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To make it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, a player must have extraordinary talent and lasting durability.
Unfortunately, too many players over the years have had the former but not the latter.
We’ve picked out 10 who we believe could have made it to Cooperstown if they hadn’t been felled by fluke injuries or premature breakdowns. These guys didn’t just have talent worthy of induction. Early on, they were legitimately on their way there.
Settling on this approach required disregarding one-hit wonders (e.g. Mark Fidrych and Mark Prior), guys whose bad habits facilitated their downfalls (e.g. Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden) and many players whose breakdowns happened on a more or less normal timeline (e.g. Jim Fregosi, Brandon Webb and Johan Santana).
As for the guys who did make the cut, we’ll proceed in chronological order.
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If not for one wayward pitch, Tony Conigliaro might have been one of the greatest home run hitters in major league history.
He was only 19 when he debuted for the Boston Red Sox in 1964, and he promptly broke Mel Ott’s record for home runs by a teenager by blasting 24 long balls in only 111 games. Tony C was just 22 when he hit his 100th career homer on July 23, 1967. Even now, he’s still the second-youngest player to reach that mark.
But mere weeks later on Aug. 18, California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton lost control of a fastball that hit Boston’s young slugger in the face. Conigliaro suffered a dislocated jaw, a cracked cheekbone and, most crucially, irreparable damage to his left eye.
Though Conigliaro returned in 1969 and even had a 36-homer season in 1970, he was never again the same dominant force that he was in his early seasons. He was out of baseball between 1972 and 1974, and a comeback attempt in 1975 lasted only 21 games.
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For a few seasons in the 1970s, the popular saying was that facing the California Angels meant “Tanana and Ryan and two days of cryin’.”
Nolan Ryan needs no introduction, but Frank Tanana was actually the better of the two aces between 1974 and 1977. An average year for the left-hander in that stretch included a 2.68 ERA and 229 strikeouts over 264 innings. Pretty good for a guy who was only 23 in ’77.
In those years, Tanana got by on good, ol’ fashioned stuff. In the words of Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated, the southpaw threw “a fastball that approximated the sonic boomers thrown by teammate Nolan Ryan and a crackling curve that may have been the sharpest in baseball.”
Midway through 1977, however, Tanana was beset by tendinitis in his left arm. He was able to pitch through it, but the pain of doing so spooked him into changing his mechanics and cutting down on velocity.
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For a while there, Don Mattingly was perhaps the best player in baseball and on his way to becoming an all-time great first baseman.
Mattingly, then 23, greeted his first full season with the New York Yankees in 1983 by winning the American League batting title with a .343 average. The following season, he won the AL MVP on the strength of a .324 average, a .939 OPS, 35 homers and 145 RBI. The year after that, he was the runner-up in the MVP voting.
Despite his somewhat late start, Mattingly had put up 20.3 WAR through his age-25 season in 1986. Even today, that still ranks ninth among first basemen through that age.
Another excellent year followed in 1987 as Mattingly hit .327 with a .937 OPS, 30 bombs and 115 RBI. Yet he was limited to 141 games by a back injury, and it proved to be one that he never fully recovered from.
Though Mattingly persisted in the majors through 1995, he never again hit 30 home runs in a season and had only one more year with 100 RBI. All told, his last eight seasons (17.0 WAR) were significantly less valuable than his first six (25.4 WAR).
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By the time he was 25, Bret Saberhagen was firmly on track to immortality as one of the best aces to ever come through Major League Baseball.
The right-hander was only 19 when he broke in with the Kansas City Royals in 1984. The following season, he was the World Series MVP and collected his first Cy Young Award. His second came just four years later in 1989 when he won 23 games with an MLB-best 2.16 ERA.
Altogether, Saberhagen’s first six seasons yielded a 3.23 ERA over 1,329 innings. Among pitchers through the age of 25, his 32.0 WAR ranks 10th all-time.
But in 1990, Saberhagen’s effectiveness had been wavering even before he went in for surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow in July. A good-not-great return followed in 1991, and he needed another surgery by 1995.
Despite a couple of renaissance seasons with the Boston Red Sox in 1998 and 1999, Saberhagen missed all of 1996 and 2000 and finally called it quits in 2001. Combined, his last 10 seasons were worth only 26.9 WAR.
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Even as good as Don Mattingly was in the first half of the ’80s, Will Clark was even better in the latter half of the decade.
Following a strong debut with the San Francisco Giants as a 22-year-old in 1986, Clark went off for a .308 average, a .933 OPS and 87 home runs between 1987 and 1989. His 21.7 WAR through the age of 25 still ranks seventh all-time among first basemen.
But in 1990, Clark’s offensive output dipped to a relatively modest .805 OPS and 19 homers. He finally revealed at the end of the season that he had played through a foot injury that effectively sapped his power.
Clark had surgery to fix that injury during the 1990-91 offseason, and he rebounded with a 1991 campaign that netted him an All-Star nod, a Silver Slugger and his first Gold Glove. However, even that season ended on a down note after he fouled a ball off his knee in September.
Clark’s bad luck with injuries never really abated in his final eight seasons as he averaged only 121 games per year between 1992 and 2000. His stardom also suffered accordingly. After mustering 30.4 WAR through 1991, he managed only 26.1 WAR after 1992.
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Even Pete Rose, the Hit King himself, couldn’t help but be amazed by Eric Davis when the two were sharing the Cincinnati Reds’ dugout in the 1980s.
“Eric is the one guy who can lead our league in home runs and stolen bases,” Rose, who was Cincinnati’s manager at the time, said in 1987. “Name me another cleanup hitter who can steal 100 bases. Name one. It’s like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout.”
Though Davis actually topped out at “only” 80 steals in his age-24 season in 1986, by the end of 1990 he was in a class unto himself with an .886 OPS, 166 homers and 233 steals for his career. He also boasted 26.4 WAR, with a peak of 7.9 in ’87.
Even in those happy years, however, nagging injuries held Davis to 131 games per season. Then the worst came during the 1990 World Series, when he lacerated his kidney trying to make a diving catch in Game 4.
Davis subsequently struggled to stay on the field through 1994, and not much changed even after he took the 1995 season off. Ultimately, he averaged only 86 games and 1.1 WAR per year between 1991 and 2001.
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At the time, there was a case for Garciaparra as the very best of the trio. He had burst onto the scene by hitting .314 with a .909 OPS, 65 homers and 34 stolen bases in 1997 and 1998. Then in 1999 and 2000, he won back-to-back batting titles by hitting .357 and .372, respectively.
Since 1940, Garciaparra is one of only two right-handed batters to hit better than .370 in a season. To boot, his 27.9 WAR through his age-26 season was as good as Jeter despite a 191-game disadvantage in playing time.
But in September 1999, Baltimore Orioles hurler Al Reyes planted a time bomb in Garciaparra’s right wrist courtesy of a hit-by-pitch. It finally went off in 2001 when he relented to surgery and returned to play in only 21 games that season.
Though Garciaparra came back with two 6.0-plus-WAR seasons in 2002 and 2003, he wasn’t quite the same hitter he had been before. And that was pretty much that as he put up only 3.0 WAR over his final six seasons before calling it a career in 2009.
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Not long after that, Sizemore thrust himself into stardom. Starting with a 20-20 campaign in his age-22 season in 2005, he embarked on a four-year run through 2008 in which he averaged 27 homers, 29 steals and 6.2 WAR per season. He was an All-Star three times and a Gold Glover twice.
Apart from Alex Rodriguez, Sizemore was the most valuable player in the American League between ’05 and ’08. Likewise, his 25.7 WAR still qualifies him as one of the 10 best center fielders ever through the age of 25.
But then in 2009, elbow inflammation cut Sizemore’s playing time and hindered his productivity. Trouble with his knees—both of which needed surgery—followed in 2010 and 2011, and he ended up missing all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Though Sizemore attempted to continue his career in 2014 and 2015, he played only 209 largely unspectacular games before vanishing from the majors. Taken together, his last five seasons were worth a total of 2.0 WAR.
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David Wright is the best player the New York Mets have ever had, yet the story of his career is mostly centered on how great he could have been.
Early on, Wright was a paragon of durability and productivity. After breaking in with the Mets as a 21-year-old in 2004, he claimed superstardom via a .928 OPS, 116 home runs and 86 stolen bases between 2005 and 2008.
Between those numbers and his Gold Glove-winning defense, Wright had already piled up 26.2 WAR through his age-25 season. Among third basemen, that’s good for seventh all-time.
But apart from a 2012 season in which he put out an .883 OPS and 7.1 WAR, injuries kept Wright’s superstardom mostly on ice after 2009. His problems began with a concussion that year and continued with back, hamstring, neck and shoulder ailments in subsequent seasons.
Wright was finished as an everyday player in 2015, and 2016 would have been his final season if he hadn’t made the effort to bow out in style in 2018. By then, he was a 35-year-old who had played in only 77 games over the last four seasons.
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It’s perhaps no coincidence that Troy Tulowitzki’s arrival coincided with the greatest season the Colorado Rockies have ever had.
In 2007, he played his way into Rookie of the Year and MVP consideration with 24 homers and 6.8 WAR. The Rockies, meanwhile, capped their year with a torrid hot stretch that landed them in their first (and, to date, only) World Series.
Following an injury-marred 2008 season, Tulowitzki continued to play like a superstar through his age-26 season in 2011. By then, he was sitting on a .293 average, an .869 OPS, 122 home runs, 26.6 WAR and two each of All-Stars, Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers.
Unfortunately, Tulowitzki’s ’08 season proved a sign of things to come. His 2010 and 2011 campaigns were also shortened by injuries, and groin surgery limited him to only 47 games in 2012. After that, he played in more than 130 games in a season only once more through the end of his career in 2019.
Looking back now, it feels all too appropriate that Tulowitzki amassed almost exactly as much career WAR (44.5) as Nomar Garciaparra (44.3).
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.