Hall Election of Lee Smith Makes Sense, But Harold Baines?

The Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 may belong to the specialists. Ahead of a BBWAA election where all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera and legendary designated hitter Edgar Martinez are most likely to gain entry, on Sunday at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, the Today’s Game Era Committee elected reliever Lee Smith and outfielder/DH Harold Baines. More than just rankling purists, it is a result that raises some eyebrows.

Smith and Baines were two of the six players on the 10-candidate ballot, alongside outfielders Albert Belle and Joe Carter, first baseman Will Clark, and starter Orel Hershiser. Managers Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel, and Lou Piniella, and owner George Steinbrenner rounded out the slate. To these eyes, Smith was the most qualified of the players, not only because he held the all-time saves record from 1993 to 2006, when his total of 478 was surpassed by Trevor Hoffman, but because advanced statistics such as WAR, JAWS, and WPA place him in the middle of what’s now a seven-member group of relievers in the Hall. That he once received over 50% of the vote on the BBWAA ballot, where none of the other candidates ever topped 11.2%, made his election appear all the more likely, particularly in front of a group more predisposed to old-school stats than the writers, who lost sight of Smith when the ballot became more crowded late in his 15-year run.

Baines, who took 59.7% of his career plate appearances as a DH and set records in that capacity that were later surpassed by Martinez and David Ortiz, collected 2,866 hits and 384 homers over the course of his 22-year career. Nonetheless, he was poorly supported by the writers; though he lasted through five election cycles before falling off the ballot, he topped out at just 6.1%. Not only is there no precedent for a candidate with so little BBWAA support gaining election by a small committee in the era of the “Five Percent Rule” (from 1980 onward), but there’s really no precedent for a player from the post-1960 expansion era doing so. Via Baseball-Reference:

Hall of Famers with Lowest Peak BBWAA Voting Pct.
Player MLB Career Peak % Vote Year
Jake Beckley 1888-1907 0.4% 1942
Elmer Flick 1898-1910 0.4% 1938
Billy Hamilton 1888-1901 0.4% 1942
Joe Kelley 1891-1906, 1908 0.4% 1939
Satchel Paige 1948-1949, 1951-1952, 1965 0.4% 1951
Rick Ferrell 1929-1945, 1947 0.5% 1956
Buck Ewing 1880-1897 0.7% 1939
Jesse Burkett 1890-1905 1.7% 1942
High Pockets Kelly 1915-1917, 1919-1930, 1932 1.9% 1960
Jack Chesbro 1899-1909 2.2% 1939
Kid Nichols 1890-1901, 1904-1906 2.7% 1939
Bobby Wallace 1894-1918 2.7% 1938
Harry Hooper 1909-1925 3.0% 1937
Amos Rusie 1889-1895, 1897-1898, 1901 3.1% 1939
Larry Doby 1947-1959 3.4% 1967
Sam Crawford 1899-1917 4.2% 1938
Freddie Lindstrom 1924-1936 4.4% 1962
Earl Averill 1929-1941 5.4% 1958
Harold Baines 1980-2001 6.1% 2010
Travis Jackson 1922-1936 7.3% 1956
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Of that group besides Baines, only Doby and Paige even played after World War II. Doby broke the AL’s color line in 1947 and played 13 major league seasons, while Paige arrived in 1948 and pitched in parts of just six seasons (the last of which was a one-game cameo at age 59!) and thus was technically ineligible to be voted upon by the writers, since 10 years is the minimum to appear on a BBWAA ballot. What’s more, the stray vote he received was from 1951, when he was still active and before the five-year waiting period rule had been formalized.

All of which is to underscore the fact that there’s no modern precedent for the election of a candidate such as Baines in that regard. While his election does offer some hope to players bumped off the ballot in their first go-round — such as Bobby Grich, Kenny Lofton, and Ted Simmons, who missed election by the Modern Baseball Era Committee by one vote last year — the custom of withholding first-year votes from all but the most qualified candidates helps to explain those mistakes; with Baines, 94 to 95 percent of voters consistently judged him to be unworthy.

Every bit as unsettling is the fact that Baines accumulated just 38.7 WAR (using the Baseball-Reference version) and 30.1 JAWS. Considered as a right fielder — I consider every DH candidate at the position where he accrued the most value — he ranks just 74th in JAWS, below 24 of the 25 Hall of Famers (19th century outfielder Tommy McCarthy is the exception). From under-supported BBWAA candidate Larry Walker (10th in JAWS among right fielders), to players such as Dwight Evans (15th) and Reggie Smith (16th) who have never sniffed a small committee ballot, that’s a troubling inequity. And everyone and their brother has a pet candidate just among the right fielders for whom a stronger case could be mounted. Tony Oliva, Rusty Staub, Dave Parker? All rank in the 30s in JAWS among right fielders, and appear to have stronger traditional credentials as well.

According to the Hall, Smith was elected unanimously by the 16-member committee, while Baines received 12 votes, exactly the 75% required for election. Piniella fell one vote short, while all of the other candidates received “fewer than five votes.” The breakdown of the committee was as follows:

Hall of Famers: Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Pat Gillick, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith, Joe Torre

Executives: Al Avila (Tigers), Paul Beeston (Blue Jays), Andy MacPhail (Phillies), Jerry Reinsdorf (White Sox)

Media: Steve Hirdt (Elias Sports Bureau), Tim Kurkjian (ESPN), Claire Smith (ESPN)

As I noted in my election preview on Friday, several of the candidates had connections to the voters, an inescapable fact of longevity within an insular industry but also an inevitable reminder of the old Veterans Committees’ history of cronyism, most notably from the 1960s through the 1980s. Baines, who was drafted by the White Sox with the overall number one pick in 1977, spent three separate stretches on the South Side (1980-1989, 1996-1997, 2000-2001), all but the first year of which were within Reinsdorf’s still-ongoing tenure of ownership. Additionally, he was managed by La Russa both there and in Oakland (1992), and was in Baltimore while Gillick was GM (1997-1998). Smith the reliever played with Smith the shortstop in St. Louis, where he was managed by Torre; he also played with Maddux as a Cub.

It was with the Cubs that Smith made his name. Drafted in the second round in 1975, he spent 1980-1987 in Chicago, where he made two All-Star teams, lead the league in saves once, and, for the last six of those seasons, averaged 99 innings a year, a workload unthinkable for today’s closer; during that span, he was the second-most valuable reliever in the majors by WAR behind Dan Quisenberry. In 1984, he saved 33 games and threw 101 innings while helping the Cubs to the playoffs for their first postseason berth in 39 years, though the series-evening walk-off homer he surrendered to Steve Garvey in Game 4 of the NLCS loomed large, as it was the Padres who won the decisive Game 5. Smith later spent time with the Red Sox, Cardinals (with whom he led the league in saves twice, set a single-season NL record, and broke Jeff Reardon’s previous all-time record of 357 saves), Yankees (with whom he recorded his 400th save), Orioles (with whom he led the league in saves once), Angels, Reds, and Expos. For his career, he made seven All-Star teams and finished with a 3.03 ERA (132 ERA+) and 29.4 WAR.

Baines hit .289/.356/.466 for a 121 OPS+ while making six All-Star teams, four of them while serving primarily as a DH. Injuries to his right knee led to eight surgeries, and so from his age-28 season onward, he served mainly as a DH while rarely playing the field. His 1,643 games at DH are more than any player besides Ortiz, who surpassed his record 1,690 hits at the position as well; his 236 homers as a DH ranks fourth behind Ortiz (485), Frank Thomas (269), and Martinez (243). No doubt a major talking point of his candidacy was the fact that the players’ strikes of 1981 and 1994 likely deprived him of membership in the 3,000 hit club, though he would have ranked as the low man of that club in terms of WAR, at least without compiling another 6.7 wins to surpass Lou Brock, whose single-season and career stolen base marks and dazzling postseason play augmented his Hall of Fame case.

Indeed, that’s yet another facet of what’s frustrating about the election of Baines: his lack of a signature accomplishment that elevates him above the pack. Whether it’s Hershiser with a brilliant 1988 season that included a consecutive scoreless innings record, or Clark, who led the Giants to a pennant and was considered one of the game’s elite hitters for a stretch, or Belle with his ferocious power for the mid-1990s Indians, the other player-candidates besides Carter — who himself at least had the World Series-ending walk-off homer in 1993 — were more distinctive and, to these eyes, significantly more Hall-worthy. Even Jack Morris, who for so long served as a flash point between old-school and new-school voters, had Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, a moment for the ages. Baines’ most famous hit was a walk-off homer in the 25th inning to conclude a suspended game in 1984.

This is not to begrudge the man’s happiness upon being granted entry to the Hall. But Baines’ election is simply not a great day for the institution, or for anyone bringing an analytical, merit-based approach to it while reckoning with its objective standards. The precedent it sets is nearly unmanageable, if future committees are to take seriously candidates of his level. Why battle over Dale Murphy or Fred McGriff if Harold Baines is the standard?

I will note, however, that Baines’ election does offer one neat bit of closure. After he was drafted, White Sox general manager Paul Richards said that the young outfielder “was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so.” Forty-one years later, Richards was right.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Psychic... Powerless...
5 years ago

Baines had a single season with an fWAR higher than 3. His election is truly an embarrassment.

5 years ago

Bill James in the essay “Raising Hal” (2010):

“The point of this article is not that Harold Baines should be in the Hall of Fame, but merely that he could be. Baines had more hits, more home runs, and a higher batting average—all three—than 31 Hall of Famers, including four outfielders and a first baseman. He had more RBI than 30 of those players.”

5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

I guess that’s more a James indictment on players already in the Hall than support for a Baines HoF candidacy.

5 years ago
Reply to  Takiar

I read it at the time, and my conclusion was that it was James saying that Baines didn’t deserve to get into the HOF, but that we shouldn’t be all that surprised if he sneaked in.

Which is what happened.

5 years ago
Reply to  Takiar

Also perhaps a demonstration that voters don’t have an intuitive sense for positional adjustment. 3000 hits for a center-fielder and a DH are not the same. It’s understandable, it’s too many factors to weigh together just in your head, which is why the good folks at fangraphs and baseball-reference provide us with….

5 years ago

Keith Hernandez (among MANY others now) has to be screaming “SERIOUSLY?!?!?!?” to anyone who will listen. Especially in light of Baines’ election, it continues to be a travesty that the man isn’t in the hall.

5 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

So your theory is that one wrong (Baines) should be equaled with another wrong (Hernandez)? Not to mention the hundred other players that had better careers than both men?

5 years ago
Reply to  stan

My argument here is that Baines’ election apparently lowers the threshold such that players that by every measure were better than Baines should rightfully be agitating for entry into the Hall. Electing a player of Baines’ caliber opens a can of worms that I didn’t think the electors wanted to open.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
5 years ago
Reply to  stan

My first thought was “Oh, they just elected a worse version of John Olerud.”

5 years ago

As an aside and despite playing for my Mets, John Olerud was a lot better than I thought he was.

5 years ago
Reply to  stan

Hernandez has a legitimate, if probably ultimately lacking, case. Albeit one built mostly on his defensive prowess.

5 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

Lou Whitaker…

Adam C
5 years ago
Reply to  dcweber99

You beat me to it. If the voters really wanted to elect a player who had a long career, good-to-very good career numbers but not overwhelming traditional numbers, with a middling peak they could have elected Lou Whitaker. And hardly anyone would have grumbled. Certainly, the analytics folks would have been ecstatic about it.

5 years ago
Reply to  Adam C

Almost identical W/RC between Baines and Whitaker but who is one of the all time leaders in double plays turned and was generally considered a great defensive player?