I’d like to start off congratulating the Hall of Fame’s newest inductees, Lee Smith and Harold Baines. To even make a Hall of Fame or Veterans Committee ballot makes them among the elite of the elite in game’s history, regardless of whatever else you can say about them.
Ballot newcomer Lee Smith is not a surprising choice. Back when I covered this year’s Veterans Committee candidates, I pegged him as the most likely person to make it, and even had him on my hypothetical ballot. He’s the former all-time saves leader, an he was one of only two players in history to pass 50% on the BBWAA ballots and not be inducted, so it was just a matter of time before that changed.
Harold Baines, though, is a legitimately surprising choice, in a way that I don’t think any other selection I’ve seen has been. Hall voters are extremely predictable, once you learn their patterns, and Ryan Thibodaux and his team have done such a good job of tracking ballots pre-results the last few years that you generally have a solid idea of what to expect before we hear the actual announcement.
Given all of that, I regarded Baines as something as an also-ran. I don’t feel too bad on that miss, though. No one in the comments of my piece thought to disagree with my analysis of him. Jay Jaffe, who contributes yearly in-depth series on the full Hall of Fame ballot to places like Sports Illustrated and Fangraphs and has literally written a (wonderful) book on the Hall, was shocked by the results. Even Baines himself was rather surprised.
A big part of this is the unusualness of the Veterans Committee process, relative to the rest of Hall voting. Whereas the main, BBWAA voting process contains hundreds of voters who can all choose to discuss or isolate themselves from discussion as they see fit during the voting process, the Veterans Committee is just 16 people with some connection to the Hall (usually players and executives) who meet in person to discuss their choices. The smaller number means there’s a much greater chance for variation in the results, and since it’s discussion based, campaigning can make a big difference.
Longtime White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and former White Sox manager Tony La Russa (who’s first full year as a manager was Baines’s rookie season) were both among the sixteen members voting this year. It’s not hard to imagine one or both of them taking up an advocate role for his case. Then you look at the other members of the committee, and it’s not hard to imagine others who may have had a similar soft spot for him. Pat Gillick traded for him as GM of the Orioles. Roberto Alomar played with him in Baltimore. Bert Blyleven spent years as a division rival, including Baines’ peak. Greg Maddux played across town for years. And as more and more people became swayed, pressure on the rest of the voters probably rose.
Without being in the room when that happened, though, it’s hard to know what exactly those voters were voting based on. By traditional numbers, Baines’s case seems pretty lacking. He didn’t hit any of the big milestones, falling 134 hits short of 3000. He didn’t finish with a career .300 batting average, or 400 homers, or 500 doubles. His .820 OPS and 121 OPS+ were fine, but not really Hall-caliber for a designated hitter and corner outfielder. He finished ninth and tenth in MVP voting once each, and got votes two other years. His six All-Star selections are acceptable, but not exceptional. He managed to stay on the BBWAA’s ballot for five years the first time around, keeping above the 5% necessary to stick, but he also never rose above 6.1% of the vote.
More advanced measurements don’t really help his case, either. Over 22 seasons, Baines compiled just 38.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference (remember, 2 WAR is considered starter-level performance), good for 545th all-time. By Wins Above Average, which sets the baseline at 2 WAR rather than 0 (so you’re comparing play to a hypothetical starter rather than a hypothetical fringe major leaguer), he fares even worse, with 1.8 in his career. That’s tied for 1390th all-time. Jaffe’s JAWS has him as the 74th-best right fielder in history, and that’s despite more of his games coming at DH. I also like Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats and Hall Rating system; that has Baines as 42% worse than a borderline Hall of Famer, and the twelfth-worst player ever inducted.
Given all of this, it’s hard to see Baines as anything other than a solid player who was good enough for long enough to stick around for over two decades, without ever really being one of the best players in the game. You could pretty easily come up with fifty-plus more egregious snubs from Cooperstown (in fact, he basically never even came up on my lists back when I was contributing to Graham Womack’s 50 Best Players Not in the Hall of Fame project).
In a way, he almost makes for an interesting thought experiment, something like “what’s the longest that a player could be an average, 2-win player before that in and of itself makes them notable and possibly Hall-worthy”. Of course, Baines himself didn’t even do that, as he fell short of the 44 WAR he would have needed, but it’s still an interesting question to think about.
In the end, I don’t know what to make of this. Baines might be the worst player to make it to Cooperstown from the modern era, but despite all of that, I also feel like it’s a little hard not to feel at least a little happy for him? He, singularly, doesn’t really re-define the Hall standard, nor is he the only bad or even overall worst selection; he wasn’t exactly a nobody, even if he wasn’t really up to the normal marks we expect; it doesn’t seem like there was anything corrupt about the process, but rather it was a once-in-a-blue-moon confluence of factors in his favor that’s interesting in its own way; and if nothing else, I’m sure his selection will at least make White Sox fans and anyone who enjoyed watching him play happy. So congrats to Cooperstown’s two newest members, even if it’s an unusual start to the Class of 2019.