Tim Raines' Hall of Fame Case Rock-Solid
Conversely, most of my fellow voters leave the box blank next to Raines, who has received, in order, 24.3 percent, 22.6 and 30.4 percent of the vote since first appearing on the ballot.
It's easy to know why nearly 400 voters weren't, and probably still aren't, sold on Raines. Over a career that spanned from 1979 to 2002, he never finished among the top four in MVP voting. Nor did he hit 20 home runs, or win a Gold Glove, or lead his team to World Series glory. His hitting power was nothing special for a left fielder. His throwing arm was average, at best. His best years were spent in Montreal, a hockey town. And he wasn't in in his prime when his teams got to the postseason.
What's more, when I talked to a few baseball contemporaries of Raines, they didn't exactly bowl me over with enthusiasm. My survey was far from comprehensive and may have yielded strong endorsements had I reached others of that era, but if the 1980s field personnel I talked to didn't argue against sending him to Cooperstown, they didn't argue for it, either.
As to why, then, I checked the Raines box this week before sending the precious green envelope to secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, there are three reasons above all:
1) Raines was very good at getting on base, which is the primary job of a leadoff man.
2) In a low-scoring era, Raines was better than anybody in the history of the game at stealing bases.
3) Raines was a dominant performer over five consecutive seasons with the Montreal Expos, yet also was better than average for a long, long time.
Raines had an on-base percentage of .385 for a career that spanned 23 seasons. That places him 136th all-time, an impressive number, but his Cooperstown case owes more to his dazzling peak years from 1983-87, when Raines was on base 41.6 percent of the time for the Montreal Expos.
Tim Raines on base meant opponents gobbled antacid tablets.
I'll get to the stolen base numbers below, but first let's hear from Whitey Herzog, who managed the Cardinals when both St. Louis and Montreal were in the National League East.
His high-pitched voice knifing through the phone from Missouri this week, Herzog recounted what a relief it was when his Cardinals would retire Raines.
"We had a good throwing catcher, and our pitchers were pretty good at holding runners, but Tim Raines was the kind of base runner that you could not stop," he said on Tuesday. "You couldn't stop that son of a gun when he got on first base. He was going to steal second."
Herzog himself was an expert at the speed game. A cagey tactician whose Cardinals' jackrabbits created headaches for opponents, Herzog figured the best counter-measure to Raines' base running was to put the onus on umpires, rather than his Cardinals pitchers and catchers.
"You almost had to balk and quick-pitch and hope the umpires didn't call it," he said. "I used to tell my pitchers, 'I don't give a (hoot) if they call a balk, he's going to steal second anyway.' "
The numbers: Raines stole 808 bases, which is fifth-most all time. His success rate of of 84.6 percent is first among players with at least 500 stolen bases. In order behind him in percentage are Willie Wilson (668, 83.4 percent), Davey Lopes (557, 83 percent), Joe Morgan (689, 81 percent), Vince Coleman (752, 80.9 percent) and the all-time leader in thefts, Rickey Henderson (1,406, 80.8 percent).
Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer largely because of his feet, was safe on 75 percent of his stolen base attempts.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Ty Cobb was safe on 81 percent of his stolen base attempts.
It's a marvel that Raines stole bases expertly, and for so many years. Base stealers expend more energy than sluggers. Their bodies also take more of a beating. And the relentless baseball schedule argues against flinging one's body about the base paths since there is scant recovery time between games.
Raines was known as "Rock" because of his compact body, and perhaps also because he was built out of something extra durable. He stole an NL-high 71 bases in his first season, when he was Rookie of the Year runner-up in 1981 to Fernando Valenzuela. He would lead the NL in stolen bases the next three years, averaging 81 steals per year. He finished second in 1985, and ranged from third to seventh in six other years, twice in the American League.
Able to stay in the lineup, the 5-foot-8, 160-pounder led the NL in scoring twice and six other times was among his league's top 10 in runs. He is 50th all-time in runs scored.
The physical demands on an elite base stealer exceeded those of sluggers. Opponents threw over often in attempts to fatigue base stealers of Raines' ilk. Herzog, plucking a name from decades ago as if it were a month ago, laughed on Tuesday as he recalled how Expos pitcher David Palmer tried to thwart the Cardinals' Coleman during a game in the go-go 1980s
"He threw over 18 times," Herzog said. "Then they pitched out on the first pitch, and Vince stole second base."
What kind of hitter was Raines? "He wasn't a hitter that you think about for the Hall of Fame," said one pitcher who faced Raines several times in his prime years. On the other hand, opponents did issue him 78 intentional walks with two outs and runners in scoring position over his career. In 1987, his first season without slugger and future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson as an Expos teammate, Raines batted third more often than he batted first, and responded with 18 home runs and a .526 slugging rate that was ninth in the NL. The year 1987 was freakishly good for hitters. (Dawson would hit 49 home runs for the Cubs that year, 17 more than his next-best sum). Managers nonetheless deemed Raines dangerous enough in '87 that they issued him 26 intentional walks, second in the league to only Braves slugger Dale Murphy. A switch-hitter, Raines batted .294 in his career.
Raines slugged .425, better than the Hall of Famer Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter of all, but below the .459 of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, a fellow corner outfielder who never hit 20 home runs.
Yet: when Tim Raines drew a walk or hit a single, it was close to being a double, and his doubles often were de facto triples, because if he wanted to filch the next base, he did.
"A Hall of Fame position player has got to be a five-tool player, or at least a four-tool player," Herzog told me. "But when you are talking about an offensive threat on the base paths, Tim Raines might have been the best. That's why he should be given a lot of consideration."