30% for 30

As much as I loved cheering for Andre Dawson, my response to his election to the baseball Hall of Fame is entirely contingent on how it may affect the cause of Tim Raines. I don’t see a clear answer to that question, but I am worried. There is a chance that the attention paid to Dawson may help his old teammate, who reached a level of 30% support on this year’s ballot (up from 23% last year). Since Raines has a stronger statistical case than Dawson, whose on-base percentage is twenty points behind that of every other outfielder in the Hall, the Hawk could now conceivably be used as a stepping stone to Raines’ argument. “If so-and-so is in, what about the better player who was standing right next to him all those years?” (I’m not suggesting that Raines was better every year. But unlike Dawson, he was, at his best, in an elite small group of the very best offensive players in the game.)

Unfortunately, their talents weren’t of like shape. Dawson’s election is better news for more directly comparable players, notably Dale Murphy. It is hard for the intuitive, non-analytical fan (I am trying not to use the phrase “typical nitwit”) to compare two players as dissimilar as Raines and Dawson. Everything of relevance to winning baseball games can ultimately be weighed on the universal scale of runs and outs, but that involves math. In other words, fuggedaboudit.

My real concern is that two everyday members of the 1980-84 Expos lineup are now in the Hall, and when presented with Raines’ file, BBWAA voters are likely to ask “Are we supposed to believe that a team that never won squat had three prime-age Hall of Famers in the lineup nearly every day?” It is, in fact, a lot to swallow. That zero-sum pressure puts the Raines advocates in the position of not only having to make Raines’ case, but having to persuade the voters that they might have made a mistake in electing Dawson.

The bizarre thing about the Raines Problem is that Raines was, subjectively, an extremely exciting player. He might have been the greatest pure base-stealer ever—he, not Rickey Henderson, is the “textbook” base thief of whom you would show video to a youngster—and a lot of players have gained traction in the Hall of Fame voting with headline credentials like that. Advanced analysis teaches us that base-stealing isn’t very helpful to the offence unless it’s done in large quantities and at a very high percentage, so it’s the voters with a certain mere modicum of sabermetric knowledge who may underrate Raines by dismissing base-stealing and using thumbnail statistics like OPS that—without harm, in most cases—leave baserunning off to one side. A little learning is a dangerous thing, etc.