In any given major league season, there are typically around 35-40 active players who will make baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Some of these are rookies getting their first taste of the majors. Others are young superstars in their prime. And a few are players who aren’t done quite yet, but have already punched their ticket to Cooperstown when they retire.
In prior articles, we’ve explored the sure-thing hitters and pitchers, as well as position players on the Hall of Fame path. Today, we’re going to look at the pitchers who are well on a hall of fame path but still have some more work to stamp their ticket to Cooperstown.
Just a note on WAR. When WAR is referenced in this article, we are using Baseball Reference WAR, not Fangraphs version.
Also, as a reminder, a player becomes eligible for the election to the Hall of Fame 5 years after they retire, and remain eligible for 10 years or until they are named on less than 5% of ballots. The Hall of Fame voting results are announced in January, and the induction ceremony is in July.
What makes a Hall of Fame starting pitcher?
There are 65 pitchers in the Hall of Fame. The average career WAR for those starters is 73.3. That average is skewed upward by a few cartoonishly high numbers at the top of the list with Walter Johnson (164.8) and Cy Young (163.6).
So, the real WAR number for Hall of Fame consideration is around 60, with a total over 65 getting into very likely enshrinement territory. For example, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Roy Halladay’s career WAR total was 64.2. Another example is C.C. Sabathia, who has a strong chance of induction when he is eligible, who had a WAR total of 62.5.
Of note is the fact that what makes a Hall of Fame pitcher is evolving along with the game. It used to be that Hall of Fame pitchers might need 300 career wins to be elected. That number dropped to 250 as relievers proliferated through the game, and now is around 200 for pitchers of the last 40 years or so.
It will be fascinating to see how the game and Hall of Fame standards continue to evolve in the world of 5-inning starts and “openers.”
Hall of Fame Starters Warren Spahn, Nolan Ryan, and Tom Seaver
What makes a Hall of Fame relief pitcher?
This is a much murkier question than the prior one. There are only eight relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame. WAR doesn’t seem to do the best job of capturing relief pitchers value. Often Hall of Fame voting is still based on less than stellar metrics like save totals.
WAR leader Dennis Eckersley started over 360 games, adding to his WAR total of 62.1. Mariano Rivera is by far the best relief pitcher in history, with a WAR total of 56.3.
Beyond that, there’s Hoyt Wilhelm with his 2,254 IP and 46.8 WAR and Rich Gossage with 41.2 WAR.
There’s then a big WAR gap. We find recent inductees Lee Smith (28.9) and Trevor Hoffman (28.0). Following them are two “late 70s – early 80s firemen” closers in Rollie Fingers (25.6) and Bruce Sutter (24.1).
So, one would think that a closer with a career WAR total in the mid-20s or above with a strong save total and career ERA and strikeout rates would be a strong candidate. Time will tell if this holds true in upcoming elections, but for now let’s use that as our criteria.
Hall of Fame Reliever Mariano Rivera’s 1992 Bowman Rookie Card
The starting pitchers on the Path
The pitchers below have a shot at the Baseball Hall of Fame if they can continue to build on the great start to their careers. Longevity is tough for pitchers, with injury and ineffectiveness ready to descend on elbows and shoulders at any time.
NOTE: All stats are through the 2022 Major League All Star Game.
WAR: 45.6 Age: 33
Sale is a 7-time All-Star who has finished in the top 6 in the Cy Young voting seven times. He has not won a Cy Young award, however, which may hurt his chances in some voter’s opinion.
In the first nine seasons of Sale’s career (2010-2018) he put up an impressive 42.5 WAR. That’s a great start to a Hall of Fame career. The injury bug set in after that, however, and in the four years since (2019-2022) Sale has accumulated only 3.2 WAR. He missed time recovering from Tommy John surgery, a cracked rib, and after only 5 2/3 innings pitched in 2022, a broken finger.
Sale’s Hall of Fame chances come down to how well he recovers from his most recent injury and how long he’s able to continue pitching. If Sale comes back with a couple of vintage Sale 5-6 WAR seasons then has a decline phase that is not a net-negative on his career WAR total, or puts up an average of 3.5 WAR per season through his age 36 season, he’s likely destined for Cooperstown.
If the rehab from the injury doesn’t take or Sale can’t find a way to stay productive as he ages, the outlook gets a lot murkier.
Check out Chris Sale rookie cards on eBay
2010 Bowman Chrome DP&P Chris Sale RC
WAR: 42.4 Age: 34
deGrom may be one of the most unique pitchers in major league history. His total of 42.4 WAR going into his age 34 season is not unusual. The fact that he’s accumulated that WAR total in only 198 games across 8 seasons…is.
deGrom didn’t debut in the majors until he was in his age 26 season due to Tommy John surgery in his second pro season. He promptly won the Rookie of the Year award. He pitched well in his late 20’s only to kick it up a notch in his age 30 and 31 seasons, winning back-to-back Cy Young awards.
In 2021, deGrom was off to an epic start, going 7-2 with a 1.08 ERA in his first 15 starts, and seemed destined to win a third Cy Young award and maybe an MVP. Injury woes kept him off the mound, and he was limited to those 15 starts. The fact that in those 15 starts he accumulated 5.0 WAR is crazy.
But despite all the greatness, deGrom still had only 198 games started over 8 seasons. His career W-L record is 77-53. deGrom’s greatness can’t be argued with, but even in his two Cy Young seasons, he only had a record of 21-17.
So, what are deGrom’s Hall of Fame chances? He needs one more season after 2022 just to be eligible (10 career total). The fact that as of this writing he just made his 2022 season debut after working his way back from injury isn’t a great sign. Of course, the fact that his first 7 starts since his return have been worth 1.9 WAR prove that when he’s on the mound, few pitchers can rival deGrom.
Entering that 10th season, he’ll be heading into his age 35 season, old for any pitcher, never mind one with a history of injuries. If he can get to 60 WAR, I think he has a shot. That’s 3-4 more solid seasons, or two more peak deGrom seasons.
Even then, he’ll have low games started, wins, and WAR totals for a Hall of Famer. Cy Young award voters have been willing to overlook the lack of traditional counting stats…will Hall of Fame voters?
I’m not sure how the rest of deGrom’s career and Hall of Fame candidacy will go, but it’ll be fun to watch!
Check out Jacob DeGrom rookie cards on eBay
2014 Bowman Chrome Prospects Jacob DeGrom RC
WAR: 34.1 Age: 32
Mid-way through his 10th major league season, Cole is 128-70 with a 3.20 ERA. He’s a 5-time All-Star and has five top-5 CY Young award finishes (including 2nd twice). He is clearly one of the most dominant pitchers of his era, but is it enough for him to make the Hall of Fame?
Cole’s 34.1 career WAR rank 229th among all starting pitchers, suggesting a sizeable climb. Just to get to the 60 WAR level, we’re looking at close to doubling his career WAR. Five more 5+ WAR seasons would get him into the conversation, which would mean consistent excellence into his late 30s. Of course, if he can work some 6-7 WAR seasons into the mix, it will help (his career high is 6.6 in in 2019).
Are his chances good? Not particularly. Does he have a chance? Certainly. And one better than most any other pitcher more than a few seasons into his career. Did I include him to show just how hard it is to make the Hall of Fame as a starting pitcher? Bingo!
Check out Gerrit Cole rookie cards available on eBay
2012 Bowman Chrome Prospects Auto Gerrit Cole
Relief pitchers on the Hall of Fame path
WAR: 21.3 Age: 34
Kimbrel has led the league in saves four times, and his 387 career saves ranks 8th all time. He also has a 2.28 career ERA, and 1,073 strikeouts in only 659.1 IP.
After turning 30, though, Kimbrel appeared to be on a downward path of performance. The 2021 season seemed to be a turnaround, although he had very different performance after being traded from the Cubs to the White Sox. Still, the season was worth 2.5 WAR.
If the turnaround is for real and he can rack up solid WAR and save totals the next few seasons, Kimbrel will be in the mid-20s WAR range with over 400 saves. That feels like a Hall of Fame reliever, although as mentioned above, it remains to be seen how voters deal with closers.
The off-season trade to the Dodgers may help him, as they’re certainly a team that should have a lot of wins to protect and provide a chance for post-season glory.
Check out Craig Kimbrel rookie cards on eBay
2011 Bowman Chrome Draft Refractor Craig Kimbrel
WAR: 19.3 Age: 34
Jansen, who converted to relief after playing much of his minor league career as a catcher, has 372 career saves, good for 10th all time, to go with a 2.43 career ERA. After a couple of down seasons, Jansen had a bit of a revival in 2021.
If he can keep up that revival for 3-4 more seasons, he’ll have a WAR in the range that’d suggest future induction into the hall.
Check out Kenley Jansen rookie cards on eBay
2010 Bowman Draft Blue Kenley Jansen
WAR: 19.0 Age: 34
Chapman, who rocked a 100+ mph fastball in his prime, has 315 career saves (24th all time) to go with a 2.43 career ERA. Chapman’s numbers have started to decline as he’s gotten older, but the drop off has been slight and gradual coming into an injury-marred 2022.
If he can pitch into his late 30s and maintain this solid performance, he should have numbers in the Hall of Fame range. Will that be enough? Chapman had some unfortunate off-field issues earlier in his career, and the voters aren’t likely to completely forget them. And if the drop-off in performance in 2022 proves a trend, he’ll quickly fade into the “Hall of Very Good” relievers.
Check out Aroldis Chapman rookie cards on eBay
2010 Bowman Chrome Gold Refractor Auto Aroldis Chapman
Key rookie card population reports
Note: Because of the era these players came up and the cards were produced, you have lots of options. In some cases, you can find pre-rookie, parallels, SN, auto, or simply other brands rookie cards compared to the Bowman cards I’m highlighting above. Depending on your budget and taste, pick “other” cards of the players above.
Will all six of these pitchers make the Hall of Fame? Almost certainly not…with advancing age and potential injuries, the most likely scenario is that one or two of these pitchers eventually ends up in Cooperstown. Does that mean they’re not worth investing in, or don’t have much upside? I don’t think so.
So, which of these pitcher’s rookie cards are worth buying? deGrom’s rookie cards in PSA 10 are pretty expensive, although down slightly from the peak of last summer. With his injury, there may be an opportunity to buy now, but there is some risk involved.
I feel that Sale’s cards have always been underpriced. Demand has been down after his down 2019 season and lost 2020-2022 seasons. If you believe that Sale can come back strong, now is a good time to buy.
The relievers offer the most risk, as they have more to do to get to the Hall of Fame standard. They also need to rely on the electorate to actually elect them if and when they reach that standard.
Card values for relievers tend to lag behind that of position players and starting pitchers, but one of these relievers making the Hall of Fame would likely surprise a lot of collectors.
Surprises like that tend to spike demand, which tends to raise prices quickly, especially in low-pop situations. With their current prices low, it may be worth buying in on whichever one of the relievers you think have the best chance of making it to Cooperstown.
The final word on active future Hall of Fame pitchers
The Hall of Fame remains the pinnacle for all baseball players. What makes a Hall of Fame pitcher continues to evolve along with the game. The players highlighted in this article are on a path that could see them eventually get enshrined.
There remains risks and unknowns on the path, though, which may provide some interesting investment opportunities.
More articles: Active Major Leaguers on the Hall of Fame path
Future Hall-Of-Famer Cards: Sure Thing Hitters
Future Hall-Of-Famer Pitcher Cards: Sure Things
Active Major League Hitters Who We Think Are On The Baseball Hall Of Fame Path