How many Hall of Famers are playing baseball right now? The pedantic answer is “none”. You can’t officially be a Hall of Fame baseball player until at least 5 years after retirement. (Unless you’re dead, in which case an exception can be made.) But clearly there must be some. Barring injury or other dramatic change, Mike Trout is well on his way. Ichiro is a lock. But surely there are also some lurking out there who are not so obvious. Is there any way to figure out how many and maybe who they are?
Let’s take a look at answering that. First, we should take the pulse of the Hall of Fame and take a stab at how many players in a given year will end up in the Hall of Fame. Fortunately for us, I’ve looked at this before for other reasons and we can repurpose the data. Looks like we’re going to have to juuuuump!
First we need to work out about how many players each year end up being elected to the Hall of Fame. What’s the historical average?
Baseball Hall of Fame eligibility rules stipulate that a player must have been retired for the previous 5 seasons, played during 10 major league seasons and been active in the past 15 years. (Functionally, this last stipulation means that they may only remain on the ballot for 10 years.) This means that players who have retired in 2013 will have their first year of eligibility in 2018. Players in their last year of eligibility will have retired in 2003. (Edgar Martinez, for example, retired in 2004 and will only remain on the ballot in 2018 and 2019 before being removed as ineligible for election.) Working backward this means that almost everyone who played in 1985 and earlier has been elected or is no longer eligible. (Roger Clemens is the one exception; he started in 1984 and is in his 6th year of eligibility after a 24 year career.)
For the start of the calculation period, I’m going to use 1921 for simplicity. 1946 was the first year that limited how long retired players would be eligible, and it cut off at 25 years; thus 1921. Other eligibility rules and voter tendencies have caused the number of players elected to bounce around a bit, the Veterans Committee also had an effect, but I think it best not to get too deep into the weeds; this is probably sufficient for our purposes.
So, how many Hall of Famers played in an average year between 1921 and 1985? I’m glad you asked. 25 or 26 on average, with highs of 36 (1974-75, 1982) and lows of 11 (1943-45). The lows are obviously due to the war, and the highs are a product of a general uptick that started in the early 60s and every year has been between 30 and 36 since 1965.
Until just a few years ago, the eligibility length for Hall of Fame induction was 15 years. In 2014 it was shortened to 10 (though anyone between years 10 and 15 was allowed to remain on the ballot until 15). So with the shorter window to build up votes, we’ll plump for the shorter end of the recent window and guess that there are 30 Hall of Famers out there on the diamonds this year.
Now that we know we ought to be watching about 30 or so Hall of Fame caliber players, how many can we identify? I’ve got four groups below, three players who are first-ballot, guaranteed, sure-things. There are another seven who are just shy of the first category. Two players who are young, but have clear trajectories for their careers to the first category if they don’t get derailed by injury, scandal, or suspension. And finally, 14 players who could go either way. Players lesser than they have been elected and players better have not. Figure for the sake of argument that half of them get in. So 3+7+2+7 leaves us with 19 active Hall of Famers.
All but sure things:
God forbid they should be injured:
On the fence:
Which leaves us with the question: who are the other 11? Going by past history, these 11 players are all young, near the beginning of their careers and not yet putting up numbers that make them obvious people to watch for Hall of Fame greatness. They’re good, but not quite Mike Trout good. Or maybe not that good for more than a season or two yet.
Among position players think of Jose Altuve, Nolan Arenado, or Aaron Judge; the key for them is whether or not they can continue to perform or improve from the level they’re at now.
Pitchers are a bit different. Strikeout totals are declining as are wins. The traditional standards for pitching excellence are going to have to change a bit. Dallas Keuchel, Chris Sale, or Kyle Hendricks could end up being Hall of Famers or just as easily flame out and fail to live up to some early promise as Dontrelle Willis did. Or struggle with injuries as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior did. And sometimes greatness takes a while to manifest à la Randy Johnson. There are probably a couple pitchers in that group of 11, and it’s possible that no one yet has any idea who they are.