In or Out? Examining the Hall of Fame Cases for MLB's Longest-Tenured Stars

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 3, 2020

In or Out? Examining the Hall of Fame Cases for MLB's Longest-Tenured Stars

0 of 10

    Who else besides Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are locks?
    Who else besides Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are locks?Leon Halip/Getty Images

    It isn't easy to stick around in Major League Baseball. Even less easy, of course, is sticking around and building a Hall of Fame resume in the process.

    So while we wait for the coronavirus pandemic to pass, we thought we'd sort through the Cooperstown cases for some of baseball's longest-tenured stars.

    We hand-picked 10 active players (i.e., they played in the majors in 2019 and are still going) who have put together strong careers since debuting in the mid-2000s or even earlier. We then assessed their Hall of Fame candidacy and summed up their induction likelihood based on what they have, haven't and might still accomplish.

    Some of these guys are no-brainers for Cooperstown, but there's nothing wrong with pausing to celebrate exactly why that is. Others, meanwhile, are fodder for spirited debate.

    We'll begin with five pitchers and end with five hitters.

Felix Hernandez

1 of 10

    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    For a while there, Felix Hernandez could pitch with the best of 'em.

    After making his debut for the Seattle Mariners in 2005, "King Felix" eventually settled in for a seven-year run between 2009 and 2015 in which he averaged a 2.83 ERA and 228 innings per year. He won a Cy Young Award in 2010 and collected six All-Star nods and two ERA titles, plus a perfect game in 2012. 

    However, neither Hernandez's 50.3 WAR (tied for 73rd) nor his 117 ERA+ (tied for 72nd) occupy special places among right-handed pitchers. And even as strong as his prime was, it wasn't an all-timer like those of, say, Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez.

    Tragically, Hernandez's Cooperstown case also has nothing in the way of a postseason track record. He's yet to even make a start in October, much less earn a World Series ring.

    Because Hernandez is only 34 and still pitching, the door shouldn't be closed on him entirely. But given how he's been trending—i.e., a 5.42 ERA since 2017—it'll likely take a miracle to get him into the Hall of Fame.

    Verdict: Probably out

Cole Hamels

2 of 10

    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    At the very least, Cole Hamels is a candidate for the "Hall of Better Than You Might Think."

    Hamels was a much-hyped prospect when he joined the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006, and he made his first All-Star team just a year later. Fast-forward to now, and he owns a 123 ERA+ and 58.5 WAR over 2,694.2 innings.

    Hamels' WAR ranks 15th all-time among left-handers, and he's one of only 11 southpaws with more than 2,500 innings and an ERA+ of at least 120. Most of the others on the latter list are already in Cooperstown.

    However, the only one of those Cooperstowners who somewhat resembles Hamels is Lefty Gomez, who had a 125 ERA+ in 2,503 innings. And whereas Gomez was a seven-time All-Star and a five-time champion, Hamels only has four All-Star selections and one ring. 

    Still, the 36-year-old Hamels has been ticking right along with a 3.79 ERA over the last two seasons. If he can keep that up for a couple more years, he could add some much-needed padding to his Hall of Fame resume.

    Verdict: Don't rule him out

Jon Lester

3 of 10

    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    At first glance, Jon Lester's career has been similar, yet somewhat inferior to Hamels'.

    Though his rookie year with the Boston Red Sox in 2006 was derailed by a cancer diagnosis, Lester was back in 2007 and an ace by 2008. Altogether, he's been an All-Star five times en route to a 120 ERA+ and 45.2 WAR over 2,537.2 innings.

    The difference-maker for Lester is his postseason track record. He's won three rings, and his career playoff ERA (2.51) is notably more than a run lower than his ERA in the regular season (3.56).

    Generally, Lester's career is like if somebody took Andy Pettitte's career and swapped out his quantity for quality. To wit, Pettitte pitched 3,316 innings but with only a 117 ERA+. And while he won five rings, he was basically as good in October (3.81 ERA) as he was in the regular season (3.85 ERA).

    This doesn't mean that Lester, 36, has a straight path to Cooperstown as of now. But like Hamels, his path could certainly become less crooked if he can tack on a few more years of effective pitching.

    Verdict: Don't rule him out

Zack Greinke

4 of 10

    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Though Zack Greinke first broke in with the Kansas City Royals in 2004, a variety of challenges kept him from settling into a groove until 2008.

    Nevertheless, his 65.9 WAR has been bested by only one other pitcher during the entire 21st century.

    In all, Greinke owns a 125 ERA+ over 2,872 innings. He was at his best when he won ERA titles in 2009 and 2015, the former of which also saw him take home a Cy Young Award. He's also been an All-Star and Gold Glover six times each, and a Silver Slugger twice.

    One knock against Greinke is that he's never won a ring, with another being that his career 4.21 postseason ERA is nothing special. And while he's one of only 25 right-handers with at least 2,500 innings and a 125 ERA+, he's on the low end in both of those categories.

    The 36-year-old is, however, still going strong with a 3.11 ERA over his last three seasons. The longer he can keep that up, the stronger his already-strong case for Cooperstown will become.

    Verdict: Probably in

Justin Verlander

5 of 10

    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    Back when he was dealing with injuries in the mid-2010s, Justin Verlander's Cooperstown case was on ice.

    Since 2016, however, he's won his second Cy Young Award and finished as the runner-up twice. Coupled with what he did in his early years with the Detroit Tigers starting in 2005, he now boasts a 129 ERA+ and 72.1 WAR over 2,982 innings.

    Verlander's WAR is the best of the 21st century, not to mention 24th all-time among right-handers. In addition to being a two-time Cy Young Award winner, he's also been a Rookie of the Year and an MVP. To boot, he's one of only four pitchers who've thrown as many as three no-hitters.

    Though Verlander's postseason track record isn't spotless, his last 23 appearances in October have yielded a 2.78 ERA. He also won a ring with the Houston Astros in 2017, which shouldn't be altogether tarnished by the cheating scheme that only helped the team's hitters.

    And while Verlander is 37, his 2.45 ERA as an Astro is as good a sign as any that his end is nowhere in sight. As such, expect him to become even more of a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame in coming seasons.

    Verdict: Definitely in

Edwin Encarnacion

6 of 10

    Ron Vesely/Getty Images

    As of now, it's hard to make the case that Edwin Encarnacion has been a Cooperstown-worthy player.

    Though he's been around for 15 seasons, he's only accumulated 36.0 WAR. That isn't even ahead of Lorenzo Cain among active players, and he's nowhere close to the top of the leaderboard for all-time first basemen.

    This isn't a situation where WAR is unfairly punishing Encarnacion for iffy baserunning or defensive value. His 125 OPS+ qualifies him as a very good hitter, but not a great one. Even among hitters who've taken at least 7,000 plate appearances, that mark is tied for 127th.

    What could make Encarnacion's case interesting, however, is if he joins the 500 Home Run Club down the line. The 86 homers he needs to get there from his current 414 seems like a lot, but this is a guy who's hit more homers than anyone since 2012 and who, even at 37, is still cranking 'em out.

    So far, the only precedent for a guy with 500 homers not being elected into Cooperstown involves ties to performance-enhancing drugs. So provided Encarnacion can get there without failing any tests along the way, there could be some groundswell in his support.

    Verdict: Don't rule him out

Yadier Molina

7 of 10

    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Is the reality of Yadier Molina as great as the legend of Yadier Molina?

    To be sure, Molina has pretty much done it all since he arrived with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2004. He's a nine-time All-Star whose nine Gold Gloves might not even do his defense justice. He's likewise held his own offensively with a .282 career batting average. He's also played in four World Series, winning two of them.

    Then again, his 40.1 WAR only ranks 21st all-time among catchers. It hasn't helped that, despite his solid average, he's been a subpar hitter to the tune of a 98 OPS+. And while the defensive component of his WAR is definitely outstanding, it's not on the same level as Ivan Rodriguez's all-time mark for catchers.

    But that's just according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs paints a different picture of the 37-year-old, including as the best defensive catcher ever and a top-12 talent at the position overall.

    These conflicting messages may keep Molina from being a slam dunk for Cooperstown when his time comes. But it bodes well for him that some stats support the legend, and there's also the reality that he's not done adding to his resume.

    Verdict: Probably in

Robinson Cano

8 of 10

    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    By numbers alone, Robinson Cano is one of the greatest second basemen of all time.

    Since breaking in with the New York Yankees in 2005, Cano has amassed a 125 OPS+, 324 home runs and 68.0 WAR. His WAR ranks ninth among second basemen, while his OPS+ ranks eighth. He's also hit 308 of his homers as a second baseman, which is within shouting distance of Jeff Kent's record mark of 351.

    The accolades are also there for Cano. He's been an All-Star eight times, a Silver Slugger five times and a Gold Glover twice. Though his postseason track record isn't great, he still won a ring in 2009.

    But then there's what happened in 2018, when Cano failed a PED test and was suspended for 80 games. The strongest argument that Cano should get into Cooperstown even despite that rests on the notion that, unlike PED users from before the post-2005 testing era, his debt has been paid.

    Yet there's no precedent for such logic actually getting a player inducted. And if most voters reason that Cano's breaking of hardline rules is a worse transgression than the breaking of merely de facto rules during the Steroid Era, it'll stay that way.

    Verdict: Probably out

Miguel Cabrera

9 of 10

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    If there's a question here, it's whether there's a good-faith argument for why Miguel Cabrera shouldn't be a Hall of Famer.

    Well, one could play the familiar card that Cabrera isn't that much of a WAR guy. His 69.5 career WAR is definitely good, but it doesn't even qualify him as one of the 12 best first basemen in history. And he's only a first baseman by default, as he's never really had a comfortable home on defense.

    There is a line between arguing and nitpicking, however, and the above paragraph falls firmly on the side of the latter.

    The basic truth is that Cabrera, 37, is one of the greatest hitters of all time. That's evident in his 148 OPS+ and his 477 home runs, but probably more so in numbers that mark his consistency. For example, he's done better than a 130 OPS+ and 30 homers in a season 10 times since his debut with the Florida Marlins in 2003.

    Throw in two MVPs, 11 All-Star nods, seven Silver Sluggers, four batting titles and a World Series ring, and Cabrera will almost certainly get in on his first ballot.

    Verdict: Definitely in

Albert Pujols

10 of 10

    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    There's really no room for debate here. Albert Pujols is going to be a Hall of Famer. Full stop.

    If anything, the only matter is whether he should be treated like Mariano Rivera and get voted in unanimously.

    The numbers support that idea. Even despite his nearly decade-long decline as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, Pujols still rocks a 147 OPS+, 656 home runs and 100.8 WAR. He's sixth on the all-time home run list, and second to only Lou Gehrig among first basemen in WAR.

    If there's an underrated aspect of Pujols' career, it's certainly his postseason resume. Compiled almost entirely with the St. Louis Cardinals between 2001 and 2011, he's a .323/.431/.599 career hitter with 19 home runs in October. He won rings in 2006 and 2011, the second of which included a historic performance in Game 3 of the World Series.

    Otherwise, the 40-year-old Pujols also has three MVPs, 10 All-Star selections, six Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves among his possessions. All of this leaves literally nothing to be desired.

    Verdict: Definitely in


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.