Breaking news Failure by Committee: The Case Against Harold Baines, Hall of Famer – The Ringer

Breaking news

At least one person predicted Harold Baines would one day be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. After selecting Baines with the first overall pick in the 1977 draft, White Sox GM Paul Richards said the then-18-year-old left-handed hitter “was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so.” Baines played only 14 years for the White Sox, but otherwise, Richards was right. On Sunday, Baines, along with Lee Smith, was elected to the Hall of Fame by the 16-member Today’s Game Era Committee, a successor to the previous Veterans Committee.

Notably, Richards made his prediction before Baines made the majors, when it was theoretically possible for Baines to be anything; barring budget restrictions, no team would take a player first overall unless it thought he had Hall of Fame potential. Contrary to what Paul Konerko might claim, though, by the times Baines retired, he didn’t look at all like a player Cooperstown would call.

For more than a decade, it didn’t. Baines became eligible for the hall in 2007, and he appeared on 5.3 percent of baseball writers’ ballots, barely clearing the 5 percent minimum required to remain eligible. He held on for four more years, never topping 6.1 percent of the vote, until finally falling below the threshold in 2011. As far as the writers were concerned, Baines was not Hall of Fame material. (Neither was Smith, a marginally more qualified player who retired as the sport’s all-time saves leader, although he came much closer, at one point garnering 50.6 percent of the BBWAA vote.)

There’s no new sabermetric stat that says the writers were wrong about Baines, who was a pretty good hitter for a very long time, recording a career batting line — .289/.356/.465, with 384 homers — roughly 20 percent better than the league average over his 22-year career. He was a slightly below-average base runner, a slightly below-average right fielder for most of the first half of his career, and a DH the rest of the way (almost 60 percent of his career plate appearances). During his career, he was never regarded as one of the best players in baseball, finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting only twice (in 1983 and 1985) and never placing higher than ninth.

What he had was longevity: Baines, who debuted in 1980 and retired in 2001, first received an MVP vote at age 23 and was last an All-Star at age 40. Baines did have Cooperstown-caliber staying power: He’s one of 38 players in MLB history to make more than 11,000 plate appearances. All but 10 of the other 37 are Hall of Famers. Of those 10, five haven’t yet been eligible for induction, two have been excluded for steroid-related reasons, and one is banned from baseball. That leaves just two who aren’t in: Rusty Staub and Omar Vizquel. Baines is that type of player, except slightly worse.

JAWS — a system devised by writer Jay Jaffe that presents a player’s career value as the average of his career WAR and his “peak” WAR (defined as the sum of his best seven seasons) — ranks Baines 74th among players whose primary position was right field. To offer some sense of the company Baines keeps on the right-fielder JAWS list, that’s three spots ahead of Nick Markakis and two and three spots, respectively, behind Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz. Baines’s JAWS score is 30.1, compared to an average of 57.8 for all other Hall of Famer right fielders. Essentially, Baines is about 52.1 percent as impressive statistically as an average Hall of Fame player at his position.

To get a sense of how far Baines falls below the existing Cooperstown statistical standards, let’s create a hypothetical Hall of Baines, composed of all players who rate at least as well compared to the Hall of Fame averages at their respective positions as Baines does to his. Congratulations: If you’re at least 52.1 percent as good as the Hall of Fame average at the primary position you played, you’re in the Hall of Baines. Ray Durham? Inducted. Chris Hoiles? Come on down. Mickey Rivers? Now the second Yankees center fielder named Mickey in Cooperstown.

Total Inductees by Position, Current Hall of Fame vs. Hall of Baines

PositionCurrent JAWS Avg.Hall of Baines JAWS Avg.Current CountHall of Baines CountNew Lowest Qualifier
PositionCurrent JAWS Avg.Hall of Baines JAWS Avg.Current CountHall of Baines CountNew Lowest Qualifier
C4422.91556Chris Hoiles
2B5729.72056Ray Durham
3B55.7291464Billy Nash
LF53.527.92064Riggs Stephenson
SS5528.62265Marty Marion
CF57.930.21972Mickey Rivers
RF57.830.12574Harold Baines
1B54.728.52176Joe Adcock
RP32.316.8678Joakim Soria
SP61.832.263232Johnny Antonelli
All5628.4226837

Here’s how that looks in graph form. The blue bars denote the number of players at each position who are currently enshrined. The red bars show how many would be in the Hall of Baines.


breaking news

The current Hall (sans Smith and Baines) includes 226 players, about 1.2 percent of the 19,103 players who’ve appeared in a major league game since 1876. The Hall of Baines would feature 837 players, about 4.4 percent of those 19,103. Still exclusive company! Just not nearly as exclusive as the hall has been historically. To include all players with statistical cases as strong as Baines, the hall would have to be almost four times less discerning than it has been to date. (You can click here to view the whole Hall of Baines.)

Relative to the historical statistical standards of his position, Baines is now the seventh-least-deserving Hall of Famer, after fellow right fielder Tommy McCarthy, Lloyd Waner, Jesse Haines, High Pockets Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, and Rube Marquard. Lindstrom, the last of those players to be inducted, earned (or, more accurately, received) his plaque in 1976, the year before Baines was drafted. Statistically speaking, Baines is probably the worst player to qualify for the hall in 42 years, and his election is shocking in an era of relatively enlightened evaluation.

Granted, stats aren’t the entirety of a player’s Cooperstown candidacy. But the ancillary stuff that sometimes bolsters borderline cases doesn’t benefit Baines either; he doesn’t even do well under the “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats” rubric. He didn’t have a dominant, signature season or an indelible postseason performance; he hit well in the playoffs, but none of his teams ever won a World Series. He doesn’t hold any notable records, and the only black ink on his crowded Baseball-Reference page is a league-leading slugging percentage in 1984.

The obvious question, then, is how the heck Baines got in despite the writers roundly rejecting his case when he was initially eligible. The answer: Baines is the latest and not-so-greatest in a long line of subpar players elected via the entity formerly known as the Veterans Committee, currently called the Eras Committees. The various incarnations of these committees, composed largely of Hall of Fame members, exist to consider the cases of players who are no longer eligible via the writers route. As currently constituted, the Eras Committees consists of four subcommittees (including the Today’s Game Committee that elected Smith and Baines), each of which focuses on candidates from specific eras and votes on a small selection of those candidates at predetermined times.

Baines and Smith were two of 10 former players, managers, and executives on this year’s Today’s Game ballot. An 11-member group of BBWAA veterans nominated those 10, and a different, 16-person panel — including nine Hall of Famers, four executives, and three media members — voted. As recently as last month, the public consensus about Baines boiled down to “good guy, good player, no chance.” His name was never breathed in discussions of Cooperstown snubs, and his JAWS score trailed those of three other players on the ballot, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, and Albert Belle (not to mention other superior players who couldn’t crack the ballot). Yet Baines appeared on 12 of the 16 Today’s Game Committee ballots, meeting the minimum 75 percent support required for induction. (Smith’s selection was unanimous.)

Baines bypassed the BBWAA’s approval and slipped in the side door because of the same combination of cronyism and sentimentality that minted many of the least-deserving Hall of Famers. Take a look at a list of the 25 “worst” Hall of Fame players, compared to the JAWS standard at their positions. Pay particular attention to the “Elected By” column, which reveals which voting body admitted each player. (“Old Timers” refers to the Old-Timers Committee, a predecessor to the Veterans Committee.)

The 25 Worst Hall of Famers, Relative to Positional JAWS Standard

NamePositionYear ElectedElected ByJAWSJAWS Avg.% of Avg.
NamePositionYear ElectedElected ByJAWSJAWS Avg.% of Avg.
Tommy McCarthyRF1946Old Timers17.5657.830.4
Lloyd WanerCF1967Veterans22.2257.938.4
Jesse HainesSP1970Veterans27.2161.844.0
High Pockets Kelly1B1973Veterans24.6354.745.0
Freddie Lindstrom3B1976Veterans27.3255.749.0
Rube MarquardSP1971Veterans30.8561.849.9
Harold BainesRF2018Veterans30.0857.852.0
Chick HafeyLF1971Veterans28.6253.553.5
John WardSS1964Veterans29.525553.7
Ross YoungsRF1972Veterans31.2557.854.1
Bill Mazeroski2B2001Veterans31.215754.8
Pie Traynor3B1948BBWAA30.9755.755.6
Rick FerrellC1984Veterans24.844456.5
Ray SchalkC1955Veterans25.344457.6
George Kell3B1983Veterans32.5855.758.5
Jim Bottomley1B1974Veterans32.0654.758.6
Lefty GomezSP1972Veterans37.1461.860.1
Catfish HunterSP1987BBWAA38.1161.861.7
Jack MorrisSP2018Veterans38.361.862.0
Hugh DuffyCF1945Old Timers36.9757.963.9
Hack WilsonCF1979Veterans37.3357.964.5
Deacon White3B2013Veterans35.9255.764.5
Red Schoendienst2B1989Veterans36.995764.9
King KellyRF1945Old Timers37.6857.865.2
Herb PennockSP1948BBWAA40.4761.865.5

Not until the 12th player on the list, third baseman and 1948 inductee Pie Traynor, does one encounter the first writer-elected player. In fact, only three of the 25 least statistically deserving Hall of Famers are the writers’ responsibility. On the whole, the hall’s most perplexing members are disproportionately products of the committee machinery: The average Old-Timers/Veterans/Eras committee–elected Hall of Famer has a 46.1 JAWS score, versus 63.3 for the average Hall of Famer elected by the BBWAA. In other words, the 100 nonwriter-elected Hall of Famers are about 73 percent as accomplished statistically, on average, as the 128 writer-elected Hall of Famers.

There’s no mystery about how this has happened. Because the committees are mostly made up of players and executives, many of their members are professionally and personally linked to the players whose candidacies they’re considering. In some cases, committee members have actively lobbied for former teammates who didn’t come close to Cooperstown’s established standards; Bill James wrote a book about it. Frankie Frisch, a Veterans Committee member from 1967 to 1973, was the most infamous offender, securing the inductions of several of the players on the table above. Frisch gerrymandered a museum on behalf of his friends.

The Today’s Game Committee that elected Baines included Tony La Russa, who managed Baines; Jerry Reinsdorf, who signed most of his paychecks; and Pat Gillick, who served as GM of the Orioles when Baines was in Baltimore. Those three weren’t under any obligation to recuse themselves because of their connections. In 2008, Reinsdorf blamed himself (and his team’s trades) for Baines falling 134 hits short of 3,000, adding, “If he doesn’t get in, it would really bug me.” Clearly, the committee wasn’t close to impartial, but at least Reinsdorf’s conscience is clean.

When Jerry Reinsdorf learned that Harold Baines got elected to the Hall of Fame, he first made a fist pump. “And then I looked at Tony La Russa and I thought he was going to cry.”

— Chuck Garfien (@ChuckGarfien) December 10, 2018

Admittedly, the committees haven’t exclusively been blights on the hall’s electoral process. Occasionally (and even recently), they’ve served their stated purpose and righted wrongs, electing forgotten players from baseball’s early decades or more modern players whom the writers passed over despite deserving stats. The committees’ inductees include 12 players who clear the JAWS standards at their positions: Bobby Wallace (elected in 1953), John Clarkson (1963), Tim Keefe (1964), Pud Galvin (1965), Goose Goslin (1968), Roger Connor (1976), Amos Rusie (1977), Johnny Mize (1981), Arky Vaughan (1985), George Davis (1998), Ron Santo (2012), and Alan Trammell (2018).

The hall is richer and more representative of baseball’s best-in-class with those players than it would be without them, but on balance, the committees have significantly lowered the hall’s standards. Although there are no definitive criteria of Hall of Fame worthiness, it delegitimizes the museum when its honors are conferred by voters who are doing favors for friends, exhibiting bias (even if it’s subconscious), or suffering from statistical illiteracy.

Granted, the previous inductees under the Eras Committee format — Bud Selig, John Schuerholz, Trammell, and Jack Morris — haven’t been as egregiously ill chosen as Baines, so it’s likely that Baines’s election is a fluke brought about by the composition of one small-sample assortment of voters. Even so, it’s past time to retire the committees. Baseball’s early eras have been picked clean of Cooperstown-caliber players, and recent players would be better served by a panel of analysts and historians less compromised by their pasts than people who employed or played with the candidates. One needn’t have been a baseball great to judge baseball greatness.

Fortunately, voters won’t behave as if they have to make the Hall of Baines a reality. There are, after all, several already-enshrined players less deserving than Baines, and their presence hasn’t opened the Hall of Fame floodgates. In all likelihood, future voters will treat Baines’s induction as the outlier it is rather than use his Hall of Fame status as a springboard for other iffy players. If the news about Baines has any effect on other candidates, it could be to provide a final push for Edgar Martínez, a much more deserving DH in his final year of eligibility. There’s no rationale for excluding Martínez from a club Baines belongs to, although some voters mailed in their ballots before finding out about Baines.

It’s much more rewarding to make the case for a Cooperstown candidate than the case against. The backlash to Baines’s induction doesn’t stem from any ill will toward Baines himself, and it’s unfortunate that fans couldn’t unreservedly celebrate his happy tidings. Baines brings down the baseline for a Hall of Fame career, but his induction doesn’t make the world any worse. The makeup of Cooperstown matters only inasmuch as we collectively care about it. Baines doesn’t blend in with the average inductee. But perhaps he’s a fitting Hall of Famer for an era in which the popular vote often doesn’t determine who wins.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled the name former White Sox GM Paul Richards.

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3 Comments
  1. The BB HOF was never truly just for Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb et al. There are many players, famous in their own time and for good cause, who’ve been elected or selected. Thank goodness for those who have helped elect the next tier of star players…who were excellent in their own way without necessarily rising to the level of Bench, Mays or Schmidt. The HOF is supposed to be fun. It’s not some sacred church where we go to revere only a very few. Good for Harold Baines, and others who were fortunate to be valued by peers and others who recognize and appreciate them for what they brought to the ballpark day in and day out. It’s fun to watch the process with the writers. God bless them. But, it’s just as much fun, and possibly more so, to wait for the veterans committee meeting every year. Don’t demean these veterans selections or yourselves for that matter by being so mean spirited.

  2. I’m sorry but could not follow your charts at all. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned baseball fan but jaws is better left in the water. Somehow jaws and war will convince you that Edgar Martinez deserves the hof more than Baines. Baines had 2866 hits and 384 hr with .289 ba. His career stats fall somewhere between Tony Perez and Al Kaline. Edgar has 2247 hits, 309 hr and a .312 ba putting him somewhere between Will Clark, John Olerud, Magglio Ordonez and Moises Alou. Jeff Kent who is the all time hr leader for 2b with 377, and he also has 2461 hits and .290 ba and an MVP award. How about an article detailing the irresponsibility of voters to vote for Edgar on a ballot while failing to vote for Kent or Baines. I believe Kent and Baines belong even though the new stats may prove me wrong. Lou Whitaker too.

  3. George Steinbrenner is more deserving than Baines.

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