The Baines fiasco, and what’s wrong with the process


Harold Baines was elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday and said he was “very shocked” by the news. Why wouldn’t he be? Anyone who can tell Harold Baines from Lyndon Baines Johnson was shocked as well.

Too bad Baines didn’t have a say, because he might have cast his vote more wisely than the misnamed Today’s Committee.

The Today’s Committee took us back to the days of yesteryear and the defunct Veterans Committee, which often weighed likability and place of employment as criteria for enshrinement more than performance.

Baines was elected with reliever Lee Smith. It says here Smith isn’t a Hall of Famer either, but compared to Baines, he’s first-ballot material. Baines won’t be the worst player in the Hall of Fame, but he’ll be in the starting lineup of them, and Smith will probably be closing.

First baseman George “High Pockets” Kelly has often been cited by Bill James as the worst player in the Hall for a lifetime .794 OPS, 109 OPS+ and 25.3 WAR compiled mostly in nine full seasons from 1920-29 and small parts of seven others before and after (1,778 hits, 148 homers, 1,020 RBIs and .297 average by the traditional measures. And “High Pockets” was regarded by peers as a fine fielder. He sounds a lot like Keith Hernandez, who’s not in the Hall, only not as good).

If nothing else, at least “High Pockets,” unlike Baines, had a Hall of Fame nickname, which apparently came from being unusually tall (6-foot-4).

“George Kelly was a good ballplayer,” wrote James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001. “. . . He wasn’t a Hall of Famer on the best day of his life. What put him in the Hall of Fame was a (Veterans) Committee salted with two of his old teammates, one of his old General Managers, and two old reporters who had covered his team in his glory years.”

Sound familiar? Of the 16 members on the committee this year, four had connections to Baines — one was his team owner (Jerry Reinsdorf), one his GM (Pat Gillick), one his manager (Tony La Russa) and one his teammate (Roberto Alomar).

Anyone want to guess how they voted?

“If he stayed with us, he would have gone over 3,000 hits,” Reinsdorf said in 2008, as Baines was between years he got 5.3% of the vote and 5.2% of the Hall of Fame vote from writers. “If he doesn’t get in, it would really bug me. I talk to him about it, and he just shrugs it off.”

It’s easy to surmise that something other than Baines’ 2,866 hits motivated Reinsdorf’s vote, although it’s nice to know his conscience is clear. Apparently potential bias isn’t grounds to recuse oneself from a vote as trivial as the Hall of Fame.

La Russa defended the vote on Wednesday in a MLB.com interview with Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo that was unintentionally comical. La Russa: “I would love to get into a legitimate confrontation debate, where we pulled out the stuff we looked at and you tell me that weak-ass superficial bullshit you look at.”

La Russa then cited game-winning RBIs.

Talk about undercutting your own argument. It might be the only time of the handful  I’ve listened to Russo that he didn’t yell loudly enough. Florida State, from where La Russa earned a law degree, might want to refund his tuition.

By any reasonable measure, Baines was a good hitter but not a Hall of Fame one. In traditional stats, he was tied for 408th in career batting average (.2893), 65th in home runs (384), 34th in RBIs (1,628), 46th in hits (2,866), tied for 73rd in doubles (488), 97th in walks (1,062), 295th in slugging percentage (.4647) and 546th in on-base percentage (.3557).

That was enough to keep Baines employed for 22 season but not to get into the Hall of Fame, and especially not when he spent the entire second half of his career as a DH.

In La Russa’s “weak-ass superficial bull-shit” stats, Baines was 273rd in OPS (.82035), 340th in OPS+ (121) and tied for 545th in WAR (38.7) with Juan Gonzalez, who played five fewer seasons, Magglio Ordonnez, who played seven fewer seasons, and Ed McKean of the 19th century, who played nine fewer seasons.

We can surmise the committee didn’t look at Baines as a baserunner (34-for-68 stealing) or defender (-19.7 defensive WAR) because neither facet of the game helped his case. In fact, they hurt it substantially.

Other than game-winning RBIs, La Russa apparently never told Russo what the committee looked at it.

It’s enough to make you question the committee’s qualifications to sit in judgment of Hall of Fame candidates.

La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager, and deservedly so, for having won 2,728 games and three World Series. It’s fair to suggest the last two Series he won with St. Louis – including the 83-win Cardinals of 2006 — wouldn’t have been won without his deft handling of in-game situations.

But the same view of the game which gave La Russa Hall of Fame insight as a manager, may not give him Hall of Fame judgment on Baines.

The committee consisted of three media members, four active MLB executives/owners and nine Hall of Famers — six players, one manager, one GM and one player/manager (Joe Torre).

Anybody’s who’s listened long enough to Hall of Famers John Smoltz or Joe Morgan knows the ability to play the game at the highest of levels doesn’t always translate in the ability to understand the game and the stats at the same level.

Morgan once inspired a website (FireJoeMorgan.com) and was regularly criticized for his denial of the stats which supported his own greatness. Morgan, to the surprise of no one who read the site, was on this year’s committee.

Smoltz knows pitching, but when he strays from critiquing it, he sounds a lot like someone who can’t update their iPhone bemoaning the new technology. It’s not 1995 anymore.

The Dodgers took big swings through the World Series, even as Smoltz nitpicked at them for doing so, because that’s what got them there. Unbeknownst to Smoltz apparently, the Dodgers — big swings and all — were better than the other 14 teams in their league.

Smoltz wasn’t on the committee, though Bert Blyleven, Greg Maddux, Roberto Alomar and Ozzie Smith were (not sure how the two pitchers voted, but Baines hit .247 with a .624 OPS in 78 plate appearances vs. Blyleven and was 2-for-6 vs. Maddux).

We don’t know how any of them voted and what arguments swayed them — excepting game-winning RBIs, apparently — because the committee’s meeting is closed.

This is the second straight year a committee — last year it was the Modern Era Committee — rebuked the writers, intentionally or otherwise. Last year Jack Morris and Alan Trammell were elected, the former after coming within 42 votes of 569 cast in his penultimate try, the latter deservedly so.

By this count, the committees are 1-for-4, which isn’t a good batting average, not even for Baines.

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that those who played the sport best aren’t the best stewards of its history. They don’t always follow the sport or immerse themselves in its history as the same level they performed.

According to Ben Lindbergh’s critique of Baines’ election at theringer.com, of the worst players by JAWS elected to the Hall, “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.”

That’s not a coincidence.

(JAWS is a system created by Jay Jaffe that evaluates Hall of Fame candidates by focusing on their seven-year peak).

The committees need more transparency and more historians and less sneering at “weak-ass superficial bull-shit” stats if they want more credibility.

Someone should ask La Russa if he thinks Jacob deGrom would have won a Cy Young Award without them.

 

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