The Cooperstown case for Tim Rainesby Chris Jaffe
December 12, 2011
It’s that time of the year again: Hall of Fame voting season. This month, the decade-long members of the BBWAA fill out their ballots for who belongs in Cooperstown.
There are many candidates on this year’s ballot, and many would make perfectly fine Hall of Famers. Several are doing worse in the BBWAA voting than I’d personally wish them to do (see Trammell, Alan), but one guy particularly strikes me as getting less support than he deserves: Tim Raines.
People have different standards for what constitutes a Hall of Famer, but in general there are too main ways of gauging Hall-worthiness: peak and career value. There are just different way to define greatness, and many Hall of Fame arguments boil down to if a person supports peak or career value in their candidates.
With Raines, though, it shouldn’t make any difference if you prefer peak or if you prefer career. Either way, he is highly qualified for Cooperstown.
From 1981-87, Raines was one of the best players in the game, year-in and year-out. Here are his numbers and where he ranked overall in baseball during his seven-year peak:
Hits: first (1,202).
Triples: tied for first (63).
Runs: second (719).
Steals: second (504).
On base percentage: third (.396).
Doubles: tied for third (214).
Batting average: fifth (to three digits, he’s tied with Pedro Guerrero, but if you take it to the fourth digit, he has a slight lead) (.310).
Base of balls: seventh (553).
Intentional walks: seventh (78).
Games: 10th (1,000).
Total bases: 11th (1,740).
Extra-base hits: tied for 18th (343).
Not bad. Some of the facts above look even more impressive when you dig into the details. His third-best OBP trails only Wade Boggs and Rickey Henderson. Not only are those guys both Hall of Famers, but they were both slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famers.
The only four guys to have a better batting average than Raines were Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Don Mattingly, and Kirby Puckett. Three skated into Cooperstown on their first try, and Mattingly was on a similar track until back injuries derailed his career.
As for Raines’ famous success stealing bases, normally swiping 504 bases in seven years would make Raines an easy first-place finisher, but of course, it was only the second-best total of the period, as the greatest base stealer of all time was also in his peak then. Henderson stole 568 bases in those years.
Despite Henderson being the best base stealer ever, and despite Rickey having the most steals in this period, Raines was still more valuable on the bases. Steals are only half of the equation; caught stealings are the other half. Alongside Henderson’s 568-504 edge in steals, "The Greatest" also has a commanding lead in caught stealings: 137-74.
In other words, the difference between Henderson and Raines on the bases from 1981-87 was 64 steals and 63 caught stealings. Folks, that’s bad. A 50 percent success rate on the bases hurts a team instead of helping a team. Outs are too valuable, and the loss of a runner hurts too much.
How good a runner was Raines in his prime? Better than the best baserunner ever during his prime. Impressive.
Raines was an all-time great at stealing bases without getting caught. In 1985, he stole 70 bases while being caught only nine times. That set a new all-time record for most steals by someone with single-digit caught stealings. The next year, Raines tied his own record by going 70-for-79 again,and that’s still the record.
It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that when you move to the more advanced stats, Raines scores brilliantly. He ranks second overall in Bill James’ Runs Created, and places third in WAR. He frequently finished in the top five in both stats’ annual rankings.
In his last annual Abstract, Bill James has an essay trying to figure out who the best player in the game was, and he ultimately ranks Raines second only to Boggs.
Raines at his absolute best: 1986-87
Maybe a seven-year stretch is too long. For some, peak means something a bit narrower. Let’s look at Raines at his pinnacle, 1986-87.
In 1986, he led the league with a .334 batting average. Though it didn’t garner nearly as much attention at the time, he also posted an NL-best .413 OBP. Those numbers included 35 doubles and 10 triples. Plus, of course, Raines stole 70 bases.
Something strange happened that offseason to Raines. He became a free agent and, despite being a great player and despite being the league’s best hitter, no one would offer him a contract. He became the biggest and most blatant victim of collusion, as the owners sought to keep salaries artificially low. (The move came back to burn the owners, as a series of arbitrators found them guilty of collusion and fined them huge sums of cash).
However, Raines looked for an offer all offseason, and due to the rules and regulations governing the process, he couldn’t sign with his own team until May 1. That’s how, despite being maybe the greatest player in the league, Raines missed a month in his prime.
Raines returned on May 2, 1987, and despite missing all of springing training and the first month of the season, immediately showed he was still one of the best. On his first day of the season, he went 4-for-5, capping his game with a 10th-inning grand slam to give Montreal an 11-7 win. Along the way, Raines also had a triple, walk, and (of course) stolen base.
The 1987 season is the great what-if for Raines. As great as he was that year, he should’ve been greater. Despite playing only 139 games, Raines scored 123 runs. Not only was that enough to lead the league, that would be enough to lead the NL any season from 1978-92, except 1982 (when Raines led the league scoring 133 runs).
His .330 batting average was a little lower than his league-leading total in 1986, but thanks to 90 walks, his OBP rose to .429 (though it wasn’t enough to lead the league this time). Meanwhile, Raines cracked out another 34 doubles, legged out eight more triples, and smashed a personal-best 18 homers. Plus he was 50-for-55 in base stealing opportunities.
If you give Raines back the 21 games he missed, he could’ve had 200 hits, 100 walks, 20 homers, nearly 60 steals and over 140 runs scored. Thanks to collusion, it remains a "what if."
In other words, due to collusion, all those nice rankings of Raines from 1981-87 actually underestimate him by a bit. With those 21 games back, he'd likely be second in doubles, first outright in triples, possibly as high as tied for fifth in games played, and 12th in extra-base hits. Also, he'd probably pass Kirby Puckett for fourth place in batting average.
OK, so Raines had a great prime. But then he dropped off. He hit .270 in 1988 and never truly found his stride again. He also played 135 or more games in a season only three more times and never stole 50 bases in a season again. It’s the curse of the base stealer—guys who run a lot when they’re young tend to age poorly. That’s one thing that makes Henderson so impressive; he held up spectacularly well.
By the time Raines finally played his last game in 2002, many had forgotten how truly special he had been 15-20 seasons previously.
Despite that, his career numbers put him well within the Hall of Fame range. On the face of it, there’s nothing dramatically jaw dropping. Raines recorded 2,605 hits—that’s nice, but others have it without entering Cooperstown. The same can be said for his 430 doubles, 113 triples, 1,330 walks, .294 average, or .385 OBP. Even Raines' 808 career steals pales compared to Henderson’s eleventy billion swipes in roughly the same time period.
Aye, but looker closer at Raines for a second. Those 808 steals are nothing compared to Henderson, but no one is impressive compared to Henderson. Let’s compare Raines to Lou Brock.
Brock beats Raines in steals, 938-808, a comfortable edge. All hail Brock. Again, however, steals are still only half the equation. What about caught stealings? (You can figure out how this one plays out, right?)
Yup, Brock has another comfortable edge: 307-146. Only this time, you don’t want the edge. Altogether, the difference between Brock and Raines on the bases is 130 steals and 161 times caught. You know what you call someone who goes 130-for-291 on the bases? You call him someone hurting his team.
OK, but stolen bases aren’t the only reason Brock made it into Cooperstown. He’s also a member of the 3,000 hit club, unlike Mr. 2,605 hits, Tim Raines.
Yeah, but you know why Brock got more hits than Raines? Because he never drew a walk. In his career, Brock had 761 walks, a far cry short of Raines’ total of 1,330. Raines actually reached base more times than Brock. In fact, Raines got on base more times than Brock despite Brock having the longer career. In all, Brock had nearly 1,000 more plate appearances, but Raines still got on base more.
OK, but this isn’t entirely a fair fight. Brock is something of a sabermetric whipping boy for being overrated. People see the steals and singles and miss the caught stealings and outs. Besides, we’re comparing across eras, and that is always a little muddier.
Let’s compare Raines to a peer: Hall of Famer Gwynn. The best pure hitter of his generation, Gwynn won seven batting titles and hit .338 for his career. He and Raines played at essentially the same time; Raines began two years earlier and lasted one year beyond Gwynn. Plus, they had nearly the same number of plate appearances: 10,232 for Gwynn, and 10,359 for Raines.
How do they compare? Well, Raines smokes Gwynn on the bases, that’s a given: 808 steals to 319. Their power numbers are similar. Gwynn comfortably leads in doubles while Raines has the upper hand in triples and homers. But power is ancillary to both of their Cooperstown cases.
We all know why Gwynn is in: he got 3,141 hits en route to that mighty .338 average. Raines can’t compete.
Well, he can’t compete with hits, but what about getting on base? Alongside Gwynn’s 3,141 hits are 790 walks and 24 hit-by-pitch. That’s 3,955 times on base. Since World War II, that’s the 33rd-most times on base for a player, which sure is nice.
Care to guess who is No. 32 on the list just ahead of Gwynn? Yep, it's Raines with his 2,605 hits, 1,330 walks, and 42 HBP: 3,977 times on base overall.
That .385 OBP mentioned above is actually a tremendous achievement over 10,000 plate appearances. Of the 37 players since WWII with that many, Raines has the 11th-best on-base percentage. Eleventh out of 37 may not sound too impressive, until you realize that only the best players have that many OBP. It tops Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, and Derek Jeter, among others.
Am I saying Raines was better than Gwynn? No. Singles are more important than walks, and Raines’ edge in times on base is so slight as to be a toss-up. But that’s the point. Raines’ career value may not be better than Gwynn's, but it’s very similar.
Gwynn entered Cooperstown on the first ballot to universal acclimation as a deserving choice, and Raines can stand beside him and look similar. Raines has enough career value to be in Cooperstown.
Why is Raines underrated?
In his first year on the ballot, Brock snuck into Cooperstown with a little over 75 percent of the vote. Gwynn did far better, making it with 98 percent of the vote.
One year after Gwynn hit the ballot, Raines debuted with 24 percent of the vote.
Why did he do so poorly? Raines had several problems. First, while he was the second-greatest leadoff hitter of all-time, he played at the same time as the greatest. Making it even worse, Henderson aged better, too.
It wasn’t so much that Raines aged poorly. He remained a productive player for over a decade, but he just seemed like a journeyman. The longer he survived, the further his glory period faded into the past, and baseball’s increased offensive numbers of the 1990s made it fade that much quicker.
Also, much of Raines' value on the bases lay in his ability to avoid getting caught stealing, and who pays attention to caught stealings?
For that matter, his ability to get on base is well divided between his ability to get hits and to draw walks. He was really good at both but not great at either. Two pretty goods can add up to a great overall ability to get on base, but it is harder to notice. He never drew 100 walks in a season or had 200 hits. Those 2,605 safeties get respect, but not acclaim. His 1,330 walks are 35th on the all-time list, but who notices them?
Raines also did cocaine in the early 1980s, but then again so did Paul Molitor, and he’s in Cooperstown. Raines (in)famously would slide headfirst in order to make sure the vial of cocaine in his back pocket wouldn’t break, but judging by his success on the bases, that didn’t hurt the team.
The future for Tim Raines
Despite his lackluster ballot debut, my hunch is that Raines will go into Cooperstown eventually. After debuting with 24 percent in 2008, he sprang up to 38 percent in 2011, and he’s a very good bet to rise up much more this year (as should all the backlog).
Cooperstown has called Dawson and Carter. Will their
Montreal teammate join them?
The ballot looks like it will be littered with powerful sluggers and some good pitchers— along with a few others fitting various styles—but who else will have 800-plus steals? Raines will stand out, and that will help him.
Best of all, his case is strong enough to help him. Yeah, that does matter.
There is a downside. In 2013, the ballot goes crazy with a huge list of super candidates all arriving, and some of them will stick around due to the steroids controversy. Beginning in 2013, no one from the backlog will go in for several years.
Yes, but Raines will have 10 more tries, and his is a high-quality case. It’s possible the BBWAA won’t elect him.
No one knows what will happen after the steroids controversy erupts in full with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds arriving. Maybe Raines' drug usage will be seen as similar.
However, the guys who score really well with the BBWAA but get passed on almost always get elected by the VC.
Here’s my favorite Cooperstown fact: The complete list of people who ever topped 50 percent in the BBWAA vote even once and are neither in Cooperstown nor currently on the ballot is: Gil Hodges. That’s it. He’s the entire list.
Raines may not get 75 percent of the BBWAA vote this year, but maybe he will in 8-10 years. Even if he doesn’t, he should get over 50 percent, and thus end up on top of the VC caseload.
He deserves to go in next year, or three years ago, really. But he should get the plaque he deserves.
References and Resources
All stats comes from Baseball-Reference.com. It's Play Index came in very handy for all rankings.
In the 1988 Baseball Abstract (the green one), Bill James has an essay called "Rain Delay," in which he ranks Raines behind only Boggs as the best player in baseball.
A few years ago, Tom M. Tango wrote "Tim Raines' case for the Hall of Fame" here at THT. This piece wasn't inspired by it, but I did skim it to make sure I just wasn't go to rehash what he already said. While both articles have the same conclusion, the approaches in each are different.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.