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Failure by Committee: The Case Against Harold Baines, Hall of Famer

The right fielder was tapped for Cooperstown on Sunday despite numbers that fall well short of the typical enshrinee’s. What would happen if we put in every player who performed at a similar level?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At least one person predicted Harold Baines would one day be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. After selecting Baines with the first overall pick in the 1977 draft, White Sox GM Paul Richards said the then-18-year-old left-handed hitter “was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so.” Baines played only 14 years for the White Sox, but otherwise, Richards was right. On Sunday, Baines, along with Lee Smith, was elected to the Hall of Fame by the 16-member Today’s Game Era Committee, a successor to the previous Veterans Committee.

Notably, Richards made his prediction before Baines made the majors, when it was theoretically possible for Baines to be anything; barring budget restrictions, no team would take a player first overall unless it thought he had Hall of Fame potential. Contrary to what Paul Konerko might claim, though, by the times Baines retired, he didn’t look at all like a player Cooperstown would call.

For more than a decade, it didn’t. Baines became eligible for the hall in 2007, and he appeared on 5.3 percent of baseball writers’ ballots, barely clearing the 5 percent minimum required to remain eligible. He held on for four more years, never topping 6.1 percent of the vote, until finally falling below the threshold in 2011. As far as the writers were concerned, Baines was not Hall of Fame material. (Neither was Smith, a marginally more qualified player who retired as the sport’s all-time saves leader, although he came much closer, at one point garnering 50.6 percent of the BBWAA vote.)

There’s no new sabermetric stat that says the writers were wrong about Baines, who was a pretty good hitter for a very long time, recording a career batting line — .289/.356/.465, with 384 homers — roughly 20 percent better than the league average over his 22-year career. He was a slightly below-average base runner, a slightly below-average right fielder for most of the first half of his career, and a DH the rest of the way (almost 60 percent of his career plate appearances). During his career, he was never regarded as one of the best players in baseball, finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting only twice (in 1983 and 1985) and never placing higher than ninth.

What he had was longevity: Baines, who debuted in 1980 and retired in 2001, first received an MVP vote at age 23 and was last an All-Star at age 40. Baines did have Cooperstown-caliber staying power: He’s one of 38 players in MLB history to make more than 11,000 plate appearances. All but 10 of the other 37 are Hall of Famers. Of those 10, five haven’t yet been eligible for induction, two have been excluded for steroid-related reasons, and one is banned from baseball. That leaves just two who aren’t in: Rusty Staub and Omar Vizquel. Baines is that type of player, except slightly worse.

JAWS — a system devised by writer Jay Jaffe that presents a player’s career value as the average of his career WAR and his “peak” WAR (defined as the sum of his best seven seasons) — ranks Baines 74th among players whose primary position was right field. To offer some sense of the company Baines keeps on the right-fielder JAWS list, that’s three spots ahead of Nick Markakis and two and three spots, respectively, behind Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz. Baines’s JAWS score is 30.1, compared to an average of 57.8 for all other Hall of Famer right fielders. Essentially, Baines is about 52.1 percent as impressive statistically as an average Hall of Fame player at his position.

To get a sense of how far Baines falls below the existing Cooperstown statistical standards, let’s create a hypothetical Hall of Baines, composed of all players who rate at least as well compared to the Hall of Fame averages at their respective positions as Baines does to his. Congratulations: If you’re at least 52.1 percent as good as the Hall of Fame average at the primary position you played, you’re in the Hall of Baines. Ray Durham? Inducted. Chris Hoiles? Come on down. Mickey Rivers? Now the second Yankees center fielder named Mickey in Cooperstown.

Total Inductees by Position, Current Hall of Fame vs. Hall of Baines

Position Current JAWS Avg. Hall of Baines JAWS Avg. Current Count Hall of Baines Count New Lowest Qualifier
Position Current JAWS Avg. Hall of Baines JAWS Avg. Current Count Hall of Baines Count New Lowest Qualifier
C 44 22.9 15 56 Chris Hoiles
2B 57 29.7 20 56 Ray Durham
3B 55.7 29 14 64 Billy Nash
LF 53.5 27.9 20 64 Riggs Stephenson
SS 55 28.6 22 65 Marty Marion
CF 57.9 30.2 19 72 Mickey Rivers
RF 57.8 30.1 25 74 Harold Baines
1B 54.7 28.5 21 76 Joe Adcock
RP 32.3 16.8 6 78 Joakim Soria
SP 61.8 32.2 63 232 Johnny Antonelli
All 56 28.4 226 837

Here’s how that looks in graph form. The blue bars denote the number of players at each position who are currently enshrined. The red bars show how many would be in the Hall of Baines.

The current Hall (sans Smith and Baines) includes 226 players, about 1.2 percent of the 19,103 players who’ve appeared in a major league game since 1876. The Hall of Baines would feature 837 players, about 4.4 percent of those 19,103. Still exclusive company! Just not nearly as exclusive as the hall has been historically. To include all players with statistical cases as strong as Baines, the hall would have to be almost four times less discerning than it has been to date. (You can click here to view the whole Hall of Baines.)

Relative to the historical statistical standards of his position, Baines is now the seventh-least-deserving Hall of Famer, after fellow right fielder Tommy McCarthy, Lloyd Waner, Jesse Haines, High Pockets Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, and Rube Marquard. Lindstrom, the last of those players to be inducted, earned (or, more accurately, received) his plaque in 1976, the year before Baines was drafted. Statistically speaking, Baines is probably the worst player to qualify for the hall in 42 years, and his election is shocking in an era of relatively enlightened evaluation.

Granted, stats aren’t the entirety of a player’s Cooperstown candidacy. But the ancillary stuff that sometimes bolsters borderline cases doesn’t benefit Baines either; he doesn’t even do well under the “It’s the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Stats” rubric. He didn’t have a dominant, signature season or an indelible postseason performance; he hit well in the playoffs, but none of his teams ever won a World Series. He doesn’t hold any notable records, and the only black ink on his crowded Baseball-Reference page is a league-leading slugging percentage in 1984.

The obvious question, then, is how the heck Baines got in despite the writers roundly rejecting his case when he was initially eligible. The answer: Baines is the latest and not-so-greatest in a long line of subpar players elected via the entity formerly known as the Veterans Committee, currently called the Eras Committees. The various incarnations of these committees, composed largely of Hall of Fame members, exist to consider the cases of players who are no longer eligible via the writers route. As currently constituted, the Eras Committees consists of four subcommittees (including the Today’s Game Committee that elected Smith and Baines), each of which focuses on candidates from specific eras and votes on a small selection of those candidates at predetermined times.

Baines and Smith were two of 10 former players, managers, and executives on this year’s Today’s Game ballot. An 11-member group of BBWAA veterans nominated those 10, and a different, 16-person panel — including nine Hall of Famers, four executives, and three media members — voted. As recently as last month, the public consensus about Baines boiled down to “good guy, good player, no chance.” His name was never breathed in discussions of Cooperstown snubs, and his JAWS score trailed those of three other players on the ballot, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, and Albert Belle (not to mention other superior players who couldn’t crack the ballot). Yet Baines appeared on 12 of the 16 Today’s Game Committee ballots, meeting the minimum 75 percent support required for induction. (Smith’s selection was unanimous.)

Baines bypassed the BBWAA’s approval and slipped in the side door because of the same combination of cronyism and sentimentality that minted many of the least-deserving Hall of Famers. Take a look at a list of the 25 “worst” Hall of Fame players, compared to the JAWS standard at their positions. Pay particular attention to the “Elected By” column, which reveals which voting body admitted each player. (“Old Timers” refers to the Old-Timers Committee, a predecessor to the Veterans Committee.)

The 25 Worst Hall of Famers, Relative to Positional JAWS Standard

Name Position Year Elected Elected By JAWS JAWS Avg. % of Avg.
Name Position Year Elected Elected By JAWS JAWS Avg. % of Avg.
Tommy McCarthy RF 1946 Old Timers 17.56 57.8 30.4
Lloyd Waner CF 1967 Veterans 22.22 57.9 38.4
Jesse Haines SP 1970 Veterans 27.21 61.8 44.0
High Pockets Kelly 1B 1973 Veterans 24.63 54.7 45.0
Freddie Lindstrom 3B 1976 Veterans 27.32 55.7 49.0
Rube Marquard SP 1971 Veterans 30.85 61.8 49.9
Harold Baines RF 2018 Veterans 30.08 57.8 52.0
Chick Hafey LF 1971 Veterans 28.62 53.5 53.5
John Ward SS 1964 Veterans 29.52 55 53.7
Ross Youngs RF 1972 Veterans 31.25 57.8 54.1
Bill Mazeroski 2B 2001 Veterans 31.21 57 54.8
Pie Traynor 3B 1948 BBWAA 30.97 55.7 55.6
Rick Ferrell C 1984 Veterans 24.84 44 56.5
Ray Schalk C 1955 Veterans 25.34 44 57.6
George Kell 3B 1983 Veterans 32.58 55.7 58.5
Jim Bottomley 1B 1974 Veterans 32.06 54.7 58.6
Lefty Gomez SP 1972 Veterans 37.14 61.8 60.1
Catfish Hunter SP 1987 BBWAA 38.11 61.8 61.7
Jack Morris SP 2018 Veterans 38.3 61.8 62.0
Hugh Duffy CF 1945 Old Timers 36.97 57.9 63.9
Hack Wilson CF 1979 Veterans 37.33 57.9 64.5
Deacon White 3B 2013 Veterans 35.92 55.7 64.5
Red Schoendienst 2B 1989 Veterans 36.99 57 64.9
King Kelly RF 1945 Old Timers 37.68 57.8 65.2
Herb Pennock SP 1948 BBWAA 40.47 61.8 65.5

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: The average Old-Timers/Veterans/Eras committee–elected Hall of Famer has a 46.1 JAWS score, versus 63.3 for the average Hall of Famer elected by the BBWAA. In other words, the 100 nonwriter-elected Hall of Famers are about 73 percent as accomplished statistically, on average, as the 128 writer-elected Hall of Famers.

There’s no mystery about how this has happened. Because the committees are mostly made up of players and executives, many of their members are professionally and personally linked to the players whose candidacies they’re considering. In some cases, committee members have actively lobbied for former teammates who didn’t come close to Cooperstown’s established standards; Bill James wrote a book about it. Frankie Frisch, a Veterans Committee member from 1967 to 1973, was the most infamous offender, securing the inductions of several of the players on the table above. Frisch gerrymandered a museum on behalf of his friends.

The Today’s Game Committee that elected Baines included Tony La Russa, who managed Baines; Jerry Reinsdorf, who signed most of his paychecks; and Pat Gillick, who served as GM of the Orioles when Baines was in Baltimore. Those three weren’t under any obligation to recuse themselves because of their connections. In 2008, Reinsdorf blamed himself (and his team’s trades) for Baines falling 134 hits short of 3,000, adding, “If he doesn’t get in, it would really bug me.” Clearly, the committee wasn’t close to impartial, but at least Reinsdorf’s conscience is clean.

Admittedly, the committees haven’t exclusively been blights on the hall’s electoral process. Occasionally (and even recently), they’ve served their stated purpose and righted wrongs, electing forgotten players from baseball’s early decades or more modern players whom the writers passed over despite deserving stats. The committees’ inductees include 12 players who clear the JAWS standards at their positions: Bobby Wallace (elected in 1953), John Clarkson (1963), Tim Keefe (1964), Pud Galvin (1965), Goose Goslin (1968), Roger Connor (1976), Amos Rusie (1977), Johnny Mize (1981), Arky Vaughan (1985), George Davis (1998), Ron Santo (2012), and Alan Trammell (2018).

The hall is richer and more representative of baseball’s best-in-class with those players than it would be without them, but on balance, the committees have significantly lowered the hall’s standards. Although there are no definitive criteria of Hall of Fame worthiness, it delegitimizes the museum when its honors are conferred by voters who are doing favors for friends, exhibiting bias (even if it’s subconscious), or suffering from statistical illiteracy.

Granted, the previous inductees under the Eras Committee format — Bud Selig, John Schuerholz, Trammell, and Jack Morris — haven’t been as egregiously ill chosen as Baines, so it’s likely that Baines’s election is a fluke brought about by the composition of one small-sample assortment of voters. Even so, it’s past time to retire the committees. Baseball’s early eras have been picked clean of Cooperstown-caliber players, and recent players would be better served by a panel of analysts and historians less compromised by their pasts than people who employed or played with the candidates. One needn’t have been a baseball great to judge baseball greatness.

Fortunately, voters won’t behave as if they have to make the Hall of Baines a reality. There are, after all, several already-enshrined players less deserving than Baines, and their presence hasn’t opened the Hall of Fame floodgates. In all likelihood, future voters will treat Baines’s induction as the outlier it is rather than use his Hall of Fame status as a springboard for other iffy players. If the news about Baines has any effect on other candidates, it could be to provide a final push for Edgar Martínez, a much more deserving DH in his final year of eligibility. There’s no rationale for excluding Martínez from a club Baines belongs to, although some voters mailed in their ballots before finding out about Baines.

It’s much more rewarding to make the case for a Cooperstown candidate than the case against. The backlash to Baines’s induction doesn’t stem from any ill will toward Baines himself, and it’s unfortunate that fans couldn’t unreservedly celebrate his happy tidings. Baines brings down the baseline for a Hall of Fame career, but his induction doesn’t make the world any worse. The makeup of Cooperstown matters only inasmuch as we collectively care about it. Baines doesn’t blend in with the average inductee. But perhaps he’s a fitting Hall of Famer for an era in which the popular vote often doesn’t determine who wins.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled the name former White Sox GM Paul Richards.