January 3, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Class of 2011: Don't Stop The Rock
Among the 19 holdovers on the Baseball Writers Association of America's 2011 Hall of Fame ballot, no player clears the JAWS standard at his position by a higher margin than Tim Raines—not Bert Blyleven, not Barry Larkin, and not Roberto Alomar, all of whom the system shows as being more than worthy of election. During his 23-year major league career, Raines combined the virtues of a keen batting eye, dazzling speed and all-around athleticism with a cerebral approach that made him an electrifying performer and a dangerous offensive weapon.
Yet in his three go-rounds on the ballot, Raines has yet to receive anywhere close to the support his candidacy deserves; last year he cleared 30 percent of the vote for the first time. In the meantime, the BBWAA has elected three other outfielders, Rickey Henderson, Andre Dawson and Jim Rice. Raines spent much of his career in the shadow of the first two, and was much more valuable than the latter two. Henderson was the only leadoff hitter who was better than him, Dawson was the teammate—and later rival—who received more accolades from the media despite lesser productivity, and Rice, well, he's the one whose entry into Cooperstown feels like a thumb in the eye to anyone who understands that there's more to baseball statistics than triple crown stats. In any event, Raines tops the class of outfielders on this ballot; today we'll examine the left and center fielders, and in the next piece, we'll do the right fielders.
For the uninitiated, JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) is a measure I developed to compare Hall of Fame candidates against those of the average enshrined player at their positions using career and peak Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) totals. WARP measures each player's hitting, pitching, and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor-league call-up, incorporating park and league contexts to compare players from different eras or scoring environments. Peak is defined as a player's best seven seasons, and JAWS is the average of career and peak totals. For more information on the particulars of the system as it pertains to this year's ballot, please see here.
For those in need of help deciphering the abbreviations in the first table, AS is All-Star appearances and GG is Gold Gloves won; HoFS and HoFM are the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor, respectively; Bal is how many years the player has appeared on the ballot, and 2010% is the player's share of the vote on the last ballot, with 75 percent needed for election. In the second table, TAv is True Average, RARP is Runs Above Replacement, Position-Adjusted, and RAP is Runs Above Position, both included here as good secondary measures of career and peak value. Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is a bit more comprehensible to the average reader than measuring fielding from replacement level.
Chosen in the fifth round of the 1977 draft by the Expos as a 5'8", 17-year-old switch-hitting shortstop, Raines played primarily as a second baseman in the minors, earning September cameos as a pinch runner in 1979 and 1980 before becoming the Expos' Opening Day left fielder in 1981. The 21-year-old Raines hit .304/.391/.438 in that strike-torn year, stealing a league-leading 71 bases in just 88 games, earning All-Star honors, and finishing second to Fernando Valenzuela in the Rookie of the Year voting. The Expos made the playoffs for the only time in their history by winning the post-strike leg of the NL East race, and while Raines broke a bone in his hand in mid-September, he returned in time for the NLCS against the Dodgers, who nonetheless prevailed in five games on the strength of Rick Monday's two-out, ninth-inning home run, a.k.a. Blue Monday.
Though Raines again led the league in steals in 1982 with 78, his performance (.277/.353/.369, 3.1 WARP) was a mild disappointment. During this season, he admitted to using cocaine, infamously sliding headfirst to avoid breaking the vials in his back pocket. After the season, he checked into a rehab facility, and by all accounts successfully kicked his habit. Free of that burden, he broke out the next year, the beginning of a five-year plateau (1983-1987) in which he hit a cumulative .318/.406/.467, averaging 114 runs scored, 11 homers, 71 steals, and 7.7 WARP, never falling below 6.4. According to WARP, he was the major's second-most valuable player over that span:
Raines' 1985 season, in which he hit .320/.405/.475, ranks as his most valuable, worth 9.5 WARP, fourth in the majors behind Dwight Gooden' (11.7), Pedro Guerrero and Rickey Henderson (both 9.7). He followed that up by winning the NL batting title in 1986, hitting .334. Just 27 by the end of the season, he reached free agency that winter, but suspiciously received no contract offers; baseball was in the midst of its collusion era, where the owners conspired to hold down free agent prices. Forced to return to the Expos, he was ineligible to play until May. Without benefit of spring training or a minor league stint, he stepped into the lineup on May 2, turning a Saturday afternoon NBC Game of the Week against the Mets at Shea Stadium into the greatest comeback special since Elvis Presley's, a performance bookended by a first-inning triple off of David Cone and a 10th-inning, game-winning grand slam off of Jesse Orosco, good for a 5 3 4 4 boxscore line. Later in the summer, he would put on a late-inning tour de force at the All-Star Game, winning MVP honors.
Raines set career bests for on-base and slugging percentages in 1987, hitting .330/.429/.526 with a career-high 18 homers and 50 steals. Even missing a month, he led the league in runs scored with 123. His 7.7 WARP ranked fifth in the league, but the MVP award notoriously went to Dawson, whose paltry 3.3 tied for 44th. Raines finished seventh in the award voting, part of a long-standing pattern of neglect by the BBWAA voters; though he received MVP votes in seven separate seasons, he never finished higher than fifth.
Beyond that 1983-1987 peak, injuries cut into Raines' playing time. He averaged just 133 games over his next six seasons, and was traded in December 1990 to the White Sox in a five-player deal centered around Ivan Calderon. He spent five years on the South Side, the most valuable of which was his 1992 campaign (6.8 WARP). He actually hit better in 1993 (.306/.401/.480 with 16 homers) than in 1992, helping the Sox win the AL West but missing a month and a half due to torn ligaments in his thumb. Traded to the Yankees in December 1995, he was forced into a fourth outfielder/elder statesman role due to hamstring woes, but earned two World Series rings while hitting a cumulative .299/.395/.429 in his three years in pinstripes. He made further stops in Oakland, Montreal, Baltimore and Florida, losing one full season to a battle with lupus, before retiring at the end of the 2001 season.
According to JAWS, Raines compares quite favorably to the average Hall of Fame left fielder, breezing past both career and peak benchmarks. Three years ago, the system had him ranked as the ninth-best left fielder of all time, behind Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, Ted Williams, Pete Rose, Jim O'Rourke, Ed Delahanty, and Carl Yastrzemski—some pretty fair ballplayers. Revisions in our WARP system have bumped him all the way to fifth, albeit substantially behind the top four:
* BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
** VC-elected Hall of Famer
Raines outdoes eight BBWAA-elected left fielders as well as all nine Veterans Committee-elected left fielders. If the rankings sounds crazy, consider that the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranked Raines eighth among left fielders back in 2001—he was that good. As for 2009 inductee Jim Rice, he ranks 50th among left fielders on the JAWS scale (34.2/28.5/31.4). Via the revised replacement level, Raines ranks 38th among hitters in career WARP, 45th in peak WARP, and 37th in JAWS.
Raines is often slighted because he doesn't measure up to Henderson, his direct contemporary and a 2009 Hall of Fame inductee. He doesn't have 3,000 hits, his 808 stolen bases rank "only" fifth all time, and while his 84.7 percent success rate is the best among thieves with more than 300 attempts (better than Henderson's 80.8 percent), that skill doesn't resonate in today's power-saturated age, limiting the impression of his all-around ability. Raines does measure up very well against another Hall of Fame contemporary, 2007 inductee Tony Gwynn. Their JAWS totals are very similar (78.5/48.4/63.5 for Gwynn), and Raines outdistances the left field benchmark by 12.9 JAWS points, while Gwynn does so by just 2.3 JAWS points relative to the right field benchmark. Gwynn gets the glory because of his 3,141 hits, five 200-hit seasons, and eight batting titles. Raines won only one batting title, but while he never reached 200 hits due to his ability to generate so many walks, he compares very favorably to Gwynn in many key statistical categories:
TOB is times on base (H + BB + HBP), BG is bases gained, the numerator of Tom Boswell's briefly chic mid-'80s Total Average stat (TB + BB + HBP + SB - CS), which is presented here to show that Raines' edge on the basepaths made up for Gwynn's ability to crank out the hits. The point is better served via the comprehensive TAv and WARP valuations, but it's nonetheless a worthwhile comparison for those wishing to stick to traditional counting stats.
The conclusion is the same: Gwynn and Raines were two fantastic ballplayers who had slightly different skills. One was disproportionately heralded in his time thanks to his extreme success by the traditional measures of batting average and hits, while the other was under-appreciated in a career that included a more concentrated early peak and a lot more ups and downs. The two were virtually equal in value on both career and peak levels, and there is absolutely no reason why one should be in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot while the other should have languished outside for more than five seconds, let alone three years. Raines' vote totals to date have been a gross injustice, and while it's possible the writers were dragging their heels to guarantee the superior Henderson be elected first, there's no question his name belongs on those ballots as well. Gaining election after such a sluggish start wouldn't be unprecedented; Bruce Sutter (29.1 percent), Duke Snider (21.2 percent), and Luis Aparicio (12.0 percent) all received less during their third years of eligibility and still eventually got the call, with the latter representing the biggest comeback of any candidate to gain BBWAA entry. Among the ballots published thus far, he's around 50 percent; getting anywhere close to the bar would be a big step forward.
Chosen as the first overall pick of the 1985 draft—five picks ahead of Barry Bonds—Surhoff was a versatile player at the University of North Carolina. The Brewers decided to make him a catcher, and while he reached the majors within two years and acquired a reputation as an outstanding defender and an excellent situational hitter, his development as a hitter stalled. He hit just .268/.315/.356 during his first six seasons, playing mostly behind the plate but dabbling at the four corner positions. His transition from catching was further forestalled by injuries which cost him most of the 1994 season, but in 1995, his final season with Milwaukee, he broke out, hitting .320/.378/.492.
Though a bit lacking in both power and plate discipline for a cornerman, Surhoff went on to last another decade as a professional hitter type, serving as a complementary piece on four teams that reached the postseason (the 1996 and 1997 Orioles and the 2000 and 2001 Braves). His biggest years came with Baltimore in 1997 and 1999 (4.2 and 4.9 WARP, respectively), his only two seasons above 4.0 WARP, as it happens. Though he racked up 2,326 hits, he made just one All-Star team, and doesn't have any real case for Cooperstown. He does rank among the 10 most valuable number one picks according to JAWS:
The grandson of a boxer who once faced Joe Louis in a heavyweight title fight, Bobby Higginson was a 12th round pick by the Tigers out of Temple University in 1992. He spent the entirety of his 11-year career with Detroit—a stretch in which the team never once posted a winning record—and while he never earned All-Star honors, he was a very good hitter early in his career. After a mediocre rookie season in 1995, he hit .288/.372/.494 over the next six seasons while averaging 23 homers and 3.3 WARP, including 6 FRAA at the outfield corners.
Rewarded with a four-year extension worth about $35 million for 2002-2005, Higginson nonetheless went into a precipitous decline, as his power deserted him and he battled injuries. Though he still maintained a decent walk rate, he hit just .253/.340/.391 from 2002 through 2004, and hardly looked out of place on a 2003 squad which threatened the 1962 Mets' record of futility and ultimately finished 43-119. While earning nearly $9 million in 2005, he played just 10 games before going on the disabled list due to bone chips in his elbow. He never appeared in another major league game, done at age 35.
Drafted with the fifth overall pick in 1974, Murphy evolved from a 6-foot-4 catcher into a Gold Glove center fielder and two-time MVP (1982 and 1983) for the Braves. Through his age 31 season, he hit .279/.362/.500 with 310 homers, leading the league in both 1984 and 1985 and placing second three other times. From 1980 through 1987, only Mike Schmidt hit more homers than Murphy's 264. Despite a couple of down years, he averaged 5.2 WARP in that stretch and topped out at 8.4 in 1987, looking for all the world like a Hall of Famer in the making.
Alas, the wheels quickly fell off his candidacy. Murphy hit just .238/.311/.403 over the next four seasons and was traded to Philadelphia in August of 1990. He played in just 44 games over his final two seasons with Philadelphia and Colorado due to knee troubles. As good as he was, his peak doesn't even reach the JAWS standard among center fielders, and his career value is short by more than 20 wins. Having topped out at 23.2 percent of the vote on his second ballot, he has nonetheless persisted; he hasn't been above 15 percent since 2001, and appears fated to spend the remaining four years of his eligibility in low-vote purgatory.
Grissom was a well-traveled center fielder who came up with the Expos in 1989, one year after being drafted in the third round out of Florida A&M. Though not particularly powerful or disciplined at the plate, he was a good flychaser in his the first half of his career. From 1991 through 1997, he was nine runs above average per year while hitting .281.330/.419—good enough for him to average 3.7 WARP per year, with a high of 5.6 in 1993. Grissom won four consecutive Gold Gloves (1993-1996) during that span, received down-ballot MVP consideration four times, and reached the World Series three years in a row, with the Braves in 1995 and 1996, and then with the Indians in 1997 after a major trade sent him and David Justice to Cleveland for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree. Though he won just one World Series ring, Grissom hit a searing .328/.363/.466 in the postseason; his three-run homer off Armando Benitez in Game Two of the 1997 ALCS was arguably the turning point in that series.
For his trouble, the 30-year-old Grissom was traded to Milwaukee on the same day that the Indians re-signed Lofton as a free agent following the 1997 season. His career went to hell in a handbasket; he was a total of three wins below replacement level over his next four seasons, three as a Brewer, one as a Dodger, never once cracking replacement level as he hit .252/.293/.387 and lost a step or three in the field. He went through stretches that were hacktastic on a Shawon Dunston/Jeff Francoeur level, winning the DiSar Award—the last regular player to draw a walk—in the NL in 2001; the Marquis de Sade persisted until June 1, his 48th game of the year, and carried a 54/3 K/BB ratio through July before finishing with a 107/16 ratio.
To his credit, Grissom enjoyed something of a rebound as a hitter with the Dodgers and Giants from 2002-2004 (.287/.322/.471) thanks in part to some creative platooning, but his value was cancelled out by his continuing decline in the center pasture. Not a Hall of Famer by any stretch, but he did enjoy a nice run for awhile, and his facial resemblance to comedian Martin Lawrence was always worth a laugh even when his play was at its worst.
So Tim Raines joins a JAWS ballot which also includes Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire and Alan Trammell, with the right fielders and the relievers still to be analyzed before the announcement of the voting results on Wednesday.