Commentary

Raines belongs in Hall

Originally Published: January 11, 2009
By Keith Law | Scouts Inc.

If you watched baseball in the 1980s, the premise that Tim Raines is a Hall of Famer requires no justification. Yet more than three-quarters of eligible Hall voters, both this year and last year, omitted Raines from their ballots, many including inferior players Jim Rice and Andre Dawson instead.

So perhaps it's time for a little remedial education on one of the 100 greatest players in the game's history, along with a look at how the makeup of the electorate may be a factor working against Raines.

[+] EnlargeTim Raines
Jeff Carlick /Getty ImagesTim Raines may not have been as good as Rickey Henderson. That doesn't mean Raines isn't a Hall of Famer.
Raines spent much of his career as the second-best leadoff man in the game. He had the misfortune to be a contemporary of the greatest leadoff man in history, Rickey Henderson, who was elected to the Hall on Monday with 94.8 percent of the vote.

Henderson, of course, retired as the all-time leader in walks drawn, stolen bases and runs scored. He passed the "magic" 3,000-hit barrier ("magic" in that it nearly guarantees election) and fell just three homers short of 300. He wasn't just the greatest leadoff man in history; he was one of the greatest players in history, and there is no shame in being second-best behind him.

Raines, of course, did many things well on the diamond, none better than stealing bases, where he might have been the best base stealer in the game's history. Yes, Henderson had 1,406 steals to Raines' 808, but those extra steals came at a higher cost: Henderson was caught more than twice as many times as Raines, posting an 81 percent success rate compared to Raines' 85 percent.

In fact, Raines has the highest stolen base success rate of any base stealer with at least 300 career steals for whom we have caught-stealing data. He's second-highest if we drop the bar to 200 career steals, behind Carlos Beltran. For an institution that elected Lou Brock, an extremely limited player whose career OBP is more than 40 points below Raines', Raines' stolen base numbers should boost his candidacy.

Speaking of getting on base, Raines ranks 41st all time in times on base, just ahead of a fellow named Tony Gwynn, who isn't in the Hall for any reason other than an ability to produce base hits.

In fact, not only did Raines reach base slightly more times than Gwynn did, he had more homers and triples than Gwynn and had almost 500 more stolen bases with just 21 more times caught stealing. Gwynn could always hit but didn't work to keep himself in shape and was more or less done as a serious base stealing threat after age 30. Meanwhile, Raines did work on his conditioning and remained a productive base stealer until he was nearly 40.

Raines' durability aside, he was one of the best players in the National League during the 1980s. For several years in the middle of the decade, he was the league's best player, passing one of the various litmus tests for Hall of Famers.

Raines finished first or second in the NL in VORP from 1984 to 1987, leading the league in 1986 and finishing second in 1987 despite missing the month of April due to MLB owners' collusion efforts. When you also consider his above-average defense in left field, Raines comes out as the best player in the NL at least in 1985 and 1986, and probably in 1987 as well.

Raines' career numbers were also affected by baseball's labor strife in the 1980s and early 1990s, a period that overlaps perfectly with his peak years. The strikes in 1981 and 1994 (the latter spilling into 1995) cost him around 120 games, and collusion cost him another 20 games at the start of 1987, when he was arguably the best player in the National League, hitting .330/.429/.526 after his return from exile on May 2. Given back those 140-odd games, Raines would have passed 4,000 times on base and finished with perhaps as many as 2,700 hits, since the work stoppages and collusion all took place during good or great Raines seasons.

Supporters of certain Hall candidates like to allude to arbitrary end points, saying, for example, that Jack Morris led the majors in wins in the 1980s (while ignoring that he also led in earned runs allowed, 73 runs ahead of the runner-up, Jim Clancy). Setting a low bar of 3,000 plate appearances for the years 1980-89, Raines comes up fifth in the majors in OBP, behind Hall of Famers Wade Boggs, George Brett and Henderson. He was eighth in the majors in that decade in times on base, behind four Hall of Famers, with Henderson included. And setting these particular arbitrary end points doesn't necessarily do Raines any favors, since he didn't become a full-time player until 1982, and loses his age 30-32 seasons because they're after the cutoff. (All data courtesy of Baseball-Reference and its indispensable Play Index.)

So Raines was perhaps the best base stealer in the game's history, the second-best leadoff hitter, one of the best hitters at reaching base (the most important thing a hitter can do, after all) and a good defensive player. One common excuse for omitting Raines from Hall ballots is his admitted cocaine use in the 1980s, including his infamous confession to sliding headfirst to avoid breaking the vials of snow in his back pocket. Raines was clean for the majority of his career and became known both as someone who talked about his recovery from addiction and just generally a good character guy, yet voters are still bringing up the drug use from the first two or three years of his career.

Yet another candidate who reached the ballot with similar off-field indiscretions, Paul Molitor, sailed into the Hall on the first ballot with more than 85 percent of the vote and 299 more votes than Raines received in his first year. Molitor also played the first few years of his career with a serious cocaine problem. So why does Molitor get a free pass while Raines struggles to reach even a quarter of the vote? It's not about their playing careers; Raines was the better offensive player and played a thousand more games in the field than Molitor did. Molitor accumulated more bulk statistics at the plate, but his inability to play a position was a big part of extending his career. No, it might be about something far more insidious.

The electorate for the Hall, comprising BBWAA members who have at some point held their badges for 10 consecutive years (although they need not be active badge holders now), is overwhelmingly white; the organization's secretary, Jack O'Connell, did a quick count of African-American voters and came up with 19 in the history of the organization, at least one of whom (Hall of Famer Larry Whiteside) is deceased. Even if O'Connell undercounted current African-American voters by 50 percent, that would give us 36, out of a total electorate of over 550. Are we just looking at an example, then, of a white electorate treating drug use by a white player differently than it would treat drug use by an African-American player? Many academics, including Princeton professor Cornel West, have written about the way that the American media treats white drug users differently from African-American drug users; perhaps this inequity has seeped into its treatment of baseball players with distant histories of drug use as well, because any gap between Raines' and Molitor's on-field performances could not begin to justify the gap in their Hall of Fame vote totals. This is not to say that any individual voter is racist, but that pervasive societal stereotypes may be hurting Raines' Hall chances.

Of course, the electorate is changing, and the new guard of voters is more willing to consider the types of performance metrics that show how Tim Raines is Hall-worthy and Jim Rice isn't. As much as I'd like to include Raines on my Hall ballot when I become eligible in December of 2018, I'm hopeful that the electorate at large will put him in before I get the chance, because he's clearly deserving of baseball's highest honor.

(For more on the case for Raines, click here.)

Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.