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When it Raines, Part I

Sep 23, 2013, 4:06 PM EST

A fantastic point here made by Tom Tango, and I have to admit that it has made me (for the nine millionth time) rethink the Baseball Hall of Fame. As you might have heard, Fangraphs asked a bunch of writers to name the three best eligible players not in the Hall of Fame. They asked the writers to leave out Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Pete Rose, which was smart, those players are bogged down by issues other than baseball. The point here, as I understood it, was to simply name the best eligible baseball players not in the Hall of Fame.

Tim Raines got the highest vote total, with Mike Piazza second and Jeff Bagwell third. Then came Craig Biggio and Curt Schilling. That seems right in line with what I’ve been writing for the last couple of of years. BUT — and this is strange — when I saw the list, I had this weird and utterly counterintuitive thought, something I almost don’t want to write.

I almost don’t want to write this because, as anyone who reads this site knows, I am a huge Tim Raines fan. Huge. OK, maybe I’m not quite at the Jonah Keri level, but I’m a big fan and I absolutely believe that he is a Hall of Famer. I have made that argument many times. I have made that argument based on Raines’ greatness compared to the players who are actually in the Hall of Fame right now. As I wrote here, of the 11 left fielders that the BBWAA has voted into the Hall of Fame, Raines is comfortably in the middle. He was, I think, a better player than Ralph Kiner or JIm Rice or even a great player he resembled, Lou Brock. His career value was very similar to right fielder Tony Gwynn’s … it’s just that Gwynn’s greatness came in obvious and bold colors (lots of hits, absurdly high batting averages, batting crowns galore, Gold Gloves galore) while Raines’ greatness tended to be cloaked in drab gray (lots of walks, extraordinary base stealer, lots of runs scored, a lot of value as a part-time player later in his career).

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Tim Raines should be in the Hall of Fame.

So here comes to the counterintuitive part: If I was only given three votes — and this is even if I was told to skip over Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Pete Rose — I would not vote for Tim Raines.

Like I say: It hurts me to say that. I have long looked at Raines as my guy, as someone I not only vote for the Hall of Fame but also as someone I lobby for the Hall of Fame. I am on the picket line, holding up my “Vote Tim Raines” sign. But, see, that’s by the current rules, where we voters are allowed to vote for 10 players.

With 10 players, I can afford to be pretty generous. I don’t need to make too many hard choices. If I think they deserve to be in, I vote them in. Let’s come up with a bizarre analogy: If I go into a Brookstone with a gift certificate that allows me to get TEN THINGS, sure, I might pick up the water foot massager or the Rosetta Stone langugage lessons for Spanish or a travel water purifier or an electric globe.

But If I’ve only got a gift certificate for THREE things, I’m going to be a lot choosier and choose things I NEED rather than things I want. Admittedly, this distinction might not help me as much in a Brookstone, but I think you get the point. Ten things, sure, a water purifier sounds great. Three things, no, I’m probably getting something like luggage.

Tim Raines … great player. Belongs in the Hall. But is he one of the three best players not in the Hall? No. I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s particularly close. That’s not a knock on his awesomeness, it’s simple reality. I put together this list of the highest WAR (I average Baseball Reference and Fangraphs WAR) for non Hall of Famers. Let’s see how far down we have to go to get to Tim Raines. Then, next post, I’ll go through Tango and Bill James ideas for a better Hall of Fame vote:

In this list, I’m going to include ALL retired players (after 1900), including those who are just retired and those who are not yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. I’ll bold out the people who are already on the Hall of Fame Ballot.

1. Barry Bonds (163.4 WAR).

How about this Bonds tidbit: If Barry Bonds had retired after the 1998 season — so before anyone believes he was a using anything, before 73 homers, before the most absurd stretch of baseball ever — look at how his career compares with the entirety of Duke Snider’s career..

Bonds through 1998: .290/.411/.556, 1,1916 hits, 411 homers, 1,364 runs, 1,216 RBIs, 445 SBs, 164 OPS+, 8 Gold Gloves.

Duke Snider: .295/.380/.540, 2,116 hits, 407 homers, 1,259 runs, 1,333 RBIs, 99 SBs, 140 OPS+.

It’s not just lip service: Barry Bonds was a clear Hall of Famer even before his bulked up.

2. Roger Clemens (139.6 WAR)

3. Greg Maddux (109.6 WAR … eligible 2014)

Who will be the numbskulls to leave Maddux off their 2014 ballot?

4. Randy Johnson (107.2 WAR … eligible 2015 )

5. Pedro Martinez (86.4 WAR … eligible 2015)

One of the craziest and least appreciated parts of the Steroid Era is that while it is known for all the home runs, it really should be remembered for giving us four of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

6. Chipper Jones (85.2 WAR … eligible 2018)

7. Mike Mussina (82.5 WAR … eligible 2014)

You probably did not expect to see Mussina this high. He seems destined to be the next Bert Blyleven, someone who will get pretty low vote totals at the start and will need to become a cause.

8. Curt Schilling (82.1 WAR)

At some point, we’re going to have to figure out a way to get postseason performance in career WAR.

9. Ken Griffey Jr. (80.5 … eligible 2016)

I added the Junior here so there would be no confusion. Ken Sr. weighs in at a more-than-respectable 36.7 WAR.

10. Pete Rose (80.0 WAR … eligible when Bud Selig melts)

(tied) Jeff Bagwell (80.0 WAR)

12. Frank Thomas (73.0 WAR … eligible 2014)

13. John Smoltz (72.5 WAR … eligible 2015)

14. Lou Whitaker (71.5 WAR … off ballot)

15. Kevin Brown (71.3 WAR … off ballot)

You will notice that we are 15 deep now, and we till haven’t gotten to Tim Raines. Truth is, we still have quite a long way to go.

16. Rafael Palmeiro (70.9 WAR)

17. Larry Walker (70.7 WAR)

Was Larry Walker a better player than Tim Raines? Such a tough question because they were such different players, they played in somewhat different eras and Walker spent the bulk of his career playing at Coors Field when it was am absurd hitters park. Also Raines played about 500 more games than Walker. You could make an argument, after neutralizing their statistics, that Raines was the more valuable offensive player.

Neutralized batting:

Raines: .299/.392/.433, 1,598 runs created.

Walker: .294/.378/.530, 1,379 runs created.

Then again, Walker was a better outfielder than Raines and had two seasons that were probably better than Raines’ best. These are the tough calls that have to be made.

18. Jim Thome (70.4 WAR … eligible 2018 if he retires)

19. Bobby Grich (70.1 WAR … off ballot)

At this point, I’m pretty sure Bobby Grich is the most underrated player in baseball history, and I’m not even sure who is in second place. Minnie Minoso, maybe? Dick Allen? Darrell Evans? Grich is the truest kind of underrated in that you almost never even hear about him being underrated. Grich was a four-time Gold Glove winning second baseman and, by the advanced numbers, deserved them — he was a brilliant fielder. He was a hugely valuable offensive player because he walked a lot and hit with power … this at a time when middle infielders could not hit. Only Joe Morgan was better offensively among second basemen and shortstops. And he was Joe Morgan.

Grich suffers from all the underrated blues. People noticed his low batting (.266) and not his high on-base percentage (.371). He played in a very low scoring era, and he played in dreadful hitters parks throughout his career. He has the misfortune of having perhaps the best year of his career (.304/.378/.543 — led the league in homers and slugging) in the 1981 strike season, which obviously was truncated. He was overshadowed by great players on his own teams (Frank Robinson for his offense, Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger for their defense, Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor the year he won the MVP), and great players on other teams (particularly Morgan, who just happened to be legendary when Grich was merely great). He also had a relatively short career, which prevented him from putting up the baseline numbers that people look at first — things like hits (he had 1,833 career hits).

20. Scott Rolen (70.0 WAR … eligible 2018 if he retires)

Is he retired? It sounds that way. I suspect he will go the way of Ken Boyer, Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell … the third basemen who just can’t garner much Hall of Fame support.

21. Ivan Rodriguez (69.5 WAR … eligible 2017)

22. Rick Reuschel (69.0 WAR … off the ballot)

23. Tom Glavine (69.0 WAR … eligible 2014)

Baseball Reference WAR has Glavine worth about six more wins over his career than Reuschel. Fangraphs WAR has Reuschel worth about five more wins over his career than Glavine.

I’ll readily admit: It’s stuff like this — Fangraphs having Reuschel as a markedly better pitcher than Glavine — that makes people mock the statistic. But this is really because we are so used to seeing statistics through the traditional prism. Glavine has 305 wins to Reuschel’s 214. Glavine had a much higher winning percentage (.600 to .528). Glavine won a Cy Young Award and won 20 five times; Reuschel only came close to winning a Cy Young Award once (he finished a close third) and won 20 once. Reuschel had a better career ERA than Glavine (3.37 to 3.54) but Glavine had the better ERA+, reflecting the times when they played.

So how in the world could Reuschel have a higher Fangraphs WAR? Well, of course, WAR doesn’t care at all about wins. So that goes out the window. It doesn’t exactly care about ERA either. Fangraphs WAR bases a pitcher on three things: Walks, strikeouts and home runs allowed. Based on a fairly simple formula that I just had my 12-year-old daughter (who is learning basic algebra now) help me with — ((13 times homers) plus (3 times walks+HPB) minus (2 times strikeouts) divided by innings pitched — the two pitchers raw fielding independent pitching numbers look like so:

Reuschel: .539

Glavine: .932

The lower number is better so you can see Reuschel has a pretty strong advantage. He struck out about as many batters per inning as Glavine, walked fewer and allowed fewer home runs. So then you adjust for time. Glavine obviously pitched in a much higher scoring time than Reuschel, so he gets credit for that. On the other hand, Reuschel spent more than half his career pitching at Wrigley Field when they was a dreadful park for pitchers. So he gets some credit for that. Then the whole thing is adjusted to more or less look like ERA so it will be easier to understand.

Final FIP numbers:

Reuschel: 3.22

Glavine: 3.95

That’s why Fangraphs has Reuschel as the better pitcher. You may total disagree with the method or the result. But that’s how it works.

24. Tommy John (68.9 WAR … off ballot)

25. Tim Raines (67.6 WAR)

And finally, we get to Raines. Now, it’s true that this list includes a bunch players who are not eligible for the Hall of Fame — of the players on the 2013 ballot, he is ranked seventh if you include Bonds and Clemens, fifth if you do not. But that’s still not Top 3. And four players are added in 2014 with a higher WAR, and that does not even include Jeff Kent, who has his Hall supporters.

And while you might disagree with WAR and say that Raines was definitely more valuable than a lot of players on this list — starting with Tommy John, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Grich and Larry Walker among others — you have to admit there are a bunch of players BELOW Raines on the list who have arguably as strong or stronger cases.

Would you vote Tim Raines ahead of Mike Piazza (who ranks 41st on the list)? That’s tough. Piazza might have been the best hitting catcher ever.

What about Craig Biggio (No. 32 on list)? He had those 3,000 hits, is 18th all-time in times on base, is 15th all-time in runs scored and so on.

Was Raines a better player than Shoeless Joe Jackson? We obviously know Jackson’s issue, but forget that for a moment … we’re only trying to come up with the best players not in the Hall of Fame. Was Raines a better player than Joe Jackson?

How about Alan Trammell? Graig Nettles? Dwight Evans? Dick Allen? Mark McGwire? Ken Boyer? Minnie Minoso? The Keith Hernandez?* Vlad Guerrero? All of these players and many other excellent ones rank below Raines in WAR … but maybe you think they were better players. There’s also a pitcher you might have heard of who ranks way below Raines in WAR, a pitcher named Mariano Rivera.

*For some reason, I wrote “The Keith Hernandez” in my first draft. I decided to keep it.

And we haven’t gotten anywhere near Jack Morris, who will be discussed again in Part II.

The point is: This is where the real Hall of Fame contest is waged. I have always thought that the best way to decide who belongs in the Hall of Fame is to determine where the Hall of Fame line has been drawn and vote for players who I believe are above that line. Now I’m thinking that this mythical Hall of Fame line, while worth figuring, isn’t really the deciding factor. The deciding factor is: Does a player, by whatever standard you use, have a better case for the Hall of Fame than the many, many great players out there who have not yet been elected.

Tim Raines, I love you. I absolutely will keep voting for you. I hope to be there on the day your are inducted into the Hall of Fame. But if I’m being completely honest, you are not one of the three best players not in the Hall of Fame, and that’s even if we do leave out Bonds, Clemens and Rose.

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