Examining the compelling Cooperstown case for Tim Raines

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This is going to be about Tim Raines ... but we're going to start with Bill James. People, of course, have many different opinions about Bill James. And because Bill is both a friend and a hero of mine, I admit to being hopelessly biased on the subject. It isn't that I think Bill is always right ... I don't. I enjoy arguing with him about things. It's just that I'm blown away by how his mind works.

I was just re-reading his controversial bit in the New Historical Abstract where he made his argument that Roy White was a better player than Jim Rice. He took each of their best five years -- White from 1968-72, Rice from 1975-79 -- and used that as his starting point.

Here are their base stats from those five years.

Rice: .311/.360/.556, 147 doubles, 48 triples, 171 homers, 509 runs, 560 RBIs.

White: .283/.380/.432, 131 doubles, 25 triples, 75 homers, 415 runs, 368 RBIs.

Looks like Rice in a blowout, doesn't it? Much better numbers across the board. Case closed, right?

Well, wait. Bill points out, there are so many things you cannot see in those stats. For one, Rice played in a time when many more runs were scored. The league average during White's time was 3.80 runs per game ... and it was 4.34 during Rice's time. That's a half run difference -- quite a lot. Each run Roy White created was worth more than Jim Rice.

Two, of course, Rice played in Fenway Park -- and Fenway Park in the late 1970s was a preposterously good hitter's park. White, meanwhile, played in Yankee Stadium -- and Yankee Stadium in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a preposterously bad hitter's park, especially for right-handed hitters. This isn't just mindless theory -- here are their road numbers for the same five years:

Rice: .288/.336/.484, 66 doubles, 23 triples, 65 homers, 234 runs, 233 RBIs.

White: .280/.381/.424, 70 doubles, 12 triples, 36 homers, 220 runs, 186 RBIs.

Well, that's a lot closer, isn't it? Rice is still slightly ahead in most categories, but I think the most important category listed there is on-base percentage. And that's a huge gap in on-base percentage. White also walked 234 times and struck out 154 -- Rice walked 106 times and struck out 310. You could argue pretty persuasively that White was a straight up as good an offensive player on the road.

But there's more than just offense. When you throw in the context of the time ... you throw in the big speed difference (overall, White stole 60 more bases than Rice in the five years) ... you throw in that Rice made more outs ... you throw in that White was a better defensive player ... and, when it's all done you can make a compelling argument that Roy White was the better player.

But to me that specific answer is not the point -- hell, you could make a damned good argument that Jim Rice WAS better than Roy White. The answer does not get at the brilliance of Bill James. The point is the journey. The point is to think beyond the obvious. The point is to not settle for easy answers and not allow conventional wisdom to blind you.

I mention the Rice-White argument here because I'm about to really delve into some Win Shares as I make my best case for the player I think is the best on this year's Hall of Fame ballot -- Tim Raines. Win Shares, of course, are Bill's best effort to give us a quick number that could, at a glance, sum up a player's season while taking just about everything imaginable into consideration. I basically wrote 500 words here to go over Bill's Rice-White argument, but I could have just as easily done this:

Jim Rice's win shares from 1975-79: 127.

Roy White's win shares from 1968-72: 140.

And there you go. It's like a Cliff's Notes version of the argument. Bill's complicated formula for Win Shares show that when you take everything he knows into account -- a player's offensive contribution, his defensive contribution, the run environment he played in, the ballpark he played in, his speed and so on and so on -- that Roy White was a more valuable player in his five year peak than Jim Rice was in his five year peak. He was better by roughly the margin of 140-127.

Now, you may like Win Shares, you may not like them, you may like parts of but not other parts, you may never have even thought about them. But it's a lifetime of baseball study put into simple numbers ... it's like shorthand into the mind of the most influential baseball thinker of the last 50 years.

OK, so here goes: Tim Raines has 390 career Win Shares. That is a lot. A whole lot. That is more than any other player on the Hall of Fame ballot. It is also more than dozens of current Hall of Famers -- including Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and (yes, here we go) Roberto Clemente.

Wow. Tim Raines has more win shares than Roberto Clemente. Now, it's a funny thing: I suspect that the fact that Raines has more win shares than Clemente actually HURTS his case more than it helps it. Why? Because Clemente has become so great in the collective imagination, so absurdly and untouchably great, that people will see that stat and throw out the entire Win Shares thing. More win shares than Clemente! Ridiculous! This stat is meaningless.

This is a natural reaction. I was talking with my friend and Royals broadcaster deluxe Joel Goldberg the other day, and he was telling me how he cannot take Ultimate Zone Rating seriously as a statistic because it has not been kind to Torii Hunter. You have to go back to 2003 to find a year when Hunter had a great UZR -- in 2008, he was minus-11.5. He was better in 2009, but not enough better. Joel knows -- he KNOWS -- that Hunter is a great, great, great defensive center fielder. Therefore, the stat is full of bull.*

*Interestingly, John Dewan's plus/minus shows Hunter to have dropped off defensively as well. He was +21 in 2004, second in baseball and was +7 in 2005. But the next three years he was -9 plays total. He had a good defensive year in 2009, but even so he wasn't Top 10.

I don't exactly blame Joel ... this is human nature. UZR simply does not make enough sense to Joel to challenge his strongly held conviction that Torii Hunter is a great defensive center fielder. We're all susceptible to this. I got my "Graphical Player" book from ACTA Sports the other day -- "Eye opening dashboards of stats and graphs for over 1,000 players" -- and it's a fun read by some terrific people. Except then, all of a sudden, I saw that it said in 2006, Carlos Beltran was 2.6 wins WORSE THAN REPLACEMENT as a defensive center fielder. And that just turned me off completely. Yes, we all know how I feel about Beltran -- and there's plenty of evidence to show he's a superior defensive player -- but beyond all that, to say that defensively Beltran was two and a half wins worse than some AAA player you could find is simply too mind-blowing for me consider, and so I put the book away and, to be blunt about it, have not opened it up since.

So it goes with Raines' huge number of Win Shares. If you are a fan of Raines, you just nod your head. Hey, the guy was just hugely valuable. Here's a stat that proves it. But if you are not a fan of Raines or if you are only moderately interested in him, the number probably seems unrealistic ? voodoo sabermetrics. Come on. More win shares than Clemente?

So, we dive in a bit more. Tim Raines played about the same number of games as Roberto Clemente -- Clemente played 2,433 and Raines played 2,502. In total, Raines got about 140 more plate appearances. So their careers are of very similar length.

Raines, as you might imagine, got on base more (.385 on base to Clemente's .359) while Clemente hit for more power (.475 slugging to Raines' .425). They played in quite different eras, though, so it's probably best to neutralize their numbers to get a decent view of things.

Clemente neutralized: .321/.363/.480

Raines neutralized: .314/.410/.455

Wow. I didn't expect that. I thought Clemente's numbers when neutralized would separate him a bit from Raines ... but the opposite is true. And that's because people tend to put Raines in the wrong era. He really had the bulk of his career before the offensive explosion of the mid-to-late 1990s. He was at his best in the low-scoring 1980s, when runs were hard to come by. Neutralize the numbers, and (sacrilegious as it may seem) Raines' numbers look better than Clemente's.

Of course, Clemente was a brilliant right fielder with probably the greatest outfield arm in baseball history. And Raines was, by most estimations, only an OK left fielder with speed but not the best instincts or arm. Clemente had twice as many assists as Raines, and even that probably does not tell the full story about the differences between the two arms. Give a huge, huge edge to Clemente -- as big as you want.

But, wait, we have yet to talk about what might be Tim Raines greatest attribute -- he's probably the best base stealer in baseball history. He stole more than 800 bases at an 85% clip. No one in baseball history stole so many bases so successfully.

Percentages of players who have stolen 500-plus bases (since caught stealing was measured):

1. Tim Raines, 808 steals, 84.6%

2. Willie Wilson, 668 steals, 83.4%

3. Davey Lopes, 557 steals, 83.0%

4. Joe Morgan, 689 steals, 81.0%

5. Vince Coleman, 752 steals, 80.9%

6. Rickey Henderson, 1,406 steals, 80.8%

7. Ozzie Smith, 580 steals, 79.7%

8. Kenny Lofton , 622 steals, 79.5%

9. Paul Molitor, 504 steals, 79.5%

10. Luis Aparicio, 506 steals, 78.8%

Ty Cobb, Max Carey, Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins -- their caught stealing numbers are suspect. But even with what we know about Cobb and Collins, they too rank below Raines in stolen base percentage.

So, you have to ask yourself: greatest base stealer ever (or certainly in the picture) vs. greatest defensive right fielder ever. I don't know, seems like that could be about a wash. Especially when you consider that Clemente made 200 more outs and hit into 275 double plays, almost double Raines.

Now is the time when you say: "OK, seriously, how long are you going to keep up this facade. You cannot be saying that you think Tim Raines was as good a baseball player as Roberto Clemente." But see, here's the point: That doesn't matter. Roberto Clemente is widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest players in baseball history. The Sporting News ranked him 20th all-time, the same place SABR ranked him in 1999, and others have ranked him higher.

And Tim Raines got a measly 22.6% of the Hall of Fame vote last year.

Every single person has a different standard for the Baseball Hall of Fame. That's the beauty of it ... and the challenge. You may think the Hall of Fame should not have anyone in it worse than, say, George Brett. Someone else may think that Don Larsen should be in it for one magical day. Someone else may think that Roger Maris should be in it for a handful of good years and one hair-losing achievement. Someone else may think Don Sutton should be out, and someone may think that Jim Kaat should be in. There are groups out there for Dave Parker, for Don Mattingly, for Andre Dawson, for Minnie Minoso, for Bert Blyleven, for Jack Morris for Steve Garvey, for Tony Oliva and on and on and on. It's a stormy sea of different opinions and the question is not who is right or wrong -- because there is no right or wrong about an honor like the Hall of Fame -- but instead, who the heck is making actual sense.

So I hope to talk a little sense here. The Hall of Fame seems to come down to a player's peak and his longevity. Was he truly great at his best? And was he good for a long enough time?

Well, Tim Raines had a huge peak. From 1983-87 -- the five year peak -- he hit .318/.406/.467 for a 142 OPS+, the same OPS+ that Jim Rice had during his five-year peak. During those five years, he averaged 114 runs scored, 34 doubles, 10 triples, 11 home runs and 71 stolen bases a year. He led the league in runs scored twice, batting and on-base percentage once, doubles once, stolen bases twice, and could have won three MVP awards. He had 163 win shares in those five years -- an average of 32.6. Bill says a 30-win share season is an MVP-type year.

Tim Raines also had a huge career. He reached base almost 4,000 times ... or to compare him to a similar player, about 150 times more than Lou Brock. He's fifth all-time in stolen bases. His .385 on-base percentage is the second-best among eligible Hall of Famers with 9,000 plate appearances (behind only the Walking Man Eddie Yost), and his slugging percentage is better than Rickey Henderson's or Brock's and just two points behind Joe Morgan.

This is not a borderline Hall of Fame candidate here. This is a dominant player. He never really got his due as a player while he was playing ... in part because he shared his era with the great Rickey Henderson, in part because he spent his best years in Canada, in part because he was hammered by collusion, in part because on-base percentage did not (and does not) get the respect it deserved, in part because leadoff hitters tend to be naturally underrated, in part because he spent his last six or seven years as a part time player and that image of the older Raines was burned in the memory of people (especially his two championship years with the Yankees).

But the purported reason they wait five years before voting on Hall of Famers is to give people a little time to ruminate and carefully consider a player's career, to allow the emotion to fade and the myths to dissipate. I suppose I'm naive enough to think at least a few people will read this and snap awake and realize, "Holy cow, Tim Raines' had more Win Shares than Roberto Clemente!" Then again, I imagine a few people will read this and say, "Who cares about Win Shares?" So it goes.

Quick update: I did not make any mention in this blog post about Tim Raines drug use and there's a two-word reason for this: Paul Molitor. He breezed in first ballot and there was almost no mention of his drug use at almost the exact same time as Raines.