The winter meetings in Las Vegas seemed to be all about Noah Syndergaard and J.T. Realmuto rumors. A secondary story each year is the Veterans Committee and their Hall-of-Fame selections. Controversy ensued this year when the committee announced the election of Harold Baines and Lee Smith. Baines, specifically, caught the ire of the analytics community. Mets and Yankees fans, however, saw this as an opportunity to stump for their favorite first baseman to make it into the Hall. Although I believe Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly are just as good a candidate as Baines, this selection is more about the position than actual player comparison.
Harold Baines played 50% of his games as a designated hitter. This position has existed since 1973 but was largely ignored as a viable spot for elite talent. While closers were trying to push their way into the Hall discussion, the DH evolved into one of the more prominent offensive positions. Players who hit .300, get on base at a .400 rate and slug at .500 or better are elite in any era. Today, thanks to the launch angle, only two of those three are valued, but one can’t deny individuals that reach this milestone are in a special class. When using that benchmark, Edgar Martinez stacks up with luminaries such as Ruth, Williams, Gehrig, and Ty Cobb. In short, he should be the poster child of why the DH should be taken as seriously as any other position when discussing the Hall-of-Fame. There is a good chance he will be elected in January and join Baines and Smith in Cooperstown this summer.
What is the point with respect to Baines? He is a DH and is being recognized as such. You can’t compare Baines to Hernandez, Mattingly or any other position player that you feel has been slighted by the Veterans Committee or BBWAA. If you use Baseball-Reference and rank the top five players who spent more than 50% of their games never touching a glove, Baines ranks fourth all-time behind Frank Thomas (2014 HOF), David Ortiz (future Hall-of-Famer), and the aforementioned Edgar Martinez (possible 2019 class). He’s probably pointing downward towards the Don Baylor/Hal McRae crowd, but 2,866 hits over 20 plus years isn’t just a compiler. Bad players don’t last two decades in Major League Baseball Baines was an integral part of offenses up until the age of 40. He was a key component to deadline deals for stretch runs in Texas, Oakland, and Baltimore. In short, he is not an egregious choice. The DH position is still so young that Travis Hafner comes up in that same top-ten WAR that Baines finished fourth. In 30 years, this might look a bit worse, but today Baines is one of the elite players at the position.
The real barometer of Hernandez and Mattingly is another player that was up for selection: Will Clark. There are currently only seven first basemen in the Hall-of-Fame that played 90% of their time at the position. It’s almost like the Hall has put a higher standard there than other positions. Clark is tenth all-time in Wins Above Replacement, just behind former Met John Olerud who is a shade behind Joey Votto and Hernandez. Clark doesn’t stand up to Hernandez or Mattingly defensively, but he was just as good a hitter. Hernandez was a revolutionary defender, while Mattingly was the superior hitter over a short five-year period. All three of these players should receive serious Hall consideration, but Clark only received less than five votes from the committee. Not good news for Hernandez, Mattingly or even Olerud.
In the end, I think Hernandez deserves the selection thanks to his defense and contributions to championship teams. The fact that he has excelled as a broadcaster adds a little spice (at least in my opinion) to the resume. Mattingly had too short of an elite span and Clark probably was a shade below Hernandez in totality without the defense and postseason resume. I believe the Pittsburgh Drug Trials and off-the-field vices probably will keep Hernandez on the outside looking in. The only hope is that the current curmudgeonly grandpa version of Mex helps with the sanctimony crowd.
I believe that Baines election and the subsequent debate will help future Veterans Committee’s look closer at positions like first base that seem to have a tougher evaluation process than pitchers and outfielders. Want to be angry about Baines? I suggest you look at it as a pathway to reevaluate players that have been shunned in the past, not a barometer for the beloved 1980s New York first basemen.