Examining the compelling Cooperstown case for Tim Raines
Using stats like Win Shares, Tim Raines deserves a place in Hall of Fame
Raines compares favorably to other HOFers, even the great Roberto Clemente
Hall of Fame voting results by the BBWAA will be announced on January 6, 2010
This is going to be about Tim Raines ... but we're going to start with Bill James. People, of course, have many different opinions about Bill James. And because Bill is both a friend and a hero of mine, I admit to being hopelessly biased on the subject. It isn't that I think Bill is always right ... I don't. I enjoy arguing with him about things. It's just that I'm blown away by how his mind works.
I was just re-reading his controversial bit in the New Historical Abstract where he made his argument that Roy White was a better player than Jim Rice. He took each of their best five years -- White from 1968-72, Rice from 1975-79 -- and used that as his starting point.
Here are their base stats from those five years.
Rice: .311/.360/.556, 147 doubles, 48 triples, 171 homers, 509 runs, 560 RBIs.
White: .283/.380/.432, 131 doubles, 25 triples, 75 homers, 415 runs, 368 RBIs.
Looks like Rice in a blowout, doesn't it? Much better numbers across the board. Case closed, right?
Well, wait. Bill points out, there are so many things you cannot see in those stats. For one, Rice played in a time when many more runs were scored. The league average during White's time was 3.80 runs per game ... and it was 4.34 during Rice's time. That's a half run difference -- quite a lot. Each run Roy White created was worth more than Jim Rice.
Two, of course, Rice played in Fenway Park -- and Fenway Park in the late 1970s was a preposterously good hitter's park. White, meanwhile, played in Yankee Stadium -- and Yankee Stadium in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a preposterously bad hitter's park, especially for right-handed hitters. This isn't just mindless theory -- here are their road numbers for the same five years:
Rice: .288/.336/.484, 66 doubles, 23 triples, 65 homers, 234 runs, 233 RBIs.
White: .280/.381/.424, 70 doubles, 12 triples, 36 homers, 220 runs, 186 RBIs.
Well, that's a lot closer, isn't it? Rice is still slightly ahead in most categories, but I think the most important category listed there is on-base percentage. And that's a huge gap in on-base percentage. White also walked 234 times and struck out 154 -- Rice walked 106 times and struck out 310. You could argue pretty persuasively that White was a straight up as good an offensive player on the road.
But there's more than just offense. When you throw in the context of the time ... you throw in the big speed difference (overall, White stole 60 more bases than Rice in the five years) ... you throw in that Rice made more outs ... you throw in that White was a better defensive player ... and, when it's all done you can make a compelling argument that Roy White was the better player.
But to me that specific answer is not the point -- hell, you could make a damned good argument that Jim Rice WAS better than Roy White. The answer does not get at the brilliance of Bill James. The point is the journey. The point is to think beyond the obvious. The point is to not settle for easy answers and not allow conventional wisdom to blind you.
I mention the Rice-White argument here because I'm about to really delve into some Win Shares as I make my best case for the player I think is the best on this year's Hall of Fame ballot -- Tim Raines. Win Shares, of course, are Bill's best effort to give us a quick number that could, at a glance, sum up a player's season while taking just about everything imaginable into consideration. I basically wrote 500 words here to go over Bill's Rice-White argument, but I could have just as easily done this:
Jim Rice's win shares from 1975-79: 127.
Roy White's win shares from 1968-72: 140.
And there you go. It's like a Cliff's Notes version of the argument. Bill's complicated formula for Win Shares show that when you take everything he knows into account -- a player's offensive contribution, his defensive contribution, the run environment he played in, the ballpark he played in, his speed and so on and so on -- that Roy White was a more valuable player in his five year peak than Jim Rice was in his five year peak. He was better by roughly the margin of 140-127.
Now, you may like Win Shares, you may not like them, you may like parts of but not other parts, you may never have even thought about them. But it's a lifetime of baseball study put into simple numbers ... it's like shorthand into the mind of the most influential baseball thinker of the last 50 years.
OK, so here goes: Tim Raines has 390 career Win Shares. That is a lot. A whole lot. That is more than any other player on the Hall of Fame ballot. It is also more than dozens of current Hall of Famers -- including Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and (yes, here we go) Roberto Clemente.
Wow. Tim Raines has more win shares than Roberto Clemente. Now, it's a funny thing: I suspect that the fact that Raines has more win shares than Clemente actually HURTS his case more than it helps it. Why? Because Clemente has become so great in the collective imagination, so absurdly and untouchably great, that people will see that stat and throw out the entire Win Shares thing. More win shares than Clemente! Ridiculous! This stat is meaningless.
This is a natural reaction. I was talking with my friend and Royals broadcaster deluxe Joel Goldberg the other day, and he was telling me how he cannot take Ultimate Zone Rating seriously as a statistic because it has not been kind to Torii Hunter. You have to go back to 2003 to find a year when Hunter had a great UZR -- in 2008, he was minus-11.5. He was better in 2009, but not enough better. Joel knows -- he KNOWS -- that Hunter is a great, great, great defensive center fielder. Therefore, the stat is full of bull.*
*Interestingly, John Dewan's plus/minus shows Hunter to have dropped off defensively as well. He was +21 in 2004, second in baseball and was +7 in 2005. But the next three years he was -9 plays total. He had a good defensive year in 2009, but even so he wasn't Top 10.
I don't exactly blame Joel ... this is human nature. UZR simply does not make enough sense to Joel to challenge his strongly held conviction that Torii Hunter is a great defensive center fielder. We're all susceptible to this. I got my "Graphical Player" book from ACTA Sports the other day -- "Eye opening dashboards of stats and graphs for over 1,000 players" -- and it's a fun read by some terrific people. Except then, all of a sudden, I saw that it said in 2006, Carlos Beltran was 2.6 wins WORSE THAN REPLACEMENT as a defensive center fielder. And that just turned me off completely. Yes, we all know how I feel about Beltran -- and there's plenty of evidence to show he's a superior defensive player -- but beyond all that, to say that defensively Beltran was two and a half wins worse than some AAA player you could find is simply too mind-blowing for me consider, and so I put the book away and, to be blunt about it, have not opened it up since.
So it goes with Raines' huge number of Win Shares. If you are a fan of Raines, you just nod your head. Hey, the guy was just hugely valuable. Here's a stat that proves it. But if you are not a fan of Raines or if you are only moderately interested in him, the number probably seems unrealistic ? voodoo sabermetrics. Come on. More win shares than Clemente?
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