I mentioned two years ago that I thought there would be a bunch of first basemen with big-time numbers left out of the Hall of Fame as voters adjust their criteria due to the steroid/home run era. I’m not so sure that I agree with that sentiment anymore. I have heard various media members say on numerous occasions that 500 home runs is the new 400—that players who reach the 500-homer plateau are no longer locks for Cooperstown. I think that viewpoint works in theory but not in practicality. Of the active first basemen who have reached or will reach 500 home runs, I don’t see any that are likely to be kept out by the HOF voters. The only player with deserving stats that may be kept out is Rafael Palmeiro and that is for a whole different reason. I still consider anyone who hits 500 home runs a “lock”. It still takes a tremendous amount of productive seasons to reach that mark. Nothing has changed in that regard.
Here are the categories that I will be using to breakdown the candidates and a brief description of each category: The “Lock” and “Likely” categories will be counted as being projected into the Hall of Fame. There won’t be too many “Borderline” candidates but I’ll decide those projections on a case by case basis. I will not count players under 25 regardless of my opinion but I’ll identify players under 25 who seem to be off to excellent starts.
Lock: Barring steroid scandal, will be a Hall of Famer
Likely: Player is on the path based on career progression
Borderline: Pretty close to 50/50; or could make a charge
Not Likely: Almost no chance; would take an unexpected resurgence
Under 25: Players that have a good start to a potential HOF career
Active Hall of Fame First Basemen
Conventional wisdom is that because “The Big Hurt” reached 500 career home runs, he is a lock for the Hall of Fame. The truth is that he was a lock a long time ago. He is a two-time MVP winner with six top-five finishes. He is one of the most disciplined power-hitters the game has ever seen. He has 1599 career walks and only 1301 strikeouts in 18 seasons. His career batting average is .303. His quest to reach 3,000 career hits was badly sidetracked by four injury-riddled seasons in which he only managed to play 216 games. His career OBP is a whopping .422 which is good enough for 18th in MLB history. His career OPS is even more impressive at .984 which is the 11th best in MLB history. The real question is how Thomas ranks among the greatest of all-time. There is great disagreement over his place in history. His numbers put him in an elite class but I’m not sure his legacy will match his numbers.
Pujols is the best hitter that I have ever seen. In six seasons, Pujols has never hit less than 34 home runs or driven in less than 117 RBIs. He has never batted below .314. He has never scored less than 112 runs. He has never finished lower than 4th in the MVP voting and he’s finished in the top two on four different occasions. Have I mentioned that he is only 27? When Pujols is finished playing baseball, I think he’ll be regarded as the best pure hitter of the last 50 years.
About three years ago I had a discussion with a friend/Cleveland Indians fan regarding Thome. I told him that Thome was a Hall of Famer and he vehemently disagreed so we bet on it. Three years later, I’m feeling really good about that bet. Barring an injury, Thome will likely finish with 600+ homeruns, 1,600+ RBIs, 1,600+ runs and 1,700+ Walks. Those numbers will allow Thome to waltz into the Hall of Fame. His career OPS is .974 which is 16th on the all-time list. His slugging % is .564 which is also 16th on the all-time list. I think the only question left to answer regarding Thome is: which hat will he wear on induction day? I'm guessing Cleveland.
Helton will likely end up being one of the most controversial Hall of Fame-cases ever and thankfully that’ll have nothing to do with steroids or any other illegalities. Every Rockies-slugger from Ellis Burks and Andres Galarraga to Vinny Castilla and Larry Walker has had his career numbers inflated somewhat from playing in the thin air of Coors Field. Helton’s numbers were surely aided as well. Unlike the other guys, though, Helton’s numbers are so ludicrous that they cannot be conveniently shoved under the “thin air”-rug. Adding to Helton’s case is the fact that since a humidor was put into place at Coors Field in 2002—a humidor is a device that counteracts the “thin air” effect—Helton has continued to rip the cover off the ball. Since the inception of the humidor, Helton has hit .330. I think most people can agree that a .330 hitter under normal conditions is a lock for the Hall of Fame. Coors Field has been under normal conditions for six seasons since the humidor and Helton hasn’t missed a beat. Helton’s big hurdle will be overcoming the Coors Field reputation. I fear that many voters will just blindly chalk up his numbers to playing in Colorado dismissing his case without giving it much of a thought. Helton could probably leapfrog all of the second-guessing by reaching 3,000 career hits. He would probably have to play eight more seasons which would put him at 42. I’m not sure his back is going to hold up that long. You’ll find Helton in the top 10 all-time in virtually every slugger-friendly statistic including slugging percentage, on base percentage, and OPS. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to matter too much. I think it’s going to come down to whether or not voters can look past their prejudices and give Helton credit for being a phenomenal hitter.
Delgado is one of the players whom I changed my mind on since my last list in 2005. I thought he would be one of the first victims of the shift in expectations by voters. I don’t think Delgado is going to have much of a problem if he plays until he’s 40. He’ll likely finish somewhere close to 600 home runs, 600 doubles, 1,700 RBIs, and 1,500 runs. He is working on his 11th straight season of 30+ home runs which very few players in league history have been able to accomplish. I’m not sure a guy with those numbers can be kept out of the Hall of Fame. Delgado has a pretty good career batting average (.280) and ranks in the top 35 all-time with a .938 OPS. I would be somewhat surprised at this point if Delgado doesn’t make it.
Ortiz will never reach any of the big-time career milestones. MLB recognized his talent too late. He didn’t play in more than 125 games until he was 27. What Ortiz has is the best prime of any first baseman in my lifetime other than Albert Pujols. Ortiz has finished in the top five of the MVP voting in each of the last four years. He has posted three-straight 40 HR/130 RBI seasons including a 54 HR/137 RBI-effort in ’06. Ortiz is still relatively young at 31. If he can stay healthy, he could have nine more productive seasons to pad his statistics. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Ortiz to reach 500 home runs and 500 doubles. Even Ortiz’s percentage numbers like OBP, Slugging, and OPS are thrown out of whack because of how many years he played as a fledgling platoon player. Those numbers will keep rising but his career statistics hardly give the proper indication of how dominating he has been. I think he has at least five major offensive seasons left in him which should be enough to get him into the HOF. Although, Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle are two of the best examples of how players can dominate MLB for tens and become afterthoughts after not reaching the notable benchmarks. I think he'll be regarded much like Jeff Bagwell who will most likely be selected to the HOF without having reached any of the traditional benchmarks.
Projecting Howard into the HOF at this point is risky but I’m willing to take the chance. Howard has the distinction of reaching 100 home runs faster than any player who has ever played baseball. That is quite an accomplishment. He won the NL ROY award in his first season and followed that up with an NL MVP award in his second. Howard’s career OPS is a ridiculous 1.019. Granted, he has only played a few seasons but I’m not expecting that number to go down too much. Howard’s career will likely resemble David Ortiz’s so if I’m projecting Ortiz in then I have no problem projecting Howard in as well. Both may not reach the traditional milestones but I don’t think either will have to.
Berkman is 90% of what David Ortiz is and I think that 10% difference will be what keeps Berkman out. I don’t think anybody would ever say that Berkman has dominated baseball. He has great statistics but he isn’t known by most novice baseball fans. He doesn’t have a reputation as a dominating hitter. He won’t reach the 500 home run mark or 3,000 hit mark. The one thing that Berkman does have going for him is that he is 18th on the all-time OPS list at .971. If he can keep it that high, then he might be bound for Cooperstown after all. At this point, I would put his chances around 20%.
I took a leap of faith on Teixeira in ’05 by projecting him in but I’ve backtracked a bit. I still think there is a decent chance that he’ll make it but it’s too early to feel good either way. Teixeira has three-straight 30HR/100RBI seasons and he is only 27-years old. If I had to handicap his chances, I would put them at 35%.
I would put Morneau right at 50/50. He already has an AL MVP and will likely finish in the top five again this year. His career numbers are kind of flat but I think he is in the process of blowing up into one of the five premier power hitters in baseball. He has accomplished quite a bit at the age of 27. If he can stay healthy until he is 40, I think he’ll make it. At this point, I’m going to reluctantly project him “in.”
Sexson has an outside chance at reaching 500 home runs but I think he is more likely to be the first player ever kept out of the HOF having reached 500 home runs than actually making it into the HOF. There is no question that he has been one of the better sluggers in baseball over the last ten years. Unfortunately, his all-around game isn’t up to par compared to most Hall of Fame players. In eleven seasons, Sexson has never finished in the top ten of the MVP voting. That tells me that he isn’t viewed as an elite player by people that watch a lot of baseball. That also tells me that, although he has had a nice career, he won’t get into the HOF.
Giambi is in the worst position of all the suspected steroid-users. At least Palmeiro, Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa have the career numbers. Giambi probably wouldn’t have been a Hall of Famer even without the steroid scandal. One can only wonder how things would have gone for him had he stayed out of New York. Most of his numbers took a substantial hit after signing with the Yankees. His first season in New York was phenomenal but there was a sharp decline after that. He’ll likely end up being one of the best players to not make the Hall of Fame right along with Albert Belle, Dale Murphy, and Joe Carter.
El Caballo is putting together a nice career. I have to admit that he kind of snuck up on me. But, I don’t think he’ll be dominating enough to garner much consideration. He has been remarkably consistent but not spectacular. At 31, he is fairly young but lacks overwhelming offensive statistics.
Lee’s chance of making the Hall of Fame went from somewhere around 40% to about 5% in just one season. He was turning into one of the elite hitters in baseball before suffering a serious wrist injury last season. Before the injury, Lee had increased his home runs totals in each of the previous five seasons culminating in a 46HR/107 RBI-effort in ‘05. That was all before the age of 30. After missing 2/3 of the ’06 season, Lee has seemingly lost his power having managed to hit only eight home runs in 322 at-bats this season. He is a player that I would trade for in a heart-beat if I owned a MLB team. Unfortunately, Lee’s time to pad his stats for a run at the Hall of Fame is evaporating before his eyes.
Konerko’s career is right in line with both of the Lee’s. His OPS is around .850. He has only finished in the top ten in the MVP voting once. He has a couple 40 HR/100 RBI seasons but other than that, he has just been a solid first baseman. That probably won’t be enough unless Konerko can put together six or seven fantastic seasons to finish his career.
I would only take three first basemen in baseball over Hafner and they are Pujols, Ortiz, and Howard. Hafner is one of the deadliest power hitters in the game today. He has put up three monster seasons in a row and he is working on the fourth. He has an OPS+ of 155 which would be good for 23rd best in MLB history if he had enough at-bats to qualify. The problem is that Hafner didn’t get a chance to play everyday until he was 27. That puts him four or five years behind most Hall of Fame players. If Hafner can put together seven or eight 100 RBI-seasons in a row, then he might get some consideration. Who knows, maybe he has a Jim Thome-type power surge in his future. Anything short of that and Hafner will likely go the way of Jason Giambi and come up short.
Under 25 to keep an eye on:
My first memories of Prince Fielder are from the '92 and '93 seasons. He appeared in a McDonald's commercial with his dad. If I remember correctly, they were promoting the "Triple Cheeseburger." Prince was mowing down one of those bad boys like it was a saltine cracker. He was a big boy. When I heard that he was a first-round draft pick in 2002, that commercial ran through my mind and I couldn't believe that round, little boy became one of the best baseball players in the world. Fielder hit 28 HRs in his rookie year ('06) and came in 7th in the Rookie of the Year voting. That should give you an idea of how strong the '06 NL rookie class was. Fielder has followed up his rookie season by destroying NL pitching. He has led the NL in home runs for virtually the entire season. He is on pace for close to 50 HRs and he is only 23. The sky is the limit for Fielder.
Final Projected First Basemen (8)