By Cliff Corcoran
There was a time during my career as a baseball writer that I didn't care all that much about which players won the Baseball Writers' Association of America annual awards. That changed during the seven years that Sports Illustrated paid me to care about those awards, a period during which I became a member of the BBWAA (though I have never had an awards vote due to being in the crowded New York chapter). Forced to contend with the awards, I saw their primary value as the impact they can have on an individual player's Hall of Fame candidacy, an impact that, as I'll demonstrate, is very real.
Consider, for example, two pairs of contemporaries. Jim Rice won the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1978 but had an early decline and finished his career with 382 home runs and 47.4 wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference's formula (bWAR). He entered the Hall of Fame in 2009. Teammate Dwight Evans' best AL MVP Award showing was a third-place finish in 1981. Evans finished his career with 385 home runs and 66.9 bWAR, but he fell off the Hall ballot after receiving just 3.6 percent of the vote in his third year of eligibility. John Smoltz won the National League Cy Young Award in 1996. He finished his career with 213 wins and 66.5 bWAR and entered the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2015. Mike Mussina finished in the top six in the AL Cy Young Award voting eight times, including a second-place finish in 1999, but he never won the award. He finished his career with 270 wins and 82.7 bWAR. In four years on the ballot, he has yet to collect more than 51.8 percent of the vote.
That isn't to say that a player has to have won an award to get into the Hall. Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young Award and went in on the first ballot with 98.79 percent of the writer's vote, the third-highest percentage in the Hall's history. Tony Gwynn never won an MVP Award and went in with 97.6 percent of the vote, the eighth-best all-time. Nor is it to say that a single award win punches a player's ticket -- just ask Willie Hernandez, who won both the AL MVP and Cy Young awards in 1984 and received just two Hall votes in his only year on the ballot.
For less clear-cut candidacies, however, BBWAA hardware can give the player in question a footprint in history, equivalent to reaching a career milestone or repeatedly reaching a single-season milestone in a Triple Crown category. That's true whether or not the award was deserved according to modern analysis. In 1987, Alan Trammell was a more deserving MVP candidate in the AL than Andre Dawson was in the NL, but Dawson won the award and made it to the Hall of Fame. Trammell did not and has not, despite also being more deserving of enshrinement. (Trammell is on this year's Eras Committee ballot. I support his candidacy but don't expect him to get in.)
It's not incidental that the BBWAA is the voting body for both honors, at least prior to a Hall candidate being moved over to the Eras Committees. While the overlap is minimal -- no more than 30 writers have voted for any single MVP or Cy Young award, while 442 ballots were submitted in last year's Hall of Fame balloting -- most of those awards voters will vote on that player again on the Hall ballot. More significantly, those awards voters are a random sample who, more often than not, do represent the prevailing opinion of the Association's membership. There is also likely some subtle, perhaps even subconscious, bias in favor of past decisions when it comes to the Hall voting.
Another demonstration of the impact of awards on Hall of Fame candidacies is the Keltner List. Devised by Bill James for his 1994 book The Politics of Glory (a.k.a. Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame), the Keltner List is a series of subjective questions aimed at determining a player's Hall worthiness. A full third of the 15 questions can be answered affirmatively with a single award win:
1. Was [the player] ever regarded as the best player/pitcher in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player/pitcher in baseball?
2. Was he the best player on his team?
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
11. How many MVP/Cy Young-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP/Cy Young award? If not, how many times was he close?
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Given all of the above, the question that crossed my mind this week, particularly given this year's repeat Cy Young award winners, was if there is a clear inflection point at which awards wins go from strengthening a player's Hall candidacy to assuring his induction. In the case of the Cy Young award, there does appear to be such a point, and Max Scherzer, having just won his third NL Cy Young Award, appears to have crossed it.
Scherzer is the 10th pitcher to win three or more Cy Young Awards since it was introduced in 1956. Of the first nine, seven are in the Hall of Fame and one is still active. The other is Roger Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young Awards and has had a controversial Hall case. The other active pitcher with three Cy Young Awards is Clayton Kershaw, who is younger than Scherzer and still technically short of the JAWS standard for starting pitchers but already seems like a slam-dunk first-ballot inductee.
The two-time winners are more of a mixed bag. Bob Gibson, Gaylord Perry and Tom Glavine are in the Hall, but Denny McLain and Bret Saberhagen never got as much as 2 percent of the vote. AL winner Corey Kluber now joins a trio of not-yet-eligible two-time winners that includes Johan Santana, Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. Judging by comments made after his death last week, Halladay seems likely to get in (he'd get my vote). Lincecum, whose effectiveness vanished at 28, would seem to have no chance. Santana is closer to Halladay in terms of his overall career value, but he is far from a sure thing, given that his career was all but ended by injury after his age-31 season.
Kluber still feels like a long shot for the Hall because his first above-average Major League season came at the age of 28 in 2014. Scherzer also broke out as one of the best pitchers in baseball in his age-28 season, and he is only one year older than Kluber, giving him just five years of dominance to Kluber's four. However, Scherzer had already been an above-average Major Leaguer for five years prior to his age-28 breakout, so it's not just the extra Cy Young Award that makes him feel like a more likely Hall of Famer. Statistically, both pitchers are still a long way from punching their ticket to Cooperstown, but Scherzer has crossed a crucial threshold with his third Cy Young Award and now seems Hall-bound, even if there's still work for him to do to get there.
Of the 10 men to win three or more MVP Awards, the eligible are all in except for Barry Bonds, who, like Clemens and the Cy Young Award, holds the record with seven. The ineligible are Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, authors of slam-dunk Hall of Fame careers, though Rodriguez may have the same fate as Bonds.
This year's MVPs, Giancarlo Stanton in the NL and Jose Altuve in the AL, are both first-time winners. However, the top two men in this year's NL voting, Stanton and runner-up Joey Votto, both now have a first- and second-place finish on their record (Votto won in 2010, Stanton was second in '14). That's not shoo-in territory, but it's not insignificant. Of the 29 eligible players who have won just one MVP Award but also finished second in another season, 19 of them are in the Hall of Fame, and a 20th is Pete Rose, a slam-dunk inductee had he not been declared ineligible. Among the nine exceptions are Sammy Sosa, three men on this year's Modern Baseball ballot (Don Mattingly, Dave Parker and Steve Garvey) and Keith Hernandez, who has his share of Hall supporters.
More recent history, however, suggests that Stanton and Votto are still shy of the MVP inflection point, as the other not-yet-eligible players in this group are Jason Giambi, Justin Morneau, Ryan Howard and Ryan Braun, none of whom is likely a Hall of Famer.
The inflection point for MVPs appears to be two awards, but not every two-time winner is a Hall of Famer. Roger Maris (AL in 1960 and '61) peaked at 43.1 percent of the writers' vote. Dale Murphy (NL in 1982 and '83), another of this year's Eras Committees candidates, peaked at 23.2 percent. Juan Gonzalez (AL in 1996 and '98) fell off the ballot after just two years, peaking at 5.2 percent. What all three have in common is that they all won their awards in quick succession, thus their two wins don't make an obvious case for sustained excellence. However, that's also true for Hall of Famers Hal Newhouser, Ernie Banks, Joe Morgan and Frank Thomas, all of whom won their MVPs in consecutive seasons.
Still, Maris, Murphy and Gonzalez are just three of 21 two-time winners. Of the other 18, 16 are in the Hall, and the other two are Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, both already likely first-ballot inductees (seriously, Trout, who just finished his age-25 season, ranks 10th all-time among center fielders in JAWS). Assuming those two go in, that's an 86 percent induction rate among two-time MVP Award winners. That looks like an inflection point to me, and Stanton and Altuve, both of whom just won the award for their age-27 season and appear to be on a Hall of Fame track, are now halfway to it.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.