January 4, 2012
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Class of 2012: The Catch-All
We all have our pet projects. With the graduations of Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo to the Hall of Fame, mine is now Tim Raines. 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 four years on the ballot, he's reached just 37.5 percent of the vote, exactly half of what he needs to reach Cooperstown.
During Raines' time on the ballot, the BBWAA has added three other outfielders—Rickey Henderson, Andre Dawson and Jim Rice—to the Hall of Fame. 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 is the top outfielder on this ballot. Today, we'll review his case and finish off the newcomers on the ballot at both right field and catcher. Call it a catch-all.
For the uninitiated, JAWS (Jaffe WARP Score) is a measure I developed to compare Hall of Fame candidates against 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. If you missed the introduction to this year's JAWS series—the method to the madness, and the changes both in WARP and in the way the positional standards are calculated, please read here.
Deciphering the abbreviations in the first table, AS is All-Star game 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 2011% 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, RAP is Runs Above Position, VORP is Value Over Replacement Player, FRAA is Fielding Runs Above Average, Career is career WARP total, Peak is the WARP total for a player’s best seven seasons, and JAWS is the adjusted average of those two.
Though Raines again led the league in steals in 1982 with 78, his performance (.277/.353/.369, 3.6 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 5.9 WARP, never falling below 5.3. According to WARP, he was the major's fifth-most valuable player over that span (down from second in the previous iteration of WARP):
Raines won 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. He was forced to return to the Expos, and ineligible to play until May. Without the 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 box score line. Later in the summer, he would put on a late-inning tour de force at the All-Star Game, and grab 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 career-high 6.4 WARP ranked sixth in the league, but the MVP award went to Dawson, whose paltry 3.3 ranked 23rd. 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 (6.1 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 thumb ligaments. 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 then made stops in Oakland, Montreal, Baltimore, and Florida, lost one full season to a battle with lupus, and retired at the end of the 2001 season.
To a lesser extent than in past versions of WARP, Raines compares favorably to the average Hall of Fame left fielder; while he still clears the career benchmark, he’s now a shade below on peak, mainly because he's lost about 40 runs on defense. While his 100.6 Equivalent Baserunning Runs are now in the mix, much of the credit for that—mainly the 84.7 percent stolen-base success rate—was already within his Batting Runs total. One way or another, he clears the JAWS standard, and after ranking as high as fifth among left fielders in the last go-round, he's still a very respectable 10th:
* BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer
Raines outdoes five BBWAA-elected left fielders as well as eight of the 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 33rd among left fielders on the JAWS scale (44.2/34.8/39.5).
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 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 outdoes another Hall of Fame contemporary, 2007 inductee Tony Gwynn (60.3/35.9/48.1), and outdistances the left field benchmark, while Gwynn falls short of the right field one by 5.5 JAWS points. 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. Raines was the more valuable of the two on both career and peak measures, and there is absolutely no reason why he should languish outside the Hall while Gwynn is in. His vote totals to date have been a gross injustice, but he is climbing—14.9 percent in two years—and gaining election after such a sluggish start wouldn't be unprecedented. Bruce Sutter (27.5 percent), Duke Snider (26.6 percent), and Blyleven (23.5 percent) all received less during their fourth years of eligibility and wound up with plaques. Raines won’t get his immediately, but he can keep building upon his vote totals.
Right Fielders, Part II
Salmon reached the majors as a 23-year-old in August 1992, and won Rookie of the Year honors the following season while batting .283/.382/.536 and bopping 31 homers. That was the first of six straight seasons in which he slugged at least .500 and put up an OBP of at least .382 while averaging 4.9 WARP per year. His best year was 1995, when he hit .330/.429/.594 with 34 homers; his 6.7 WARP ranked second in the league, his .344 True Average fourth. Alas, that was the year the Angels blew an 11-game mid-August lead and lost a one-game play-in to the Mariners, a collapse that ranked as the worst in history via Nate Silver's Playoff Odds methodology, and one that no doubt hurt Salmon in the MVP voting (he finished seventh), with three Mariners—including Edgar Martinez—ahead of him.
Salmon lost two-and-a-half months to a sprained wrist in 1999 but rebounded for a monster 2000 season (.290/.404/.540, 34 homers, 3.9 WARP). That was the beginning of a rollercoaster ride that carried him to the end of his career. After a terrible 2001, he had a strong season in 2002, helping the Angels win their lone World Series; his Game Two performance—4-for-4 with a pair of homers including the game-winner—was his biggest moment, but he hit a typically strong .288/.382/.525 with a total of four homers throughout that year's playoff run. His power dipped a bit in 2003, knee and shoulder injuries limited him to just 60 games in 2004, and he sat out all of the 2005 season following rotator cuff surgery. Largely limited to part-time DH duty, he nonetheless mounted a solid comeback in 2006 (.265/.361/.450, nine homers) to end on a high note. He's not Cooperstown material, but he deserves a tip of the cap as a perpetually underappreciated player, and fortunately, he's got his spot in Angels lore.
Jordan didn't become a regular until 1995, but he enjoyed three strong seasons—WARPs ranging from 3.9 to 4.2, True Averages from .287 to .297—in a four-year span as their regular right fielder. He was limited to just 47 games in 1997 due to a herniated disc, but returned to set career highs in home runs (25) and all three slash stats (.316/.368/.534) the following year. That performance helped him net a five-year, $40 million deal from the Braves. While he helped them to the playoffs in all three seasons, and to the World Series in 1999 (where he went 1-for-13 as the Braves were swept by the Yankees), his power was already declining; he hit a combined .275/.327/.443 while averaging 2.5 WARP per year in Atlanta. Even so, no hit of his as a Brave was bigger than his two-out, two-strike ninth inning grand slam off John Franco on September 29, 2001, a game that effectively ended the Mets' season.
The following January, the Braves dealt Jordan, Odalis Perez, and minor-league pitcher Andrew Brown to the Dodgers for disgruntled slugger Gary Sheffield. Jordan battled back and knee injuries, missing more than half of the 2003 season due to a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. Even after undergoing surgery, his knee woes would continue to resonate; he played just 203 games from 2003-2005 while bouncing from the Dodgers to the Rangers to the Braves, and hit just .256/.315/.373 when he was available. One final year in Atlanta, similarly hampered by shoulder woes, was all she wrote. Though no Hall of Fame career by any stretch, Jordan’s success in two sports made it a fairly unique one. At the same time, who knows what he might have done had he committed to baseball earlier in his career?
The Rangers signed the switch-hitting Sierra out of Puerto Rico as a raw 17-year-old, and on their watch he did evolve into a pretty good player, though he couldn't live up to "the next Clemente" hype. After three seasons of .300ish OBPs, he broke out as a 23-year-old in 1989: .306/.347/.543, with 14 triples and 29 homers, good for 5.9 WARP and runner-up to Robin Yount in the MVP balloting. Similarly, he hit .307/.357/.502 with 25 homers for 4.8 WARP as a 25-year-old. Unfortunately, those two seasons were separated by an abysmal 0.7 WARP season. Though he earned All-Star honors for the third time in 1992, Sierra’s performance declined again, and after squabbling with the Rangers over a contract extension, he found himself traded to the A's on August 31, along with two pitchers, for Jose Canseco.
Though he had a strong performance in that year's ALCS (.333/.357/.625), Sierra didn't really click in three-and-a-half seasons in Oakland. He became muscle-bound from too much weightlifting, thinking he could "double [my] numbers" (he has never been never implicated as using PEDs, for what it's worth). Worse, manager Tony La Russa famously called him "the village idiot" after he argued with general manager Sandy Alderson. On July 28, 1995, he was sent to the Yankees in a deal for Danny Tartabull. But Sierra wasn't long for New York, either. In 1996, he clashed with new skipper Joe Torre—who in Chasing the Dream wrote that “Ruben has no clue what baseball is about," and called him the toughest player he ever had to manage—and was sent to Detroit for Cecil Fielder on July 31, 1996, leaving behind the infamous parting words, "All they care about is winning."
In short order, Sierra passed through the Tigers, Reds, Blue Jays, Mets, and White Sox, the independent Atlantic League and the Mexican League before winding up back with the Rangers. He bopped 23 homers for them in 2001, but his odyssey continued, first to Seattle, then back to Texas, then back to New York, where he came full-circle, making up with Torre while serving as a 37-year-old part-time DH. Torre lauded the free-swinging slugger’s newfound maturity, even bestowing upon him the manager-for-a-day honor for the season's final game in 2004. Sierra hit a lopsided .244/.296/.456 with 17 homers that year, adding a game-tying three-run shot in the decisive Game Four of the Division Series against the Twins. That was his last hurrah, though he squeezed out one more year with the Yankees and a short stint with the Twins. With 306 homers, he fell far short of the heights predicted for him, but he did find some amount of enlightenment and maturity in the process.
An August 31, 1996, trade to the Brewers for Kevin Seitzer was the break the 27-year-old Burnitz needed. Though the franchise was in the midst of a stretch of 12 straight sub-.500 seasons, Burnitz at least had the opportunity to play regularly, and became the lineup's biggest bopper. From 1997-2001, he hit a combined .259/.363/.511 while averaging 33 homers a year, though at the height of MLB's offensive surge, that was worth just 2.4 WARP per year. Burnitz hit a career-high 38 homers in 1998, but his 1999 line (.270/.402/.561) made for a more valuable season, with career highs in both WARP (3.3) and True Average (.311) and his lone All-Star appearance.
Traded back to the Mets in a three-team, 11-player deal in January 2002, Burnitz signed a two-year, $20 million extension. It did not go well; he slumped to .215/.311/.365 with 19 homers, 0.7 wins below replacement level. A resurgence the following year (.274/.344/.581 with 18 homers in 65 games) allowed the Mets to ship him to the Dodgers for three prospects, but he resumed slumping in LA (.204/.252/.391), where the Dodgers needed a fill-in for the injured Jordan. He rallied to a 37-homer season with the Rockies the following year, but played to diminishing returns with the Cubs and Pirates in 2005 and 2006, respectively; he was so bad in the latter season that the team couldn't even be bothered to flip him to a contender for a half-eaten sandwich. In all, he’s a decent hitter in his day, and a bit of a joker to boot, but also a player who comes to mind when the scouting phrase "second-division starter" is tossed around.
Signed out of Puerto Rico in 1987, Lopez earned cups of coffee in 1992 and 1993 before taking over the bulk of the backstop duties in 1994. He emerged as an offensive force the following year, hitting .315/.344/.498 with 14 homers in 352 PA, good for 3.0 WARP, and helped the Braves to their lone world championship on Cox’s watch. He was the MVP of the NLCS in 1996, hitting .542/.607/1.000 to lead the Braves back to the World Series. He earned All-Star honors for the first time in 1997 via a .295/.361/.534 performance, and bashed 34 homers the following year while batting .284/.328/.540, a pair of seasons good for 4.3 and 4.4 WARP, respectively. A torn ACL limited him to 65 games in 1999, and thereafter his seasons with the Braves were up and down. His 2003 finale in Atlanta was a monster, though: .328/.378/.687 with 43 homers—the second-highest single-season total for a catcher—and a career-best 6.8 WARP, good for sixth in the league.
Lopez left the Braves as a free agent following that big showing, and signed a three-year, $22.5 million deal with the Orioles. After a strong first year (.316/.370/.503), his production began to flag; late in the 2006 season—a year in which he’d been displaced by Ramon Hernandez and asked to learn first base—the Orioles dumped him on the Red Sox, who needed a fill-in when Jason Varitek got hurt, but he was dumped soon after Varitek returned. Though he signed with the Rockies in 2007, and went to camp with the Braves the following year, he never played another major-league game, done just shy of his 36th birthday. Ultimately, he didn’t have enough big seasons to earn consideration for Cooperstown.
So that’s a wrap. Raines joins Jeff Bagwell, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, and Lee Smith on this year’s JAWS-approved ballot. The Hall of Fame will announce the voting results on Monday, January 9. I’ll be chatting here starting at 1 p.m. Eastern, in anticipation of the results.