If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t like articles looking far into the future, this one may not be for you.
If you’re the kind of person that believes in jinxes (and this is why we can’t have nice things) and doesn’t want to read an article about a potential Hall of Famer, this one may not be for you.
If you’ve passed those first two checkpoints, let’s talk about the chances for Andrew McCutchen to one day be enshrined in Cooperstown. The cold truth is that McCutchen is no longer a young pup; he’s squarely in the middle portion of his career and right in the heart of his theoretical peak years. The 2015 season will be his age-28 season.
Since debuting in June 2009, McCutchen has never had a poor statistical season. His lowest WAR total in any full season is 3.4. The last three years he has elevated his game to the level of “one of the five best players in baseball” discussion with WAR’s of 6.8, 8.2, and 6.8. Not surprisingly, he has two 3rd place and one 1st place finishes in the NL MVP races these last three seasons.
His blend of power, speed, and plate discipline are already impressive, as can be seen from his career line of .299 AVG/.385 OBP/.498 SLG with 128 homers and 143 stolen bases. For the advanced stat set, his career wRC+ is 144 (44% more offense than average player) and his career WAR is already 33.9.
Buried deep within Baseball Reference is a page that shows all of the Hall of Famers inducted at each position and how current/past players compare to them. There have been 18 center fielders inducted into the Hall and their average career WAR is 70.4. Another metric on the page is WAR7, which is a player’s seven highest WAR seasons (doesn’t have to be sequential) and the average HOF’er has a WAR7 of 44.1. I’d like to think that McCutchen will have plenty of other great seasons left, especially two more to overwrite his 3.3 WAR debut in 2009 and his 3.4 WAR in 2010 with higher totals to boost his WAR7, especially considering that 2015 is only his 7th season anyway.
In looking over the list of HOF’ers and the players on the precipice of consideration, it seems like there are mostly CF’ers that had a lot of power/not a lot of stolen bases (Mantle, DiMaggio, Snider as examples) or low power/high stolen base guys (Cobb, Speaker, Ashburn, Hamilton for example). Yes, eras are different and the game was different for some of the old timers, but there aren’t a lot of great comparables that blended power and speed like McCutchen. Even 2016’s shoo-in candidate, Ken Griffey, Jr., hit 524 homers and only stole 184 bases over his 22 seasons. Naturally, McCutchen will also (eventually, I think) start to slow down and become more power-based in his offensive profile, but he’s already established a power-speed blend.
Perhaps the player most like McCutchen is one that will be an interesting test case of HOF candidacy — Carlos Beltran. Beltran, or more accurately the shambling corpse of Beltran, is currently patrolling RF for the New York Yankees. He’s clearly in the decline phase of his career, but that’s to be expected at age 38. Beltran has accrued the 9th most career WAR for CF’s with 67.5 and his WAR7 is 44.3. His career batting line of .281 AVG/.356 OBP/.491 SLG is less than McCutchen’s, but McCutchen is nowhere near the downslope of his career and negatively affecting his career lines yet. For his career, Beltran has hit 373 homers and stolen 311 bases. Beltran only finished in the top 5 of MVP voting once in his career, so McCutchen is already far ahead of him there. The point is that Beltran is a borderline HOF’er that I could see getting in after a few years on the ballot.
So let’s try to forecast out what the rest of McCutchen’s career could be like, with respect to WAR. Using Steve’s study on aging in players, here’s a tabular version of a player’s age and increase/decrease on the previous year’s WAR:
|Year||Age||% +/- Over Prev Year||WAR|
McCutchen’s 2014 WAR of 6.8 was used as the base input. You can see that over the next nine seasons, our projection shows he’ll accumulate 48.3 WAR, giving him a career total of 82.2. Using his overall career numbers, McCutchen’s WAR7 would be 49.5. The career WAR and WAR7 totals would place him as either the 5th or 6th greatest center fielder of all-time, in the mix of Griffey and DiMaggio.
What would McCutchen’s potential counting stats look like? Assuming that his power may go up slightly and his stolen bases go down as his speed wanes, I could see him averaging 25 homers and 15 stolen bases over the course of the next nine seasons. Those 225 homers and 135 stolen bases, added to his existing totals of 128 homers and 143 steals, would give him 353 homers and 278 stolen bases potentially.
By taking McCutchen’s career out to the reasonable age of 36, that would give him 15 seasons in the Majors. He’ll have made millions upon millions of dollars and could comfortably retire without having to endure a painful Beltran-esque decline phase that tarnishes his legacy and the memory that others have of him as a player.
The elephant in the room, though, is that it’s quite possible McCutchen does not finish his career as a Pittsburgh Pirate. His current contract runs through 2017, with an incredibly friendly team option of $14.5M for 2018 that will be picked up barring some unforeseen injury or performance decline. The 2018 season will be his age-31 season. From the chart above, you can see that a player starts to decline severely in his age-33 season. Will the Pirates be willing to pay market-premium prices for a player’s decline phase, even one as iconic as Andrew McCutchen?
The quick answer is ‘no’. This current front office does not have any space available for sentiment or public opinion. And I can’t say that I blame them. Let’s assume that the going rate in 2018 for a star player is around $30M/season. That sounds insane until you consider that age-31 Hanley Ramirez just got $22M/season to play LF for the Red Sox and multiple pitchers in their 30’s got $24M+/season, which is a far riskier investment. Can you see the Pirates being willing to have a sizeable percentage of their payroll tied up in one player? I don’t.
So McCutchen will probably have to play out his final five theoretical years in another uniform. The vast majority of his career, including what will hopefully be his best statistical seasons, will have been in a Pirate uniform. That should be enough to get him into Cooperstown wearing a gold ‘P’ on a black hat for his plaque. That would make him the first player inducted into the Hall of Fame that played the majority of his career as a Pirate since either Bill Mazeroski in 2001 (via the Veterans Committee) or Willie Stargell in 1988 (via the standard vote-in), depending on which way you want to look at it.
Just typing this article about McCutchen and his Hall chances is the equivalent of standing on the edge of an airplane, getting ready to skydive — you catch your breath quickly for fear of the unknown.
Kevin Creagh is the author of the sci-fi novel Creating Christ, available now on Amazon