The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected no new Hall of Famers for 2021. It seems pretty likely the same might happen in 2022, too. Maybe that says a lot about the flawed process, or the flaws of the men at the top of the ballot. It’s probably both. But what that doesn’t mean is that there aren’t Hall of Fame-level players on the field right now. There are dozens of them.
But how many? Who are they, and where should you look in 2021 if you want to see a living legend? Well, we’ve been writing versions of this article for a while now. (See: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016.) What we’ve come to realize is that each year, there are something like 35 to 40 future Hall of Famers playing.
To cherry-pick just one year: In 1993, there were 41 future Hall of Famers playing. There were the in-their-prime superstars, like Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux and Ken Griffey Jr. There were the aging legends in their 40s, their legacy long since secured, like Dave Winfield, George Brett and Carlton Fisk. At the other end, there were the rookies, some highly touted, others not, who had everything to prove, like Chipper Jones, Mike Piazza and Jim Thome.
Let’s try another. In 1973, there were 40 future Hall of Famers playing, despite several fewer teams, and it was the same kind of spread. In-their-prime stars? Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan, Reggie Jackson and many more. Finishing out great careers? Willie Mays, at 42 years old, got into 66 games for the Mets before retiring. Brand new names? Brett, hilariously, counts on this list as well, getting into 13 games as a 20-year-old rookie.
You get the idea. We’re inducting fewer and fewer players in recent years, for all the reasons you can imagine — not just off-field controversy, but also difficulty in valuing starting pitchers who will never rack up the wins and innings totals that their predecessors once did — and so the more recent average is closer to 30, but we’ll try not to hit a specific number. We’ll list between 35 and 40 players. It will not be difficult to get there. There are so many great players.
With each player, we’ll list their career FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement total. As always, entrance to the Hall is not merely a “count the WAR” exercise. That said, if you’re not ranking well in a stat intended to capture total value, you’re going to have a pretty hard time getting in — except, as you’ll see, for relievers. For context, the average Hall of Famer has been 50-70 WAR, and the best of the best, Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth, were north of 160 WAR.
The absolute no-doubt tier
Pujols and Cabrera are such obvious choices that when we first did this list five years ago, we called them “slam dunks right now, no questions asked,” and even though neither has done much to enhance their cases since then — quite the opposite, really, as they’ve combined for 3.1 WAR over the past five seasons — it doesn’t matter. They’re inner-circle right-handed sluggers. Trout may legitimately end up being the best player ever, while Kershaw and Scherzer each have three Cy Young Awards. Greinke doesn’t have quite the same hardware, but he’s still going strong at 37, and he won’t have any problem getting in.
Short version: Watch these guys while you can. Someday, they’ll be more legend than player.
Let’s be clear, Molina is probably going to get in. He’s a nine-time All-Star, a nine-time Gold Glover and a two-time World Series winner, and if there’s anyone who has ever gained from a reputation of carrying those unquantifiable catching skills to guide a pitching staff, it’s him. We can acknowledge all that and still point out that he’s short on the numbers, because a career 98 OPS+ doesn’t stand out — especially when you consider that many Hall of Fame catchers were far better hitters, like how Johnny Bench had a 126 OPS+ or Gary Carter had a 115 OPS+ — and that’s going to be an important part of the conversation.
Still, there are very good reasons to believe he will get in. It won’t be unanimous. It might not even be first ballot. But he’ll get in, and that’s all that matters.
Soto turned 22 in October, Acuña turned 23 in December. If you think it’s too soon to talk about this, you haven’t been paying attention to how great they’ve been over the past three seasons. In the history of baseball, only six players have gotten off to a better hitting start than Soto, and you don’t need last names to know who “Ted, Ty, and Rogers” are. (Also: Trout.) Acuña is only ever so slightly behind, and he’s a better fielder and runner. These two are already at the point where the only thing that keeps you out of Cooperstown is serious injury.
No, Fernando Tatis Jr. isn’t here yet, just because he has less than half as many plate appearances as either of these two. We’ll get to him later, though.
The late-career strong cases
Slam dunks? No. Great careers that might be looked upon even more favorably as the electorate continues to accept advanced metrics as time goes on? Probably. Votto is entering his age-37 campaign and is clearly past his prime, yet he’s been above-average in 12 seasons, and when you’re looking at the list of players who have had a career OBP above .400 and a career SLG above .500, you have to try hard to find reasons not to put them in the Hall.
Posey is a little different, because the career numbers are a little light, and his age 31-33 seasons haven’t offered much, meaning he has more pressure to continue producing than Votto does. But he’s got the awards (2010 NL Rookie of the Year, ’12 NL Most Valuable Player), a seven-year run as one of the most elite players in the game, three rings, and the fact that we know we’re not quantifying all the things a catcher can do. He’s going to have a case.
Not on our list, but worth mentioning: It seems like there’s a decent chance Félix Hernández makes the 2021 Orioles. We think he’ll come up short for Cooperstown, as he’s had a 4.89 ERA in the four seasons since he turned 30, but maybe he’ll yet surprise us.
The what-if-he-gets-a-big-round-number zone
We’ll admit that right now, it doesn’t “feel” like Stanton is a Hall of Famer, just because he’s rarely healthy. Over the last two seasons, he’s made only 166 plate appearances. Once a solid defensive outfielder, he’s become almost entirely a designated hitter. The case looks a lot worse than it did a few years ago. And yet: whenever he plays, he mashes. He’s entering his age-31 season, and he’s got 312 home runs and a 144 OPS+.
Let’s say he gets to 500 home runs, which seems very doable for him if he can merely stay on the field. Let’s say he’s slightly worse at the plate, and ends up with a career OPS+ of 130. Twenty-four hitters have done that for a career; of them, 21 are Hall of Fame eligible. Of those 21, 16 are in the Hall of Fame — Pujols will add another someday — and the five who aren’t (Bonds, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro) have fallen short for other reasons. If you get there, you have to give voters a big reason not to vote for you.
We’re not saying it’s guaranteed, or maybe even likely. But we’re not out yet.
The midcareer greats-in-progress
We can guarantee some of these players will be inducted in the Hall of Fame someday. We can also guarantee not all will. Who gets in? And who doesn’t? Well, the next several years will tell us that, because these are the in-their-prime greats, the bulk of the elite players in baseball right now.
You really have players from all around the spectrum here. In Machado, Harper and Bryant, you have highly hyped prospects who were top picks and have largely delivered on that promise. Lindor, Seager, Story and Correa are all part of an incredible wave of shortstop talent. Betts is, at worst, one of the three best players in the game right now. Freeman, Goldschmidt and Rizzo have been among the preeminent first basemen of the last decade. Maybe you like George Springer or Salvador Perez or Andrelton Simmons here. We think they’ll be a little short.
Meanwhile, deGrom’s relatively late ascent to greatness may prevent him from piling up the numbers he might otherwise need, with one important caveat: As we wrote last September, a third Cy Young win should be an instant “get into Cooperstown” card, in our opinion.
The how-do-we-value-relievers zone
Consider the following two potentially opposite thoughts: A) In a sport that is increasingly reliant on bullpen arms, the best relievers must be recognized, especially now that several are already in the Hall. B) But even Chapman, who has been excellent for a decade, has barely thrown as many innings in his career (547 1/3) as deGrom has since 2018 (489), and it would have been more equal if 2020 had been a full season. It’s a difficult quandary, and it won’t get easier, especially as the save becomes less meaningful as a metric.
Still, relievers are getting in, and Chapman is the best of them. (On the field, anyway; we’ll have to see how future voters consider his 2016 suspension for violating the domestic violence policy.) While it often seems like relievers come and go every few years, he’s now had nine straight excellent seasons, with no signs of slowing down. He did just strike out 17 per nine in 2020, after all, and he holds the all-time record for strikeout rate. Jansen’s story is similar; while not quite as dominant as he once was, he’s been above-average for more than a decade.
We once would have included Craig Kimbrel (17.1 WAR) here, and maybe we still should, but he’s posted a .600 ERA for the Cubs over the last two years, and he might need to show more before his time on the ballot comes up.
The off-to-great-starts guys
OK, we told you Tatis would pop up again, and here he is. A year from now, if he has the 2021 we expect — we did name him the best shortstop in baseball for the upcoming season, after all — perhaps he’ll be up there with Soto and Acuña. For now, let’s see him have a full season.
You might advocate for other names here — we’ll hear arguments for Jack Flaherty, Ozzie Albies, Aaron Judge, Lucas Giolito or others. It’s almost certain this is not the same list you’d have. But we are up to 40 names now, aren’t we? And we haven’t even gotten to …
… right. All the other guys: The 2021 prospects, the 2019-20 rookies, the ones who haven’t yet had enough time to really make that kind of all-time impact.
As we said, though, sometimes you get 13 games worth of 20-year-old George Brett. For example: what if Wander Franco, consensus No. 1 prospect, debuts this year? Or Adley Rutschman? What if Joey Bart takes off, or Yordan Alvarez is the next David Ortiz? What if Randy Arozarena’s postseason heroics were just the tip of the iceberg? Maybe Luis Robert is the real deal. Maybe Kyle Lewis is, or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Maybe Pete Alonso really is the next great power hitter, or Nick Madrigal is an all-time great contact hitter. Perhaps Ke’Bryan Hayes really is an all-time third baseman, or Will Smith is the next great catcher.
Probably one of those things will happen. Probably most of them won’t. Regardless, you will see some all-time legends on the field in 2021. You always do.