MLB’s coronavirus pause could impair Hall of Fame cases

For the 11 seasons from 1988-98, Fred McGriff was as durable as any player not named Cal Ripken Jr. He averaged 154 games from 1988-93 and again from 1996-98.

In 1994-95, the Braves played 258 games, and McGriff participated in 257 of them. But it was just 258 rather than the standard 324. Labor-related stoppages canceled the final two months and the postseason of 1994 and limited 1995 to 144 games.

There were 66 potential games lost for McGriff in his prime — he was in the midst of arguably his best season in 1994. It is not a stretch to believe the steely McGriff would have played in all of those games and, had he stayed on his trajectory of averaging 4.28 plate appearances per game and a homer every 17.7 plate appearances, would have hit 16 more homers.

That would have given McGriff 509 homers, tied for 26th all-time with Gary Sheffield. McGriff was going to hit at least seven more homers if those games were not lost. Instead, he finished with 493. Every eligible player not tied to illegal performance enhancers who has reached 500 homers is in the Hall of Fame.

McGriff is recognized generally as a player who performed clean. His 493 ties him with Lou Gehrig for the most homers hit without attaining 500. In 2019 — his final year on the writers’ ballot — McGriff received 39.8 percent of the vote. That was his highest total, yet far short of the 75 percent necessary.

Would he have made it to Cooperstown without labor strife? At minimum, his candidacy would have looked better. It is a reminder that extended interruptions to careers impact borderline Hall of Fame cases. Every generation is familiar with how injuries disrupt opportunities. Previous generations lost service time during war. There have been labor stoppages. Now we face a season that is likely to be shortened — or lost completely — to coronavirus.

So whose cases will be most impaired by lost time in 2020?

Let’s begin with the active players who I think are in regardless of whether they play another game: Miguel Cabrera, Clayton Kershaw, Albert Pujols, Justin Verlander and Mike Trout (this was going to be his 10th season, the minimum to be eligible). Max Scherzer is already a no-brainer for me with three Cy Young awards and nine seasons ranging from above-average to brilliant, but I am not sure that is a universal opinion. I also believe Yadier Molina should be in, but I sense a metric case is going to be waged against the word of mouth within the game that he was among the all-time great pitcher whisperers.

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So Molina/Scherzer might fall into the category of those whose Hall chances will be hurt by missed time in 2020. But because I think they should be no-brainers now, I will leave them out. I will do the same for guys who have shown early greatness, but still have so much career ahead of them such as Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto. This is more about the already established player who would get Hall consideration, but needed more and might not have a chance to get that this year:

Robinson Cano — He might not get in regardless because of voters holding against him a positive test for a banned substance and an 80-game suspension in 2018. His best road is to amass the 430 hits needed for 3,000 (voters tend to love magic numbers). Was last year a blip or the beginning of a decline? If it was a decline, he already was looking at less playing time during the final four years of his contract.

Like Cano, Nelson Cruz has a failed test/suspension on his ledger, plus lots of DH time. As Cano needs 3,000 hits, Cruz really needs 500 homers to have a shot. He is 99 short. He does have the most homers over the past six years — 21 more than anyone else. But he was to play this year at age 39. How much time can he miss and still get those 99 homers?

Nick Markakis’ Hall case already was a long shot multiplied by five due to lack of greatness. But he did have an outside chance for 3,000 hits. A shortened 2020 would make producing the 645 hits he needs all the more unlikely.

Gerrit Cole — The righty had one terrific season in Pittsburgh and consecutive great years in Houston, leading to his record nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. For him to make the Hall after a good-not-great start to his career, Cole was going to have to assemble several more seasons like the past two. You don’t want to miss prime years, and he turned 29 last September.

Jacob deGrom — I wrote recently that deGrom’s Hall case would likely have to mimic that of Roy Halladay — a late bloomer who assembled a decade of greatness from ages 25-34. DeGrom has had six brilliant campaigns beginning at age 26. Losing much of his age-32 season this year when he is at his peak would be a body blow to his Cooperstown opportunity. Maybe future voters will not care about wins at all. But sitting at just 66 career victories looks bad for a Hall portfolio right now. A third Cy Young would sure help — so would a fourth.

Jose Altuve — All of the Astros hitters tied to the sign-stealing scandal are going to have to re-prove themselves. Altuve was most far along on making a Hall case. He had 1,568 hits through his age-29 season, 24 more than Derek Jeter had at the same point and the 43rd most ever. But now there is taint to his 2017 AL MVP and accomplishments. And he already had declining games played and batting averages each of the past two years. Any missed time cripples his long-term play for 3,000 hits.

Zack Greinke — Mike Mussina had kinship with McGriff — two of his best seasons (1994-95) were abbreviated. There was high-end production lost that might explain why it took Mussina six years to finally be voted into the Hall. Greinke is the active pitcher who reminds me most of Mussina — an athletic, cerebral righty who has the capacity to adjust with advanced age.

Through his age-35 season, Mussina had 2,833¹/₃ innings, a 126 ERA-plus and 68.3 Wins Above Replacement. Greinke is at 2,872, 125 and 65.9, respectively, at the same juncture. Mussina pitched four more full seasons, two of them excellent. How much more will Greinke generate?

Felix Hernandez/Cole Hamels/Jon Lester — All of them probably fall short of Cooperstown, but it was clear they were going to need more to avoid that. Hamels and Lester have postseason excellence, Hernandez a spectacular eight-year peak from 2008-15 (113-76, 2,.90 ERA, a Cy win and two second-place finises). Hernandez, after three miserable seasons in Seattle, was having a strong spring for Atlanta and looked to be making the rotation, in part due to an injury to Hamels. Each has more than 2,500 innings, so they are on the back-nine and can’t miss much time if they are going to turn long-shot Hall chances into something more.

Andrew McCutchen — In the shadows of Trout, McCutchen’s greatness from 2009-15 is lost (151 homers, 154 steals, an OPS-plus of 144, four top-five MVP finishes, including a win). He has been good to very good since. This just might be a Don Mattingly/Dale Murphy-type career — a burst of initial genius followed by something less. Neither Mattingly nor Murphy has made the Hall. The only way for McCutchen to make a case is a lot more very good, accumulating seasons. He was not going to be able to start this season on time anyway after tearing an ACL last year. But he was due back in April.

Madison Bumgarner/Buster Posey — The pitching/hitting backbone and face of the Giants’ three titles. Posey has Jeter-esque overtones because of the championships. The problem for him is that catching has beaten him up. He was always going to have accumulation issues, and now he may miss a lot of an age-33 season. Bumgarner is a historically great postseason pitcher, and his 2014 might be the best playoff run ever. His regular seasons have been marked by durable excellence, but not consistent elite performance. He was going to pitch this year at just 30 and for a new team (Arizona).

Joey Votto — Whenever he becomes eligible, he is going to be a great debate. Those who love modern stats elevate Votto for his hitting eye/power combination. Those who don’t see a version of Bobby Abreu — a guy who could accumulate but somehow not impact winning enough. His age-35 season last year was by far his worst, and he is sitting on 1,866 hits and 284 homers — stats he is going to need to pump up to be endorsed by voters who like old-line numbers more.

Nolan Arenado/Freddie Freeman/Paul Goldschmidt/Manny Machado — You can add others such as Mookie Betts, Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. Try Francisco Lindor and Bryce Harper. These are players who have laid down a nice base of results and accomplishments, but have a long way from here to Cooperstown. Now they may be without part or all of this season, and for someone such as Donaldson, already 34 and having missed huge parts of 2017-18 due to injury, that could be devastating to an outside Hall chance.

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