Similarity Scores Show Which Current Cubs Could Have Hall of Fame Careers

It’s inevitable that current players are going to be compared to those who came before them, whether it’s their physical appearance or their style of play, but there’s actually actually a way to measure that likeness. The similarity score is a sabermetric concept introduced by Bill James in the 1980’s in order to compare active players with historical ones.

The original purpose was to determine a given player’s Hall of Fame candidacy based on whether the most similar players were already in the Hall. But we’re using the numbers today — for entertainment purposes only, of course — to project future performance of active players relative to similar retired player over a relative period of time.

Similarity scores are calculated by starting at a baseline of 1000 points and subtracting based on statistical differences and then adjusted for position. When you check a current player’s Baseball Reference page, you can find a list of the top similarity score results based on overall career and age as of the last full season in the books.

Searching B-Ref for the latter type of similarity score produces some very interesting results for certain young Cubs players, at least three of whom may be on track for Hall of Fame careers. I have included bWAR in these comparisons to provide an idea of how valuable these players were in general terms during the reference period.

  1. Javier Báez ➡️ Joe Gordon

Similarity Score through age 26: 945.0

Javy is frequently described as “flashy” and Gordon was nicknamed “Flash” after the comic book character. Like Báez, Gordon was known for both his hitting and defensive skills at second base during an 11-year career with the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians from 1938-50 (he missed the 1944 and ’45 seasons for wartime military service).

According to his HoF bio, Gordon “redefined the tools necessary for middle infielders, adding power to the mix while setting the bar even higher for acrobatic play in the field.” Before the 1941 World Series, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher said, “We’re not afraid of DiMaggio or Keller. The man we fear is Gordon.”

Gordon was named the American League MVP in 1942, beating out Triple Crown winner Ted Williams. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009 through the Veterans’ Committee.

Below is a chart showing Gordon’s and Báez’s performance through their age-26 seasons.

Name Seasons thru Age 26 HR RBI AVG OBP SLG bWAR
Javier Báez 6 110 354 .270 .310 .484 16.6
Joe Gordon 4 107 398 .275 .354 .496 20.5

Please note for Gordon’s OBP, the sacrifice fly stat used in the OBP formula (Hits + Walks + HBP) / (ABs + Walks + HBP + Sacrifice Flies) was first tracked in 1954. While Gordon was also known as a free swinger with power, he had a significantly higher OBP than El Mago during the reference period and his career.

2. Kris Bryant ➡️ Jim Thome

Similarity Score through Age 27: 933.5

Thome, a corner infielder and DH from Peoria, Illinois, was inducted into the Hall of Fame after an illustrious 22-year career that included 612 homers (eighth on the all-time MLB leaderboard). Though he did most of that damage with the Indians and Philadelphia Phillies, he also spent four seasons with the White Sox from 2006-09.

Here’s how Thome and Bryant stack up through their age-27 seasons.

Name Seasons thru Age 27 HR RBI AVG OBP SLG bWAR
Kris Bryant 5 138 403 .284 .385 .516 25.1
Jim Thome 8 163 471 .289 .409 .549 25.3

Bryant’s home run and RBI numbers do not compare as favorably to Thome due to his injury-plagued 2018 season and the Cubs’ struggles to solve their leadoff quandary. However, it is encouraging that KB has such a high similarity score despite his setbacks in 2018 and ’19.

It is also worth noting relative to the WAR figure that Bryant has accrued a number of career achievements at a young age, including Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards. Thome was never voted MVP and never won a World Series.

3. Willson Contreras ➡️ Carlton Fisk

Similarity Score through Age 27: 921.6

Fisk is perhaps best remembered for his game-winning home run against the Cincinnati Reds at Fenway Park in the 12th inning of the 1975 World Series, which his Boston Red Sox eventually lost in seven games. However, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000 as a member of the Chicago White Sox, where he spent the final 13 years of his career.

Like Contreras, Fisk was known for his bat, setting a single-season AL record for catchers with 37 home runs and establishing a career-high 107 RBI in 1985. He also set a record for most home runs by a catcher, with 351.

Name Seasons thru Age 27 HR RBI AVG OBP SLG bWAR
Willson Contreras 4 67 227 .267 .35 .47 11.5
Carlton Fisk 6 71 216 .284 .353 .502 17.7

Please remember that the similarity scores discussed here are only intended to compare current players to historical players in order to show what sort of trajectory their careers could take in the future. This is not meant to suggest the players compared have been equally valuable during a given time period or that this is some sort of formal prediction.

That said, we’ve got every reason to believe that all three Cubs listed above could end up having incredible careers.

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