This past week, shocking news hit the baseball world. It wasn’t anything from free agency or expansion. It was the Hall of Fame, yet again.
The Today’s Game Era Committee voted to elect Lee Smith and Harold Baines in its twice-every-five-years voting process, which was announced Sunday night. Smith, who once held the major league record in saves, was widely expected to be honored. Baines, on the other hand, was very, very much not. And his shocking entry brings up many names as deserving or more who have been left crudely in the dust.
Smith retired in 1998 with 498 saves, later surpassed by the already-voted-in Trevor Hoffman and the no-doubt-about-it Mariano Rivera.1 Smith’s Hall of Fame vote support wavered very consistently between 30 and 50 percent in his 15 eligible years on the ballot through 2017. Sure, that was significantly shy of the 75 percent tally necessary for inclusion in the usual process. But when it came time for his first possible Today’s Game Era Committee opportunity, this felt like a near sure thing.
Baines retired in 2002 and thus showed up first on the 2007 Hall of Fame ballot. For four straight years, he barely continued to keep qualifying with the necessary 5 percent threshold. He bounced around from 5.3 percent to 5.2 percent to 5.9 percent and 6.1 percent, then fell off the ballot with only 4.8 percent of the vote in 2011. Among the many, many modern multiple-time All-Stars, his name was on the lower tier of any significant national conversation. If you ever need to judge that, just look at Jay Jaffe’s excellent work, as always.
Now that Cooperstown has a place for Harold Baines, who are some names that should pique the interest of fans and future iterations of the Today’s Game Era Committee? One tremendously easy place to get started is Kenny Lofton, the beloved former Indians superstar of the ‘90s. Lofton’s high-level, analytically-focused portfolio (six All-Stars, four Gold Gloves, 68.3 career WAR, 47.5 WAR in a consecutive eight-year peak) looks quite swell compared to Baines (six All-Stars, 38.7 career WAR, 20.7 WAR in a consecutive eight-year peak).
Lofton, who retired after helping the Tribe in the 2007 playoff run, only appeared once on the Hall of Fame ballot. That was in the oft-ridiculed 2013 voting cycle where no one was granted entry at all, but now eight (and counting!) players eventually made their way in2. Lofton received just 3.2 percent support from the voters, falling off the ballot without even a whimper.
Certainly, a lot of Lofton’s baseball value came from baserunning, defense, and positional value. His offense (.299/.372/.423, 107 OPS+, 109 wRC+) was good, clearly above-average, but not necessarily Hall of Fame-worthy on its own. Baines (.289/.356/.465, 121 OPS+, 119 wRC+) was a better hitter in a more pitching-friendly era. To his detriment, he played over half his career as a designated hitter. And that offensive difference is not that crazily significant!
The reaction to the Harold Baines vote has been rough. Sports Illustrated called it an embarrassment. Deadspin brought the heat, as always. The Ringer got in on the action. The backlash was so severe that it prompted a cursing Tony La Russa rant about people who people who didn’t have an intimate knowledge of Baines’ game3. This certainly isn’t the first time that the Baseball Hall of Fame got something quite wrong and it won’t be the last.
But one place where a correction can take place is easily with Kenny Lofton. People can make a convincing argument too for Omar Vizquel (three All-Stars, 11 Gold Gloves, 45.6 career WAR, 24.7 WAR in a consecutive eight-year peak). It’s not hard to do so. Corey Barnes already wrote about that a few weeks back. On paper, Lofton’s resume is even better! So, are we over-valuing Vizquel’s shortstop defense but ignoring Lofton’s center field defense? Over-valuing Baines’ bat and under-valuing Lofton’s far superior offense over Vizquel?
Lofton’s 2013 one-vote-and-out shunning was a shame. The whole Harold Baines episode kicked wide open another door, thanks to the always-whimsical Hall of Fame. The next time the Today’s Game Era Committee convenes, it is best that they fix one of the more disappointing voting results in recent memory.