Tim Raines finished his career with 808 stolen bases, the fifth-highest total in baseball history. (Marcos Townsend/AP)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect last year's voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.
Suppose you have two outfielders of the same age, and a crystal ball that can tell you both of them will go on to have elite major league careers that place them among the top 100 hitters of all time. One of them will do things that turn heads more often than the other: he will collect over 3,000 hits, win multiple batting titles and Gold Gloves and make 15 All-Star teams, and he'll do it all while playing for the same team that drafted him; in fact, he'll be a key part of their only two World Series participants in franchise history.
The other player will fall short of 3,000 hits, though not by a lot. He'll make up for it by walking nearly twice as often as the first player, so that in a career of almost exactly the same length, he'll get on base a handful of times more often, and he'll have much greater speed, ranking as the most potent base-stealing threat of all-time. He won't exactly go unrecognized, with seven All-Star appearances and a batting title, and he'll even win a couple of World Series rings late in his career, but only after bouncing around a bit; meanwhile, the franchise that discovered him will cease to exist. Both at his peak and over the course of his career, he'll actually produce a smidge more value than his rival, thanks to the extra value of his speed.
In all, they're both fantastic careers, and if your team had one instead of the other, it would hardly be the worse for wear. Yet the two players' fates differed greatly when it came time to honor them for their careers. The first was elected to the Hall of Fame on his first try with near unanimity, receiving a higher percentage of the vote than Willie Mays, Ted Williams or Stan Musial. The second got less than one-third of the votes he needed on his first try. Contemporaries and ex-teammates, some of them with different skill sets and lesser accomplishments on the whole, were elected during that time, while he remains standing outside the gate. In fact, it took until the sixth year of his candidacy before a simple majority of voters becomes convinced that he's good enough for Cooperstown.
By now, you've probably figured out that the first player is Tony Gwynn, owner of 3,141 lifetime hits, eight batting titles, the 14th-highest JAWS score among rightfielders and a bronze plaque in upstate New York thanks to his receiving 97.6 percent of the 2007 Hall of Fame vote. The second player is Tim Raines, owner of 2,605 hits, one batting title, the eighth-highest JAWS score among leftfielders and no joy in Mudville — er, Cooperstown — thus far. Will he ever find it?
Avg HOF LF
Born and raised in Sanford, Fla., Tim Raines was a 5-foot-8, 17-year-old switch-hitting shortstop when the Montreal Expos drafted him in the fifth round in 1977. Raines played primarily as a second baseman in the minors, showing little power but outstanding plate discipline and great speed, earning September cameos as a pinch runner in 1979 and '80 before becoming the Expos' Opening Day leftfielder in 1981. Andre Dawson was the centerfield incumbent, the team's top star and a reigning Gold Glove winner, but the 21-year-old Raines quickly emerged as a star in his own right. In that strike-torn year, he hit .304/.391/.438, stealing a league-leading 71 bases (in 82 attempts) in just 88 games and racking up a respectable 3.5 WAR. He earned All-Star honors and finished second to Fernando Valenzuela in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Were it not for the strike and a broken bone in his hand suffered in mid-September, he likely would have become the fourth player since 1901 to steal at least 100 bases — Rickey Henderson had done it the year before — and might have toppled Lou Brock's single-season record of 118 steals before Henderson shattered it the next year with 130. As it was, the Expos made the playoffs for the only time in their history by winning the post-strike leg of the NL East race, and Raines 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, 2.8 WAR) was a mild disappointment. During this season, he admitted to using cocaine, infamously sliding headfirst to avoid breaking the vials in his back pocket. He had made an error of judgement, albeit in the context of being 22 years old and living in the majors' most notorious party city, at a time when cocaine use was running rampant throughout the game. After the season, he checked into a rehab facility, and by all accounts successfully kicked his habit.
Free of that burden, Raines broke out the next year, the beginning of a five-year plateau (1983-87) in which he hit a cumulative .318/.406/.467, averaging 114 runs scored, 11 homers, 71 steals, a 142 OPS+ and 6.4 WAR, never falling below 5.5. He ranked third or fourth among NL position players in WAR in four of those five years, and sixth in the other. For the period as a whole, only Wade Boggs, Henderson and Cal Ripken — all AL players and future Hall of Famers — were more valuable. The NL players immediately below him were Mike Schmidt, Tony Gwynn, Dale Murphy, Ozzie Smith and Gary Carter — four future Hall of Famers plus a two-time MVP (Murphy).
Raines won the NL batting title in 1986, hitting .334 and leading the league with a .413 on-base percentage. 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 commissioner Peter Ueberroth and team owners conspired to hold down free agent prices; in 1990, they would be forced to pay $280 million in damages to the MLB Players Association as a result. By the rules in place at the time, Raines was allowed to return to the Expos — what other choice did he have? — but 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. Raines hit a first-inning triple off David Cone and a 10th-inning, game-winning grand slam off Jesse Orosco, good for a 5 3 4 4 boxscore line. For an encore, he led off with a homer the next day, a 2-0 win, and hit a go-ahead home run in the seventh inning against the Braves in his fourth game back. 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 as well as 50 steals. Even after missing a month, he led the league in runs scored with 123. His 6.7 WAR ranked fourth in the league behind Gwynn (a career-high 8.5), Eric Davis (7.9, on a 37-homer, 50-steal season in just 129 games himself, a campaign that makes grown men weep when they're not holding it up as the closest analogue to Mike Trout's 2012 that they've ever seen) and Murphy (7.7 in his final great season). For all of that excellence, the MVP award notoriously went to Dawson, whose 4.0 WAR ranked 18th; a victim of collusion himself, he hit 49 homers after signing with the Cubs, who took his blank check and paid him $500,000, less than half of what he had made in Montreal the year before. Raines finished seventh in the 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.
After that 1983-87 peak, injuries cut into Raines' playing time. He averaged just 133 games over the 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 (6.3 WAR). 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 eased into a fourth outfielder/elder statesman role due to hamstring woes, though he earned two World Series rings in three years in pinstripes while hitting a cumulative .299/.395/.429. He made further stops in Oakland, Montreal, Baltimore (where he briefly played with his son, Tim Raines Jr.) and Florida, losing one full year to a battle with lupus, before retiring at the end of the 2001 season.
Raines ranks seventh in career WAR among all leftfielders, exceeding the standard for Hall of Famers by 4.1 WAR. He's 10th in peak WAR, 0.7 above the standard, and eighth in JAWS, 2.4 points above the standard. Of the seven leftfielders above him, five are in the Hall of Fame — Ted Williams, Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski, Ed Delahanty and Al Simmons — with Barry Bonds and the banned Pete Rose (classified here because he had more value at that position than anywhere else) the other two. Fourteen other Hall of Fame leftfielders are below him in the rankings, including the BBWAA-elected Willie Stargell (17th), Ralph Kiner (19th), Jim Rice (28th) and Brock (35nd). If Raines' rankings sounds crazy, consider that The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranked Raines eighth among leftfielders back in 2001 as well.
Raines is often slighted because he doesn't measure up to Henderson, his direct contemporary, a 2009 Hall of Fame inductee who has been widely hailed as the best leadoff hitter of all time. Raines doesn't have 3,000 hits like Henderson, 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. Being "the second-best leadoff hitter of all-time" isn't a tremendously catchy tag, either.
Raines edges 2007 inductee Gwynn (68.9/41.1/55.0) across the board. Gwynn gets the glory because of his 3,141 hits, five 200-hit seasons and eight batting titles. Raines won only one batting title, and never reached 200 hits due to his ability to generate so many walks. Even so, he holds up quite well in a direct comparison:
TOB is times on base (H + BB + HBP), BG is bases gained, the numerator of Tom Boswell's briefly chic mid-Eighties Total Average stat (TB + BB + HBP + SB - CS), presented here to show that Raines' edge on the basepaths made up for Gwynn's ability to crank out hits. The point is better served via the comprehensive True Average and WAR 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 underappreciated in a career that included a more concentrated early peak and more ups and downs later. Raines was slightly more valuable on both career and peak measures, and there is no reason why he should languish outside the Hall while Gwynn is in. Perhaps because a certain segment of the voters still view his cocaine usage as unforgivable — forgetting that Paul Molitor battled his own problems with the drug and Dennis Eckersley is said to have used as well — Raines has been slow to get his due from the voters.
Even so, he is gaining momentum. After debuting at a dismal 24.6 percent on the 2008 ballot, and declining the following year, he has rallied somewhat, vaulting to 37.5 percent in 2011 and to 48.7 percent in 2012. He crossed the 50 percent Rubicon in 2013, getting 52.2 percent of the vote. Among those who have done so and who aren't still on the ballot, only Gil Hodges has subsequently failed to gain entry to Cooperstown, either via the BBWAA or the various Veterans Committees. That said, this ballot is stuffed full of players who have reached that threshold but have yet to get in: Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Lee Smith.
Normally, this is the part in the program where I'd list the number of modern candidates — those since the BBWAA returned to annual voting in 1966 — who received less support than Raines in year X but went on to gain entry via the writers, a roll that includes recent slow starts and epic climbs by Rich Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven. Now, the pertinent question is how long it takes a candidate who receives between 50 and 74.9 percent of the vote in his sixth year of eligibility to get in. For the six non-Hodges candidates who fit that bill, the average wait was four more years, though five of those candidates needed between two and four while the sixth — notably, the only one to receive less than 55 percent, Rice (51.5 percent) — took nine more years.