Tim Raines made two big mistakes in his life. The first is that he used cocaine early in his career, which forever tarnished his image and might even play a role in why it took him 10 years to get into the Hall of Fame. His second mistake was to begin his career in 1979, the same year that another young player hit the big leagues, a guy named Rickey Henderson. As a quintessential lead-off hitter, Raines was Haydn to Rickey’s Mozart. If you know who Joseph Haydn was, you get it. If you’ve never heard of Haydn, then I’ve made my point with you too.
Cooperstown Cred: Tim Raines
Elected to the Hall of Fame in his 10th year with 86.0% of the vote
- 808 career stolen bases (5th all time)
- 6 straight years with 70 or more stolen bases (one of only two players ever to do this — Vince Coleman)
- 85% career SB% (best ever for min 400 attempts)
- .294 career AVG, .385 OBP, .425 SLG, .810 OPS
- 123 career OPS+ (4th best for any player with 500+ SB in last 100 years) (behind Barry Bonds, Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson)
- 7-time All-Star
- 69.1 career WAR (6th best since 1901 for left fielders – minimum 45% of games played in LF)
This player, known as “Rock,” was a spectacular, dynamic player, easily the 2nd best lead-off hitter in the 1980’s. 2nd best. To Rickey Henderson.
Raines was also one of the greatest base runners ever but he almost ran out of time to make it to the Hall of Fame. When he debuted on the 2008 ballot, he received just 24% of the vote. After a slight dip in 2009, Raines’ vote percentage steadily climbed. In 2015, he received 55% of the vote and then surged to just under 70% in 2016. In his 10th and final year on the ballot, the writers finally gave Raines his due and overwhelmingly voted in his favor, bestowing 86% of the vote in favor of induction.
The question here is whether Tim Raines, the Rock, deserves to have that plaque in the museum in Cooperstown.
Rock’s greatest Hall of Fame credential is his 85% career stolen base percentage. In modern analytics we’ve learned that, for stolen bases to be worthwhile, the runner needs to succeed at least 73.5% of the time or better.
Anyway, for most of the history of baseball nobody knew what these run expectancy probabilities were: the mass accumulation of stolen bases was interpreted as a good thing, an act that led to scoring runs and that, as long as you were successful more than half of the time, you were helping the team. When Tim Raines was stealing his 808 bases, most people didn’t appreciate the significance of his success rate. We can’t compare Rock’s base-stealing prowess to early greats like Ty Cobb because Caught Stealing records are incomplete prior to 1951. Still, there are 45 Hall of Fame position players who debuted in ’51 or later and not one of them owns a stolen base success rate equal to Raines’.
So, if it’s a demonstrable fact that Tim Raines was, at the very least, the 2nd or 3rd greatest stolen base artist in the last 65 years, why did it take Raines so long to get the affirmative nod of 75% of the BBWAA’s voters?
One theory is that, in his best years, he played in Montreal. Sorry. Boring. Not in the USA. Nobody cares. It’s not really true that nobody cared but playing in Canada didn’t help him. Two of Raines’ teammates (Andre Dawson and Gary Carter) overcame the Canada factor but they also benefited by producing Hall of Fame caliber seasons later in their careers in the big media markets of Chicago and New York.
Raines essentially had three careers: the first third of his career (1981-1987), where he was one of the top 5 players in the game. After a couple of call-ups in 1979 and 1980, Raines earned the starting left-fielder’s job in 1981 and became one of the most exciting players in baseball. He hit .304, had a .391 on-base% and stole an astounding 71 bases in just 88 games (with the season shortened by the player’s strike). He made the first of seven consecutive All-Star appearances and was the runner up for the National League Rookie of the Year (to Fernando Valenzuela).
Rock had a solid sophomore campaign in 1982 but it was the worst of his seven All-Star years and we know now that some of his less-than-spectacular play was due to his struggles with cocaine. After the season, Raines went into drug rehabilitation and he rebounded in 1983 with a terrific year, one in which he led the majors with 133 runs scored and the NL with 90 steals. It was during this time that Raines forged a bond with teammate Andre Dawson, who became somewhat of a mentor and big brother to him. When Raines makes it into Cooperstown this summer, you can bet that Dawson will play a prominent role in his speech.
By Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Raines was the 4th best player in the majors from 1981-1987, behind first-ballot Hall of Famers Henderson, Mike Schmidt and Wade Boggs.
Here are Raines’ ranks during that “first third” of his career.
So you can see that although Raines and Henderson were human incarnations of the Pony Express, neither one was a one-trick pony. They each were excellent hitters: they hit with extra base power and were masterful at earning the free pass. Simply put: they were the first and second best base runners in the modern history of the game but they were also complete players. Henderson was just bigger and badder but both were of Hall of Fame caliber, at least during this seven-year period.
To me, there’s one game that defines the career of Tim Raines. It was on Saturday, May 2, 1987. For Rock, it was his season debut with the Expos. He had been a free agent in the off-season, expecting multiple multi-million dollar offers as one of the top players in the sport. But the off-season of 1986-1987 featured an industry-wide collusion on the part of the 26 MLB teams; free agents were not lavished with the types of offers they deserved. In the end, Raines re-signed with the Expos but, per the rules at the time, was not allowed to ink the contract until May 1st.
Thus, Raines didn’t make his season debut until May 2nd. The Expos were in New York, taking on the defending World Series champion Mets in a nationally televised “Game of the Week,” with Vin Scully at the microphone. I was personally going to a lot of Mets’ games in those years and, since it was a Saturday, made the drive from New Haven, Connecticut to Shea Stadium to see the game.
What I saw was a player who, not having had the benefit of any spring training games, took the first pitch he saw from David Cone and, batting left-handed, laced a triple to right field. In his next four plate appearances, Raines added two singles with a walk, a stolen base and two runs scored. The game was tied after 9 innings and went to extra innings. In the top of the 10th, Mets’ reliever Jesse Orosco allowed the first three batters to reach. Raines, at the plate with the bases loaded, batting right-handed, proceeded to launch the ball into the left-field bullpen for a grand slam. The Expos won the game, I drove back to New Haven a disappointed Mets’ fan, and Raines had his moment of legend.
That memorable national TV performance in 1987 jump-started another great season, one in which he hit .330 with a 149 OPS+, a league-leading 123 runs scored, and 50 stolen bases (out of 55 attempts). 1987 was Rock’s last truly great season.
Anyway, in the second act of Raines’ career (from 1988 to 1995, his last three years in Montreal and in five seasons with the Chicago White Sox), he was still a highly productive everyday player but not the superstar that he was in his youth. He was just 30th in WAR and was no longer the explosive base-stealing threat that he was in his 20’s (was 8th in SB’s during these years, racking up 266 steals while the still-explosive Henderson swiped 448).
Still, even during his years as a highly productive but not superstar player, Raines’ WAR of 26.6 from ’88-to-’95 was a sold third best among left fielders (behind only Barry Bonds and Henderson).
In his third career (1996-2002, with 5 different teams) Raines was a platoon or bench player. Raines won two World Series rings with the New York Yankees in 1996 and 1998 but he was not even one of the 15 best players on those teams (and he was only 36 years old in ’96). He earned just 4.2 Wins Above Replacement in those seven seasons. He swiped a mere 31 bases in the last 7 years of his career, after 777 in the years prior.
Rock’s career nearly ended entirely in June 1999 when (with Oakland), he was diagnosed with lupus, necessitating radiation therapy; he would miss the rest of the season and all of 2000. Raines made a brief comeback with the Expos, Orioles and Marlins in 2001-2002 as a bench player, getting 223 plate appearances in 149 games. He stole just one base during his last two years in the majors.
There’s one other statistic, not as widely known, that makes the case for Raines as one of the game’s best from 1981-1987 (and beyond). This stat is called WPA, which stands for Win Probability Added (see the glossary for full details). What this does is go through each individual offensive play from the perspective of both the hitter and the pitcher. For each player, the outcome of each at bat either adds to or subtracts from the team’s odds of winning a game. Let me give you an example:
Kirk Gibson’s home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 9th inning of Game 1 of the 1988 World Series had a WPA of 0.87. That means that his action increased the Dodgers’ chances of winning from 13% to 100%. If he had made an out, his WPA would have been -0.13, since, because there were two outs, the odds of the Dodgers’ winning would have gone from 13% to zero.
So WPA calculates the game-specific impact of each offensive play as it relates to the player’s team’s odds of winning or losing any game. WPA tracks any offensive play in which the batter makes an out or reaches base but also any play in which a base-runner advances without the batter ending his turn at bat. It is here where Raines’ success rate as a stolen base artist demonstrates his positive impact on winning games, since a typical time being caught stealing is about 3 times more damaging than the positive impact of a successful steal.
Look at the list of WPA leaders from 1981 to 1987:
Raines barely edges Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in Win Probability Added despite Murray’s 708 RBI because of the value he added on the base-paths. Simply put, Raines’ actions at the plate and on the bases added more probability that his team would win baseball games than any other player during these years and he was better than the Man of Steal (Henderson) by a factor of 20% (because Rickey was caught stealing nearly twice as much as Raines). In case you’re curious why Henderson’s WAR was 9 more than Raines’ during these years (despite nearly identical OBP and SLG numbers), it’s because the defensive metrics had Rickey as one of the top 5 defensive players from 1981-87. WAR accounts for defense, WPA for a position player only counts actions at the plate or on the base paths.
Incidentally, Dale Murphy was also one of the stars of the 1980’s who also has not made the Hall of Fame. He was one of the best players from 1980-1988 and has a legitimate Cooperstown case. However, what hurt Murphy was that his “second act” was really poor.
Anyway, Raines had a seven-year Hall of Fame peak, an additional eight-year span where he was solid but not an All-Star and a final seven-year span where he added little value.
It is understandable that a player who really didn’t have one Hall of Fame caliber season in the final 15 seasons of his career had a difficult time getting voted into Cooperstown. He spent eight of those final years in Chicago and New York, home to intense media coverage and lots of baseball writers who vote for the Hall inductees. I think it’s natural that some (or many) of these writers, who never saw Raines in his prime on an everyday basis, would have a gut feeling that he was just a cut below based on the player they saw with their own eyes.
This is an important point: for many Hall of Fame players, “hanging around” at the end of their career as a part-time or average player can accrue significant benefits: you can hit your 500th home run, get your 3,000th hit, or win your 300th game. Tim Raines is currently 5th on the all-time stolen base list (behind Henderson, Lou Brock, the 19th century’s Billy Hamilton and Ty Cobb). After the 1994 season, Tim Raines was already 5th on the all-time stolen base list. So, for the last eight years of his career, his 44 steals didn’t move him up the list at all. No publicity. No big media moment that a milestone accomplishment brings.
Raines’ career arc (being one of the best in the sport for seven or eight years and in the second tier for the next seven to eight) is typical for many Hall of Fame careers, by the way.
To use a recent example, Craig Biggio was 5th in MLB in WAR from 1991-1998, trailing only Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., teammate Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas. Biggio made seven All-Star teams in those eight years. From 1999-2005, the Astros’ 2nd baseman had no All-Star appearances and ranked just 86th in WAR (and only 11th among second sackers).
So Biggio’s career arc is analogous to Raines’, with a couple of key differences. The first is that Raines’ “second career” was actually a bit more productive than Biggio’s. The second, and the one that put Biggio into Cooperstown in just three years, is that he remained healthy for virtually his entire career and thus accumulated nearly 2,000 more plate appearances than Raines did. Therefore, he was able to cross the 3,000-hit milestone while Raines fell nearly 400 hits shy. Also, Biggio’s didn’t have a “third career” as a part-time player. He logged 555 plate appearances in his final season (2007). He played well enough as a full-time player to “hang around” long enough to get that 3,000th hit and thus punch his ticket into the Hall of Fame on his third try while Raines had to wait until his 10th year on the ballot.
Tim Raines was a unique player who had a career with almost no directly similar comparison but the closest is first ballot Hall of Famer Lou Brock, who was also a left fielder and an all-time great base stealing threat. By any measurable metric, Brock was not as good a baseball player as Rock Raines but he had the good sense to cross the 3,000 hit plateau, steal 118 bases in his age 35 season and finish his career as the all-time stolen base champion (later passed only by Rickey). These are the types of late-in-career accomplishments that gain you instant induction into Cooperstown.
Anyway, here are the numbers: Lou Brock vs. Tim Raines:
Brock (known as “The Franchise” in St. Louis) had 881 more career plate appearances than Rock Raines. This is because (to his credit) he was a much more productive player in his 30’s than was Raines in his. He had 3,023 career hits (a Cooperstown benchmark); Raines had only 2,605. But Raines got to first base via the walk almost twice as often; in his career he reached base more than Brock did, with 418 less hits.
This is important. If you look at how many times each man got on base, either via a hit, a walk, a hit batsman, or when reaching on an error, Tim Raines reached base 4,076 times in his career. Lou Brock reached base 4,001 times.
That’s 75 more times on base for Raines, despite 881 fewer career plate appearances.
Add in the fact that Raines’ stolen base success rate was 10 percentage points better (85% to 75%) and it’s really not close between these two, in terms of the regular season performances.
As Bob Costas said on MLB Network two years ago, if you were playing a game of Strat-O-Matic baseball and had to pick Brock or Raines, you would choose Raines. But this is not to say that Lou Brock shouldn’t be a Hall of Famer. Brock did get 3,000 hits. He did set the all-time single season and all-time career stolen base record (until broken by Henderson). Plus, he was also an integral part of three pennants and two World Series Championships with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Raines also won two titles but was mostly a bystander and the Yankees would have won both times without him.
If you took Lou Brock away from the Cardinals in the 1960’s, you would have had at least one less World Series title. Brock was clearly one of the team’s three best players in 1964 (with Bob Gibson and Ken Boyer) and the team won the pennant by a single game and the Series in seven games over the Yankees. If you took Brock away from that team, they would not have won the pennant.
The 101-win Cardinals squad of 1967 was more of a super-team and won the pennant by 10 games so you can’t argue that any single player was indispensable. But in the Fall Classic, another seven-game series (this time against the Boston Red Sox), Brock was the hitting star, batting. 414, stealing 7 bases (without being caught) and scoring 8 runs.
Finally, although the Redbirds fell in seven games to the Detroit Tigers in the 1967 series, Brock was the star player in the losing effort, hitting .464 with 2 HR, 5 RBI and another 7 steals.
This is the Hall of Fame, and Lou Brock absolutely deserves his place in Cooperstown.
Rock Raines deserves his place as well.
Thanks for reading.