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Hall of Fame case closed? These baseball legacies could suffer if MLB's season is canceled

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The 2020 Major League Baseball season is delayed, indefinitely, and it’s not at all certain to ever begin. It’s not clear when the country will be able to lift measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic, or how baseball could fit into the much larger puzzle of society this year.

With the season in question, there also come (less important, but nonetheless interesting) questions about how the history of the sport will reckon with the shortened slate or potential gap in action. Such as: Who in the game right now might eventually have their Hall of Fame case altered by the pandemic-stricken 2020 season?

There have been strikes, and players have left for military service, but missing games are missing games, and they will affect some more directly than others when legacies coalesce years down the line. With that in mind, the Yahoo Sports staff got together and explained why these Cooperstown hopefuls have the most riding on 2020. - Zach Crizer

Joey Votto

In my mind, Cincinnati Reds cornerstone Joey Votto is an easy Hall of Famer. In reality, that’s not the case. While Votto had an unbelievable peak, the threshold for a first baseman getting into the Hall is pretty high.

By Jay Jaffe’s excellent JAWS metric, Votto sits slightly below the line for an average Hall of Fame first baseman. One would hope Votto could make up the difference before he calls it quits, but a 2020 season postponement could put that in jeopardy.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 12: Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) stands in the on deck circle in the eighth inning during the game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals on August 12, 2019, at Nationals Park, in Washington D.C.  (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Reds star Joey Votto is wading through his mid-30s and likely needs at least one more year of solid production to secure his place in Cooperstown. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Votto, 36, has already experienced a fair amount of decline over the past two seasons. If he keeps declining at a similar rate, he could return to action in 2021 completely cooked. While 37-year-olds can put up productive seasons, it’s pretty rare. It certainly doesn’t help that Votto already has lost some ability. One more solid season is all Votto really needs to go from borderline candidate to surefire guy. It’s unclear whether he’ll get that now. - Chris Cwik

Matt Chapman

It might seem odd to be worried about the credentials of a baby-faced player who doesn’t even turn up a full page of relevant Google results if you type in “Hall of Fame” after his name, but hear me out. The ground between a thoroughly bedazzled Baseball-Reference page and the timeless ubiquity of a Cooperstown plaque is often traveled on fresh legs, long before a player's legacy is even being considered.

The Hall of Fame is usually reached by launching early, then maintaining altitude. And the launch has to come first. A disproportionate number of Hall of Famers arrive in the majors before they even turn 21, gaining the advantage of time. It’s taken A’s third baseman Matt Chapman three years of launching an elite career at warp speed just to erase the very real disadvantage of debuting at age 24.

How elite? If you rank every hitter, going back to 1901, by wins above replacement accumulated across their first three seasons, the top five early performers include Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Ted Williams. And also Chapman.

After two straight 8-win seasons, he can firmly claim Hall of Fame potential. On top of significant power output, Chapman is perhaps the best defender to grace a diamond at third base since Brooks Robinson — or is at least neck and neck for the distinction with high school teammate Nolan Arenado.

That rocket-fueled start has simply lifted him into the conversation, an unlikely entrant who still needs to keep burning bright to have any shot at giving his all-time glove work the true museum treatment. An endangered 2020 season is an opportunity slipping away for Chapman.

A study of past players (a few years old now, but the point stands) showed that 50 percent of those who accumulated 19.9 WAR through age 26 have made the hall. Chapman, despite only debuting at 24, is virtually standing on that line at 19.8 WAR. Through age 27, the marker for a 50/50 chance at Cooperstown is 23.0 WAR. On Chapman’s current trajectory, no problem! But if 2020 passes without any games, the line through age 28 moves to a loftier 26.0 WAR, and on and on.

If he keeps churning out 8 WAR seasons like clockwork, nothing will keep him from enshrinement, but Chapman’s later start and defensive brilliance — which depends on youthful athleticism more than hitting abilities, and thus declines more quickly — make this moment particularly crucial. If there’s anything we know about Chapman, it’s that right now he can make all the plays. Unless he’s not on the field. - Zach Crizer

Jacob deGrom

One player whose Hall of Fame case could be significantly damaged is New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom.

A late bloomer by any definition, deGrom has been rapidly making up ground since debuting shortly before his 26th birthday. He won NL Rookie of the Year in 2014 and back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019. That is definitely a strong enough foundation to house a Hall of Fame career. However, a shortened or completely lost season now, with deGrom entering his age-32 season, could rob him of a vital campaign in his prime, or at least shorten his peak enough to harm his case.

Simply put, deGrom still has some resume-building to do to join the ranks of Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. When those aces’ Hall of Fame cases are examined, they will all have the accolades, the longevity and the stats on their side. Right now, deGrom only has the accolades.

On the plus side, deGrom's low win total should not hurt him. After all, he's won a Cy Young in 10 and 11-win seasons respectively. His career WAR (33.3) through six seasons is also very impressive. The problem is, he needs to build equity. A lost season hurts that cause.

Aug 11, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) pitches against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Could Jacob deGrom add a third straight Cy Young Award? If the 2020 season never comes, and that question is never answered, his eventual Hall of Fame case could pale in comparison to his contemporaries. (Andy Marlin/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s also a potential missed opportunity for deGrom to win his third Cy Young. Ten pitchers in MLB history have won the award three or more times. Seven are Hall of Famers. Kershaw and Scherzer likely will be. And Roger Clemens ... well, he should be.

DeGrom could easily punch his ticket to Cooperstown with another Cy Young campaign. Especially if he won three straight. Not having that chance, though, could be a stumbling block if the second half of his career doesn’t match the first. - Mark Townsend

Josh Donaldson

Here’s a thing we all know about Josh Donaldson: When he’s on the field, he’s one of the best players of his generation. Is he a future Hall of Famer? It’s a tough case already, but if he missed another full season — which is entirely possible now — the Hall of Fame might not even be in the conversation.

Let’s start with some numbers:

  • The average Hall of Famer at third base has a career WAR of 68.4.

  • Donaldson sits at 41.0 going into his age-34 season

  • Of active third baseman, he ranks behind only Evan Longoria (56.0) on the WAR list.

A Hall of Fame case is more than a good WAR, and Donaldson owning an MVP certainly helps his cause there. This conversation is all about missed opportunity, and for Donaldson, the Hall of Fame would only be part of it. With a new four, $92 million deal locked in with the Minnesota Twins, Donaldson is playing for his legacy in more ways than one. They’re legit contenders. Donaldson pushing the Twins to a title and being viewed as the missing piece? Well that’s the type of Hall of Fame narrative that goes along with strong numbers.

Narrative is important for someone like Donaldson. As it stands, he doesn’t have a shot at reaching any lofty benchmarks with counting stats. His 2017 and 2018 seasons were limited by injuries (especially 2018). He was also a late bloomer, not seeing regular big-league playing time until he was 26. Therefore, his current counts of 219 homers and 1,048 hits aren’t on the Cooperstown trajectory.

Instead, he needs the new-age metrics to help make his case. At his best, Donaldson is capable of 7 WAR seasons. Two or three more of those and he’s starting to get into Hall of Fame territory.

But missing a year now? With the usual decline years not too far away? It could be a deal-breaker for Donaldson. - Mike Oz

Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker is a month into his one-season contract to manage the Houston Astros. He will turn 71 in the middle of June, probably without augmenting his 1,863 career wins as a manager, certainly without adding a World Series championship.

Hired five days before the new general manager in Houston, where the disgrace of a cheating scandal cast all things into chaos, Baker may have what is left of the 2020 season, if any, in his baseball life.

Mar 5, 2020; Fort Myers, Florida, USA; Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker (12) waves to fans prior to the game against the Boston Red Sox during spring training at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports
New Astros manager Dusty Baker is missing only one thing in his esteemed managerial career: A World Series ring. (Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports)

Nineteen seasons a player, when he was twice an All-Star, and 22 seasons a manager, plus what comes of this one, would make an honest, distinguished, perhaps even charmed, career.

His 3,500 games as manager — in San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington — are more than all but 14 men. Those 1,863 wins also rate 15th. He won seven division titles. He won a pennant, in 2002, with the Giants. In World Series won, however, he ranks tied for 76th, with the 636 other managers with zero.

This, perhaps, is where Hall of Fame chances lie for Baker.

Of the 14 managers ahead of him in career wins, two — Bruce Bochy and Gene Mauch — are not in the Hall of Fame. Bochy, who lost more games than he won, has three World Series rings and is almost certainly bound for Cooperstown. The other is Gene Mauch, who in 26 seasons never won a pennant or a World Series.

There are 23 Hall of Fame managers, the last three — Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox — by a vote of the Expansion Era Committee in 2014. They each won at least 2,300 games. They each won at least one World Series. None was fired after winning 192 games over two seasons, as Baker was in Washington.

The view here is that Baker has posted a Hall of Fame resume across 41 seasons in a major league dugout, along with what comes in his 42nd. He has served the game with dignity. With honor. He was a good player. He was a dependable leader.

If he were to take a talented and dispirited Astros team into what surely will be a muddled and shortened season and thrive, if he were to hack away at a postseason that could ask more of its winner than any previous postseason and win that too, then there could no longer be a quarrel. Dusty Baker would be a Hall of Famer, just as he was — in this opinion — when the season began. - Tim Brown

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