"I'm not surprised by the career he had. He had a knack on how to play this game. He was a delight to watch. It didn't make a difference who the pitcher was." - Expos broadcaster Jim Fanning.
2502 G, 2605 H, 1571 R, .294 AVG, .385 OBP, 808 SB
The final of the 23 Hall of Fame candidates reviewed here seems to be the most puzzling case of all of them. Tim Raines was one of the best leadoff hitters ever, and incredibly exciting on the basepaths. He ranks fifth all-time in stolen bases. Doing some research on his case of the Hall of Fame, I couldn't find a single persuasive case for why he's not Hall-worthy. And yet, he garnered less than 25% of the votes needed for induction in his first year of eligibility last year. So, I guess this will be just another article on the internets about why he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Raines broke through as a 21 year old left fielder with an exciting young Montreal squad in the strike-shortened 1981 season. He immediately established himself as a fixture in left field, alongside the previously reviewed Andre Dawson in center field. His speed terrified catchers and fielders alike, as he stole 71 bases in just 88 games and 313 at-bats (for perspective, in 1982 he had 647 at-bats; at his 1981 rate, he would have stolen 146 bases). His .304 average and .391 OBP were pretty impressive as well; those numbers earned him the runner-up spot in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, behind the phenomenon that was Fernando Valenzuela.
Things continued this way for the next several years. From 1981-1986 he stole at least 70 bases each year, and other than an off-year in 1982 his average never dipped below .298, nor his OBP below .393. Despite all of this, he received absolutely zero offers as a free agent after the 1986 season. He later found out that this was because of owner collusion. Nevertheless, he returned to the Expos on May 1st of 1987, and with no spring training, hit .330, with 18 home runs, 68 RBI, 123 runs scored, and 50 steals in just 139 games. His .429 OBP and .526 slugging percentage both placed him in the top 10 of the NL, an impressive feat for a leadoff man.
Injuries curtailed his production in 1988, and from there he hit .300 only once more. After two subpar seasons of just 41 and 49 steals in 1989 and 1990, he was dealt to the White Sox. He was productive in Chicago for a few years before his body began to break down somewhat. Traded to the Yankees, he succeeded in a part-time role for three seasons and earned two World Series rings before signing with Oakland in 1999. Early in a very poor season, it was discovered he had lupus, and for all intents and purposes his career ended there (though he did recover enough to return to the majors and play with his son for the Orioles in 2001).
Raines finished his career with the fifth most stolen bases in history, with 808. Of the ten players in MLB history with 700 steals or more, only three are not in the Hall - Raines, Vince Coleman (who by Hall standards was a very poor hitter), and Arlie Latham (who seems to be a 19th century version of Coleman). His batting record is clearly not that of an empty hitter; of the non-Hall players with 500 or more steals, only Barry Bonds could be considered a better hitter than Raines. He led the league in steals four times and runs twice, and finished in the top five nine and four times, respectively. He made the All-Star game seven consecutive years.
So what's the case against Raines? Well, he did have an issue with cocaine early in his career, which some voters tend to look down on. After age 27, he only played 150 games in a season once, and just three times made it through 140 games. His second half of career was not nearly as productive as his early career - that's a fair point as well, though given his first half, most players would have found that hard to live up to.
One of the other criticisms that I've seen levied against him is that he didn't finish high in the MVP voting often enough. Well, some of that has to be written off to playing north of the border. There's no other explanation of why he finished 19th in 1981 with a .304-5 HR-71 SB line, while Dave Concepcion and his .304-5-4 line finished in the top 5. The voters decided that Mike Schmidt's 40 HR's and .255 average were more valuable than Raines' 90 steals and .298 average in 1983. Plus, he continually finished behind inferior players who seemed to get bonus point for having played on playoff teams (Gary Matthews in 1984, Tommy Herr in 1985, Glenn Davis in 1986). I don't think this is a legitimate argument against him.
Raines compares very favorably against Hall members with more than 400 steals, but one comparison in particular that seems appropriate is first ball Hall of Famer Lou Brock. After all, both were known primarily as speed players. But, here's what they looked like compared against each other, as well as another Hall member who Raines bears similarity to.
By all accounts, the only areas where Brock was superior to Raines were in volume categories. And that's not to say that longevity shouldn't be rewarded; milestones are important. But it's clear that Raines was simply a better hitter than Brock. He had more power, scored more often, struck out far less, walked far more, got on base more, and stole bases more successfully than Brock (Raines' success percentage is the highest among players with more than 300 steals).
Player C in this comparison? First ballot Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who is a step above Raines as a hitter, but not so far above that the 300 steal difference doesn't make up for it. Quite simply, Raines compares well to two deserving first ballot inductees. I don't see any reason why he should not be given the courtesy of induction himself. Unfortunately, it looks like that will have to wait a while, since he's likely to actually lose votes this year because of the inclusion of Rickey Henderson. Eventually, it should come, and it will be well deserved when it does.