Wednesday, February 21, 2024
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Baseball Hall of Fame: First-ballot starting pitchers are becoming a rarity; who will be the next one?

The 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame election has come and gone. David Ortiz is headed to Cooperstown, but once again there were no starting pitchers elected on the first ballot. Not that there should have been, but it’s been pretty commonplace for a while to not see any. 

Back in 1999, Nolan Ryan got into the Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot, earning 98.8 percent of the vote. We wouldn’t see another first-ballot Hall of Fame starting pitcher until 2014. In that cycle, both Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine made it with ease. Next time around, three more first-ballot Hall of Fame starting pitchers were added in Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz. In 2019, Roy Halladay would join the fray. 

Still, it’s pretty interesting, no? Aside from a two-year deluge of five inductees, the only first-ballot Hall of Fame starting pitcher from 2000-22 has been Halladay. In all, there have been just six first-ballot Hall of Fame starters inducted since the turn of the millennium and they were all bunched together. 

This isn’t to say it’s anything more than a coincidence. Coincidences are bound to happen with Hall of Famers, though I’ll never understand why it took Mike Mussina six times to get in or why Curt Schilling wasn’t already in before he started harming his chances with public comments. It’s all beside the point here. 

No, our point in today’s exercise while trying to keep our mind off the owner-imposed lockout is to look ahead toward the future first-ballot Hall of Fame starting pitchers. Or rather, who will be the next one? 

2023

The best starting pitchers added to the ballot are John Lackey, Jered Weaver and Matt Cain. Next. 

2024

Bartolo Colon, James Shields and then down to Yovani Gallardo? Nope. Next. 

2025

Now we’re talking. CC Sabathia comes on the ballot for the first time. Felix Hernandez, too, but if he eventually makes it in, it’ll likely take years of convincing a good portion of the voting body. No, we’ll focus on CC. 

I do think he’ll be a Hall of Famer someday. I’m a bit dubious it happens in his first go-round, though, given what I mentioned above about Mussina. In a similar number of innings, Mussina was better at run prevention and keeping opposing hitters off base. He won 270 games compared to CC’s 251. Mussina rates out much better in JAWS and WAR (82.8 to 62 in WAR, for example).

Of course, Sabathia has over 3,000 strikeouts while Mussina fell less than 200 short. Sabathia has a World Series ring and a Cy Young and those both eluded Mussina, albeit with awfully close misses. 

We have an evolving voting body that over the years will continue to skew more “new school.” Then again, that might actually hurt Sabathia due to the JAWS and WAR figures. 

I’m going to guess Sabathia misses the 2025 Hall of Fame class. 

2026

Cole Hamels is the best bet. Even if you want to discuss him here, and I’m not averse, I just can’t see it happening in his first try. 

2027

Jon Lester has announced his retirement after pitching in 2021, so he’s our best known name here. I’ll echo what I said on Hamels. It won’t happen right away. 

Still active

That moves us into active players before we can find the next first-ballot Hall of Fame starting pitcher. 

There are three active pitchers who could retire right now and head to the Cooperstown in their first try without many of us giving it a second thought: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. I’m not sure there’s a single, serious argument against any of the three. It’s just a matter of when they are voted in on their first try. 

Kershaw is only 33, but he’s a free agent and has had back, elbow and shoulder injuries that are a concern moving forward. It’s nothing that will affect his Hall of Fame status, I’m only saying he might be retiring earlier than many would have expected back in his prime. Let’s give him three more years. That puts him on the 2030 ballot. 

Scherzer is 37 years old with a ton of mileage on his right arm, but he’s signed through 2023 with a player option for 2024 worth over $43 million. He’ll pitch through that season and then we’ll say he’s done. Again, that would get him on the 2030 ballot. 

Verlander turns 39 next month and is coming off Tommy John surgery. He has a two-year deal with the Astros and he’ll finish that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has another year in the tank after that, too, but it’s possible I’m getting caught up in the idea of Kershaw, Scherzer and Verlander going in via the same ballot. 

Will someone beat them there? 

I think Zack Greinke has a shot. He’s won a Cy Young and two ERA titles. The six-time All-Star has six Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers and has long been such a great all-around player. He’s over 3,000 innings and 2,800 strikeouts. And you know how I mentioned the evolving voting body? Greinke is 27th in starting pitcher JAWS (Verlander is 25th, Kershaw 26th, Scherzer 30th, Sabathia 55th, Hamels 69th). He’s ahead of Nolan Ryan, Roy Halladay, Carl Hubbell, John Smoltz, Jim Palmer, Don Drysdale and Juan Marichal, among others. As the voting body continues to move more toward the advanced metrics, Greinke’s case only gets stronger. 

Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean I think there are no other active pitchers will be first-ballot Hall of Famers. We’re just trying to find the next one and I can’t see anyone beating all four of these guys to the punch. 

The pick

I’ll say Greinke is the next first-ballot Hall of Fame starting pitcher. We’ll go with 2029, meaning it would be the first time since 2018 and just the seventh time since 1999. Of course, it’s entirely possible then Kershaw, Scherzer and Verlander quickly follow, so we’d have another clump of them not unlike 2014-15. Pretty funny how that works, huh? 

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