The Hall of Fame may have a Harold Baines problem

This weekend a veterans committee from the Hall of Fame will give 10 oft-debated Cooperstown candidates another look. Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy, Lou Whitaker and Tommy John are among those wondering if this is the year they finally get a call to the Hall.

This weekend we’ll also learn whether Cooperstown — as many people have feared for the past year — now has a Harold Baines problem. Because if Harold Baines is in, then Dale Murphy now makes a lot more sense, right? What about Dave Parker? Dwight Evans? Aren’t they better candidates now?

We’ll find out in a few days. The vote happens Sunday at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, from one of the Hall of Fame’s veterans committee. Nowadays, these committees are defined by era and each year offers a different era another chance at getting into baseball’s most famous fraternity.

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This time it’s the Modern Baseball Era Committee, which covers 1970-1987. The whole ballot includes Dwight Evans, Steve Garvey, Marvin Miller, Thurman Munson, Dave Parker and Ted Simmons, in addition to Mattingly, Murphy, Whitaker and John. A 16-member panel of Hall of Famers, baseball executives and historians will decide whether each is worthy of Cooperstown. We’ll find out the results Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on MLB Network.

This process is different than the BBWAA Hall of Fame voting, the results of which will be announced next month. But the magic number is still the same. A candidate needs 75 percent of the vote, which is a vote on 12 ballots in this case.

In years past, those votes have been hard to come by. Historically, the veterans committees were stingier than the BBWAA voters, but in the last few years, more and more candidates have squeaked through on the committee vote.

Mostly, this has been a place for the likes of Bud Selig (in 2017) and Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox and Joe Torre (in 2016) to earn their Cooperstown ticket. But in 2018, a committee voted in a couple of long-debated candidates: Jack Morris and Alan Trammell. It was somewhat surprising, though not something that would shift the foundation of Cooperstown.

What happened last year, however, just might. The committee elected Lee Smith and Harold Baines. Smith wasn’t the red flag. He got 100 percent. It was Baines, who eeked in with 75 percent. It was a shocker. A decision that made any Hall of Fame aficionado do a double-take.

Harold Baines gives his speech during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Clark Sports Center on July 21, 2019 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Harold Baines gives his speech during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Clark Sports Center on July 21, 2019 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

He wasn’t a bad player. He was quite good. But his biggest achievement was logging 22 years in the big leagues. His numbers — whether traditional metrics like his 2,866 hits or 384 homers; or value-based stats like his 38.7 Wins Above Replacement — don’t scream Hall of Fame. They are, decidedly, for the Hall of Very Good.

Consider these facts:

  • When you take all 26 right fielders in the Hall of Fame and average their WAR, it comes out to 56.8. This would be, theoretically, the baseline of a Hall of Famer at his position. So Baines’ 38.7 is glaring.

  • Baines ranks 58th all-time among right fielders, according to Baseball Reference’s WAR. People who rank higher than him? Jose Canseco, J.D. Drew, Brian Giles, David Justice. Also glaring.

  • Gary Sheffield (60.5 WAR) and Larry Walker (72.7 WAR) are more deserving based on their production, with WAR total far exceeding Baines, but can’t get close to the same type of support from the writers’ ballot. It makes the scales seem tipped. 

Put simply, Baines didn’t measure up to the Hall of Fame bar — or even numerous players still hoping to get in.

So what happened? Baines had some fans among the 16-member voting committee and they stumped him into the Hall of Fame with their support and their persuasion. Namely, it was Baines’ former manager Tony La Russa and Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the White Sox, for whom Baines played 14 of his seasons.

Whether they intended it or not, this might be the moment that the veterans committee voting became more about the voters than the people on the ballot. We’ve seen that enough on the BBWAA side to know it sucks the fun out of the Hall of Fame.

Since the Hall of Fame is a living museum, wherein the standards for inclusion change as new honorees are added, the election of Baines is akin to when a prosecutor’s malfeasance makes us want to examine all of his old cases. 

The election of Baines could have huge ramifications that could very well play out on this year’s ballot. The cases are the same as they’ve always been for the 10 players in question. Only the bar has changed.

Former Atlanta Brave Dale Murphy stands on the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies during Opening Day at Turner Field on April 1, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Former Atlanta Brave Dale Murphy stands on the field prior to the game against the Philadelphia Phillies during Opening Day at Turner Field on April 1, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

How is Dale Murphy not a Hall of Famer if Harold Baines is in? His WAR is higher, he had more homers and was one of the best players of his era, which Baines was not.

What about Dwight Evans? His 67.1 career WAR towers over Baines. The other numbers compare quite favorably — Evans has more runs (1470 vs. 1289) and homers (385 vs. 384), while Baines has more hits (2866 vs. 2446) and RBIs (1628 vs. 1384). 

Dave Parker is another one whose numbers compare really favorably to Baines.

This is not about Baines, this is about the election of Baines and all that could follow it. It’s bred more whataboutism than the Hall of Fame usually brings. Given what we saw last year, it could come down to the voter pool and which players they favor.

This year’s voters on the veterans committee are Hall of Famers George Brett, Rod Carew, Dennis Eckersley, Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith and Robin Yount, plus executives Sandy Alderson, Dave Dombrowski, David Glass, Walt Jocketty, Doug Melvin and Terry Ryan plus veteran media members and historians Bill Center, Steve Hirdt, Jack O’Connell and Tracy Ringolsby.

The list is diverse enough that there’s not a similar Baines-La Russa-Reinsdorf link between player, manager and owner on this year’s ballot. So maybe Baines will look like a fluke and nobody will get the necessary 75 percent this year. 

Or maybe Baines’ inclusion opens the door to three or four players. And while that would be a happy moment for Murphy or Evans or Parker or anybody else, it might also signal a new era for the Hall of Fame. 

An era in which the notion of a “small Hall” is all but dead and dozens of players have a worthwhile reason to have their Cooperstown cases re-examined.

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