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March 31, 2000

The Case for Tim Raines

An In-Depth Look

by Rany Jazayerli

Last Friday, The Daily Prospectus contained a short sermon on the Hall of Fame worthiness of just-retired Tim Raines. Judging by the results of an ESPN.com poll that same day, not everybody was paying attention.

It's not worth our time to explain in exhaustive detail why more than 4% of 75,000 voters should have cast a ballot for Raines as the recent retiree most deserving of the Hall of Fame. It doesn't behoove us to explain why Raines is more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Joe Carter, he of the lifetime .306 OBP, or Kirk Gibson, who appeared in fewer games than Dave Martinez and never led his league in any category except errors. And if you need someone to explain why Raines was a better player than Willie McGee, whose primary offensive value was his ability to rap out singles--he never hit more than 11 home runs in a season and his career high in walks was 48--and who finished with more than 300 fewer hits than Raines, well, you're exactly who should be reading this column.

What we want to do is explore just how qualified Raines is for the Hall. Raines had the misfortune of playing the same position, in the same era, as Hall of Fame shoo-in Rickey Henderson. But being the best player at your position in your era is not a bright-line test for the Hall of Fame. A good thing, too, for one of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays would have been eliminated in a baseball-immortality version of "Celebrity Deathmatch."

What are the criteria for the Hall of Fame? As Bill James has written extensively--pick up a copy of The Politics of Glory (a/k/a Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?) if you don't own one already--the only criteria that are firmly established are the standards set by previous inductees.

Does Raines's career compare favorably to Hall of Fame outfielders? Or, to look at it another way, are the players whose careers were most similar to Raines in the Hall? Using James's Similarity Scores, the 10 players with the most similar career numbers are:

Name                Score
Max Carey*            856
Willie Davis          852
Lou Brock*            851
Jimmy Ryan            847
Jose Cruz             841
Harry Hooper*         835
Enos Slaughter*       833
Fred Clarke*          830
Mickey Vernon         824
George Van Haltren    814

The most striking aspect of the list is that Max Carey, the most similar player to Raines, still isn't all that similar; a Similarity Score of 856 indicates significant differences between the two. This is a mark of the uniqueness of Raines's talent, and insomuch as uniqueness is a characteristic of most Hall of Fame players, this is a point in favor of Raines's candidacy.

Of the 10 players, five (marked with asterisks) are in the Hall, five are not. Of the five outside the Hall, two, Jimmy Ryan and George Van Haltren, are great players from the 1890s frequently mentioned in discussions of the most deserving players left out of the Hall. Neither is likely to make it if the Veterans Committee's license to select one 19th-century player a year is removed, as it is supposed to be after next season.

What we can take away from this list is that Raines's candidacy is legitimate, but it hardly helps us decide which side of the fence he belongs. It's fine to say that Raines sort of hit like Jose Cruz and Cruz isn't in the Hall, but that leaves out the fact that Raines was, in fact, much better than Cruz. In fact, Raines had a higher OPS than anyone on his comp list other than Ryan, Fred Clarke and Enos Slaughter. A player with no good comps and who is better than most of his best comps: that's one sign of a Hall of Famer.

So half of Raines's best comparisons are in the Hall. Now let's take it from the other approach: does Raines's performance compare favorably with the players who are in the Hall? James used a different tool, called Hall of Fame Standards, which essentially awarded players points for reaching milestones in important categories, so 1,650 hits was worth a point, 1,800 hits was worth another point, etc. Extra points are awarded for defensive position. There are 100 possible points on this scale, so the total number is expressed as a percentage. The average Hall of Famer should reach 50% of Hall of Fame Standards.

Raines meets 44% of the Standards, which suggests that he's slightly below the level of an average Hall of Famer, but well above the level of a marginal one. Among left fielders not enshrined in the Hall, Raines ranks behind only Bob Johnson (45%) and just ahead of Jim Rice (43%). To compare across positions, Raines meets more standards than recent inductees Tony Perez (39%) and Orlando Cepeda (37%). Van Haltren and Ryan, incidentally, rank by this method as the two best outfielders (they both played center field) not in the Hall.

So purely from a statistical standpoint, Raines appears to be a qualified Hall of Famer; not a top-echelon guy, not a first ballot inductee, but a genuine Hall of Famer. He would not lower the standards of the Hall in any way if he were selected. Now let's take a look at the aspects of his candidacy apart from his raw numbers:

League context: All of the tools we used above look at a player's raw numbers, independent of park or league contexts. This is a big part of why Raines's Hall of Fame candidacy is not being taken as seriously by most sportswriters as it should be. Raines's peak came in a mild pitcher's park in the National League in the early-to-mid-1980s, which in the span of history ranks as a pitcher-friendly era. In Raines's entire career in Montreal (1981-90), the NL averaged more than 4.2 runs per game only once, in 1987. By comparison, the NL of Van Haltren's day--right after they moved the mound back in 1893--averaged 5.7 runs per game.

Unfortunately for Raines, the tail end of his career has come in an era in which runs are 15-20% more common than they were in his heyday. His numbers from a decade ago, so outstanding for their time, look merely very good today. We can adjust for context, though, using Clay Davenport's Translations system. Doing so tells us that over the course of his career, Raines was worth 57 extra wins for his teams over an average player. Only one non-Hall of Famer at any position ranks higher, that being Dick Allen, who isn't in the Hall of Fame for reasons wholly unrelated to his offense.

Defense: Raines came up as a second baseman, and actually played 53 games at that position before moving to left field. He never won a Gold Glove, a fact which hurts his candidacy a little, seeing as how most Hall of Fame outfielders won at least one Gold Glove or were deserving in eras before they were handed out. However, Raines was considered an excellent defensive player, one of the best outfielders of his era not to win a Gold Glove. His range slipped in the 1990s, but he had at least average range up until his final few years.

Speed: Raines scores major points here; not only does he rank fifth all-time with 807 steals (fourth, really, since Billy Hamilton racked up most of his steals under the earlier, more liberal rule), but he ranks first all-time in stolen base percentage. Lou Brock finished with 938 steals, but Brock's career-high stolen base percentage, 83.7%, was lower than Raines's career average, 84.7%.

At his peak, Raines was stealing 70 bases a year against just 10 times caught, adding 15 runs to the scoreboard with his legs at a time when nine runs usually equated to one win. His speed also helped him score more runs than you would predict from his raw statistics. In 1983, he scored a league-leading 133 runs for an Expo team that scored only 677; his 19.6% share of the team's runs is the second-highest mark by any player in history. In 1987, he led the league in runs scored despite not putting on a uniform until May 1 because of collusion: Raines returned to Montreal after not a single owner offered the defending batting champion a free-agent contract. And they wonder why the players won in court.

Clubhouse: Raines got in trouble for cocaine use early in his career, which certainly isn't something you want on your resume. He cleaned up his act and stayed out of trouble thereafter, while earning a reputation as a positive influence and role model in his later years. Montreal only made the playoffs once, in his rookie season, but that's a problem endemic to the franchise: Expo fans are still waiting on their second trip. He helped the White Sox win the 1993 AL West and was a useful role player/fourth outfielder for the Yankees in 1996-98, when they won a pair of World Championships sandwiched around the wild card.

The final point I want to make regarding Raines's credentials is this: in addition to all his statistical work on the Hall, Bill James compiled what is known as the "Keltner List," a series of questions to be asked of any Hall of Fame candidate to assess just how worthy they are. Question #1, the most rigorous standard of the 15 questions on the list, asks, "Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball?"

It's hard to think back 12 or 15 years with a perfect recollection of the reputations of different players, but fortunately we have the answer to that question from that very era, and from James himself. In the introduction to his 1988 Baseball Abstract, James poses the question, "Who is the best player in baseball?" After six pages of examining the candidates--Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn, Dale Murphy, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Ozzie Smith, Mike Schmidt--James narrows it to two: Raines and Wade Boggs. In the end, Boggs gets the nod, this coming right after Boggs hit 24 homers, and before he had proved that feat to be a fluke.

That perception sits harmoniously with cold, hard, analysis; from 1984-86, Raines finished first, second and first in the NL in Equivalent Average, and led the NL in Equivalent Runs in all three seasons. Raines slipped a notch in the 1988 season and never rebounded; after making seven straight All-Star teams, Raines never made an appearance after 1987. But for a period of several years, Raines had a viable case to make as the best player in the game.

So, in a nutshell, is Raines a deserving Hall of Famer? Yes. Not resoundingly yes, but yes. If he were eligible today and not enshrined, he wouldn't rank as the best player to be snubbed--Ron Santo would still hold that distinction--but he'd probably be next in line.

Will he get in? James has another tool, the Hall of Fame Career Monitor, which estimates the chance a player has of getting in; not whether the player deserves enshrinement, but merely whether, based on the voting patterns of the past, the player is likely to get the necessary votes. 100 points is the cut-off for a Hall of Famer, and anywhere from 70 to 130 is considered a gray area.

Raines tallies up at 89.5, which gives him a shot, but not a very strong one. Phil Rizzuto got in with a score of 90, but Rizzuto was a Yankee and stayed in the public eye, and besides, he wasn't inducted until he was 76. Whatever slim chance Raines might have is further whittled down by the fact that he spent the best years of his career in Quebec. That wasn't him singing "Blame Canada" at the Oscars, but he might have auditioned for the part.

Raines won't, in all likelihood, be voted in by the writers. If he does, it will come at the tail end of his eligibility period, as Raines's numbers are seen from a distance and are not compared to the players who came up a decade later, and possibly as more and more writers with an appreciation for sabermetrics get voting privileges. He may end up like Santo, overlooked by the BBWAA but hopelessly overqualified for the Veterans' Committee, if such a contraption still exists at the time. But I expect Santo to be inducted someday, and I expect the same for Raines.

Let's just hope that he doesn't have to wait as long as Santo has to get the call.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rany's other articles. You can contact Rany by clicking here

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