This week, it was announced that Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July. Their election and the din and drama surrounding the whole process can be tiresome, but it got me thinking about the next Brewers Hall of Famer.
The last time Milwaukee had a player on their roster who was eventually enshrined in Cooperstown was 1993: Robin Yount’s last season on the team. The other Hall of Famers who have played for the Brewers are Paul Molitor, Hank Aaron, Rollie Fingers and Don Sutton, all rostered during the 1970s and 1980s.
The last twenty years have not always been the best of times for Milwaukee, but there are a few players at whom we can look to see if they have a shot for election. For whittling purposes, I decided to use the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor. While much more simplistic than Baseball Prospectus alumnus Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system, it’s a quick-and-dirty formula to determine how likely a player is to be elected. Roughly, if a player scores 100, there’s a good possibility of election, while a score over 130 makes it a virtual lock the player will be elected.
As far as I can tell, there are three active players with Hall of Fame Monitor scores over 100, who are or once were Brewers. Those three players are Ryan Braun (107), Francisco Rodriguez (117), and C.C. Sabathia (105). Due to Sabathia’s short, though memorable, time with the team, I’m electing to focus on K-Rod and Braun.
Rodriguez’s number was surprising. As a comparison, Clayton Kershaw also currently rates at 117. Rodriguez has the highest score of any active relief pitcher. I certainly don’t think of K-Rod as a Hall of Famer, but upon reflection, it’s also difficult to immediately dismiss him. The BBWA doesn’t seem to know what to do with relief pitchers (see the 50 percent difference in voting totals for Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner, solely due to saves totals), and if Rodriguez can reach some higher round numbers in terms of saves, voters will give him a long look.
Though he’s about to enter his 15th Major League season, Rodriguez will only be 34 years old. His contract with Detroit runs two more years, and PECOTA projects him for 44 saves and a mid-threes ERA during that timeframe. Those seem like conservative totals, but the projected 44 saves would put him at 430 for his career. Rodriguez would be 2nd all-time through his age-36 season, with only Lee Smith ahead of him at 434 career saves. At 36, Mariano Rivera had 413 career saves and Trevor Hoffman had 393.
Rodriguez would be an interesting case if he could make it to 500 saves. I think it’s probably best to compare Rodriguez to Hoffman since he doesn’t have a signature hook to get in for being “famous,” and it looks like Hoffman should be inducted within a year or two.
As of now, he compares favorably in ERA+ to Hoffman, with a 156 to Hoffman’s 141, but Rodriguez has yet to enter a real decline phase, which should hypothetically lower that number. He also would have a lower ERA by 0.18 runs, which may be a better point of comparison, considering voters more likely to vote in a closer may lean towards traditional stats.
One more stat on which to focus is Win Probability Added (WPA). WPA is a number which goes up or down for a pitcher depending on the outcome of an bat, and how it impacts the team’s likelihood of winning the game. Jay Jaffe has been using it to evaluate relievers, and it is a useful to try and find the true value that relievers add.
Unfortunately for Rodriguez, he doesn’t compare as favorably to Hoffman here. His current WPA is 26.2, well behind Hoffman’s 34.1, while also behind current enshrined relievers Goose Gossage, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Dennis Eckersley. (sourced: http://www.si.com/mlb/2015/12/18/jaws-2016-hall-of-fame-ballot-trevor-hoffman).
For some concluding thoughts on Rodriguez, his contract with the Tigers will set the stage for a potential induction. If he can stay strong and put up 30+ saves each year with a respectable ERA, then he’ll get another chance to close at age 37. His Hall of Fame Monitor score would also be 125 at that point. However, if he performs like a recent vintage Tigers closer and gets hurt or is ineffective, then he may not get another chance to close, ending a Cooperstown bid.
The other, more interesting, case is that of Ryan Braun. Next year will be his age-32 season, and his Hall of Fame Monitor score already has him as a good probability. Braun has won an MVP and a Rookie of the Year, plus he has a half dozen All-Star appearances, not to mention a nice bounce-back campaign in 2015, which bodes well for sustained success in his 30s.
Of course, to go through with this exercise, we have to throw the PED elephant out of the room. Even amongst writers who are willing to vote for players around whom swirls a cloud of suspicion, there’s a difference between players who seem suspicious due to whispers or hairy backs, and those who have been suspended. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are still on the ballot while Rafael Palmeiro fell off the ballot after three years after accumulating 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.
Braun’s contract ends in 2021, when he would be 37 years old. PECOTA sees a slight dip in his home run totals during that time, never hitting more than 23, but also remarkable consistency: his total never projects below 20. Those 129 home runs would put Braun at 384 for his career. The 400 home-run plateau is not a magic number for election (if those exist anymore), but if this silly season proves anything, it’s that round numbers still do count for some voters, and it would also add to his Hall of Fame Monitor score (10 more points).
PECOTA projections also give him 900 hits during this period, adding a bonus for getting above 2,300 for his career, and he’d be another season away from 2,500. Add another All-Star appearance or two, and by 2022, Braun would clear the 130 threshold, making him a “virtual cinch.”
When reviewing these numbers, it’s probably best to hedge both ways. First, because PECOTA is inherently conservative, so long as Braun remains healthy he’s a decent bet to outhit his projections, at least for the next few years. However, as much as Braun may outperform the next few years, it’s difficult to trust a projection for 2021 because so much can change between now and then. With the rising salary scale in baseball, Braun’s contract may be tradable before then, making the projection utterly useless.
One final note on Braun, if he does make it to 2,500+ hits, 400+ home runs, and doesn’t make a single All-Star Game, his Hall of Fame Monitor score would be 132, same as Robin Yount. Suspension aside, it’s interesting to see the likely similarity in their scores, though I think most would not regard Braun as in the same category as Yount, unless he hangs on to reach the 3,000 hit milestone. WARP tends to agree, Yount accumulated 83.4 during his career, while Braun, if he meets his projections through 2021 would have 54.7, a significant difference. As the electorate changes and traditional stats dominate less of the conversation regarding Hall of Fame enshrinement, that difference will likely mean something, and he can’t make it up unless he has a serious late career resurgence — which would bring the PED elephant back into the room and would likely also doom his candidacy.