LAS VEGAS — Harold Baines was a fine baseball player who played for a very long time — a right fielder-turned-designated hitter who earned six all-star appearances, led the American League in slugging in 1984 and amassed 384 home runs and 2,866 hits over 22 seasons.
If you’re into advanced analytics, his wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference version) of 38.7 ranks tied for 545th all-time and puts him in the same neighborhood as contemporaries such as Paul O’Neill, Jesse Barfield and Kent Hrbek — all of them also fine ballplayers.
In July, though, Baines will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor typically reserved for the greatest of the great. On Sunday night, Baines and relief pitcher Lee Smith were voted into Cooperstown by the 16-person Today’s Game Era Committee, and the announcement stunned the industry types arriving at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the site of this week’s annual baseball winter meetings.
As someone who covered Baines near the end of his career, and thought highly of him as both a hitter and a person, I was among the stunned. For everything he was as a player — the definition of “professional hitter” being high atop the list — he was far from rising to a level most observers would consider to be Hall of Fame caliber.
The Today’s Game Era Committee was essentially formed to reconsider the cases of players shot down by the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose voting members get first crack at considering candidates. (The Washington Post does not permit its employees to vote.) In five years on the ballot, Baines topped out at 6.1 percent — well below the 75 percent threshold required for election — and fell off the ballot, by rule, after falling below 5 percent. In other words, roughly 95 percent of voters deemed Baines unworthy of Cooperstown.
By contrast, Smith, who held the all-time saves record from 1993 to 2006, enjoyed strong support from the writers, lasting the full 15 years on the ballot and topping out at 50.6 percent support in 2012. His election by the Today’s Game Era on Sunday — made up of longtime baseball executives, media members and Hall of Fame players — was fully expected and not altogether unwarranted.
Baines, however, appears to have benefited from his close ties to three of the executives on the committee: longtime Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, for whom Baines played for 14 seasons; former manager Tony La Russa, who had Baines in Chicago and Oakland; and longtime general manager Pat Gillick, who had him in Baltimore in 1997 and 1998.
The members of the Today’s Game Era Committee considered 10 candidates this year, debated their merits and ultimately voted, with Smith winning unanimous selection from all 16 voters and Baines getting 11 votes. Among those failing to earn induction were players such as Albert Belle, Will Clark and Orel Hershiser, managers Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella and former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Belle is a perfect contrast to Baines: His career was shortened by injury to just 12 years, but for a period of about a half-dozen years he was arguably (along with Manny Ramirez) the most feared right-handed hitter in the game. He still amassed nearly the same number of home runs, 381 to 384, and a higher WAR (40.1 to 38.7) as Baines. Go ask the pitchers they faced which hitter they feared more. If Baines is a Hall of Famer, Belle almost has to be, as well.
And we could do this all day. What about Dale Murphy? Fred McGriff? Larry Walker? Kenny Lofton? The election of Baines doesn’t only weaken the roster of the existing Hall of Fame; by lowering the bar, it also opens the floodgates to cases of what-aboutism that will now endure for years. And the argument against any of them just got a lot harder.