A deserving Hall of Famer, Tim Raines should already be in Cooperstown. But after languishing on the ballot for eight years, his time to get a bronze plaque is running out.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2016 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
Suppose you have two outfielders of the same age and a crystal ball that can tell you that 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, 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—plus 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 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 will differ greatly when it comes time to honor them for their careers. The first will be 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 will receive less than 1/3rd of the votes he needs on his first try and languish on the ballot, getting lost in the shuffle behind flashier candidates to the point that his eligibility is in grave danger of expiring. Contemporaries and ex-teammates with different skill sets, many of them with lesser accomplishments, will be elected during that time, while the player in question stands outside the gate.
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% 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. Worse, just as his candidacy was starting to build momentum, it was dealt a blow via the double-whammy of a flood of near-automatic first-ballot candidates and the Hall’s unilateral truncation of the eligibility window for all but three lost-cause candidates, from 15 years to 10. Thus, Raines now has to make up 20 percentage points in two election cycles to get his due. Can he steal home?
|Avg. HOF LF||65.1||41.5||53.3|
Born and raised in Sanford, Fla., Raines was a 5'8", 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 and earning September cameos as a pinch runner in 1979 and '80 before becoming the Expos' Opening Day leftfielder in '81. 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, Raines 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, with a few games missed for unexplained reasons. In September, he admitted that he had “used drugs” earlier in the season but had stopped in May and was seeing a doctor at the insistence of the team; he also noted that his trying season had included his wife’s miscarriage and the death of a favorite uncle. After the season ended, he entered a rehab program, and upon completing a 30-day program, he revealed that he had spent $40,000 on cocaine over the course of nine months and had occasionally played without any sleep (it later surfaced that he had taken up sliding headfirst to avoid breaking the vials in his back pocket). Raines had made an error of judgment, 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. Thankfully, by all accounts, he 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 and averaged 114 runs scored, 11 homers, 71 steals, a 142 OPS+ and 6.4 WAR, never falling below 5.5 in that last category. He ranked third or fourth among National League position players in WAR in four of those five years, and seventh 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, Gwynn, Dale Murphy, Ozzie Smith and Gary Carter—four future Hall of Famers plus a two-time MVP in 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, he received no contract offers. Baseball was then in the midst of its collusion era, when 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, Raines 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. He 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 all of the heroics, Raines conceded to Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf that he had some catching up to do. As Wulf wrote, "During the game, Raines needed tips on the Expos’ new hand greeting from Floyd Youmans and Herm Winningham. 'I had forgotten how to throw the high five,' said Raines. 'It had been so long. They’re now using forearms instead of hands.'"
For an encore, Raines 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, entering in the bottom of the sixth and going 3 for 3 with a stolen base and a game-winning two-run triple in the 13th inning en route to 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's 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 '92, helping the Sox win the AL West but missing six weeks 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 and hit 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 eighth in career WAR among all leftfielders, exceeding the standard for Hall of Famers by 4.0 WAR. He's 10th in peak WAR, 0.7 above the standard, and eighth in JAWS, 2.3 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 the other two being Barry Bonds and the banned Pete Rose (classified here because he had more value at that position than anywhere else). Fourteen other Hall of Fame leftfielders are below him in the rankings, including the BBWAA-elected Willie Stargell (16th), Ralph Kiner (20th), Jim Rice (28th) and Brock (36nd). If Raines's rankings sound crazy, consider that The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract placed him eighth among leftfielders back in 2001 as well.
Raines is often slighted because he doesn't measure up to Henderson, his direct contemporary and 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% success rate is the best among thieves with more than 300 attempts (better than Henderson's 80.8), that skill doesn't resonate in today's power-saturated era, limiting the impression of his all-around ability. Being "the second-best leadoff hitter of all-time" isn't a tremendously catchy tag, either.
Via WAR and JAWS, Raines edges 2007 inductee Gwynn (68.1/41.1/54.9) across the board. Gwynn—who ranks 14th in JAWS among rightfielders, 3.2 points below the standard—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 (hits plus walks plus hits by pitch); BG is bases gained, the numerator of Tom Boswell's briefly chic mid-1980s Total Average stat (total bases plus walks plus hits by pitch plus stolen bases minus times caught stealing), presented here to show that Raines's edge on the base paths helped to make up for Gwynn's ability to crank out hits. The point is better served via the more comprehensive OPS+ 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, and the other was underappreciated in a career that included a more concentrated early peak and more ups and downs later. Raines was a hair 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, that Fergie Jenkins was arrested in Canada for possession of cocaine (and other drugs) and that Dennis Eckersley is said to have used as well—Raines has been slow to get his due from the voters.
Raines is now in his ninth go-round on the ballot, and since gaining considerable momentum with increasing shares of the vote in four straight election cycles, his candidacy has been dealt a pair of significant blows. He debuted at a dismal 24.6% on the 2008 ballot, then declined the following year before rallying, first to 37.5% in '11, then to 48.7% in '12 and 52.2% in '13. Crossing the 50% Rubicon was significant; among players who have done so, only Gil Hodges and Jack Morris have failed to gain entry either via the BBWAA or various Veterans Committees, though Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Lee Smith remain in ballot limbo.
Alas, the 2014 first-ballot trio of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas pushed Raines’s share back down to 46.1%. To add insult to injury, immediately after their induction, the Hall unilaterally declared that all candidates save for Smith, Don Mattingly and Alan Trammell would have their period of BBWAA ballot eligibility truncated from 15 years to 10. Instead of being at the midpoint of what was expected to be a slow, Bert Blyleven-esque climb to the 75% consensus, Raines had three cycles left. He rebounded to 55.0% in 2015, as holdover Craig Biggio and first-timers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz were elected, but 20 points is a tall order to make up over two ballots.
When Raines first crossed 50%, I examined the history of candidates who received between 50 and 74.9% of the vote in their sixth year of eligibility. For the six non-Hodges candidates who fit that bill (Dawson, Don Drysdale, Rich Gossage, Tony Perez, Rice and Hoyt Wilhelm), the average wait was four more years, though five of those candidates needed between two and four; the sixth—notably, the only one to receive less than 55%, Rice (51.5)—took nine more years.
For the seven non-Hodges players who landed in that same 50–74.9% range in year eight (the aforementioned group minus Wilhelm but plus Ralph Kiner and Duke Snider), five reached 75% over the next two years, including Drysdale (56.1% in year eight); the lowest percentage to gain entry the following year was Perez (60.8%). Snider (55.4%) was elected three years later, but Raines does not have that margin, to say nothing of that of Rice.
If Raines doesn’t make it via either the 2016 or '17 BBWAA ballots, the Expansion Era Committee, for which he would be eligible in 2020, offers cold comfort: The various VC processes haven’t inducted a living player since Bill Mazeroski in 2001. Hodges, who had some near-misses on the VC, received fewer than three votes in the Golden Era Committee balloting earlier this month (balloting that’s based on a mathematically flawed premise, but that’s a horror story for another day).
Raines should never have had to wait this long, or at all. He deserves to go into the Hall of Fame as soon as possible, and with Ken Griffey Jr. likely the only first-ballot entrant for 2016, voters have little excuse not to find room for him this year. Here’s hoping he finally gets his due.