Tony La Russa once again defends Harold Baines’ election to Hall of Fame
In December, the Today’s Game Committee (formerly known as the Veterans Committee) elected OF/DH Harold Baines and reliever Lee Smith to the Hall of Fame. Both players’ elections to the Hall of Fame caused some controversy, as many argued that while both players were quite good, neither was quite Hall of Fame material.
Tony La Russa, who was described by Baines as a close personal friend, went on MLB Network to discuss Baines’ election with Chris Russo. La Russa called arguments against Baines’ worthiness “weak-a**, superficial bulls---.”La Russa is back at it. In an article he wrote (shared by ESPN’s Buster Olney) dated February 5, 2019, he once again put together a case defending Baines as well as pushing back on the idea that cronyism got Baines into the Hall of Fame. La Russa wrote:
As part of their in-depth review of the candidates, it was clearto the committee that it was their responsibility to maintain the extremely high standards in place for election to the Hall of Fame. Allegiance to the H/F exclusivitywas the first and only priority.
When you are accused of compromising a commitment, how do you respond? The bias issue unacceptably disrespects the 12 voters for Harold and the committee of historians that placed him on the ballot.
La Russa then cherry-picked handfuls of stats that put Baines in a favorable light. He starts out by noting that Baines was close to the 3,000-hit threshold (134 hits shy) but was held back in part because of three strikes during his career which cost him 166 games. La Russa uses a vague group of players he calls “generational greats” and points out that there are only 13 generational greats with more hits than Baines. Baines, objectively, retired with 2,866 hits and currently ranks 46th on the all-time leaderboard. With no transparency as to his methodology, La Russa erased 32 players.
Continuing on, La Russa then uses a 20-year timespan between 1980-1999, which removes the final two years of Baines’ career. Conveniently, they happened to be two of the worst seasons of his career. La Russa cites the following stats: most hits, most RBI, most total bases, most extra bases, most home runs, and most doubles. These are counting stats. What that means is that players who play for a long time -- which Baines did, he played 22 seasons between the ages of 21 and 42 -- look better. For example, Baines indeed ranks third in total bases in the time period specified. However, if we look at slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats) and use a stringent threshold of 5,000 at-bats, Baines ranks 45th in slugging percentage at .469. Even if we use an even more stringent threshold of 7,000 at-bats in that 20-year timespan, Baines still only ranks 18th in slugging percentage, trailing players like Will Clark (.493), Dwight Evans (.484), Kent Hrbek (.481), Bobby Bonilla (.478), and Paul O’Neill (.475).
La Russa double-counts by including the other stats, as “extra bases,” home runs, and doubles are counted in total bases. Baines was a one-dimensional player, so by restating his argument multiple ways, La Russa gives off the impression that Baines accomplished more than he actually did. Furthermore, La Russa was misleading, listing Baines as fourth in home runs (373) from 1980-2001. Baines was actually ninth, only a few home runs ahead of the likes of Gary Gaetti (360) and Chili Davis (350). Baines trailed Joe Carter (396) by a similar amount than he led those two in that span of time as well.
It is 2019, so we are well past the point of needing to point out the flaw of the RBI statistic, but since La Russa cited it, I will do so. RBI is a bad statistic to use to judge a single player’s value because it’s a statistic that is highly dependent on context. J.D. Martinez led baseball in RBI last season with 130. However, he played for the team that led the league in on-base percentage at .339. When Martinez batted third, he frequently had Mookie Betts (.438 OBP) and Andrew Benintendi (.366 OBP) batting in front of him, which meant plenty of RBI opportunities. Both players also hit a fair amount of doubles and triples along with singles. Betts had 47 doubles and five triples while Benintendi had 41 doubles and six triples. Not only were they getting on base, they were doing so in ways that made it even easier for Martinez to knock them in. Now let’s imagine Martinez played for the Padres last year, the team that finished dead-last in OBP at .297. Travis Jankowski most frequently batted first and Eric Hosmer most frequently batted second. Jankowski had a .332 OBP with 12 doubles and three triples in 387 plate appearances. Hosmer had 31 doubles and two triples with a .322 OBP in 677 PA. Martinez might not have even gotten to 100 RBI if he had those two batting ahead of him last season. No one on the Padres last year crossed 70 RBI.
All this being said, Baines never led the league in RBI and in fact crossed 100 RBI only three times. That Baines finished second on La Russa’s list for the 20-year time span he created speaks mostly to Baines’ longevity.
La Russa then cites Baines’ “clutch situational results,” which somehow includes intentional walks. Like RBI, intentional walks are context-dependent. Was Baines being intentionally walked because pitchers were scared of him, or was it because doing so created a double-play opportunity or set up a better platoon match-up? Perhaps the hitter behind Baines was weak. Baines set a career-high with 22 intentional walks in 1991 with the Athletics. He most frequently had catcher Terry Steinbach hitting behind him, who posted a mediocre .698 OPS that season. Baines’ next-highest intentional walks total in a season was 14 in 1988. He most frequently had Ivan Calderon and his .723 OPS hitting behind him.
As for the actual “clutch situational results,” La Russa lists most game winning RBI and most go-ahead RBI between 1969 and 2018. These statistics are bunk for the same reasons as listed above. RBI is a context-dependent statistic and Baines had a rather lengthy career hitting in the middle of the batting order, giving him a significant number of opporutnities with which to drive in the game-winning or go-ahead run.
La Russa moves on to focus on designated hitters specifically, listing Baines’ ranking in five counting stats from 1974-2001 among DH’s in games played as a DH, hits, RBI, home runs, and batting average. First of all, games played as DH? What does this actually prove about Baines’ abilities other than that he had a long career? Secondly, once again, counting stats are bad stats by themselves because they reward players who simply played for a while, even to the detriment of their teams. This is why it’s better to use stats like OBP and SLG, which are still rudimentary. At any rate, limiting the field to only DH’s makes Baines look better because there just weren’t that many players at the time who were given that role nearly exclusively the way Baines was in the second half of his career. It’s like saying Ron Perranoski is a Hall of Famer because he led all closers in saves from 1960-70.
Finally, La Russa uses Baines’ longevity as a talking point for his worthiness as a Hall of Famer. He becomes very vague, writing that Baines is “in the midst of Hall of Famers in scores of meaningful categories.” He points out that Baines had eight seasons of hitting .300 or better with 90 or more RBI. He doesn’t note that this feat has been accomplished by 32 other players, or that the likes of Magglio Ordonez, Nomar Garciaparra, Bernie Williams, and Andres Galarraga fell only one season shy. Why would one .300/90 season make or break a player’s worthiness? La Russa does cite a bit more context with his next cherry-picked stat: 20 seasons with at least 10 home runs. Baines is one of 12 players with at least 20 such seasons. Above him are Hank Aaron (23 such seasons), Carl Yastrzemski (22), Barry Bonds (21), and Stan Musial (21). Ken Griffey, Jr., Cal Ripken, Jr., Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey, and Al Kaline are tied with 20 seasons of at least 10 dingers. If, however, we make the threshold 20 home runs, we see that Aaron still had 20 seasons (-2), Yastrzemski had eight (-14), Bonds had 19 (-2), Musial had 10 (-11), Griffey had 15 (-5), Ripken had 12 (-8), Murray had 16 (-4), Winfield had 15 (-5), Jackson had 16 (-4), McCovey had 12 (-8), and Kaline had nine (-11). Baines had 11 (-9). By making the threshold 10 home runs instead of 20 or 15, Baines disingenuously gets to be included with the likes of Bonds and Murray.
When Craig wrote about La Russa’s comments in December, he said La Russa is “a guy with a law degree who has never met an untenable position he didn’t at least make an effort to argue with a straight face.” That’s certainly what La Russa is doing here. There are no good, honest arguments for Baines’ inclusion in the Hall of Fame. It is fairly obvious to those of us who have followed the sport for a while why Baines actually got in. However, it would be a bad look for the Today’s Game Committee and the Hall of Fame overall if La Russa didn’t at least put up a fight against claims of cronyism. His efforts over the last few months make sense from that standpoint. We don’t, however, have to accept his arguments at face value.