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Trying to make sense of why the Veterans’ Committee elected Harold Baines

I tried to speculate as to why the his supporters voted for him, and along the way I question whether or not we look at longevity the right way.

MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Winter Meetings recently kicked off, yet the biggest news out there has little to do with the meetings themselves. Even casual baseball fans can’t stop reacting to the Veterans’ Committee’s latest attack on a Hall of Fame that actually would try to induct the best of the best based on intellectually honest, rational arguments grounded in a modern understanding of baseball analysis.

Daniel R. Epstein discussed what made Baines such a poor selection, so I won’t rehash that here. I doubt anybody really needs to be convinced of why that is the case, regardless of whether or not you favor modern or traditional baseball analysis.

In a way, Baines’s election is a microcosm of what is wrong with the VC process. This article was going to discuss why in detail, and I even wrote a few hundred words before I realized that nobody needs me to explain why the Veterans’ Committee process is broken. There is the cronyism, the makeup of the committee, the lack of transparency and accountability. I could go on.

Countless articles have been written on the subject. I, myself, have touched on the subject when discussing previous ballots. Baseball fans have been well aware of the problems with the VC long before they elected Baines. His election just added more evidence to the arguments.

We will probably never know why those 12 voters thought that Baines deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. I got to thinking about why they possibly could have done so, and cronyism is a possibility. Jay Jaffe mentioned the connections some of the voters have to Baines. Traditional stats can reveal why an undeserving candidate was elected, as it does with Lee Smith and saves, but there really isn’t much there.

For his career, he hit below .300 and slugged below .500. Hitting 384 HR is unremarkable. He does have 1,628 RBI, which is the 34th highest ever, right between Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (1,623) and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera (1,635). He had more career RBIs than Hall of Famers George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson, Rogers Hornsby, Harmon Killebrew, Al Kaline, Willie McCovey, and Joe DiMaggio.

Given that only three of the sixteen members of the committee were writers, I could see Baines’s RBI total carrying a lot of weight. We all remember when the RBI carried a lot of weight in evaluating hitters. MVPs were won based on high RBI totals as recently as 2012. We now know that the RBI is a useless measure of talent and skill, but former and current players and coaches still put a lot of weight in it.

OK, so the RBI total is a reasonable possibility as to why Baines got elected. It is a nonsensical reason, but one that helps in my speculation as to the rationale behind his voters. Is there anything else?

Perhaps longevity? Baines did play for 22 seasons. Not many players can say that. He was not a compiler either. He was a good hitter through his third to last season. After that he only had 414 PA over the next two seasons where he hit poorly. He saw that he did not have it anymore and left at the right time.

Longevity seems to carry a lot of weight with fans and writers, and I get why. It is hard to be a viable major leaguer for that long, no matter how good a player was in his prime. Paul Konerko, a former teammate of Baines, made that argument in his favor.

The thing is that I believe that the masses do not evaluate longevity the right way. I discussed this a bit in my very first article for Beyond the Box Score that contrasted the careers of Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds. Griffey played 22 seasons, but due to injuries he was terrible for nearly the entirety of the second half of his career. He probably should have retired after the 2002 or 2003 season.

His counting stats would not have looked as impressive, but his rate stats would have looked significantly better. I honestly would not have thought less of his career had he retired after 14 or 15 seasons, and he likely would have still gotten into the Hall of Fame on his first try. As for Edmonds, while he played “only” 17 seasons and never came close to Griffey in his prime, he was far more consistent and walked away at just the right time.

Omar Vizquel, one of the most divisive candidates on the current BBWAA ballot, played 24 seasons but going by Wins Above Average (WAA), he was a below average player for seven of his final eight seasons. The infamous Pete Rose also played 24 seasons, but his last eight combined for -1.2 WAR. He was one of the most notorious compilers in MLB history. Bill Buckner played 21 seasons not counting his one plate appearance in 1969, and he accumulated only 15 WAR! He hung around at least six years too long.

Nolan Ryan and Chipper Jones are great examples of true longevity. Ryan played for 26 seasons not counting his cup of coffee in 1966, and he was effective until his final season in 1993, after which he retired. Jones’s longevity was especially impressive. He played 18 full seasons in the majors and never once had a bad year! He never had a WAA below zero! Longevity is best evaluated by how long a player was good, rather than simply how long he played.

Now back to Baines. I am curious as to whether or not any changes will come from his dubious election. He got almost no support from hundreds of writers while he was on the BBWAA ballot, and 12 people overturned that for reasons we will probably never know. That is basically a gigantic middle finger to the BBWAA. It really is.

Unlike cases such as Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, and Kenny Lofton, Baines’s career does not look any better when viewed through the prism of modern baseball analysis. The VC has made many mistakes since its inception, but I don’t think they ever undermined the process like they just did. Short of having the entire electorate decline to vote, the BBWAA can’t do anything about it. The Hall of Fame can, but they have made it abundantly clear over the years that they don’t care.

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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.