Let’s get something out of the way: Tim Raines is easily a worthy Hall of Famer, and even if it were concluded that he was a below-average defender, that would still be true. It is likely that Raines will get elected during his final year of eligibility. I find it curious, though, that I will occasionally find a voter who will decline to check his box because his defense was not good enough. I am not going to name them because it seems to me that they are really trying, and not that they are being willfully ignorant or obstinate. At least they understand that defense matters.
From what I have gathered from articles and baseball writers on social media, the consensus on Raines’s defense is that he was an average defender in left field. You would think that a player with his speed would have at least graded out as above-average-to-plus, but it does not always work out that way. Maybe he didn’t have great instincts, or maybe he didn’t get good reads on fly balls, or maybe — and I find this hard to believe — he just didn’t try very hard in the field. It’s not like teams paid big bucks for left field defense during Raines’s career.
I use advanced defensive metrics despite their issues because anything is better than going by errors and fielding percentage. Even if defensive analytics can be improved using Statcast data, it is doubtful that they will ever measure defense as well as other stats measure offense.
Some might describe me as a “stathead,” but I believe that the best measure of a player’s defense is the evaluation of good, experienced scouts. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to any scouts who watched Raines play, nor do I even have access to their scouting reports.
Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating are relatively new stats that rely on some modern technology, so for the purpose of this exercise I am going to have to resort to using Total Zone, which will be referred to as fielding runs.
For his career, Raines has a total of -7 fielding runs. That doesn’t look very good, but then again, Ken Griffey Jr. only has a total of three fielding runs. The late Ron Santo was known for his great defense, and he has 20 career fielding runs. I don’t cite these facts to indict defensive metrics. I bring up these examples because they show how the career numbers can be deceiving.
As I am sure you are all well aware, sometimes players hang on too long and it has a negative impact on their career numbers. Griffey was an extreme case that I discussed in my first BtBS article. He was worth 89 fielding runs through 1997, and then his defense plummeted. Santo was a poor fielder to start his career, and then fired off 56 fielding runs from 1963 to 1970. His defense then declined over his last four seasons. Rickey Henderson — who was primarily a left fielder, like Raines — looks a lot better at 65 fielding runs, but he had 132 fielding runs from 1980 through 1990.
So what about Raines? Through 1992, Raines accumulated a total of 24 fielding runs. That averages out at two fielding runs per year. That can best be described as a 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale. At best. It looks like the consensus of Raines’s defense, even in his prime, is correct.
Let’s take this in a different direction and see how Raines’s career defense compares to other left fielders already in the Hall of Fame. I used the Play Index and set the search parameters for Hall of Famers who played at least 50 percent of their games in left field.
My jaw dropped when I saw Carl Yastrzemski’s defensive numbers. Yaz was basically Alex Gordon in left field during his prime.
Ed Delahanty sticks out because he played in the dead-ball era and baseball was weird back then. Ted Williams, Ralph Kiner, and Willie Stargell rate worse defensively than Raines, but were offensive juggernauts. Lou Brock doesn’t look too good in that group, but baseball was evaluated very differently when he got elected. Billy Williams is interesting, because he was worse than Raines defensively, better offensively, and an above-average baserunner. That added up to 63.5 WAR, nearly as much Raines’s 69 WAR.
It’s not like left field is a premium defensive position, and holding Raines or any player to a high standard there is not fair. It is basically where players are put who have too much speed and athleticism for first but lack the arm for right field. Any player who would be elite in left field would likely get moved to center or somewhere further up the defensive spectrum. There are exceptions, of course, such as Gordon, Carl Crawford, Starling Marté, and Luis González. Oh, and Barry Bonds, because Bonds is the exception to everything.
Tim Raines might not have been much better than average in left field, but that’s okay. He was good enough offensively and was the best baserunner ever not named Rickey Henderson. He should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.