On Sunday afternoon, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza will become the newest inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They’ll join a fraternity of several hundred members, none of whom have been enshrined wearing a Marlins cap.
The 2016 team employs at least one Cooperstown-bound player in Ichiro Suzuki and another with Hall of Fame-caliber credentials (Barry Bonds). Of course, both of them made bigger impacts with other franchises, so it remains unclear if/when the Fish will get a representative of their own.
But several young stars on the current roster have given us reason to dream. Jose Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich are among the league’s top talents at their respective positions, with the potential to produce at even higher levels. More significantly, their MLB performances thus far—both their strengths and flaws—closely resemble those of past Hall of Famers.
The following comparisons are absolute best-case scenarios, but the early-career similarities between these past and present players were too obvious to ignore.
Jose Fernandez and Roger Clemens
Neither the Miami Marlins nor the Boston Red Sox wasted any time unleashing their first-round draft picks on major league opposition. Fernandez got an unorthodox call-up directly from High-A ball, while Clemens pitched only 18 total minor league games before joining the Red Sox rotation.
Despite being one year younger than Clemens at the time of his debut, Fernandez had the superior season (4.1 fWAR) en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year honors and receiving All-Star recognition.
But then, both right-handers experienced sophomore scares. Fernandez blew out his elbow during his eighth start of 2014, requiring Tommy John surgery and nearly 14 months of missed time. Midway through the 1985 season, the Rocket’s shoulder pain was depleting his fastball velocity and robbing him of his strikeout ability. He became one of Dr. James Andrews’ first high-profile clients, undergoing an arthroscopic procedure to repair his torn labrum.
The next summer, any doubts about his dominance faded away fast. Clemens took home the AL Cy Young and MVP awards, winning 14 straight decisions to begin the season and racking up 10 complete games.
Likewise, Fernandez has the opportunity to collect some hardware in his first full campaign post-surgery. The 2016 NL Cy Young favorite, Clayton Kershaw, is questionable to return from a back injury. Miami’s ace leads all non-Kershaw qualifiers with a 4.5 fWAR and 29.4 K-BB%, plus—for what it’s worth to BBWAA voters—he’s finally on a contending team.
Aside from the shared backgrounds and results mentioned above, Fernandez follows after Clemens stylistically with a fiery fastball and an expressive demeanor. He racks up strikeouts in the same way that Clemens did, making him a darling of pitcher-independent metrics.
Now let’s see if Fernandez can keep this up for another two decades!
Giancarlo Stanton and Reggie Jackson
The batting gloves don’t fit perfectly in this case. Stanton is a much larger human being than Jackson ever was and swings from the opposite side of the plate.
However, both of them were put on this Earth to be measured by Statcast. In the video below, I’d love to know the exit velocity on Jackson’s second home run, or the distance of his third one:
Thankfully, we have finally arrived in an era that allows us to quantify the art of the long ball.
The league-wide strikeout rate has steadily risen throughout the past generation, yet Jackson is still the all-time whiff king at 2,597. It’s a testament to his durability, but in particular, the inconsistency of his swing as a young slugger on the Oakland Athletics. Jackson led the American League in strikeouts during each of his first four full seasons, and often by a comfortable margin.
Stanton can relate. There are 225 players with at least 2,000 plate appearances since Stanton’s debut season, and his 28.7% strikeout rate is eighth-worst. He’s ninth-worst in swinging strike percentage.
In terms of overall productivity, Stanton and Jackson have been virtually identical players through age 26.
Stanton: 26.3 fWAR, 142 wRC+ in 3,315 PA
Jackson: 26.9 fWAR, 146 wRC+ in 3,154 PA
Although Jackson never evolved into a batting title threat, his game aged very well because his contact skills improved. It will be critical for Stanton to make a similar adjustment if he hopes to leave a long-lasting legacy of his own.
Christian Yelich and Carl Yastrzemski
Here are two sweet-swinging left fielders who share one of baseball’s rarest pair of initials. The career comparison is made easier by the fact that Yelich was called up to the majors at an age of 21 years and 230 days; Yaz was 21 years and 232 days old.
Pitch-by-pitch data informs us that Yelich is already a disciplined batter, averaging more than four pitches per plate appearance in each of his four seasons. His walk rate is 10.2 percent, while the league average has been 7.8 percent over that same span. Yaz walked 10.7 percent of the time through four seasons and now ranks sixth all time in base on balls.
Anybody discouraged by Yelich’s single-digit home run totals from 2013-2015 can look to Yaz for reassurance. A future AL Triple Crown winner, he was reliant on doubles for most of his extra-base hits during his early twenties despite playing home games at offensive-friendly Fenway Park.
Yelich is clearly making a leap in 2016, slashing .326/.401/.501 with excellent exit velocity and one of the highest fWAR values at his position. Reaching Hall of Fame heights could be as simple as elevating the ball. His GB/FB ratio tops every other qualified MLB player, just like a young Yaz—he grounded into the most double plays in the AL in 1962 and 1964.
The Boston Red Sox were able to retain Yaz for his entire 23-year career during a period of limited free agency. The Fish have Yelich under team control through 2022. The negotiations for his next contract could get complex if his home run power emerges, but that would be a good problem to have.