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Hall of Fame surprise for Harold Baines

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The Baseball Hall of Fame just got a hell of a lot more inclusive.

The Today’s Game Era committee announced that they have selected two players for inclusion in next year’s Hall of Fame class.

One is Lee Smith, a pitcher who spent a long stretch as the most feared closer in the game. He was the all-time saves leader for a stretch – he’s currently third – and at one point surpassed 50 percent of the vote in the regular BBWAA balloting. He was a unanimous choice of the 16-member committee.

The other is Harold Baines. He was a compiler, the sort of guy you labeled “professional hitter.” He never cleared seven percent on the writers’ ballot and fell off completely after five years.

In a decision reminiscent of the rampant cronyism that marked the Hall’s Veteran’s Committee selections back in the mid-20th century, Baines was named on 12 of the 16 ballots – ballots cast by, among others, Jerry Reinsdorf and Tony LaRussa, both of whom had significant relationships with Baines during his long stint with the Chicago White Sox.

None of this is to say that Harold Baines wasn’t a fine major league baseball player. He played for over 20 years in the big leagues, amassing 2,866 hits, 384 home runs and 1,628 RBI in his 22 seasons. That’s not nothing.

However, he spent much of his career at designated hitter. He was never considered to be one of the best of the game while he was playing – he had exactly two top-10 finishes in the MVP voting and led the league in an offensive category once (slugging percentage in 1984). He only made six All-Star teams.

Simply put – he doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer.

Again, I’m not looking to denigrate his accomplishments on the field. But in a world where guys like Dick Allen and Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker remain on the outside looking in, when Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones are struggling to stay on the ballot, Harold Baines shouldn’t even be in the conversation.

Granted, his statistical case looks OK on a superficial level. He stuck around long enough to get a lot of hits and drive in a lot of runs. And you don’t play in over 2,800 career games if you’re a bad player. But by every conceivable advanced metric, Baines fails to measure up. He simply doesn’t live up to the standards. In terms of wins above replacement (WAR), his 38.7 ties him for 545th place all time, tied with luminaries such as Juan Gonzalez and Magglio Ordonez, neither of whom is anyone’s idea of Cooperstown material.

Adding Lee Smith to the Hall makes sense. While advanced metrics have yet to figure out an ideal way to measure the value of relief pitchers, there’s at least an argument to be made about Smith’s position in the game. He is the seventh pitcher who was primarily a reliever (though he’ll likely be joined by Mariano Rivera following this year’s writers’ balloting); his 478 saves were the most ever for a significant stretch and he was renowned for his intimidating presence.

But Baines? Baines feels like a mistake. If nothing else, the usual Hall discussions based around points of comparison – the “if this guy is in, then you have to let that guy in” argument – have been completely blown up, because there are scores of players who had better careers than Harold Baines.

As far as the rest of the committee voting went, former outfielder and manager Lou Piniella fell just short of induction with 11 votes. George Steinbrenner, Orel Hershiser, Albert Belle, Joe Carter, Will Clark, Davey Johnson and Charlie Manuel all received fewer than five votes.

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