LOS ANGELES — In an incredible Game 2, it took Houston’s superstar trio to finally take down a Dodgers bullpen anchored by the best closer in the game. This star-powered thriller came one night after Los Angeles rode the best pitcher on the planet to a World Series-opening victory. If this seems like an especially star-studded World Series, it’s because it is a star-studded World Series. We have Cy Young winners, MVP candidates and as many as nine future Hall of Famers.
That wouldn’t be a record — the 1932 World Series between the Yankees and Cubs featured 13 Hall of Famers, including two guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig — but it would be the most for a World Series since 1950 and a radical departure from some recent matchups. The 2015 World Series between the Royals and Mets, for example, is unlikely to include any future Hall of Famers, with Noah Syndergaard the one player with Hall of Fame potential. The only reasonable candidates from 2014 would be Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner.
Here’s a look at this year’s participants who have a chance:
Clayton Kershaw: Few pitchers have achieved the peak level of dominance that Kershaw has. He has won three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles, an MVP and his career adjusted ERA+ of 161 is the best-ever for a starting pitcher, ahead of Pedro Martinez’s 154 mark. He’s 144-64 with a 2.36 ERA, and while the win total isn’t that high just yet, consider that Sandy Koufax made it with 165 wins and a shorter run of excellence.
“Obviously, he’s had a pretty special career,” Justin Verlander said earlier this week. “In my opinion, he’s already a Hall of Famer. I talked to him a little bit when [the Dodgers] were in Detroit and there’s a lot of admiration there, the way he goes about his business, his preparation, his execution of pitches.”
Chase Utley faced Kershaw when he was with the Phillies, played alongside Roy Halladay and briefly with Martinez, but says he has gained a new appreciation for Kershaw since his trade to the Dodgers in 2015. “Luckily, I don’t have to deal with him anymore,” he said, perhaps remembering his .240 career mark against Kershaw. “Before I came here, I knew he was good, Cy Young winner, but he’s actually better than I anticipated, and he’s really fun to play behind. You appreciate the work he puts in between starts.”
What could keep Kershaw out? He has the required 10 seasons in the majors already. Unless you’re one of those scrooges who think a starting pitcher needs to win 300 games, Kershaw should be a lock — even if the Dodgers win the World Series and he immediately retires to devote all his time to his charitable foundation.
Carlos Beltran: As a colleague mentioned to me, if Beltran had spent his entire career with one team, he’d be viewed as a no-brainer Hall of Famer, especially when factoring in his .310/.415/.615 line over 63 postseason games. His well-rounded game and time with seven different franchises makes it more difficult to encapsulate his career, but he has 435 home runs, 1,587 RBIs and 1,582 runs scored. He’s one of just 33 players to reach 1,500 in both categories — a list that includes the elite of the elite. His career WAR of 70.0 ranks seventh among center fielders since 1900. Add it up and he should be a Hall of Famer.
The one thing missing in his career is a World Series ring.
“There’s not a person in our clubhouse — coach, player, executive — that’s not rooting for him in particular to finish strong and get a ring,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who played with Beltran with the Royals in 2001 and 2002. “His career, when you look back at it, he’s as remarkable as anyone I’ve ever been around. He’s the best player that I ever played with. To me, he’s a Hall of Fame player. He’s a Hall of Fame person.”
Carlos Correa would agree. He grew up in Puerto Rico with Beltran as an idol. “I’ve learned so much from him,” he said this week. “He’s taught me there’s more to baseball than just catching, throwing and hitting a baseball. He’s been a great mentor and teammate. He was one of the best sluggers out there, best switch-hitting sluggers. He was unbelievable to watch.”
Justin Verlander: Several years ago, Verlander stated that his goal was to win 300 games, but that objective appeared in jeopardy when he posted a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and then went just 5-8 in 2015. Now he’s healthy again, firing fastballs in the upper 90s and looking like he can keep going. He has 188 wins through his age-34 season, just one fewer than Nolan Ryan — Verlander’s idol growing up — had at the same age.
His career WAR of 56.9 is already higher than many Hall of Fame pitchers’ totals, but he might need a couple more peak seasons to solidify himself of a spot in Cooperstown. Of course, if he doesn’t get to 300 wins, he’ll have to deal with the ridiculous bias against modern-day starting pitchers, when clearly qualified candidates such as Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling can’t get elected. He’s also the player most likely to help his case for Cooperstown right now, with his performance in this World Series.
He seems like a good bet. He has to average 12.4 wins over the next five seasons to get to 250 and 14 wins over eight seasons to get 300, if he can keep going into his 40s. As the older Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters age off the ballot, the new generation of voters will not be as likely to prioritize getting to 300 wins.
Jose Altuve: Altuve’s four-year run since 2013, averaging 6.6 WAR per season, gives him a Hall of Fame-level peak. He finished third in the MVP voting last season and will finish first or second this year, so having that label as one of the best players in the league will help his case down the road.
There’s another reason he should become a strong candidate: He just finished his age-27 season, and thanks to four straight 200-hit seasons, he already has 1,250 career hits. That puts 3,000 hits in reach, and that milestone has meant automatic election. One understated aspect of his brilliance has been his remarkable durability: he averaged 156 games the past five years.
Chase Utley: He’s obviously well past his prime, but at his best, he was maybe the second-best player in the game. From 2005 to 2010 he averaged 7.5 WAR per season and was second to Albert Pujols in WAR over those seasons:
1. Pujols: 52.0
2. Utley: 45.3
3. Alex Rodriguez: 38.3
4. Roy Halladay: 35.7
5. Johan Santana: 34.7
Unfortunately for Utley, teammates Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won MVP honors, even though he was the better player. The other knock is his career counting stats are a little short, as he’s just barely over 1,000 RBIs and doesn’t have 2,000 career hits. Here’s a comparison to Ryne Sandberg, who made it on the third ballot:
Utley: .276/.359/.469, 258 HR, 1,011 RBI, 1,850 hits, 65.4 WAR
Sandberg: .285/.344/.452, 282 HR, 1,061 RBI, 2,386 hits, 67.5 WAR
My guess is Utley will have a hard time getting elected by the BBWAA, which usually favors longevity and counting stats over peak dominance. He feels like one of those players who could get elected down the road by a Veterans Committee.
Carlos Correa: He just turned 23 in September and has had a blazing start to his career. While he may not be a Gold Glove shortstop, he’s good enough defensively to certainly stick there throughout his 20s, which means he’ll develop into one of the best power-hitting shortstops in the game’s history.
Corey Seager: The best path to becoming a Hall of Famer is to reach the majors at a young age and excel from the beginning. Like Correa, Seager has done just that, as the two rank sixth and eighth the past two seasons in WAR among position players. Like Correa, Seager is going to be an annual MVP candidate over the next 10 years or so. Like Correa, the key is staying healthy. Nomar Garciaparra had half a Hall of Fame career, for example.
Cody Bellinger: He burst on the scene this year with 39 home runs as a 21-year-old, setting a National League record for home runs by a rookie. He’s athletic enough to play the outfield but also gifted enough defensively at first base to become an annual Gold Glove winner there. He has a good approach at the plate, whips the bat through the zone with ferocious quickness, everyone raves about his maturity, and he had a flair for the dramatic big moment as well. What’s not to like? There’s nothing here to suggest this was a fluke season and he should be one of the game’s premier power hitters for a long time.
Bill James just wrote a piece about rookies, assigning a general value to rookie seasons. He gave Bellinger’s rookie season a Level Nine rating — one of 47 such seasons in major league history. James wrote that 30 percent of those players are in the Hall of Fame or nearly certain to get there.
Kenley Jansen: He’s certainly a long shot given the uncertainty in electing closers, but there’s no doubt his six-year run as Dodgers closer has been one of the best we’ve seen, with a 2.07 ERA and 604 strikeouts in 396 1/3 innings. He needs another decade or so, but Mariano Rivera, his compadre in cutter eminence, had a similar career arc and pitched until he was 43.
One thing we know: A World Series title will help. All the modern relievers who have been elected — Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, Dennis Eckersley and soon Rivera — were closers on World Series winners. Trevor Hoffman will probably break that spell this year, but Lee Smith and Billy Wagner have failed to get support in part because they were never that guy getting the final out. Regarding Jansen’s blown save in Game 2: Gossage, Eckersley and Rivera all famously blew big games in the World Series — and they still made it to Cooperstown.
And who knows, maybe Jansen gets that final out in 2017 … and 2018 … and 2019 … and maybe again nine years after that.