Active MLB Pitchers on a Hall of Fame Track to Cooperstown

The path to the Hall of Fame is harder for pitchers than position players. Which active pitchers have the best odds to get to Cooperstown?

HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 27: Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers shakes hands with Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros before game three of the 2017 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The Hall of Fame class of 2024 was officially announced yesterday, with three new members set to receive induction into Cooperstown. While it was great to see some new position players get honored, a bad trend continued.

For the fifth-straight year, no pitchers will be inducted into the Hall of Fame through the voting process. Billy Wagner was the most narrow exemption. Falling just five votes short of enshrinement.

Mariano Rivera and Roy Halladay were the last pitchers who were inducted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. Looking at the next wave of potential Hall of Famers, there are some pitchers who are at the final stage of their careers who will be heading towards the top of ballots sooner than later.

Just like we did back in August for position players, let’s now look at all of the active players to find those who are on track to one day be inducted as members of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

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First Ballot Hall of Fame Track

Only 58 players have ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Of those 58 players, only 17 have been pitchers. Further, Mariano Rivera is the only pitcher who worked exclusively as a relief pitcher who was inducted on the first ballot.

As we get into the following group of pitchers who could receive induction on the first ballot, you won’t find any relief pitchers, and you also won’t find any starting pitchers who are still in the first decade of their careers.

The reason why there have been more first ballot Hall of Fame position players than pitchers, is because it is much harder to sustain excellence on the mound than it is in the box.

The guys who are on a first ballot Hall of Fame track right now have all but written their tickets into Cooperstown and likely on the first ballot.

Justin Verlander

The active leader in both wins (257) and in WAR (81.4), Justin Verlander is about as clear-cut of a first ballot Hall of Famer as you are going to find. Verlander has all the personal success required, having won three Cy Youngs, one MVP, one Triple Crown, two ERA titles and nine All-Star apperances.

Verlander has also led the league in both wins and innings pitched four times, and has led the league in strikeouts five times. He owns a career 3.24 regular season ERA, which is nearly in line with his career 3.58 postseason ERA. The team success is there for Verlander too, as he has won two World Series titles with the Houston Astros and was the ALCS MVP back in 2017.

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While he has accomplished everything in his career, Verlander still has some milestones to chase, with the most prominent being the 300-win club.

The soon-to-be 41-year-old is merely 43 wins away from reaching that special 300-win plateau. Considering how much pitcher wins have been diminished, there is a chance Verlander will be the last member of the 300-win club.

Verlander is also currently tied with Phil Niekro for 12th on the all-time list for strikeouts, and is just 25 strikeouts behind his old teammate Max Scherzer for the 11th spot. Greg Maddux sits at No. 10 with 3,371 career strikeouts. A mark both Scherzer and Verlander will pass with relative ease in 2024.

Beyond Maddux, Walter Johnson (3,509), Gaylord Perry (3,534), Don Sutton (3,574), Tom Seaver (3,640), and Bert Blyleven (3,701) are all potentially within both Scherzer and Verlander’s grasps if they pitch two or more seasons.

Only fourth pitchers have ever eclipsed 4,000 career strikeouts: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Steve Carlton. If Verlander pitches until he is 45, he may just belong to that exclusive club one day. It is just a matter of health and if he wants to keep pushing until the wheels come off.

Max Scherzer

Since we just discussed Scherzer ranking on the all-time strikeout list, might as well address his Hall of Fame candidacy next. Scherzer is another sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer, who boasts an impressive 3.15 career ERA.

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There have only been 11 pitchers in MLB history who have won three or Cy Young awards. Roger Clemens leads the pack with seven, followed by Randy Johnson with five, then Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton with four.

Beyond that list of Hall of Famers, Verlander and Scherzer are two of seven other pitchers who have won exactly three Cy Youngs. Pedro Martinez, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and Sandy Koufax each have three and are all in Cooperstown already. Clayton Kershaw joins Verlander and Scherzer as active pitchers who have won three Cy Youngs.

Scherzer is an eight-time All-Star, who has led the league in wins four times, in strikeouts three times and in innings pitched twice. He is also a two-time World Series champ.

Clayton Kershaw

Many will try to poke holes in Clayton Kershaw’s legacy based on postseason success, but there is no way he can be denied access to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Kershaw’s career 2.48 ERA is the best of any pitcher in MLB history. From 2011 through 2017, Kershaw never finished lower than fifth in Cy Young voting, winning the award three times, while he finished second twice and third once.

The left-hander has five ERA titles to his name and has also led the league in both wins and strikeouts three times. Kershaw won his first Cy Young in 2011, when he won the Triple Crown by pitching to a 21-5 record, with a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts.

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In 2014, Kershaw won the league MVP. He went 21-3 and pitched to an MLB-best 1.77 ERA. A year later he set a career-high with 301 strikeouts, while pitching to a 2.13 ERA. Since his sophomore season in 2009, Kershaw has pitched to an ERA over 3.00 just twice across 15 seasons.

Zack Greinke

If there is one pitcher on this list that might not make it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, it is Zack Greinke. For my money though, he should get in when he first appears on a ballot.

Greinke only has one Cy Young Award to his name, but pitched a large portion of his career in the same league as Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, who hogged the award for a majority of his prime.

His lone Cy Young came back when he was in the American League in 2009, pitching to an MLB-best 2.16 ERA for the Kansas City Royals. Greinke went on to lead the league in ERA again in 2015, when he pitched to a 1.66 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Greinke falls shorts of 300 wins, currently sitting at 225, and has been more of a league average starter towards the tail-end of his career. Still, if you look at his peak, Greinke was a perennial All-Star that consistently headlined very good rotations.

Also, on top of being an excellent pitcher, Greinke was an amazing athlete who helped his cause both with his glove and his bat. Greinke won six Gold Gloves in his career, which is second-most all-time to Greg Maddux (who won 18).

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Not that it should tip the scales, but Greinke had two special seasons offensively where he won Silver Slugger awards. In his first full year in the National League back in 2013 Greinke hit .328/.409/.379. Then in 2019, Greinke hit .280/.308/.580, with three home runs.

Hall of Fame Track

Jacob deGrom

When it comes to the Hall of Fame, a lot of times the term “seven-year peak” is thrown around as a qualification for what it takes to get into Cooperstown. Well for deGrom, his seven-year peak was sensational, resulting in a Rookie of the Year and two Cy Young awards.

DeGrom was a great pitcher from jump, pitching to a 2.69 ERA in 22 starts as a rookie back in 2014. He then helped led the Mets to a World Series back in 2015, playing a massive role in knocking off the much-favored Dodgers in the NLDS with great starts in Game 1 and Game 5, battling Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

In 2018, deGrom took his game to another level, leading Major League Baseball with a 1.70 ERA and a 218 ERA+. This was the first of back-to-back Cy Young awards, as he went on to win the award again in 2019 with a 2.43 ERA and an NL-best 255 strikeouts. DeGrom won just 21 games across his two Cy Young seasons, but that was hardly his fault.

In 2021, deGrom was trending towards an MVP season in the first half, where he pitched to a sparkling 1.08 ERA with an absurd 146 strikeouts in 92 innings pitched. He also batted .364 that season with a .758 OPS.

Unfortunately for deGrom and the Mets, this was the beginning of a rough stretch of injuries, as missed the entire second half with an elbow injury. He would only make 11 starts in 2022.

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DeGrom signed a five-year, $185 million contract with the Texas Rangers prior to last season, but would only make six starts before going down with Tommy John surgery.

Any return to good health should extend deGrom’s career enough so that he will get into the Hall, but if he can get back to his prior form, this could still be a first ballot Hall of Famer when it is all said and done.

Gerrit Cole

One of the biggest crimes in baseball was finally corrected this past year, when Gerrit Cole was awarded with his first ever Cy Young Award. Prior to winning in 2023, Cole had two runner-up finishes and five top-five finishes to his name already.

Cole was very good early in his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but took his game to another level when he got dealt to the Houston Astros before the 2018 season. Across two years in Houston, Cole pitched to a 2.68 ERA, with an insane 602 strikeouts in 412 2/3 innings pitched.

In 2019, Cole lost the Cy Young to his teammate, Justin Verlander, despite leading the league with 326 strikeouts and leading the AL with a 2.50 ERA.

Cole is now coming off his best season in pinstripes, where he pitched to an AL-best 2.63 ERA in 209 innings pitched for the Yankees. After this season, Cole has an opt-out in his contract, which the Yankees can erase by guaranteeing a 10th year on his deal. This is likely to take place, giving Cole six more years in the Bronx.

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Adding another Cy Young to his mantle would go a long way for Cole, although winning a World Series could prove to be just as important.

Craig Kimbrel

Now we head to the relief pitcher portion of our proceedings, beginning with one of the best closers of this generation in Craig Kimbrel.

Kimbrel burst onto the scene in 2010, pitching to a 0.44 ERA in 21 appearances for the Atlanta Braves, where he struck out 40 batters in 20 2/3 innings. Despite making a name for himself, Kimbrel maintained rookie status and went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2011, saving 46 games.

This began the first of four-straight All-Star appearances in a Braves uniform from 2011 through 2014, in which Kimbrel finished in the top-10 in Cy Young voting each season. Across five years with the Braves, Kimbrel pitched to a 1.43 ERA and struck out 14.8 batters per nine.

Then in 2015, Kimbrel began his odyssey around Major League Baseball with a one-year stint in San Diego, before settling in with the Boston Red Sox for three years from 2016-2019. Kimbrel was on the World Champion 2018 Red Sox, although he did not pitch well during that run.

He has since pitched for the Cubs, White Sox, Dodgers, Phillies and will now suit up for the Baltimore Orioles. While he has had plenty of rough stretches during the back-half of his career, Kimbrel still boasts a career 2.40 ERA and nine All-Star appearances.

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With 417 career saves and the chance to notch a lot more filling in for Felix Bautista in Baltimore this season, Kimbrel has a chance to become the third pitcher to ever reach 500 career saves.

Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman headline the list, both eclipsing 600 career saves. Then Lee Smith comes in third with 478, before Francisco Rodriguez (437), John Franco (424) and Billy Wagner (422). Kenley Jansen is the active leader at 420 career saves.

Even if Kimbrel gets to 500 saves, it might take some time on the ballot before he gets enough momentum to get into Cooperstown. Still, he is clearly on track to get in some day.

Kenley Jansen

Everything we just laid out for Kimbrel applies to Kenley Jansen.

It is not easy for relief pitchers to earned the distinction of being Hall of Famers, and milestones like 500 saves really help the cause once the voting process begins.

Jansen trails Kimbrel in All-Star appearances (4), does not have a Rookie of the Year to his name, and has a slightly worse career ERA at 2.52. Still, 420 career saves moves the needle.

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Assuming he remains in a closer’s role with the Boston Red Sox and can match the 29 saves he posted in 2023, Jansen should find himself in the top-five all-time with Kimbrel by the end of this season.

For his best chance to get inducted to Cooperstown, Jansen needs to keep signing with teams that will use him in a closers role, so he can rack up as many saves as possible during the final years of his career.

Too Soon to Be Determined

Corbin Burnes

Considering how much of a household name he has become, it is pretty remarkable to think that Corbin Burnes has only three full seasons of being a starting pitcher under his belt.

First working out of the bullpen in 2018 and 2019, Burnes did not become a fixture in the Brewers rotation until 2020, when he pitched to a 2.11 ERA in the COVID-shortened season. In 2021, Burnes finally put his name on the map, leading the league with his 2.43 ERA and winning the NL Cy Young Award.

In the past two seasons, Burnes has not reached that Cy Young level, but has still been extremely effective. He has now made three-straight All-Star games and has a career 3.26 ERA.

If Burnes can replicate his success over the next three or four seasons, he will have a seven-year peak that is Hall of Fame worthy. Then it becomes about longevity. Way too soon to tell, but certainly a name to watch over the next decade.

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Zack Wheeler

When it comes to awards and accolades, Zack Wheeler’s resume is pretty barren. He has just one All-Star appearance back in 2021 and just won a Gold Glove award in 2023.

Wheeler only finished in the top-10 of Cy Young voting twice, but was the runner-up back in 2021 when he led the National League in both innings pitched (213.1) and strikeouts (247). Still, Wheeler has led two deep playoff runs in the last two seasons and is turning into a real force come October.

Through 10 starts and 11 games pitched, Wheeler now has a career 2.42 ERA in the postseason across 63 1/3 innings pitched. Combine that with a solid 3.45 ERA and Wheeler has an outside shot to make into the Hall of Fame someday.

If Wheeler can have a banner season in 2024, where he wins the Cy Young and leads the Phillies to a World Series title, suddenly his case gets a lot stronger. He is capable of being the best pitcher in the sport over the next five years, but until he does it, Wheeler is short of being on a Hall of Fame track.

Sandy Alcantara

A little over a year ago, Sandy Alcantara was trending towards being considered the best pitcher in baseball. Sandy was an absolute workhorse in 2022, leading the league with 228 2/3 innings pitched, while keeping his ERA at a remarkable 2.28. For his work, Alcantara received the NL Cy Young.

This past year was more of a struggle for Alcantara, which saw him pitched to a 4.14 ERA, although he still racked up 184 2/3 innings in 28 starts. Then the Marlins were dealt a massive blow, as Alcantara went down with a UCL tear.

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Now recovering from Tommy Joh surgery, we likely won’t see Alcantara pitch again until 2025. At that point, he will be entering his age-29 season, with plenty of time left in his career to author a Hall of Fame narrative.

Blake Snell

Maybe the most polarizing player to include on this list is Blake Snell. His total body of work is not really Hall of Fame worthy, yet he has two Cy Youngs to his name and plenty of career left to add more.

As mentioned before, only 11 pitchers have ever won at least three Cy Young awards. Snell belongs to the list of 11 pitches who have won the award exactly twice. It is more likely he follows the Tim Lincecum or Corey Kluber type arc, as guys who were the best in the sport for a few given years to win their Cy Youngs, but not exactly Hall of Fame worthy.

Still, you can’t count Snell and his career 3.20 ERA just yet.

Josh Hader

Freshly signed to a five-year, $95 million contract, Josh Hader has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past half-decade. He has raked up 165 saves and has a great 2.50 ERA.

Hader has been named an All-Star five times and has won three Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year Awards. If he can keep this level of performance up for another seven more years, maybe he has Hall of Fame resume when it is all said and done. Just too early to tell.

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Edwin Diaz

Pretty much the exact same argument for Hader applies to Edwin Diaz, although he has three less All-Star appearances and one less reliever of the year award. On the other hand, he does have 40 more saves, crossing over the 200-mark back in 2022.

It is tough for a reliever to make it into the Hall of Fame, but Diaz and Hader certainly have the stuff to create impressive resumes over the life of their respective careers.