Last night I thought of this scenario: If Angels outfielder Mike Trout tore up his knee and was never the same again -- say he hangs for another six or seven years with a Grady Sizemore-like decline -- is he a Hall of Famer?
You'd have four ascendant seasons where he was the best player in the game but not much else. Is that enough? As it turns out, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote about Trout and the Hall of Fame today, asking what Trout has to do to achieve's Griffey's status, but then asking what's the minimum Trout would have to do to reach Hall of Fame status. He compared Trout to Kirby Puckett:
Yes, you’re looking at that chart correctly; Trout is +6 WAR away from tying Puckett’s career mark, even though the entirety of his career consists of the window of time in which Puckett was still in the minor leagues. Trout has almost already matched Puckett’s entire career value, and he hasn’t yet played a game during the period of time in which Puckett actually was in the big leagues.
Dave puts it this way: "If you’re looking for a recent comparison, Trout is eight more years just like Cameron Maybin's 2015 season away from having had Puckett’s career."
The problem with using Puckett as a comparison is that based on WAR, he's a poor Hall of Fame selection, with a career mark of 44.9 on FanGraphs (and 50.9 on Baseball-Reference.com). WAR wasn't a thing when Puckett was elected in 2001 and indicates he was a bit overrated: He was a high-average hitter but drew few walks and the defensive metrics suggest he didn't deserve all six of those Gold Gloves. Most importantly, however, WAR ignores that Puckett was viewed as a superstar, that he won two World Series titles with the Twins (and hit .309/.361/.536 in 24 postseason games) and that his career-ending glaucoma was factored into his short career.
Really, there's only been one player elected to the Hall of Fame with a short, dynamic peak like Trout's: Sandy Koufax. Koufax scuffled along the first six years of his career, had two very good seasons and then he became Koufax, stuff of legends. In those four otherworldly seasons he went 97-27 with a 1.86 ERA, led the Dodgers to two World Series and pitched in a third (with a career World Series ERA of 0.95), won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP Award and won four of his five consecutive ERA titles.
Baseball-Reference.com values Koufax at 36.5 WAR those four seasons; from 2012 to 2015, Trout has been worth 37.3 WAR. I don't think there's another non-Hall of Famer -- Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens excepting -- who had a similar run. OK, there was Wilbur Wood. From 1971 to 1974 the knuckleballer won 90 games and was worth 35.4 WAR. He was a good pitcher but that value is tied to the absurd number of innings he pitched: He averaged 348 innings over those four years. Wood's career value was 52.1, so he didn't do much out of that peak. He never received more than 7 percent of the vote while on the Hall of Fame ballot.
I did a search on Baseball-Reference.com for all position players who accumulated 32 WAR over a four-year stretch. Everybody who's done that is in the Hall of Fame except Bonds and three active players: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Chase Utley. That last name may surprise you and Utley's Hall of Fame chances are probably slim, but from 2006 to 2009 he accumulated 32.2 (B-R loves his defense, as Utley was an early proponent of shifting closer to first base than other second basemen, allowing him to make more plays than other second basemen).
This all would make Trout a rather unique case if this worst-case scenario happened. My guess would be, no, he hasn't done enough yet. Voters prefer longevity over peak as is, so I think a short peak even as dominant as Trout's would be dismissed.