This whole Hall of Fame thing is a tricky business. It’s about numbers and fame and agendas, but it’s often simply about the gut feeling of voters as well. What strikes me, however, is that the Hall of Fame is sometimes more about your worst seasons than your best seasons. It’s about what happens in your 30s more than your 20s.
Take Tim Raines, who will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer. For five seasons in the 1980s, when he was in his 20s, Raines was one of the best players in baseball. That’s a pretty short peak for a Hall of Famer. He wasn’t really a great player in his 30s, but he managed, for a long time, not to stink, instead remaining useful until he was 38. By contrast, Raines' contemporary Dale Murphy was also one of the best players in baseball for five or six seasons in the 1980s, but didn’t age well and hasn’t even sniffed Cooperstown.
Here’s a more recent example: Through age 30, Joe Mauer had 44.2 WAR, three batting titles and an MVP award. He was coming off a 5.3-WAR season in which he hit .324 with a .404 OBP. He was looking like he’d become one of the top five or six catchers of all time. However, once he moved to first base, his production declined and he has been worth just 5.8 WAR the past three seasons combined, putting his Hall of Fame case on life support. Carlos Beltran had a similar career WAR through age 30 (45.7), and even though he hasn’t been a 4-WAR player since 2008, he has managed to hit 158 home runs, drive in 549 runs and compile 17.7 WAR the past eight seasons, becoming a strong Hall of Fame candidate. Like Raines, Beltran was able to keep it going, albeit at a non-superstar level.
With that in mind, let’s look at some players in their 30s who can most help their Hall of Fame cases in 2016. (This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, and Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Ichiro Suzuki and Adrian Beltre, who will get his 3,000th hit sometime in June, should be considered locks.)
KEEP YOUR WORST SEASONS UNDER CONTROL
Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez: I think these two guys can help their cases more than any other players this season. They’re both above 50 career WAR and getting close to that gray area of viability, although Hall of Fame voters have certainly been tough on starting pitchers of late (see Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling). Unlike Mussina and Schilling, however, Verlander, 34, and Hernandez, 30, have each won a Cy Young Award and were recognized at some point as the best pitcher in the game. They’ve already been great; now they just need to be good.
That said, a few more good-to-great seasons are in order. Verlander’s comeback last season, when he led the American League in strikeouts and finished second in the Cy Young vote, was a huge positive sign that he has adapted to some loss in velocity and can still dominate. While Verlander sits at 173 career wins, Hernandez is at 154 — thanks, Mariners offense! — and coming off his worst season in a decade, so he’s trending down and needs to re-establish himself as somebody who isn’t going to flame out in his early 30s.
Robinson Cano: Last season’s monster 39-homer, 103-RBI campaign after a down year in 2015 was a huge boost. He’s 22 home runs away from becoming the third second baseman to hit 300 home runs, joining Jeff Kent and Rogers Hornsby, and he has six top-10 MVP finishes. While Kent has struggled to gain Hall of Fame support even with an MVP award on his ledger, Cano, 34, already has the higher career WAR and is still going strong. One more big season pretty much cements his candidacy, and then it’s mostly just about not being awful. He already compares pretty favorably with recent Hall of Fame second basemen:
Cano: 278 HRs, 1,086 RBIs, .307/.355/.498, 127 OPS+, 62.4 WAR
Craig Biggio: 291 HRs, 1,175 RBIs, .281/.363/.433, 112 OPS+, 65.1 WAR
Roberto Alomar: 210 HRs, 1,134 RBIs, .300/.371/.443, 116 OPS+, 66.8 WAR
Ryne Sandberg: 282 HRs, 1,061 RBIs, .285/.344/.452, 114 OPS+, 67.5 WAR
BE GREAT AT ONE THING
Yadier Molina: Molina’s deserved reputation as one of the greatest defensive catchers ever has made him a strong HOF candidate despite mediocre offensive numbers. He turns 35 in July, but remarkably still started 142 games behind the plate last season. After slumping in 2015, he rebounded with a .307/.360/.427 line in 2016. He might need a couple of more years like that.
Francisco Rodriguez: I don’t think of him as a Hall of Famer, but he recorded 44 saves in 2016 and is now fourth on the all-time list with 430. I don’t know if Rodriguez can catch Mariano Rivera at 652, but he’s still just 35, and another 44-save season puts him just four behind Lee Smith for third.
Joey Votto: He’s entering his age-33 season and still going strong, coming off a mammoth .408/.490/.668 second half that helped earn him his fifth National League OBP title. That’s what Votto does: get on base. Of course, being an on-base machine hasn’t led to Edgar Martinez getting elected, but if Votto can keep cranking out .400-OBP seasons, his case gets interesting.
BE SURROUNDED BY WINNERS
Dustin Pedroia: With 50.7 career WAR and coming off a strong 5.6-WAR season, Pedroia has entered that “Hey, he’s had a better career than I thought” category. While Pedroia, 33, has an MVP award on his ledger, his offensive numbers still lag behind Cano's — 133 home runs, 662 RBIs — so he needs to keep going, especially since a large chunk of his value has been defense, which voters might or might not consider. Part of his legacy is also that he has been a key player on two World Series champs. Capturing a third title — without David Ortiz this time — would add to the perception that he’s a winning player.
Jon Lester: Lester's career numbers don’t scream Hall of Famer — 146 wins, 3.44 ERA, 41.0 WAR — so his chance means getting to at least 220 career wins and also continuing his clutch pitching in the postseason. At 33, he has three rings and a 2.63 career ERA in the postseason over 19 starts, including 1.77 in the World Series.
Carlos Beltran: Can he still help his case? Sure. Even though he’s one of just 37 players with 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs, I don’t know if he’s viewed as a lock. With 421 home runs and 2,617 hits, he’s probably going to fall short of the automatic milestones (and 500 home runs might not be automatic these days, even without PED connections). He also has just one top-five MVP finish. Another 25-homer, 90-RBI season could be the final push he needs.
CC Sabathia: Through his age-31 season, Sabathia looked like a pretty strong candidate, but over the past four seasons he has gone 32-39 with a 4.54 ERA. Although he went just 9-12 last season, he showed some signs that he is not completely done by posting a 3.91 ERA. Now 36, his best hope at this point is to somehow reel off a couple of 15-win seasons, which would get him to 253 wins, and you never know what could happen from there.