Yesterday, Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to the Hall of Fame, receiving the largest proportion of votes of any player in baseball history; 437 of the 440 voters to cast ballots checked the box for Junior’s inclusion. And as I noted yesterday, the overwhelming support for Griffey’s candidacy highlights the fact that we generally value peak performance over longevity; Griffey played for 20 years, but was mostly a shell of himself for the second half of his career, creating the entirety of his Hall of Fame resume during the first dozen years he played. The consensus that Griffey is one of the greatest players of all time is driven by what he did in his 20s, not what he did in his 30s.
So this brings up an interesting question; given that almost everyone agrees that Griffey’s peak was so good that the second half of his career essentially was irrelevant, how much more does Mike Trout need to do before he reaches a similar point in his career? Does Griffey’s overwhelming induction based on a 12 year run of greatness suggest that there’s a 24 year old walking around who may have already done the bulk of the work necessary to ensure enshrinement in Cooperstown?
Let’s start with the same kind of graph I used yesterday to show how Griffey’s career timeline stacked up against Bonds, Mays, and Aaron. This time, we’ll just do Trout and Junior.
Even though Griffey played a full season at age-19, while Trout only got a cup of coffee that year, Trout has already created some serious separation between the two; his 10 WAR lead through age-23 means that he’s already at where Griffey was through age-25. Of course, Griffey had his two best seasons at ages 25 and 26, so Trout won’t keep growing the gap that already exists, and it may very well shrink a bit over the next couple of years. But besides looking at cumulative WAR by age, we can actually look at their careers a different way, which is perhaps a more telling story when it comes to looking at what Trout needs to do to at least match Griffey’s path going forward.
This graph plots each player’s best season in descending order, and you’ll note that Trout’s four seasons are already better than the four best seasons of Griffey’s career. While Griffey topped out at +9.7 WAR in a single season, Trout has already broken +10 WAR twice. And then he put up a +9 and an +8, so he’s already had more seasons of +8 WAR than Griffey did in his career. So, if we follow the path along Griffey’s nth best seasons, we can see that Trout’s next targets along the path are a couple of +6 to +7 WAR seasons, then four +5 WAR seasons. Griffey’s 5th-10th best seasons totaled +36 WAR, so to keep up the pace through his first decade, Trout needs a half dozen seasons where he averages +6 WAR per year.
If he does that, he’ll finish the 2021 season — his age-29 season, for the record — with roughly +75 WAR; Griffey just got the highest vote total in BBWAA history with +78 WAR. So we can say with a decent amount of confidence that with six more seasons like Griffey’s 5th-10th best years, Trout’s an easy Hall of Famer, as his peak would compare favorably to the guy who got closer than anyone ever has to going in unanimously. Realistically, he’s got enough of a lead where he could probably make a good case for enshrinement near Griffey’s level even if he only put up +30 WAR over his next six season, as he’d have the exact same +68.5 WAR that Junior finished his age-29 season with.
Now, we shouldn’t just assume that +30 WAR over a five year stretch is a slam dunk. Besides Trout himself, the only other two position players to reach that mark in the last five years are Andrew McCutchen and Miguel Cabrera. Trout’s established such a ridiculous level of dominance that it might be hard to imagine him not being able to clear +5 WAR per season during his prime, but all it takes is one injury to really do a number on his playing time for him to fall short of that. This is why Griffey was such an easy slam dunk Hall of Famer; following his peak isn’t so easy, even with the advantage Trout has already built.
But let’s get back to the original question; how far away is Trout from crossing the threshold to where 75% of the BBWAA would vote for him? Following Griffey’s path gets him to sure-fire first ballot election, but clearly Junior could have done less and still gotten in. So what’s the minimum Trout could do over the next six years — keep in mind that the rules do state that you have to play for 10 years to make it on the ballot — to garner enough support to get elected, regardless of what he does after that?
Well, for that comparison, we need to turn away from Griffey and turn towards another center fielder who got elected to the Hall of Fame based on a short-peak with an early decline: Kirby Puckett. Due to debuting late and being forcibly retired by glaucoma at age-35, Puckett only played in 12 Major League seasons, but he still managed to collect 82% of the votes on his first time on the ballot in 2001. For reference, here’s Trout’s career to this point graphed next to Puckett’s.
Yes, you’re looking at that chart correctly; Trout is +6 WAR away from tying Puckett’s career mark, even though the entirety of his career consists of the window of time in which Puckett was still in the minor leagues. Trout has almost already matched Puckett’s entire career value, and he hasn’t yet played a game during the period of time in which Puckett actually was in the big leagues.
Or, you can look at it this way. Here are Trout’s numbers, Puckett’s numbers, and what Trout would have to do over the rest of his career to ensure that his final career line looked exactly like Puckett’s.
5,000 PA is more like eight more seasons, not six, since Puckett stayed remarkably healthy during his career, but in terms of performance, Trout doesn’t have to do much of anything to end up with Puckett’s final numbers. He basically just has to hit somewhere around the league average while playing lousy defense and adding no baserunning value. In fact, if I had included the SB and CS totals, Trout would need to only steal 21 more bases, but get thrown out stealing 55 more times, in order to end up with Puckett’s baserunning totals. If you’re looking for a recent comparison, Trout is eight more years just like Cameron Maybin‘s 2015 season away from having had Puckett’s career.
Of course, voters might not actually reward that kind of remarkable peak with a very sharp decline. Dale Murphy, who put up the same career WAR as Puckett but did so with a higher peak and a quicker decline, never managed to crack the threshold needed to get inducted. And the current BBWAA electorate is probably more aware of how poor a choice Puckett was than the one that elected him 15 years ago, so Trout probably can’t count on voters making that mistake again. With guys like Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds failing to get enough support to even stay on the ballot after their first go-around, there are already examples of center fielders with much stronger careers than Pucketts who received basically no consideration, so perhaps Puckett is setting the bar too low.
But as Griffey’s overwhelming election shows, Trout’s not that far away from crossing any reasonable bar that one might want to construct. With five or six more seasons that would be a huge drop-off from what he’s done to this point — but still quite good by anyone else’s standards — Trout will have essentially recreated the first decade peak that got Griffey inducted. If we can say that he’s already something like halfway to Griffey’s level, then he’s probably something closer to 75% of the way to crossing the barrier to Hall of Fame worthiness.
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