Viewpoint As Baines heads to Cooperstown, we worry about the Hall of Fame
When Harold Baines was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame last weekend by the Today’s Game Era committee, it had the smoke-filled-room scent of an inside job.
And when Tony La Russa — who managed Baines in the minors and majors and is one of the 12 who voted for Baines — went after Chris Russo on the MLB Network, I had another undeniable sensory reaction. I’ll never dare step on that septuagenarian’s lawn.
“Weak-ass superficial bull….”
That’s what La Russa, once one of the most forward thinkers in the game, unfortunately called the advanced metrics that clearly demonstrate Baines should not be enshrined among the greatest in Cooperstown.
Jeff Passan, baseball columnist at Yahoo! Sports and one of the top voices in the game, tweeted that La Russa had “beclowned” himself. I was jealous of only one thing: I hadn’t thought of the word first.
Yet in making my 2019 Hall of Fame ballot public — an annual matter dating several years from when I worked at the Hartford Courant — I openly worry whether I am beclowning myself.
Not because the checks on my ballot stand next to the names of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Curt Schilling and Larry Walker. I am comfortable with them.
Rather, because I have this gnawing feeling that players I don’t vote for — much more importantly, the ones the Baseball Writers’ Association of America don’t choose to enshrine — are on course for more and easier entrances via the various veterans committees. Especially the 16-person Today’s Game Era committee.
I worry that the BBWAA is becoming a show pony for the business of Cooperstown.
I worry this will be turned into a more determined path to turn the Hall of Fame into — oh, God, shoot me for using this term — the Hall of Very Good.
Last year, it was Jack Morris (who I had voted for when he was on the BBWAA ballot) and Alan Trammel (who I didn’t).
This year, it’s Lee Smith (who I didn’t vote for and was unanimously elected by the committee) and Baines (who got the necessary 12 of 16 votes).
Morris, Trammel, Smith: All three are borderline choices, as so many are. Look, there is nothing easier than checking off Mariano. One needn’t be as smart as La Russa. Yet each year there are difficult, and in the case of suspected PED users, even agonizing choices. I have tried to be thorough and open to evolving debates. I was a fan of the 15-year voting period, since reduced to 10.
PEDs, designated hitters, the relative worth of relief pitchers, the effect of high altitude in Colorado — each argument can send a voter down a rabbit hole for hours. How we look at careers can change even if the player hasn’t swung a bat in years. It’s called evolving perspective. It’s allowed. And it isn’t hypocrisy. For example, I have decided to vote for the first time for Larry Walker, who spent much of his career in Denver.
I certainly use some metrics like JAWS (the Jay Jaffe WAR Score system) in forming decisions. I talk to voters I trust. It is an honor to have one of the 400-plus ballots.
It also is vital that Baines not be demeaned. He had a 22-year career, 60 percent of his at-bats as a DH. As one of only 38 players with more than 11,000 plate appearances, he had 2,866 hits and 384 home runs. He drove in 100 runs both near the start and end of his career. If longevity were the only factor, he’d have a strong argument.
There’s also a reason he never got more than 6.1 percent of the 75 percent needed for induction from the writers. There’s a reason he only cleared the 5 percent minimum to remain on the ballot for five years and no evolving argument over the past decade to change one’s mind. Baines never finished in the top eight of MVP balloting. The only category he led the American League in was once in slugging percentage (1984).
Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has emerged as a stellar metric for determining a player’s worth, and JAWS (a combination of career WAR and the players’ seven best WAR seasons) an even better metric for Hall of Fame worth.
As Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reported, Baines is 74th among right fielders (his position before DH) in JAWS, his score 30.1 compared to an average of 57.8 of other Hall of Fame right fielders. In other words, he was 52.1 percent as good. Moreover, as Lindbergh demonstrated, there are 226 players in the Hall of Fame, 1.2 percent of the 19,103 total players since 1876. Using Baines’ metrics as a measure of inclusion, there would be 837 players or 4.4 percent.
Don Mattingly, Dwight Evans, Dave Parker, Bobby Grich, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons, Steve Garvey, Tony Oliva, Reggie Smith, Albert Belle, Fred McGriff, Luis Tiant — good grief, if Baines is in, I could get a nosebleed listing all the others that should be.
In short, Baines stands as one of the worst choices ever elected (virtually all by the Veterans/Old-Timers committees). On his Veterans Committee watch, Frankie Frisch got a number of undeserving old-timer players into the Hall. But this is a half-century later. Hall of Fame committees are privy to so much more information, especially with guys whom the BBWAA just determined in recent years not to clear the bar for induction. It’s mind-boggling that Baines would slip through.
Then again, it isn’t. Beyond La Russa, Baines’ old White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, former Orioles GM Pat Gillick and former Orioles teammate Roberto Alomar are all on the committee. These guys think the world of Baines. It’s understandable. Is there also a conflict of interest? What do you think?
The NFL Hall of Fame committee gathers at the Super Bowl and hashes out its inductees. There are trade-offs and favors. Nobody knows who votes how in basketball. It’s a secret. In baseball, fans and metrics people love to spit on the BBWAA if their guy isn’t 100 percent voted in or falls short of the 75 percent threshold. Great. Debate makes the world spin. The truth is the BBWAA has done the best job of any of the sports in getting the right people inducted and keeping the Hall as elite as possible.
There’s also a business to run, and making sure enough popular players and thousands of fans keep flowing into Cooperstown is good for the museum, good for the town, good for the business of baseball. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Baines thing isn’t a tipping point. Still, I can’t help but think the writers are burning massive amounts of brain cells to produce exclusive 1 percent inductees only to face the prospects of two or three extra modern players getting in every year. If that’s the case, the BBWAA writers are being used. They aren’t close to the final word.
If the BBWAA elects Bonds and Clemens without some kind of designation by the Hall of Fame of performance-enhancing drugs, I re-assert I will resign as a voter. I vote for both because their careers were Cooperstown-worthy before most agree they began using PEDs. I used to vote for none of the suspected users. The tide changed for me when former commissioner Bud Selig, who oversaw the steroid era, damn near rejoiced in it for a time, was almost unanimously elected into the Hall by — you guessed it — the Today’s Game Era committee.