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The pros and cons of Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame

With four new members elected today, let’s look back to December when a former Athletic got an unexpected call.

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The Baseball Hall of Fame announced its 2019 class on Tuesday, and there are four new members. Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Roy Halladay, and Mike Mussina were all elected by the BBWAA. That’s the best closer of all time, the best DH of all time, and two excellent starting pitchers. Rivera in particular made history by being the first-ever unanimous pick. Congrats to all of them!

There were already two other players on their way to Cooperstown this summer, though. The Eras Committee (aka the Veterans Committee) made two selections of their own in December: relief pitcher Lee Smith, and designated hitter Harold Baines.

Both of these selections were met with some surprise. Smith had spent his full 15 years on the regular ballot and only once reached 50% of the vote, and Baines fell off after never even getting his percentage to double-digits in five tries. They weren’t on the cusp of election, like Jack Morris had been when the Eras Committe picked him the previous year, and there wasn’t a sabermetric push for either of them like there was for Alan Trammell last winter. Out of nowhere, they were in.

At least with Smith, you can understand the case. When he retired in 1997, he was the all-time career leader in saves, by a wide margin. He had 478, and at the time that was more than 100 ahead of the runner-up. For some, that might be enough right there. He was a pioneer in the position of the modern one-inning closer, and while he wasn’t necessarily dominant he still left his mark (seven-time All-Star, four times each getting Cy and MVP votes).

I wouldn’t have picked Smith and neither would at least half of the HOF electorate, but I get it and I don’t have a worthwhile complaint about it. Besides, I’m a Big Hall guy — both in terms of preferring to see more players make it rather than just the strict inner-circlers, and in terms of being a physically large person named Hall.

Baines in another story, though. It’s difficult to make a legitimate case for him, and at no point did more than 6.1% of general HOF voters put him on their ballots. Granted, that’s not a dealbreaker on its own — Lou Whitaker fell off in one try at 2.9%, and Kenny Lofton did the same at 3.2%, and there are strong arguments in favor that each was egregiously overlooked. But with Baines, the vote totals really did seem about right.

However, in addition to being a Big Hall guy, I also prefer to find the positive side of things when possible. Rather than rain on Baines’ parade with a bunch of pure negativity, let’s do a pros/cons list about his selection.

Pro: He’s a notable former Athletic

We begin with the reason why we’re talking about Baines at all on Athletics Nation, and that’s his history with the Oakland A’s. He spent some or all of three seasons here, earned an All-Star berth in the green and gold, and was part of two Oakland playoff teams. He didn’t crack the club’s Top 50 roster during the 50th anniversary, but he’s firmly a part of team lore.

Baines had already spent the first decade of his career with the White Sox, and by the end of that time he’d developed into a star. After a brief foray in Texas, he was traded to the A’s in late August of 1990 for two players who never made it. Previous DH Dave Parker had left as a free agent after 1989, and they’d never really replaced him until this acquisition.

In the 1990 ALCS, Baines played a big role in beating Boston. He won Game 2 almost single-handedly, driving in the tying run, then the go-ahead run, and then the first insurance run (in three separate at-bats) in a 4-1 victory. In Game 3 he chipped in by scoring the go-ahead run (and a further insurance run later) in another 4-1 win. The A’s were then swept by Cincinnati in the World Series, but Baines at least hit a homer along the way.

Oakland missed the playoffs in 1991, but Baines had one of the best years of his career. He batted .295/.383/.473 (135 wRC+) with 20 homers and more walks (72) than strikeouts (67). The All-Star berth that summer was his fifth out of an eventual six total.

He had a bit of an off-year in 1992 (108 wRC+), but he turned it back on in the playoffs. The A’s lost to the Blue Jays in the ALCS, but Baines did everything he could by going 11-for-25 (.440) with a homer and two doubles. He even hit the game-winning homer in the 9th inning of Game 1 (against Morris, no less!).

All told, Baines played in 313 games for Oakland, with a strong 126 OPS+ to show for it. The contending A’s wanted a reliable veteran DH as the finishing touch on an already great lineup, and they got just that. These also happened to be my own formative years of baseball fandom (born 1985), so on a personal level I have fond-albeit-vague memories of Baines being a star on the first A’s teams I can recall. (Not to mention that he was the cleanup hitter in my old Tiger Electronics handheld baseball game, based on the 1989 All-Star teams!)

Of course, none of this is enough to be the basis for a Hall of Fame case, and in fact it’s only a tiny percentage of his overall career, but as an A’s fan it’s a nice place to start the discussion. It’s always neat to have Oakland show up on any HOF plaque, and if the team makes a bobblehead for him to commemorate his induction then I’d want it.

Con: The Stats, basically all of them

Unfortunately, when it comes to the stats and other objective measures, the bottom line is not favorable to Baines. Don’t get me wrong, he had a long and wonderful career. But it’s basically the definition of Hall of Very Good.

  • 2,866 hits
  • 384 homers
  • .289 average, 119 wRC+
  • 38.7 bWAR, 38.4 fWAR
  • 6-time All-Star
  • No major awards (peaked at 9th place for MVP)
  • No rings (only played in one World Series)

There are some other little details, like an impressively low strikeout rate (13%), a great postseason record (.324 in 31 games, 5 HR, .888 OPS), and incredible consistency and durability over two decades, but overall it’s just not close to enough. He didn’t have a top-notch peak where he was one of the best in the sport, so he’s a compiler who didn’t reach any major milestones (3K hits, 400 HR much less 500, etc.). Everything on that list just falls a bit short in every way, and there isn’t that one huge thing to help make up for it all and carry his case (like Smith’s saves record). Baines was simply Very Good, which would be a huge compliment in any conversation except this one.

Modern metrics don’t see things any differently. A 119 wRC+ is good enough if the player is also providing value on the defensive side of the ball, but for a DH it’s in line with fellow Very Gooders like Chili Davis and the aforementioned Parker — and even then, those guys both won multiple rings and Parker got an MVP. For context, it took Edgar Martinez a decade to get elected as a DH with a career 147 wRC+ mark. Baines’ WAR total ranks as one of the worst for any position player in the HOF, barely half of the average mark of 69.

Don’t just take it from me, though. Here’s Craig Calcaterra looking at Baines’ case over at NBC, back in November before he was voted in. Craig’s conclusion at the end: “Will the Committee vote for him? Nope. Not a chance, I don’t think. But those of us who watched a lot of baseball in the 1980s still love ya, Harold.” Even Baines himself was “very shocked” that he’d made it.

Pro: Human Element

Of course, the Hall does consider more than just pure stats. Many players are left out due to the character clause, mostly for using PEDs. By that logic, high character must count in a positive way to some extent, right?

By all accounts, Baines was and is a wonderful human being. You can’t say that about all pro athletes. Some of them are jerks, or worse. That shouldn’t be a driving factor in a candidacy, but as long as we’re here it feels worth mentioning.

And beyond that, again, I’m a Big Hall guy. I’m more worried about who is undeservedly left out than who is questionably let in. It costs the world nothing to let in a few extra players, and I’ll bet that Baines and a lot of his fans are really happy about it. Who am I to get in the way of that? Our world is divided enough without getting too worked up about this. Just enjoy it, and if you can’t, then just ignore it and shift your attention to one of the other thousand things in the world that are trying to grab it.

Con: Precedent

Moving back to the topic of stats, the problem there isn’t just that Baines didn’t measure up. After all, somebody has to be the worst player in the Hall, and I’m not even saying Baines is the worst. It’s not the end of the world for a few extra names to slip in through the cracks.

The problem is that precedent plays such a big role in Hall voting. One way to determine if a player is worthy is to see how he compares with other players who have already been enshrined. Adding in such an absurdly below-standard player inherently lowers that standard by some amount. It makes it easier to argue for other borderline players who might not otherwise have had good cases. Even as a Big Hall guy, there has to be a line somewhere and Baines is clearly on the wrong side of it.

Pro: Humans have the capacity for critical thought

It’s not like the voting is done by some computer that just coldly runs numbers. And it’s not like Baines is the first sub-par selection for the Hall.

Hall voters have human brains that are capable of parsing context. They aren’t realistically going to suddenly lower the standard to “anyone better than Baines” and start voting for a bunch of similarly Merely Very Good candidates. They’ll more likely understand that Baines serves as an outlier, and continue along with whatever personal standards they were already using.

And it’s the same on the Eras Committee itself. That committee already bypassed a few other objectively superior players on the very same ballot as Baines, so clearly there were specific things they liked about Baines rather than a general lowering of standards. That reduces my worry that they’ll start voting in a bunch more Very Gooders. However, it does lead us to another problem ...

Con: The Veterans/Eras Committee is a complete joke and the process stinks

If you’re not familiar with the history of the Hall and its voting procedures, then check out this thorough rundown from Joe Posnanski. It’s fascinating and I highly recommend it.

The Veterans Committee has been around in various forms for most of the Hall’s existence, and its contributions have usually involved emotion and panic over reason, along with a massive dose of cronyism and personal favoritism and just mistake after mistake after mistake. From Kenesaw Mountain Landis simply choosing players himself without a vote; to Frankie Frisch putting in “every single 1920s and 1930s player they knew;” to the Bill Mazeroski debacle and the shadiness that led to it; to Baines being picked by a 16-member panel that included his old manager, his old GM, his old team owner, and a former teammate, the Committees have proven over and over that they are stewards of their own interests more than anything else.

What’s worse, the process stinks to high heaven. Grant Brisbee makes the case well, criticizing a vote that puts so much power in the hands of a tiny panel of people who are chock full of conflicts of interest. It’s one thing to see several hundred voters come to a large consensus, and even when you disagree with it you can at least accept that maybe you’re the one who’s wrong. But a table full of 16 people, some of whom have direct personal connections to the names on the ballot? As he puts it, “It allows for an unacceptable chance at weirdness. It allows for sample-size chicanery.”

More from Posnanski, on how the Committee cheapens the actual BBWAA vote:

The BBWAA ... [after 15 years of debate] made the hard determination that Jack Morris, despite some compelling achievements, fell just short. Think of all the time spent, all the words spilled, all the arguments fought to make that hard call. The veterans committee took exactly 23 seconds to elect Jack Morris the instant it could.

The Veterans Committee is beyond broken and has been for generations. I don’t know if the answer is to keep trying to find a version of it that works, or if it’s finally time to just dump it and let the BBWAA do its thing, but it simply can’t continue in its current form if this is the kind of decision it’s going to make. At the very least in my opinion, the Baines selection, like happened with Mazeroski before him, should be a dealbreaker that causes the Committee to immediately disband and reassess itself. It’s that bad of a pick.

Pro: DHs (and closers) beginning to be recognized

At least the Committee kind of got one thing right, though. Since Edgar wasn’t announced until today, technically Baines is the first Hall of Famer to spend the majority of his career as a DH. Before that, Paul Molitor was the first with a plurality as DH, having played there more than any other position, but it still only accounted for a bit over 40% of his total games. Baines is sort of a pioneer now, not in the game itself (he wasn’t the first DH nor an important one in the position’s history) but in terms of blazing a trail into the Hall. (Update: Whoops, I forgot about Frank Thomas. He was the first DH to make it, in 2014. But the general point of this section still stands.)

Part of being a Big Hall advocate is wanting to see DHs and closers included. They are part of the game now, and have been for decades, and so the best ones should be recognized. And in that sense, the Committee actually did something ... progressive?

That might be a bit too much credit. The door had already opened for closers, from old firemen like Gossage and Sutter, to modern pioneer Eckersley, to 21st-century standout Hoffman, and everyone knew Rivera would get in this year. And while Edgar was still waiting for his call as a DH, it was pretty clear that he’d finally get in this year too (and join Thomas).

So, I wouldn’t call the Smith and Baines picks progressive exactly, but they are certainly keeping up with the times and that’s still worth something. The HOF is beginning to fully accept DHs and closers, and so the old-timers decided to include their favorites from those positions. It doesn’t make me agree with the picks, but it might help me accept them, just as last year’s combo of Morris and Trammell felt like an appropriate compromise between old school and new (even though I would personally have left out Morris).

Considering all of these pros and cons, here’s my final take. Baines was an objectively and indisputably bad pick for the Hall of Fame, and to make it worse he was clearly elected on the strength of a few well-placed personal friendships more than his actual on-field resume. In that way, he’s now a symbol of everything wrong with the Hall’s process. However, he also might help open the door for a position that is underrepresented in the Hall, so there is at least a silver lining, and as an A’s fan I at least get to see one of my old guys enshrined. It’s not what I would have done, but it’s not going to ruin my day and it’s not going to ruin the Hall for me. Congrats to Baines, and Smith, and of course today’s four new members!