LAS VEGAS — If there were a city where the baseball Hall of Fame was going to get wild and crazy, it’s probably here. The Winter Meetings are in Las Vegas this week and the first order of business Sunday night was announcing the results of the Today’s Game era Hall of Fame ballot, which gave 10 people a second-chance at Cooperstown.
Two players were elected: Lee Smith, the former saves leader who was the best bet on the ballot, and … Harold Baines?!?
Baines was a fine player who spent 22 years in the big leagues and logged an impressive 2,866 hits. But if you were sizing up the names on the ballot, there seemed to be a few more with a better chance than Baines — like Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, manager Lou Piniella or even Orel Hershiser or Will Clark, both of whom have Baines comfortably beat if you compare career WAR.
But Baines earned 12 of the 16 votes from the Today’s Game committee, which is the exact 75 percent needed for induction. To be clear, this is different than the baseball writers’ ballot, the results of which are coming in January. This is what used to be known as the Hall of Fame veterans committee.
Smith got a perfect 16-for-16 on votes. Piniella fell one vote shy with 11. The committee was made up for Hall of Famers such as Greg Maddux, Bert Blyleven, Ozzie Smith, Joe Torre, Joe Morgan as well as executives and longtime media members. There were two on the committee that probably helped Baines a lot: Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who managed Baines from 1980-1986 with the White Sox.
Baseball Twitter was baffled
The Baines election was a shocker — and not because Baines was a bad player or anything, but because the Hall of Fame carries so much baggage about the players who are or aren’t getting elected.
Keep this in mind: Baines spent more of his time as a DH, something that hurt his candidacy on the writers’ ballot (he peaked at 6.1 percent and fell off the ballot in 2011 after not getting the necessary 5 percent to stay on). Meanwhile, Edgar Martinez is in his 10th year on the writers’ ballot, where he’s often knocked for being a DH.
When someone like Baines gets the nod, it leads to quite a bit of whataboutism. And, in this case, plenty of people on Twitter who were either baffled or outraged.
I could keep going with tweets about this, but you get the picture.
How does Harold Baines compare to other Hall of Fame hopefuls?
The reasons the Baines news has people bent out of shape is — again — nothing against him. Rather, it’s about players who have better numbers than Baines and aren’t in.
For this, let’s just look at Wins Above Replacements, which isn’t a perfect stat by any means, but it does a good enough job of boiling down a player’s overall value into one number for comparison.
Baines’ career WAR is 38.7. Let’s compare that to some of the names on the writers’ ballot. For this exercise, I’ll keep it just to hitters:
• Larry Walker: 72.7
• Scott Rolen: 70.2
• Edgar Martinez: 68.4
• Andruw Jones: 62.8
• Gary Sheffield: 60.7
• Jeff Kent: 55.4
• Fred McGriff: 52.6
• Lance Berkman: 52.1
Martinez will most likely get in this year, but none of the these players are close right now. Walker’s 34.1 percent in 2018 was the best of them, and it’s not even halfway to the 75-percent threshold.
Now let’s compare that to some of the people who aren’t even on a ballot but many fans think should be in:
• Lou Whitaker: 75.1
• Graig Nettles: 68.0
• Kenny Lofton: 68.3
• Dwight Evans: 67.1
• Dick Allen: 58.7
• Dale Murphy: 46.5
Notice, I didn’t even include anybody connected to PEDs. It’s quite easy to name dozens of players with better WAR than Baines.
What does this mean for Cooperstown going forward?
After everything above, there’s no doubt that Baines getting into the Hall of Fame lowers the Cooperstown bar. Does this mean that this January when writers’ ballots results are announced in January, that the Sheffields and McGriffs of the world are getting in?
Probably not. The BBWAA will likely keep its high standards for inclusion in the short term.
But Baines’ getting in might slowly change that, especially with an electorate that is evolving itself. Maybe it starts with more votes for Edgar Martinez this year, since the anti-DH argument doesn’t hold a ton of weight anymore. Maybe others follow that by voting for Larry Walker.
Floodgates won’t open, though, that’s for sure.
While some people may look at Baines as one of the more baffling Hall of Famers in a while, in time his legacy could be quite different. Maybe he’s the guy who slowly opens up Cooperstown to more players.
He could also wind up as a cautionary tale. There are quite a few people out there who believe that players, coaches and executives, not writers, should be the ones voting for Hall of Famers. Maybe so.
For better or worse, we just got a glimpse of what that could look like.
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