Claim to fame: One of the first longtime designated hitters to build some support for Cooperstown, Baines hit .289 lifetime with 2,866 hits and 384 home runs. He might never have been a superstar, much of a defender, or someone I’d seriously consider voting into the Hall of Fame, but with 150 more hits, he’d probably have been a first ballot inductee.
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Baines received 4.8 percent of the vote this year from the Baseball Writers Association of America, which will remove him from future ballots. In his four preceding years on the ballot, Baines never got more than about 6 percent of the writers vote.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Here’s an interesting quirk of baseball history. Baseball-Reference.com includes a Bill James-inspired metric called Similarity Scores which show how players compare based on career batting stats. For reasons I’ll explain momentarily, the player Al Kaline ranks most similar to for this metric is Baines.
Does this mean Baines was as good as Kaline, a first-ballot Hall of Famer? No. Kaline has the better lifetime batting average, a higher OPS+ and nearly three times as much WAR. More than that, Similarity Scores aren’t adjusted for era, meaning if Kaline played the second half of his career in the hitter-friendly 1990s or got to DH a lot like Baines, Kaline might have a .315 career batting average and 500 more hits. This says nothing about Kaline’s superior value in the outfield or as a franchise cornerstone of the Detroit Tigers. He earned his spot in Cooperstown.
But it wouldn’t seem outlandish to call Baines a poor man’s Kaline at the plate, and with 150 more hits, he’d already be in the Hall of Fame. Until Rafael Palmeiro this year, no eligible player with 3,000 hits had failed to be a first ballot inductee since 1952. Don’t ask me why the BBWAA assigns such significance to 3,000 hits. It isn’t like this with 300 wins, as Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, or Don Sutton know, nor with 500 home runs, which couldn’t get Harmon Killebrew into the Hall of Fame his first three tries. But 3,000 hits has meant first-round induction for, dare I say, lesser greats like Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, and Carl Yastrzemski.
Meanwhile, Al Oliver, who hit .303 lifetime with 2,743 hits received exactly 20 Hall of Fame votes his only year eligible, 1991. Baines has done markedly better than Oliver in Cooperstown voting for reasons I’m not completely sure of—Oliver has a slightly better WAR, 38.8 and played from 1968 to 1985, with most of his best years in a tougher time for hitters than Baines who played 1980 to 2001. Judging from his hitting stats, Oliver might be one of the more underrated players in baseball history. Neither man was anything less than a liability defensively, though if I had to choose one of them to DH for me, I’d take Oliver, no question.
All of this is not to knock Baines who had many All Star-caliber years, figured in nicely with some playoff teams, and would be a first rate member of a Hall of Very Good. But then, a player or two with 3,000 hits might belong there too.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.
Others in this series: Adrian Beltre, Al Oliver, Albert Belle, Barry Larkin, Bert Blyleven, Billy Martin, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Closers, Dan Quisenberry, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, George Van Haltren, Jack Morris, Joe Carter, Joe Posnanski, John Smoltz, Juan Gonzalez, Keith Hernandez, Ken Caminiti, Larry Walker, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Pete Browning, Phil Cavarretta, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Rocky Colavito, Ron Guidry, Smoky Joe Wood, Steve Garvey, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines, Will Clark