The Hall of Fame and these Giants

The San Francisco Giants World Series win was different this year than in 2010. In 2010, it brought tears to my eyes as my friends, brother and I, spoke to each other over the phone and Skype. We were all men in our 40s who had waited about 35 years for that moment. Although last week’s win was something for which we had only waited two years, watching Miguel Cabrera stare at that fastball from Sergio Romo was an extremely joyful moment, but not in the same profound way watching Nelson Cruz swing and miss at strike three for the last out of the World Series was a mere two years ago.

This second World Series win in three years is a fantastic accomplishment for the San Francisco Giants; and it is also an opportunity to reflect on some of the players who were key parts of this win and, in some cases, both World Series wins by taking a brief, if early, look at there Hall of Fame chances. There are four players on the team Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, who have played well enough to establish a chance at being elected to the Hall of Fame.Interestingly, these four players were among the few holdovers from 2010 to be part of the 2012 team. The remaining Giants are either two young or are clearly not on a Hall of Fame path.

The two pitchers in the group, Lincecum and Cain, have very different potential Hall of Fame trajectories. Obviously, if Lincecum continues to pitch as he did in the 2012 regular season his time as a valuable player will wind down quickly and he will never be a Hall of Fame candidate. On the other hand, if he is able to have two or three more seasons that approach where he was in 2008-2009, and a few other season like 2010 or 2011, he will be a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. This scenario would put him with a career win total in the low 200 range, but with over 3,000 career strikeouts and perhaps a few more times leading the league in strikeouts. If he manages two or three more times in the top ten of Cy Young voting, that too would help his chances. There is no guarantee that this will happen, but it is certainly not impossible. This would make him a Hall of Fame candidate as a poor man’s Sandy Koufax or Pedro Martinez, weak on counting statistics, but with a short period of dominance.

Another possibility for Lincecum is that after struggling for another season or so as a starter, he is able to reinvent himself as a reliever. During the post-season he showed what he can do out of the bullpen. Although he is probably more valuable as an average to good starter than as a dominant reliever, his Hall of Fame chances would be better if he retired with two Cy Young awards as a starter and five or so dominant years as a reliever, making him comparable to Dennis Eckerlsley or John Smoltz.

Matt Cain is different from Lincecum because Cain has been a model of consistency and durability. Since joining the Giants rotation in 2006, Cain, who is a year younger than Lincecum, has never started fewer than 30 games or pitched fewer than 190 innings. During that time he has been one only ten pitchers to accumulate 1,400 innings. Only five of those pitchers CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez have exceeded Cain’s ERA+ of 123 during that period. Cain will be an interesting Hall of Fame candidate because he has never been a dominant pitcher, but has always been a very good one. Additionally, despite accumulating over 1,500 innings as a starting pitcher, he only has 85 wins and has never led the league in wins, strikeouts or ERA.

Nonetheless, if Cain continues his consistent pitching, and remains a top flight pitcher until he is 33, it is not inconceivable that he could have 175 wins and 2,200 strikeouts with an ERA+ still in the 125 range. That would position him for a decline phase which could bolster his counting statistics. Cain helped his cause a lot this year by pitching a perfect game, which by some measures was the greatest game ever pitched by a gentile, and further building his reputation as a big game pitcher.

Pablo Sandoval is an intriguing Hall of Fame possibility because many fans do not realize that he just completed his age 25 season and has had two very strong years, 2009 and 2011, as well as an off-year in 2010 and an unspectacular 2012. Nonetheless, Sandoval is one of only 95 players to accumulate 2,000 plate appearances with an OPS+ of 125 or better, Sandoval’s thus far is 129, by the end of his age 25 season. Of those 95 players, 40 are already in the Hall of Fame or still on the ballot, while another 15 are still active. For Sandoval to get in the Hall of Fame, he will have to maintain or improve on this level of offensive performance for another decade or so which will be difficult, but many of the players who started out the way the Panda did, have managed to do that. A bigger challenge for the Panda will be to stay healthy and keep his weight under control, particularly as this will allow him to remain a third baseman longer. Sandoval’s is a very difficult future to anticipate because in five years he could be one of the top hitters in the game or he could have eaten his way out of the starting lineup or even the sport. If Sandoval ends up with borderline numbers he, like Lincecum, will be helped by his memorable nickname and personal style. His three home runs in the first game of this recent World Series won’t hurt either.

The best player on the Giants, and possibly on the planet, right now is 25 year old Buster Posey. Posey has played two full years in the major leagues while losing most of his second season to an injury. During that time, Posey has racked up an OPS+ of 146, won recognition for his stellar defense and emerged as a visible leader on two World Championship teams. Posey has done everything right thus far in his career, but he has only played two years. He will need to maintain this level of play as a catcher for another 5-7 years before either moving to another position an hitting for a few more years to become a sure Hall of Famer, but that is certainly possible.

It is unimaginable that all four of these players will be elected to the Hall of Fame, but it is likely that one and perhaps even two will be. For Posey and Cain the main issue will be whether or not they can build on the career trajectories they have already established, while Sandoval and Lincecum need to have more years at the level of play which they have demonstrated in their good years. The World Series victory will help the narrative around Cain and Sandoval. Cain’s status as a big game pitcher will grow because of his strong outings in each of the three deciding games this post-season, while Sandoval has earned a place in history with his three home runs in game one of the World Series.