On Sunday night, the Hall of Fame announced the election of two new members via the Today’s Game Era ballot: former all-time saves king Lee Smith, and longtime designated hitter Harold Baines, who got 12 of 16 votes from the Veterans Committee. While this is a time to celebrate for Baines, it’s also a time to mourn for the standards of the Hall of Fame.
Think that’s harsh? Consider Baines, a six-time all-star, led the league in a batting category once, slugging (. 541) in 1984, earning him three “black ink” points, a measure introduced by Bill James to measure how often a player led the league in a variety of “important” stats; the average Hall of Fame player ends his career with 27 points. Baines ended his career with 40 “grey ink” points, which counts appearances in the top ten of the league, less than half of the average Hall of Fame player (140).
Wait, there’s more.
According to the Bill James Hall Monitor, Baines’s career is not close to what we would expect from a Hall of Fame player: his score of 66 is significantly lower than a likely Hall of Famer. Those players usually register around 100. There are also 73 right fielders, Baines’s most frequent position when not acting as a designated hitter, ahead of him in Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system. JAWS “compares players to others at a position who are already enshrined, using advanced metrics to account for the wide variations in offensive levels that have occurred throughout the game’s history.” Players ahead of Baines include Carl Furillo, Brian Jordan, Tim Salmon, Jesse Barfield and Brian Giles. Do any of those sound like Hall of Famers player to you?
If we use Baines’s JAWS score as the new benchmark instead of the average score (57.8), the amount of players to be considered rises from five to 25 players on the 2019 official Hall of Fame Ballot. Freddy Garcia (30.9 JAWS score) doesn’t look so bad now and neither does Placido Polanco (36.9 JAWS score). Heck, Larry Walker, coming up on his ninth year on the ballot, looks more like Babe Ruth (58.7 JAWS score) in comparison to Baines, and that’s after adjusting for Walker’s time playing at Coors Field.
Sure , Baines ranks fourth in wins above replacement (38.7 bWAR) among all players with more than half of their games played (minimum 3,000 or more career plate appearances) as a DH. But that’s a very distant fourth, well behind Frank Thomas (73.9 bWAR), Edgar Martinez (68.4) and David Ortiz (55.3). Per FanGraphs version of wins above replacement, Baines ranks 70th in fWAR (38.5) among all hitters playing from 1980 to 2001.
At his peak, we would expect an average team with an average roster to win less than 52 percent of their games (84-78 over 162 games) with Baines in the lineup, and that performance earned him a 13th place finish in the 1984 MVP voting. Rick Sutcliffe, another marginal Hall of Fame player, would have improved an average team to 102-80 during his 1984 campaign, the peak season of his career and one in which he won the Cy Young award and finished fourth in the MVP voting.
Comparative metrics like JAWS and advanced stats like WAR aren’t the only indicators that Baines selection to the Hall of Fame was a foolish one, traditional metrics don’t bolster his case much, either. He ranks 46th all time for hits (2,866), 65th for home runs (384) and 34th for RBI (1,628). His career .820 OPS was 21 percent higher than the league average after taking into account league and park effects but still pedestrian enough to place him 15th among the aforementioned DH peer group. Players ahead of him on that list also include Kevin Buckley, Travis Hafner, Ken Phelps, Tom Dodd, Troy Neel, Cliff Johnson and Jeremy Brown.
Lee, a one-time saves leader, at least got decent support from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) when he was on the ballot, peaking at almost 51 percent of the vote in 2012, the third-most votes for that year. Baines’s high point, on the other hand, was a mere 6.1 percent of the voting bloc in 2010, his second-to-last year of eligibility, making it obvious that his enshrinement was more a testament to his longevity, a 22-year career, than his actual value to any of the five different clubs he played for.
The problem isn’t necessarily about admitting Baines and granting one person this honor. The problem is that it lowers the bar, considerably, when it comes to the enshrinement of others who performed far better than Baines, but still well below the established threshold for reaching Cooperstown. The selection of Baines makes it harder to argue against those accomplished but unworthy candidates, and that’s why the news has so many baseball fans up in arms.