Jorge Posada came up when he was 23, but he didn't become a regular until he was 26. Since then, he's been the top offensive catcher in the AL just about every year. And although I'm sure no one was talking about it in 2000, Jorge Posada compares favorably to the Hall of Fame's current battery of backstops. He hasn't been Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza or Garry Carter, but he was pretty damn good for the past decade and change, and he ain't done yet.
When I checked Jorge's profile on Baseball Reference, I wasn't surprised to see his closest comps to that of Carlton Fisk, but I was a little surprised that he only ranked 26th on the list of WAR (wins above replacement) among currently active players. I clicked ahead to see the top 50 active players by career WAR. Man it's a hell of a list. This got me thinking.
Last year Bill James wrote an article called "The Expansion Time Bomb." [Unfortunately it's behind the paywall on his site.] Bill argued that, as baseball has expanded since 1969, so too has the number of players reaching levels "historical achievement" that typically define a Hall of Fame career. In other words, in an expanded league, there will be more players with 3,000 hits, more players with 500 home runs hitters, more 300 game winners, and otherwise more milestones being reached. This seems intuitively true, but it is also very hard to argue, and harder to verify. Still, his main argument is an interesting one (which I paraphrase below):
Most supporters want the Hall of Fame to be an exclusive club. This inherently means restricting membership to a small number of entries per year (or decade, or other time period). As expansion has led to more players with historical levels of achievement, Hall of Fame standards will tighten to levels much more narrow than those used in the past.We'll come back to this thought in a minute. First, let's look at the current top 50 in baseball by career WAR. How many of them are Hall of Fame players? (By the way, WAR is simply a measurement of career "wins added" above a replacement-level player. The merits of WAR are not important here. It is just a way to place all active players, regardless of position, on a rough universal career ranking.)
For each player, I rate his Hall of Fame chances as "yes," "probably," "maybe," or "no." I assume a conservative estimate for the rest of his career. In other words, will he make the Hall of Fame, based on today's standards, if he doesn't do much for the rest of his career? I'm ignoring steroids and just focusing on performance.
Out of the fifty players, we get twenty one Hall of Famers, breaking down as follows:
10 * Yes + 12 * Probably + 9 * Maybe + 19 * No = 21.1 Hall of Famers
A Hall of Fame career is typically 16 to 20 years, so in theory, this list represents 16 to 20 years' worth of Hall of Famers, assuming these are evenly distributed through time. However, the list does not include a single player under 27. Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum are not accomplished enough yet to be considered possible Hall of Famers for this discussion. Therefore, let's say that the top fifty players by WAR includes all possible Hall of Famers over fifteen years (ie age 27 to age 42).
If my list is reasonably accurate, this suggests that we will induct twenty one players over every fifteen years, if the future performance is much like the recent past.
To me, that sounds very reasonable. With an average of 1.4 new qualified candidate per year, the Hall of Fame would be electing zero to three players every year. Yes, they will be electing more candidates per year than in the recent, but not by much. It will he harder for borderline candidates to get in, but there would never be backlogs of qualified recent candidates running ten deep. There will be years with no obvious Hall of Famers on the ballot, and in those years, weaker candidates will still have a chance to be elected.
While I still think that Bill James's argument sounds appealing, I just don't see the glut of Hall of Fame level performers driving up future Hall of Fame standards significantly. Instead, we will see more years with one or two good new candidates, and fewer multiyear stretches where the best candidate on the ballot is Phil Neikro or Jim Rice. But those borderline cases will still get plenty of consideration. When he is up for Cooperstown, Johnny Damon will have more competition on the ballot than did Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven, but his career will be just as thoroughly vetted as those two's were.