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Niekro, Murphy, and Koufax: A New Way To Judge Future Hall of Famers

NEW YORK - JUNE 28:  Mariano Rivera #42 of the New York Yankees celebrates with teammates Jorge Posada #20, Mark Teixeira #25 (C), Robinson Cano #24, and Derek Jeter #2 after the final out against the New York Mets on June 28, 2009 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Yankees defeated the Mets 4-2 and Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera recorded his 500th career save.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Asher ChanceySenior Analyst IMay 21, 2010

Is Mariano Rivera a future Hall of Famer?  How about Albert Pujols?  What about Joe Mauer?

Playing the Hall of Fame prediction game is always fun.  Bill James likes to analyze future Hall of Famers from a percentage standpoint.  I have never stuck around long enough to figure out how he says things like “Todd Helton has a 67 percent chance of making the Hall of Fame,” but he does it, and so there it is.

Back in the 1980s, I forget when it was, but I believe it was in the spring of 1987 that James issued the following one-sentence analysis of Dale Murphy’s chances of being elected into the Hall of Fame:

“Dale Murphy will be in the Hall of Fame.”

Obviously, as we all now know, Dale Murphy is not, in fact, in the Hall of Fame, and never will be. 

Obviously, in the spring of 1987, Murphy looked like one of the great talents in the game—a speedy center-fielder with power who, at the age of 30, already had over 250 home runs (a big deal back then), 800 RBI, two MVPs, and five Gold Gloves. 

It would have been crazy to think Murphy would NOT be in the Hall of Fame.

Two years later, Murphy hit .226 with 24 home runs in a full season.  Two years after that, he hit .245 with 24 home runs.  Two years after that, he was all but done with baseball, at the age of 35, never having passed 400 home runs, and having watched his overall career stats tumble.

Thus, it occurs to me: When we ask whether a current player will one day be in the Hall of Fame, we are really asking one of three questions.

First, we are asking the Dale Murphy 1987 question: If this player continues on his expected career trajectory, will he one day be in the Hall of Fame?  Obviously, if Murphy could have remained productive into his mid-30s, he was Hall of Fame material.  He just unexpectedly stopped producing.

But the second, more exciting question, is what we’ll call the Sandy Koufax 1966 question.  Koufax, of course, retired at the age of 30 completely out of the blue after the 1966 season, on the heels of simply dominating baseball for five straight seasons.

Koufax was a no-doubter for the Hall six years later. 

So, the Sandy Koufax question is: If this player were to suddenly and without warning retire from baseball today, would he be a Hall of Famer?

At any given time, the Dale Murphy 1987 Hall of Famers far out-number the Sandy Koufax 1966 Hall of Famers, and this makes sense: The difference between a very good player and a Hall of Fame player is often the ability to be great for a long time.

The third question is the one we’ll call the Phil Niekro Question. 

Niekro, of course, is the only player ever to have fewer than 200 wins on his 40th birthday and then go on to win 300 games.  Thus, as one might imagine, when Phil Niekro turned 40 in 1979 (a season in which, by the way, he led the NL in wins AND losses, plus starts, complete games, innings, hits, home runs, walks, wild pitches, and batters faced), no one on earth thought he was destined for the Hall of Fame. 

But sure enough, by the time he retired nearly a decade later, he had 5,400 innings pitched and 318 wins, and he was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.

So, the Phil Niekro 1979 question is: Can this player, who is not currently a Hall of Fame-caliber player, continue playing long enough to reach certain career milestones that will put him over the top?

The problem with Phil Niekro 1979 Hall of Famers is that you never know who these guys are until you get there.  Who knew 10 years ago that Jamie Moyer would still be pitching in 2010?

But I digress.

So, now that we have a framework for analyzing potential Hall of Famers, we don’t have to argue endlessly about whether a guy like Lance Berkman is a future Hall of Famer.  We know Berkman is a Murphy ’87 Hall of Famer, but not yet a Koufax ’66 Hall of Famer.

Here, then, is a list of 30 current major league players: the Top 10 Koufax ’66 Hall of Famers, the Top 10 Murphy ’87 Hall of Famers, and the Top 10 Nieko ’79 Hall of Famers.

 

Top 10 Sandy Koufax 1966 Hall of Famers

The guys who would be in right now if they retired tomorrow.

10. Albert Pujols

He became eligible when he began his 10th season this year.  He would be in if he was killed tomorrow by the mother of his six handicapped illegitimate children that he refused to acknowledge.

9. Ken Griffey, Jr.

“The Kid” has probably spent the most time on this list.  He’s been a Koufax ’66 gut since 1999, and despite all efforts to ruin his career, he still is. 

Actually, if someone would let him know this, maybe we could get him to retire.

8. Ivan Rodriguez

One of the greatest catchers ever.

7. Jim Thome

The only thing that could stop him now is steroid allegations.  He is this era’s Harmon Killebrew.

6. Chipper Jones

See Thome comment.  Substitute “Eddie Mathews” for “Harmon Killebrew.”

5. Derek Jeter

Love him or hate him, but they may rename the Hall of Fame after him.

4. Trevor Hoffman

Dude, you’re in; you won’t need 600 saves.  Hang it up.

3. Mariano Rivera

Certainly the greatest modern closer, and perhaps the greatest relief pitcher of all time.

2. Manny Ramirez

His personality is going to cost him some votes, but he may be one of the five greatest right-handed hitters of all time.

1. Alex Rodriguez

People hate him.  He makes too much money.  He used PEDs.  And he’s one of the four greatest non-first base infielders (Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins, A-Rod, ) of all time.

 

Top 10 Dale Murphy 1987 Hall of Famers

Keep this up much longer, and you’re going straight to the Hall.

10. Andy Pettitte/Jorge Posada

Let’s face it: the “Big Four”—Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Posada—are probably already in, but neither Pettitte nor Posada have, strictly speaking, Hall of Fame-caliber numbers. 

If Pettitte has 500 more innings, a couple more playoff appearances, and gets to 250 wins, he’s there for sure.  If Posada gets to 1,000 runs, 250 home runs, and 1,000 RBI, he’s a lock.

9. Roy Halladay

Halladay is so “cusp.”  He probably already has the numbers to eventually be elected, but his numbers should be no doubt by the end of his current contract, the way he’s pitching.

8. Johan Santana

Three ERA titles, three strikeout titles, and two Cy Youngs essentially lands Santana in the David Cone/Bret Saberhagen range of pitchers.  Santana has all the skills, but needs more years.

7. Joe Mauer

Is he young?  Yes.  But if he stays healthy and continues to develop, he could be the greatest catcher of all time.  Seriously.

6. Chase Utley

Utley is only in his sixth full year, and needs two more seasons to even qualify, but his combination of hitting and defense at the second base position put him well ahead of the pace of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg and future Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Roberto Alomar.

5. Lance Berkman

His numbers are not exactly headed in a “I’m gonna be playing for five more years” direction, but if he does, he’s in.

4. Todd Helton

Had Helton put up the numbers he’s put up while playing in a ball park other than Coors’ Field, he’d be in the Koufax ’66 group.  As it is, he seems to be within range of some impressive career milestones to go with his amazing rate stats.

3. Vladimir Guerrero

A year ago, Vlad looked done, but he wisely left the Los Angeles Angels and signed on with baseball’s version of the fountain of youth, the Texas Rangers.  If he has a few more years in him, he’ll be a lock.

2. David Wright

Is this guy Howard Johnson, Scott Rolen, or Mike Schmidt?  I have no idea.  If he can just play the way he has so far for 10 more years, he’s a Hall of Famer.

1. Tim Lincecum

A really good debut year, followed by two dominant Cy Young seasons, followed by a so-far terrific fourth season, Lincecum is to this era, what Dwight Gooden was to the 1980s. 

Let’s hope no one introduces him to Darryl Strawberry.

 

Top 10 Phil Niekro 1979 Hall of Famers

Yeah, you could be in the Hall of Fame, if you’ve got 1,000 more hits in your 40-year-old bat, or 100 more wins in your 40-year-old arm.

10. David Ortiz

There is no way the 34-year-old Ortiz makes the Hall of Fame as a late-blooming designated hitter, unless he can hit 175 home runs to get to 500.

9. Johnny Damon  

No one has ever gotten to 3,000 hits and been left out of the Hall of Fame.  If the 36-year-old Damon can collect 550 more hits at the end of his career, neither will he.

8. Bobby Abreu  

Abreu will be in the sabermetrics Hall of Fame, but unless he has about 100 more doubles, 40 more home runs, 300 more RBI, and 50 more stolen bases, I suspect he will be this generation's Bobby Bonds.

7. Jason Giambi

Currently a pinch-hitting specialist with the Rockies, Giambi would need to hit 90 more home runs and get to 500 to even sniff the Hall, what with his PEDs admission and his meager career totals.

6. Jim Edmonds

A surprisingly compelling Hall of Fame candidate at this point. His total resume does not leap out at you, but now that he has come back after missing all of 2009 and looks refreshed, what if he plays five more seasons, gets to 420-430 home runs, scores 1,400 runs, and drives in 1,300 RBI?

5. Paul Konerko

An inconsistent, overrated, oafish, sometimes power hitter, Konerko nevertheless has 340 home runs at the age of 34 and currently leads the AL.  What if he plays until he’s 45 and hits 600 dongs?

4. Andruw Jones

Jones has probably spent time in all three of these categories.  Had he retired after the 2005 season—when he hit his 300th home run, led the NL in home runs and RBI, hit 51 home runs, and won his seventh Gold Glove at the age of 28—he would have been a Koufax ’67 guy. 

Had he continued his career trajectory of 2007, when at the age of 30 he appeared to be locked in for 500 home runs, he would have been a Murphy guy. 

Now, he has spent three seasons playing like he is already 40 years old.  He needs a Ruben Sierra-style comeback, and it needs to last long enough to get him to some big numbers.

3. Tim Hudson

Kind of the Bert Blyleven of his own era.  Hudson has not been on the map as a great pitcher since 2003, and probably needs to pitch a nice long time to get into Hall contention.

2. Edgar Renteria

If Renteria plays 10 more years and gets to 3,000 hits and 2,000 runs scored, people won’t even mention what a mediocre player he is as they vote him in on the first ballot.

1. Jamie Moyer

Clearly a lackluster pitcher, he has given us no indication that he can’t keep limiting opponents to five runs per game and picking up wins for 10 more years.  He is 47 years old and needs 37 wins to get to 300. 

Start the clock.

 

Asher B. Chancey lives in Philadelphia and is a co-founder of BaseballEvolution.com. 

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