This is by far the toughest category to project. There are a few very good first basemen that won’t make the Hall of Fame. Don Mattingly is the first player that comes to mind. “Donny Baseball” was the premier first baseman of the 1980’s. He retired early but he was every bit as good as Kirby Puckett who's in the HOF. As I mentioned in the introduction, their will be new standards in getting into the HOF. Fred McGriff will probably be the first victim of those new standards. If the “Crime Dog” started his career five years earlier, he would likely be in. However, McGriff’s numbers pale in comparison to today’s sluggers.
One player that I do contend will make the Hall of Fame despite recent voter-polls indicating otherwise is Mark McGwire. I just don’t see how Big Mac can be kept out. It’s one thing to keep Giambi out since his numbers won’t be overwhelming but Big Mac took over baseball for five years. Bill James has McGwire rated as the 31st best player in baseball history. He has 583 career home runs. His career OPS is .982. He had six seasons with an OPS of 1.100 or higher! Nobody is going to confuse Big Mac with Tony Gwynn or Ichiro, but let’s be serious here.
There's no question that Big Mac rubbed sportswriters and fans the wrong way with his “I’m not here to talk about the past” speech at the senate hearings. It was right after those hearings that voters were polled about whether they’d vote for McGwire. Five or ten years from now, people won’t be as pissed and he’ll get in easily.
Rafael Palmeiro Despite Skip Bayless’ best attempts, Palmeiro is a “lock” for the HOF. How many players can you remember that have hit 37 or more home runs in 8 straight seasons? The answer should be one….and it’s Palmeiro. He’s got 3,000 hits. He’ll finish with 600 home runs. Only Willie Mays and Hank Aaron can lay claim to those numbers. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to see it, does it really fall? Sure. Just go back to the forest 20 years later and judge for yourself. Who cares if Raffy didn’t get the publicity that some of the other guys got during his career. His resume is right in front of us. Take a look. It’s mighty impressive.
Frank Thomas Famed baseball historian and statistician Bill James thinks that Frank Thomas was the best player of the 90’s. That alone will likely get Frank into Cooperstown. His numbers were phenomenal with a heavy emphasis on were. He’s dropped off significantly as of late but he has the highest OPS (On base percentage + Slugging percentage) among the players in this category at .995. His career batting average is also the highest at .307. It seems like the Big Hurt hasn’t been good for a number of years but his career stats show just how dominant he was. He could hit as well as anyone but also possessed a keen eye which has led to an amazing .427 OBP (On base percentage). His walk numbers are among the best for the decade. There’s no question that he is HOF worthy. The frustrating thing with the Big Hurt was those down years in his prime. His numbers would be unmatched had he remained consistent.
Jeff Bagwell Bagwell’s numbers are very comparable to Frank’s. Both players were born on the same day. They share almost identical career stats. Both players dominated the 1990’s. Frank was slightly a better hitter and Bags was a better fielder. Bags has lost the momentum towards 500 home runs and 3,000 hits due to his arthritic shoulder. His numbers have steadily declined and his career is probably one year away from being over. I think this is actually an advantage over Thomas because Bags at least has an excuse for his tapering numbers. The Big Hurt had too many shady seasons for what was supposed to be his prime years.
In barring injury:(4)
Albert Pujols Pujols is the “lock” of locks to make the HOF. There’s only two things that could keep him out, 1). a gambling habit, or 2). an injury within the next three years. Aside from Bonds (and I hate admitting that), Pujols is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. His numbers are off the charts. He’s produced since day one in the majors. His career batting average is .334. His OPS is 1.038 and he’s NOT playing his home games in Colorado. As long as Pujols doesn’t get injured, he’ll go down as one of the five greatest hitters ever.
Jim Thome Thome will more than likely make it. Although, my confidence level here is much lower than in the previous categories because Thome’s career batting average is much lower than Thomas and Bagwell’s. Thome should finish with 500 home runs. His batting average is higher than one would expect at .281. His OPS is better than Bagwell’s. Thome has eight less home runs than Bagwell but has had 1,000 less at bats. As a home run hitter, Thome trumps both Bagwell and Thomas. His OBP is equal to Bagwell’s. He has been the premier home run hitter of the last few years. If he can get over his elbow problems, he should be able to pile on the numbers to get into the HOF. If Bagwell and Frank Thomas are locks, then Thome will have a very strong argument when his career is done.
Todd Helton I change my tone on Helton every day. I personally think he should be a shoe-in. His numbers are in a whole different stratosphere. However, nobody knows for sure how the voters will treat the players from Colorado. My question with that is, how much better than Helton would a player have to be to make the HOF after playing in Colorado? He leads all first basemen, including Albert Pujols, in every major offensive category. His career OPS is 1.035. His career batting average is .335. His OBP is .430! He got a late start and he has some injuries that could potentially shorten his career. However, his numbers are too impressive to overlook. He’s a Hall of Famer.
Mark Teixeira I’m going to make a prediction here. If Teixeira doesn’t get hurt, he will be in the Hall of Fame. He started hitting as soon as he arrived in Arlington. He’s among the league leaders in home runs in only his third season. His batting average is suspect but all of the other numbers are there. He got an early enough start to hit all the milestones. It’s hard to project 15 years in advance but this is how a HOF generally starts.
Will just miss the cut:(4)
Carlos Delgado This is where the “new standards” start to come into play. Voters know they can’t just admit every good first baseman. There’s been too many of them over the last 15 years. So, they’ll start cutting off the fat. Unfortunately for Delgado, they will probably start with him. Check out his numbers. They’re ridiculous. His OPS is .948. He has a legitimate shot at reaching 500 home runs. His batting average is in the Thome range at .283 He’s like Raffy in terms of being underrated. People don’t notice him but he produces every year. His numbers will compare to many first baseman that have made the HOF. I just think he’ll be the victim of increasing supply with a lowering demand.
Jason Giambi Giambi was well on his way just two years ago. He had the Pujols combination of power and average. Everything changed after he went to the Yankees. His power numbers were similar but his batting average tailed off significantly. I’m not sure why this happened. I don’t know if he concentrated more on his power numbers or what but there was clearly something different about Giambi’s approach to the plate. Even still, his OPS is .951 which is higher than Bagwell. Giambi also has a higher OBP than Bagwell and Thome. The fact that he was outed for taking steroids will be what inevitably gives the voters the green light to pass on him. His career numbers will be there but give the voters a reason to keep you out, and they will.
David Ortiz Aside from Pujols and Helton, there isn’t a better hitting first baseman in the game today. Ortiz is a terror at the plate. He seemingly hits a home run or double everyday. It’s unfortunate that the Twins dropped the ball on Big Papi. He showed flashes of brilliance while playing in Minnesota but they put him on the shelf for three seasons. Those three seasons will likely be the difference between admittance and denial to Cooperstown. Ortiz is 30. At this stage in a career, the typical HOF player has a much better resume. Making the Hall of Fame is a simple combination of brilliance over time. Unfortunately for Ortiz, that combination is pretty much unattainable.