This may sound a little preposterous, but let's consider the idea: Does Jake Arrieta have any chance at making the Hall of Fame?
It sounds preposterous because Arrieta is already 30 years old, has just 64 career wins, and has had exactly one Hall of Fame-caliber season. He's too old, it would seem, to start a run at Cooperstown. Plus, many pitchers have pitched at a level Arrieta did in 2015, at least for one season: Dwight Gooden, Kevin Appier, Bret Saberhagen, Ron Guidry, Jose Rijo, Jon Matlack, Vida Blue. All had one season of at least 8.7 WAR -- which was Arrieta's figure in 2015, when he went 22-7 with a 1.77 ERA -- and while they were all excellent pitchers, none has sniffed Cooperstown.
But consider what we do know about Arrieta:
1. He can pitch at a high Hall of Fame level and he's doing so again in 2016, sitting at 8-0 with a 1.29 ERA heading into Wednesday's start.
2. He's the best-conditioned pitcher in the game, with a workout regimen that includes Pilates, yoga, mobility training, meditation and a healthy diet. This doesn't guarantee he'll age well, but it has to be considered a positive attribute.
3. He's not too old. Several Hall of Fame pitchers have reached Cooperstown more on what they did in their 30s than their 20s.
It's that third item that suggests we're not completely crazy. Here's a chart of the 22 pitchers to accumulate the most WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com) from age 29 on:
Obviously, Arrieta has to have a great decade. As Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information tells me, through Arrieta’s first five seasons -- which includes his first good season with the Cubs in 2014 -- the right-hander had a 4.48 career ERA. The only pitcher with an ERA that high through his first five seasons to make the Hall of Fame was Red Ruffing, who was 39-96 with a 4.61 ERA when the Red Sox traded him to the Yankees. Going from the worst team in the league to a perennial World Series contender helped, but Ruffing also changed his delivery with the Yankees and won 20 games four times, all in his 30s, and helped the Yankees win six World Series.
The chart above illustrates some other late bloomers, with several Hall of Famers accumulating more than 80 percent of their career value from age 29 on. A quick look at a few of those:
Dazzy Vance: Vance didn't win a game in the majors until he was 31. He had reached the majors in 1915, but suffered chronic arm pain and scuffled around the minors for several years. The story goes that in 1920 he banged his arm on a table in the middle of a poker game and the pain became unbearable. He had surgery (probably to remove bone chips) and returned with a blazing fastball. In 1924, he struck out 262 batters; only one other pitcher in the league struck out even 100.
Bob Gibson: With a delivery that caused him to fall violently toward first base in his follow-through, Gibson had control issues early in his career and didn't really become BOB GIBSON until he was 30, although he'd had some fine seasons before that.
Randy Johnson: Even more wild than Gibson, Johnson's breakout season came in 1993 at age 29, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting. You may think that Arrieta is no Randy Johnson, but Johnson never had a 219 ERA+ as Arrieta did in 2015.
Curt Schilling: Schilling first reached the majors at age 21 and had some good seasons, including a big postseason for the Phillies in 1993. But he also battled some arm injuries and was 43-42 through age 28 -- very similar to Arrieta's 34-32 record (although Schilling had a lower ERA). Schilling didn't receive his first Cy Young votes until he was 30 years old.
Of course, Schilling isn't in the Hall of Fame yet, as voters have seemingly focused on his 216 career wins more than his 80.7 career WAR and postseason heroics. By the standards of pitchers already elected to the Hall of Fame, Schilling is easily qualified for Cooperstown. In time, I believe voters will start adjusting for the lower wins totals of this era, as they did in electing Pedro Martinez (219 wins) and John Smoltz (213 wins), and Schilling will deservedly get in.
Schilling does present, however, a pretty good example of what Arrieta would have to do to have hopes of Cooperstown. Schilling had 11 seasons of 4.0 WAR or higher, with 10 of those coming after turning 29. His top eight seasons in WAR: 8.8, 8.7, 7.9, 6.3, 6.2, 6.0, 5.9, 5.5. Those are All-Star-type seasons, with anything above 7.0 in Cy Young consideration. Schilling never won one, but finished second three times.
With 17.7 career WAR, Arrieta is barely one-quarter of the way to the 70-plus WAR it will take to get into the Hall of Fame discussion. It could be that his career goes the way of Kevin Brown, who had a very high peak and borderline Hall numbers, but not enough longevity to impress the voters. But if Arrieta has a run of five to six years as one of the elite pitchers in the game and then a solid career until he's 40 or so, he could have a chance.
A World Series title or two wouldn't hurt, either.