A royal pain for the Hall of Fame in electing Baines

On Sunday, December 9, 2018, a date that will live in baseball infamy, Phil Rizzuto was no longer the Hall of Fame’s most idiosyncratic member. Neither were the Giants and Cardinals cronies blown into the Hall regardless of real qualifications when Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry ruled the old Veterans Committee. The Today’s Era Committee elected a pair of Chicago’s favourite players, only one of whom really deserved the honour.

And it wasn’t Harold Baines.

And you shouldn’t pretend that there wasn’t a Chicago influence on this year’s committee, either. Greg Maddux — former Cub. Tony La Russa — one-time White Sox manager. Jerry Reinsdorf — White Sox owner who, by the way, built a statue of Baines outside U.S. Cellular Field. Frisch and Terry must be hoisting a tall one at their Elysian Fields table over this one.

You don’t have to look at Baines’s performance on his Baseball Writers Association of America ballots to know how foolish it was to elect him. But it’s fun to look, anyway. Would you like to know how many people who aren’t quite Hall of Famers, either, out-performed him on the ballots they shared with Baines? Their names are Tommy John, Don Mattingly, Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy, and Dave Parker.

John has a Hall case if you combine his pitching career with his position as undergoing the first pioneer surgery that’s since borne his name and enabled him to pitch longer afterward than he had before it. Remove the pioneer portion of his career and John’s not exactly a Hall of Famer. He was excellent for long enough, but he was never really considered the man in a starting rotation; he wasn’t an ace, he wasn’t a co-ace. It’s that simple.

(He was also suspect in the fine art of ball surgery. OK, that didn’t kill Gaylord Perry’s Hall of Fame case, but Perry was a better pitcher by far enough with or without the, ahem, tricks of the trade. On the other hand, Gaylord Perry didn’t face a fellow craftsman [ho ho ho] as did John versus Don Sutton, when John was a Yankee and Sutton an Angel, and inspire a scout in the press box to say post mortem, “Tommy John and Don Sutton? If anyone can find one smooth ball from that game he ought to send it to Cooperstown.)

Mattingly was his time’s first base version of David Wright, more or less: On the Hall of Fame track until physical issues (for Wright, his shoulder; for Mattingly, his back) derailed him. So was Dale Murphy. And it’s still fair to say of both that if character was all you needed they’d have been Hall of Famers in a heartbeat.

McGwire knocked himself off the Hall track when he was suspected of using something more than androstendione while leading his once-famous hunt down of Roger Maris’s single-season home run record. It turned out McGwire, perhaps foolishly, took to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances not for an edge (and his playing record proves it: this guy was that powerful bombardier from the word “go” when his body let him play; even before 1998 his typical home runs were measured by meteorologists in orbit) but for relief from one of his numerous injuries. He didn’t talk about the past to the House Committee for the Dissemination of Great Messages to Kids because he was foolish enough to listen to bad legal advice.

Parker knocked himself off the Hall track with injuries mid-career and another kind of drug at about the same time: cocaine. After he knocked that demon off his shoulder, he had one more Hall-worthy seasons, became a respected clubhouse leader (the late-1980s Athletics won their only World Series with Parker in the lineup and the clubhouse, especially since he neutralised Jose Canseco’s big mouth and braggadocio), but was gone. But  you had more chances to win with Parker than Baines in the lineup.

Baines’s knees took him out of right field and into full-time designated hitting, and he wasn’t even that good a right fielder when he could play the position. He was league average at best; Roberto Clemente he wasn’t, he was about nine below average lifetime when it came to the runs saved that he was worth in the field.

As a DH, if you look at others who spent half or better of their careers doing that, Baines is well behind Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, likely Hall of Famers to be Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz, and even such men as Hal McRae and Travis Hafner—and nobody thought Hafner was more than a fine player, an excellent one when healthy. About the most they thought of him otherwise was his nickname—Pronk. Do you really think there’s a Hall of Famer in a man who couldn’t out-hit Hal McRae and Travis Hafner?

Baines could hit, but it wasn’t likely to register on the Richter scale. He was an above-average hitter, but above average doesn’t automatically mean Hall of Fame above-average. He was usually a third-in-the-order hitter who was solid but didn't exactly put the fear of God into opposing teams and pitching staffs. And he wasn’t exactly guilty of terrorism on the bases, either: he has a lifetime .500 stolen base percentage. Neither a trash truck nor a Road Runner be.

Until now the Cooperstown shrine wasn’t called the Hall of Solid. If it were, there’d be about a thousand more Hall of Famers than there already are, and there’s a case to make that there may be too many Hall of Famers now. Baines showed up, did his job, did it well enough for a very long time, and was well enough liked and seemingly allergic to controversy. Marvelous things to have on your team and your permanent record, as they used to say to terrorise us in school. But until now this wasn’t the Hall of the Gold or Platinum Watch, either.

Baines produced 167 runs per 162 games lifetime. That’s a third-in-the-order hitter we’re talking about. His contemporary Rickey Henderson—a leadoff hitter, thus presumed a table setter—produced 180 runs per 162 games. Baines also averaged only six more home runs per 162 lifetime than Henderson. (22 to 16.) Allow that Henderson usually played on better teams and made the Road Runner resemble Wile E. Coyote as often as not, and that’s still a brain-frying run production and power distinction between a table-setter and a presumed run driver.  

His lack of speed probably mitigated against managers and coaches thinking of him this way, but supposed Baines was an earlier-in-the-order hitter? Suppose managers and coaches looked at his skills overall, especially his ability to hit for more than a little power and reach base at a reasonable rate, and put him in the number two lineup slot? I’m willing to bet he would have looked a lot more like a bona fide Hall of Famer even if he wasn’t swift afoot. A number two hitter averaging 22 homers and 93 runs batted in per 162 games is probably a Hall of Famer assuming he’s sound defensively.

But as Bill James once said, we don’t measure by what he could have done or might have done or should have done but what he did done. So kindly cease and desist with pointing out that he was only 134 hits short of 3,000, or sixteen bombs short of 400, and let’s have no more talk about longevity, please. You can think of how many people on their jobs for how many decades without having done anything other than just their jobs for so long? If longevity meant that much Danielle Steele would win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was going to be fun to think about Mariano Rivera and Edgar Martinez going into the Hall of Fame together next July, along with the Chicago favourite (Lee Smith) who retired as baseball’s all-time saves leader standing next to the man who left him far in the dust. Rivera’s a first ballot lock who deserves to be Cooperstown’s first unanimous BBWAA election; Martinez, based on the early vote results leaking out, looked like his final year on the ballot was going to be the one to punch his ticket. (Smith I was on the fence about for a long time but he does shake out as a legitimate Hall of Famer.)

Think about it: The greatest relief pitcher ever to practise the art, holding hands with the DH about whom he once said that, no matter what he threw him where, “I couldn’t get him out. My God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” (The Mariano wasn’t even close to kidding, either: in nineteen lifetime plate appearances, Martinez owned him: the slash line is .579/.652/.1053.) They’d just better make sure Martinez isn’t holding a bat. (In case you were wondering, Baines was remarkably consistent against Rivera: the slash line is .214/.214/.214.)

Have another belt, Scooter, Fordham Flash and Memphis Bill. Even if anyone who cares about the Hall of Fame and its value would like to belt you one.

And I didn’t even mention anything about the analytics regarding Baines yet. So here goes: He has 38.7 lifetime wins above a replacement level player and only twice had a season worth 3.0 or better. His average WAR per season for his career—for that long, 22-season career—is 1.8. If that’s a Hall of Famer, I’m the first Nobel Prize laureate for baseball writing.

Jeff Kallman is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America.

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