With Harold Baines In, I No Longer Care
During the late 1970s, the Yankees won three pennants in a row and after getting swept by the Reds in the 1976 World Series, beat the Dodgers in the World Series in 1977 and 1978. As much as I loved watching the Jeter-Rivera era Yankees, those late 1970s teams will always be my favorite Yankee teams, perhaps for no other reason that I was at peak baseball fan age during those years as I turned nine shortly after the Yankees lost in 1976. At the time, those Yankee teams seemed like they had an All-Star at every position, but only three members of those teams, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter have been elected to the Hall of Fame. Hunter was winding down his career by then, but he had an excellent second half in 1978 that helped the Yankees catch and beat the Red Sox. Jackson and Gossage were big stars at the time, but Reggie was not on the 1976 team and the Goose was only around for 1978. I had long accepted that several of those Yankees were fated to come up short in Hall of Fame voting, but recent events change that.
This week the Hall of Fame dramatically lowered its standards when the cronyism-I mean Today’s Game Era-committee selected Harold Baines and Lee Smith, two players who the writers had very recently, and correctly, determined were not worthy of being Hall of Famers. I saw both these players through most of their careers and liked them a lot, particularly Baines, so this is not personal, but the numbers are pretty clear here. Smith is a slightly more understandable choice because of complexities around evaluating relief pitchers, but Baines is not a defendable selection.
There were four members of those Yankee teams, excluding pitchers, who were, were better players than Baines and who, for the most part, were given little Hall of Fame consideration. A fifth, pitcher Ron Guidry, was by pretty much any measure better than Lee Smith, but lets stick with the non-pitchers for now. Thurman Munson stayed on the ballot for all of the fifteen years he was allotted, but topped off at 15.5% of the vote. Willie Randolph got 1.1% of the vote his first year and then dropped off the ballot. Graig Nettles fell off the ballot after four years never even getting 10% of the vote. Roy White received no votes his only time on the ballot.
Modern metrics demonstrate pretty conclusively that these players were all better than Baines. A quick look at career WAR data: Baines 38.7, Munson 46.1, Randolph 65.9, Nettles 68, White 46.8, confirms this. However, WAR did not exist when Baines was playing so it may be more fair to evaluate him using the framework of roughly 1965-2000, when all five of these men were playing. Tony LaRussa, offered a spirited, and completely afactual, defense of Baines on those grounds, but even using those criteria Baines does not stand out. The chart below looks at how the players were evaluated when they were active as well as how well they did in the statistics that were important at the time. The column “Top Five” refers to number of times the player was in the top five in his league in the home runs, batting average and RBIs. Those were statistics that mattered a lot at the time and that were Baines’s strength.
The four Yankees fall into two categories. Munson and Nettles were clearly better players than Baines who were recognized as stars while they were active. There is no rationale for putting Baines in and keeping them out. Randolph and White are more difficult to assess. Randolph was a great player who had three skills, two of which were undervalued while he was active and a third atrophied as he got older. Randolph was an excellent defender who accumulated 20 dWAR over the course of his career. He had the misfortune to have the prime of his career overlap with Frank White so the Gold Gloves aren’t there. Randolph also had an excellent batting eye so was able to draw over 1,200 walks over the course of his career helping him to a career on base percentage of .373. He also was, for a while, very fast, stealing 30 bases in a season four times in the first five years of his career before injuries slowed him down. This, combined with his longevity, made him a very valuable player for a very long time.
Roy White was a different kind of player. He did a lot of things pretty well. He could field very well for a corner outfielder, had enough pop to hit ten more home runs eight times, while never reaching 25 in a season, stole 233 bases in a 15 year career during which he had a .360 on base percentage. White excelled at nothing, but also had no real flaws in his game. He also had some very good seasons early in his career before the Yankees got good again. From 1968-1971 he posted an OPS+ of 141 with a total of 20.3 WAR. Harold Baines never had a four year stretch like that.
Roy White should not be in the Hall of Fame, but neither should any other player about whom it can be argued that White was better. Munson, Nettles and Randolph have all been unfairly, but in the case of Randolph understandably, overlooked by the Hall of Fame, but they are not the only-or even the most egregious examples of this. The selection of Baines makes it easier for Cardinals fans could to be upset about Ted Simmons and Keith Hernandez, Mets fans about Hernandez and Daryl Strawberry, Pirates fans about Dave Parker, Angels fans about Fred Lynn and Bobby Grich, Red Sox fans about Lynn and Dwight Evans, and Giants fans about two guys named Clark. The selection of Baines opens the door for fans of almost every team to argue that their favorite overlooked candidate should be a Hall of Famer on the grounds that those players were better than Baines. Baines was a very good player, and by all reports a decent man, but by making him a Hall of Famer the Committee has discredited itself and the Hall of Fame. For me, I am no longer upset about my favorites not getting into the Hall of Fame because I can no longer take the process or the results seriously.
Photo: cc/Bryce Edwards