runners or swimmers. Let’s instead focus on those who choose to play baseball. In 1926, there were 16 Major League Baseball teams. Today, there are 30. It’s hard to account for all the Negro League teams, since various leagues popped up and dissolved, and players often played in multiple leagues and for multiple teams in the same year. If we apply the ratio of white Hall of Famers to black Hall of Famers active in ’26, we can estimate that there were something like 22.2 teams’ worth of players active then. Compare that to today’s 30 teams and there are enough players who played big league baseball in 2013 to justify 99 Hall of Famers based on the standard established in elections of players active in ’26.

So who are those 99 players? Let’s break them down into groups. Numbers next to each player represent career WAR (per baseball-reference, rounded to the nearest whole number) as of the end of the 2013 season, and age as of today.

The Sure Things
1. Alex Rodriguez, 116, 37
2. Albert Pujols, 93, 33
3. Derek Jeter, 72, 39
4. Mariano Rivera, 57, 43
5. Ichiro Suzuki, 59, 39
6. Roy Halladay, 65, 36

The first name above warrants a multi-thousand word post on the state of the BBWAA in itself. I won’t write that post, but I will note that Hall voters didn’t care what players put in their bodies in 1926, so to apply the same standard is to evaluate modern players based exclusively on their on-field results, and ARod is one of the ten-to-twenty greatest players ever to don a uniform, so he’s on this list, even if he may never be bronzed in Cooperstown.

There’s also a chance that Halladay’s case will encounter some resistance someday, but he surpassed the standards set by just about any generation. He’s a Hall of Famer, and not a borderline one.

On Pace
7. Adrian Beltre, 71, 34
8. Carlos Beltran, 68, 36
9. Chase Utley, 58, 34
10. Miguel Cabrera, 55, 30
11. C.C. Sabathia, 55, 32
12. David Wright, 47, 30
13. Robinson Cano, 45, 30
14. Joe Mauer, 44, 30
15. Justin Verlander, 40, 30
16. Matt Holliday, 40, 33
17. Felix Hernandez, 39, 27
18. Dustin Pedroia, 38, 29
19. Zack Greinke, 37, 29
20. Evan Longoria, 36, 27
21. Ryan Braun, 35, 29
22. Cole Hamels, 35, 29
23. Joey Votto, 34, 29
24. Troy Tulowitzki, 32, 28

It’s depressing to think that, less than a quarter of the way through this list, we’re already looking at several players who could get snubbed, or at least stuck in ballot purgatory for years. Beltre’s case is so heavy on defense and so weighed down by his Safeco-deflated offensive numbers, that he might be a tough sell even with more WAR by age 34 than Frankie Frisch accumulated in his whole career. Utley looks like Lou Whitaker version 2.0. Holliday may not be on the average voter’s radar, and Greinke may win too few games to get any consideration. Braun’s case is probably doomed by PEDs, and I’m not complaining about that, but these are the best players of their generation and they might be denied by an institution that honored Jesse Haines and Chick Hafey.

Not Far Off the Pace
25. Todd Helton, 61, 39
26. Andy Pettitte, 61, 41
27. Tim Hudson, 57, 37
28. Mark Buehrle, 54, 34
29. Lance Berkman, 52, 37
30. Johan Santana, 51, 34
31. Jason Giambi, 51, 42
32. Roy Oswalt, 50, 35
33. Mark Teixeira, 48, 33
34. David Ortiz, 44, 37
35. Cliff Lee, 43, 34
36. Ian Kinsler, 35, 31
37. Adrian Gonzalez, 34, 31
38. Matt Cain, 33, 28
39. Hanley Ramirez, 33, 29
40. Jose Reyes, 33, 30
41. Ben Zobrist, 32, 32
42. Adam Wainwright, 29, 31
43. Jon Lester, 28, 29
44. Yadier Molina, 27, 30
45. Joe Nathan, 27, 38
46. Prince Fielder, 24, 29
47. Tim Lincecum, 23, 29

This group consists of players you probably don’t consider future Hall of Famers, but who wouldn’t materially weaken the established standards. By the ’26 standard, they’d actually strengthen the Hall of Fame (at least, in the case of the younger players, if they keep accumulating value at their current pace). There are exceptions- Ortiz is probably in already based on his postseason performances, and Lincecum may be done as a productive pitcher, which will keep him from accumulating further WAR, but with the rest of these guys, you can see them getting some support on the BBWAA ballot, but likely not enough for induction if the electorate doesn’t change much in the next decade or two.

Mike Trout
48. Mike Trout, 21, 22

There’s no historic precedent for Mike Trout. There was one guy playing in ’26 who dominated the game even more than Trout has these last two years, and he was equally great at 21, but he didn’t do anything like Trout did at age 20 as a pitcher for the 1915 Red Sox. I think this is a good segue to:

Promising Young Players
49. Clayton Kershaw, 33, 25
50. Andrew McCutchen, 27, 26
51. Jason Heyward, 18, 24
52. Buster Posey, 18, 26
53. Elvis Andrus, 17, 25
54. Chris Sale, 16, 24
55. Giancarlo Stanton, 15, 24
56. Madison Bumgarner, 11, 24
57. Andrelton Simmons, 10, 24
58. Craig Kimbrel, 10, 25
59. Bryce Harper, 9, 21
60. Freddie Freeman, 9, 24
61. Manny Machado, 8, 21
62. Stephen Strasburg, 8, 25
63. Matt Harvey, 7, 24
64. Jose Fernandez, 6, 21
65. Aroldis Chapman, 6, 24
66. Yasiel Puig, 5, 23
67. Anthony Rizzo, 5, 24
68. Shelby Miller, 4, 23
69. Michael Wacha, 2, 22
70. Sonny Gray, 1, 24
71. Xander Bogaerts, 0, 21
72. Jurickson Profar, 0, 19

Consider this more of a representative sample of the 26-and-under set than a prediction. Somebody in this group- probably a pitcher- will break down entirely and offer no more value to his team. Some of these players will continue to dominate the game, while others will settle in as somewhat valuable role players. For this exercise, I suppose the difference between the ’26 standard and today’s standard is that a player like Wacha or Gray wouldn’t have to be better than Kevin Brown to surpass the ’26 standard. Herb Pennock’s career would suffice.

Only in ’26
73. Torii Hunter, 50, 37
74. Miguel Tejada, 47, 39
75. Jimmy Rollins, 42, 34
76. Paul Konerko, 39, 37
77. Carl Crawford, 38, 31
78. Jake Peavy, 37, 32
79. Curtis Granderson, 35, 32
80. Ryan Zimmerman, 34, 28
81. Jered Weaver, 34, 30
82. Dan Haren, 33, 32
83. Aramis Ramirez, 31, 35
84. Shane Victorino, 30, 32
85. Victor Martinez, 29, 34
86. Alfonso Soriano, 29, 37
87. Shin-soo Choo, 26, 30
88. Josh Hamilton, 26, 32
89. Brian McCann, 24, 29
90. Josh Johnson, 24, 29
91. James Shields, 24, 31
92. Michael Young, 24, 36
93. Alex Gordon, 23, 29
94. Jose Bautista, 22, 33
95. Anibal Sanchez, 21, 29
96. Jacoby Ellsbury, 21, 30
97. Ryan Howard, 19, 34
98. Max Sherzer, 18, 29
99. Chase Headley, 18, 29

There they are. 99 guys who would probably make the Hall of Fame if today’s voters stuck to the standards applied to players active in 1926. Soriano, Howard, and Young stand out for being less valuable than other players on this list, but I think they’re exactly the types who would have appealed to the BBWAA or a Veterans Committee decades ago. Soriano was a classic power-speed guy. Howard hit 40 homers four times and won an MVP. Young played shortstop and batted .300 seven times.

This list includes nine players- Rodriguez, Jeter, Rivera, Ichiro, Sabathia, Cano, Pettitte, Granderson, and Soriano- from the 2013 Yankees. Five of them are gone in 2014, but they’ve been replaced by three more players- Beltran, McCann, and Ellsbury- who appear to meet the ’26 standard. The 2013 Phillies had seven players on this list- Halladay, Utley, Hamels, Lee, Rollins, Young, and Howard- and lost 89 games. This may seem to run contrary to the elite status of the Hall of Fame, but the 1926 New York Giants employed seven future Hall of Fame players- High Pockets Kelly, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Freddie Lindstrom, Ross Youngs, Bill Terry, and Mel Ott- as well as outfielder Billy Southworth, who was inducted as a manager. The Yankees and Dodgers had six future Hall of Famers each in ’26, while the Cardinals had five and the A’s, Senators, White Sox, Tigers, and Pirates each had four.

Some of the names in the last group above- Weaver, Choo, and Scherzer come to mind- could grow to become legitimate Hall of Famers. Others would embarrass the Hall in an era in which Jeff Bagwell and Mike Mussina can’t even get elected. Barring such late career surges, I wouldn’t support the candidacies of anyone in the last group. And let’s not forget that this is the conservative standard. If we use US population as a basis for establishing comparable Hall size, we’ve got to add another 98 players active in 2013. Russell Martin’s off to a better start than Hall of Famer Ray Schalk. Nick Swisher looks a little like Ross Youngs. Jonathan Lucroy won’t take long to blow by Rick Ferrell. Yet we can’t decide whether Curt Schilling is worthy.

Baseball may have changed less than any other game over the past 87 years, but today’s players are not on the same playing field when it comes to the Hall of Fame. If they were, Carlos Zambrano might be there someday. And he’d bring 200 of his friends.

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5 Responses to The ’26 Standard

  1. Great post. Whenever I hear that a player like Biggio or Mussina would “water down” the HOF, I always mention Rick Ferrell or Ross Youngs, and get the inevitable “Who?” from the other person.
    No chance of the HOF ever getting watered down in our lifetime, though some people think it’s where we’ve been headed in recent years.

  2. Barrie Pollock says:

    Nice post Bryan. Clearly the 1920′s are over represented. I wonder how a comparison to 1956 would fare. I don’t know contemporary ball well enough to comment safely on your assessment but I will pass this on to my son Elijah who certainly follows closely from his island home.

  3. Bryan says:

    Thanks, Bill. It’s amazing that argument still persists.

    Barrie, I count 37 Hall of Famers active in ’56. There were 16 teams then, so that prorates to 69 in a 30-team league. Probably #s 1-72 above, less three young guys. Still far more than will actually get in.

    By population, 2013 would prorate to 70 Hall of Famers. Another way to look at the globalization issue: I think Clemente and Aparicio were the only foreign-born Hall of Famers active in ’56. If we cut them out, we’ve got 35 American-born Hall of Famers active in ’56, which prorates to about 66 in 2013. By my count, and I’m guessing on a few here, 72 of the players above were born in the US. Cut 6 of them- maybe Howard, Young, Shields, Johnson, Victorino, and Granderson- and we’ve got the same ratio of American-born Hall of Famers we had in ’56. To achieve the same thing compared to the ’26 standard, we’d need to add 24 Americans active in 2013, since I think Martin Dihigo was the only foreign-born Hall of Famer active in ’26. We’re in Brandon Phillips/Billy Butler territory now.

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