The Next Bert Blyleven

Bert Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame because he was a great pitcher who belongs in Cooperstown, but also because he was the poster-child for the analytically inclined baseball community for the better part of a decade. Led by a blogger named Rich Lederer, Blyleven’s supporters inundated writers with articles and stories supporting Blyleveln’s election, and on his 14th chance, he finally crossed the 75% mark needed for enshrinement.

With Blyleven in, now the groundswell of support is rising behind Tim Raines, an underappreciated star of his era whose willingness to draw a walk has kept him out of the Hall because he didn’t get to 3,000 hits. Raines’ skillset has always been undervalued, and even to this day, players who do what Raines did don’t get as much credit for their performances as bulky sluggers who drive in runs. The recent AL MVP race made it clear that many still prefer the RBI guy to the table setter.

So, given what we know about what types of players make it into the Hall of Fame, here are four active players who are on track to earn a place in Cooperstown one day, but who have flown under the radar during their careers and will probably require a long lobbying effort to get them elected once their careers are over.

Adrian Beltre

Third baseman are woefully underrepresented as a group in the Hall, and Brooks Robinson is basically the only third baseman who got inducted based on his defense. While elite defenders at other positions have been recognized, the great defensive third baseman has never gotten much recognition. Unless voters have an epiphany about the value of defense at the hot corner, Beltre’s going to be fighting an uphill battle. His career .280/.331/.476 line translates into a 111 wRC+, meaning he’s been 11 percent better than an average hitter based on the league norms and his home ballparks during his career. For comparison, that puts him in a tie with Graig Nettles, who never received more than 8.3% of the vote and fell off the ballot after just four years. Beltre’s offensive resume is simply not at the level of other Hall of Fame third baseman.

But, anyone who has watched Beltre play for any length of time realizes that there’s a lot more to his game than what he does in the batter’s box. He’s an amazing defender at third base, and has played Gold Glove defense at the position for nearly 18,000 innings. For his career, Ultimate Zone Rating estimates that he’s saved 147 runs more than an average defensive third baseman. When you combine that level of defensive greatness with an above average bat, you get a pretty terrific player. When Beltre hits like he has in recent years, he’s one of the best players in the sport.

His career inconsistencies and the fact that so much of his value is tied up in his defense will hurt him, but he’s already accumulated +62.5 WAR through age 33. Even if he’s just an average player for the next four years, he’ll crack the +70 WAR barrier, and an overwhelming majority of the players with +70 or more WAR have a plaque in Cooperstown. As long as he doesn’t fall off a cliff in the next few years, Beltre will deserve one too.

Matt Holliday

The case for Holliday is essentially the exact opposite as the case for Beltre. Instead of being about defense and longevity, Holliday’s case is about recognizing a premium hitter who has had one of the best seven year runs in baseball history. Since 2006, Holliday has posted a wRC+ of 138 or higher in every single season, and his 145 cumulative wRC+ over that span ranks as the sixth highest mark in baseball during that stretch — the only guys ahead of him are Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, and Manny Ramirez.

Unfortunately for Holliday, his offense comes from hitting for a high average and racking up a lot of doubles, so he doesn’t have the sexy home run totals that voters tend to look for in a guy who is up for election based on his offensive production. He’s only hit 30 home runs in a season on two occasions, and both of those years came in Colorado. With just 229 career home runs, Holliday’s not going to get close to any of the big slugger milestones, but looking at his overall value as a hitter, his ability to win games becomes clearer.

Holliday has been a beast of a hitter for the better part of the last decade, and yet, he’s continually flown under the radar. He’s only finished in the top 10 in MVP voting once — back in 2007, when he finished second. It’s probably too late for him to run off a series of multiple monster seasons to get the voters attention, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down in recent years, and a few more seasons at his established level should be enough to get him serious Hall of Fame consideration. Because he got a later start on his career, he’s going to need to age gracefully to have a strong case, but Holliday’s already had a Hall of Famer’s peak. Now he just needs to stick around long enough to add enough counting stats so people to remember how good he actually was.

Matt Cain

The perfect game and postseason track record have helped put Cain on the map, but in many of the milestone categories that voters tend to look at, he comes up short. He’s never finished in the top 5 in Cy Young voting. He’s only made three All-Star teams. And, perhaps most problematic, he has a career record of just 85-78. Even if he stays healthy and continues to pitch well, averaging 15 wins per year for the next decade, he’s still going to finish with fewer than 250 wins, and the voting electorate continues to hang on to pitcher wins as a useful measure of pitcher value. And yet, Cain’s career ERA- of 80 — meaning he’s prevented runs at 20 percent better than league average — puts him in a tie with CC Sabathia and ahead of Hall of Famers like Juan Marichal and Bob Feller. If Cain keeps pitching the way he has thus far, he’ll deserve a spot in Cooperstown, but he’ll need voters to abandon pitcher wins in order to see his true value.

Jose Reyes

If Reyes falls short of 3,000 hits — he has 1,484, and turns 30 next summer, so it will depend almost entirely on how well his hamstrings hold up — he may still be a deserving inductee, but singles hitters who don’t reach that milestone have traditionally not done particularly well in the voting. However, Reyes is a singles hitting shortstop who has already had four elite seasons, and if he ages like Kenny Lofton, he could remain a productive player for the next decade and add enough longevity to build a solid Hall of Fame case. If he keeps hitting into his mid-to-late 30s, his career will start to resemble Alan Trammell’s – another undervalued shortstop who the analytical community is agitating for.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

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