Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Case For Raines

Good morning Fackers. For the most part, the backlash over last week's Hall of Fame voting results has cooled down and everyone has moved on to extracting their pound of flesh from Mark McGwire. But in running down the voting results last week, I made mention that the continued exclusion of Tim Raines and his overall poor showing in the results is the gravest injustice in the ballots. I further stated that the reasons why warranted its own post. This is that post.

Raines, like Bert Blyleven, has become something of rallying cause for the sabermetric community, as he was a tremendously valuable player, for a number of years, whose greatness isn't readily evident when measured by traditional metrics. I think this might be working against Raines. As far as we've come in our understanding of the game, there are still those amongst the voting ranks who have their heads buried in the sand, who are steadfastly against sabermetrics, the blogging community, and anything else that isn't a crusty old remnant of whenever they first cut their teeth in sports writing.

So rather than lay out a bunch of statistical analysis supporting Raines' cause - something that's been done far more eloquently by the likes of Joe Posnanski, Rob Neyer, Jonah Keri, and raines30.com - I'll try to put things in more of a general framework.

Simply put, Tim Raines, with the exception of Rickey Henderson, is the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. He was a machine at getting on base, he was historically successful at stealing bases (both in terms of quantity and success rate), and he scored runs by the boatload. Granted, if Raines was more of a power threat he would have been a three hitter rather than a leadoff hitter. But, batting leadoff is arguably the most important position in the batting order, as it will see the most plate appearances over the course of the season. And Raines' exceptional ability to avoid making outs made him extremely valuable in that role. Furthermore, Raines was not without power. While his home run totals are pedestrian at best, he spent his prime in Olympic Stadium, a very pitcher friendly park. Even so, Raines accumulated lots of doubles and triples - not to mention all the extra bases he stole - and his slugging percentage routinely outpaced the league average.

It's also very important to consider context in which Raines accomplished all of this. Baseball in the 1980s was markedly different than the game we watch today. Cookie-cutter astroturf ballparks permeated the game - particularly in Raines' National League. Power was down - the 49 home runs hit in 1987 both by recent electee Andre Dawson and recent confessor Mark McGwire were the most in baseball between George Foster's 52 in 1977 and Albert Belle's 50 in 1995 Cecil Fielder's 51 in 1990.

The game was built upon speed. Billy Martin's Oakland A's and Whitey Herzog's St. Louis Cardinals attempted steals at will. Herzog's teams, built on speed and defense, were arguably the team of decade, raking in four division titles, three pennants, and a World Series. The style of play permeated the game and players - Raines, Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Ozzie Smith - ran with reckless abandon.

And that was the problem with that style of play: it was reckless. Teams placed such a premium on speed that human out machines like Alfredo Griffin, Juan Samuel, and Mookie Wilson were given thousands of wasteful plate appearances in the leadoff spot strictly because they were fast. Traces of this philosophy still remain, as Dusty Baker's Reds have spent the last two years getting abyssmal OBP from the leadoff spot just because Corey Patterson and Willie Taveras are fast. When these players did manage to reach base, many of them were caught stealing so frequently that the bushels of stolen bases they accumulated were of little to no value thanks to all the extra outs they cost their teams. But with the right personnel, with the likes of Tim Raines getting on base at a .390 clip and swiping seventy plus bases a year at a jaw dropping 87% success rate, it was a successful and exciting style of play. The problem was, with the exception of Raines' Expos and Henderson's A's and Yankees, teams didn't have the right personnel to make that style of play work.

Baseball, as a game, has changed innumerable times in its 130+ year history. Our understanding of that game has changed and evolved over that time as well. The early Hall of Fame voters were able to understand that the players of the Deadball Era helped their teams win in different ways than the sluggers of the Ruth era. We understand now that top offensive contributions made in the mid to late sixties appear paltry compared to numbers that came before and after, but are no less outstanding when considering the context of the game at the time. We are starting to understand more and more the value of positional adjustments, and how a certain level of offensive production from a player capable of fielding a premium defensive position could be offer more value than a greater level of offensive production from a less important defensive position.

All of these factors come into play when considering Raines' case. Batting leadoff may not be the glamour batting position that the three or four spots are, but it's an extremely important spot. And virtually no one was better at batting in that spot than Tim Raines. Furthermore, he did his damage in an era where the game was placing more focus on the leadoff spot than it ever had before. With any luck, the BBWAA will realize this at some point in the next twelve years.


  1. I see your Tim Raines and raise you an Albert Belle. The most dominant hitter in the 90s will never sniff the "Hall" and thats a shame.

  2. No doubt that Belle put up some great numbers from about 91 through 99. But I don't know that he was the most dominant hitter of the 90s. He's certainly in the discussion, but McGwire, Griffey, Thomas, Sosa, Martinez, Bonds and others were putting numbers that were the same or better at that time.

    Belle's career really only spans ten full seasons, the minimum allowed for enshrinement. Three of those seasons were rather pedestrian by power hitting OF standards. Whether he should be penalized for his career ending injury (and for his poor media relations for that matter) shouldn't be the deciding factor, but it certainly doesn't help. He deserved more support than he received, but IMO he's not a HoFer.

    As for Raines, it's really an apples to oranges comparison. They were two different types of players. Belle had several contemporaries who could do what he did. Raines had just one.

  3. Seeing Raines with sub 30% voting still makes me physically ill. The guy had almost 1900 singles and turned almost half of them into doubles. Think about that.

    Anyway, the guy's only sin was playing at the same time as Rickey Henderson - and even then he wasn't that far into that shadow.

  4. Cecil Fielder hit 51 HRs in 1990.

  5. You're absolutely right; my mistake. Number 50 came at Yankee Stadium if I recall correctly - a monster shot off Steve Adkins.

    The general idea still holds. Power numbers were way down in the 80s and the game was shifting towards a speed and defense league. No two players typified that better than Raines and Rickey.

  6. One piece that I don't think is particularly relevant (but some do) and could have been worth a mention is the fact that Raines did, like, a shit-load of blow during his playing career. Should we not elect steroid users but cocaine users are ok? Are both ok? Neither? Does cocaine enhance performance, especially as it relates to base stealing?

    It's an interesting debate.

  7. Good point about the coke. I'm aware of it, and I don't think it was particularly relevant, but I did reference it in a similar piece I authored elsewhere when Raines first went up for induction.

    Based on what little I know about coke (thanks DARE program), I don't think it should be considered a performance enhancer, nor do I think anyone was taking it with the intent of improving their play. If anything I would imagine it would have a deleterious effect on one's play, bur Raines' numbers remained strong. Others who were swooped up in the 80s MLB coke culture (Dave Parker, half the Royals) weren't so lucky.

    From a character perspective, I think Raines was pretty vocal about his regret for his involvement in that and was universally regarded as an excellent teammate throughout his career. While I'm not sure exactly what to make of the PED users, I don't have a particular issue with the coke users when it comes to considering their performance.

  8. For what it's worth, Raines' cocaine use was early in his career, primarily a single year. He did something the steroid abusers just don't get: He accepted responsibility, got help, and kicked the habit. What a concept.

    And as others have mentioned elsewhere, you can't hold a drug habit against Raines if you don't hold it against Molitor, who's already in...

    Raines is no-brainer for HOF...