If you take Tim Raines’ 1981 strike-shortened season and spread it out over 150 games, Raines projects to steal 121 bases. If that had happened, Raines, not Rickey Henderson, would have broken Lou Brock’s amazing stolen base record (Henderson broke it the next year). I wonder if something that simple would have made made all the difference in the way Raines’s career is perceived.
Consider Steve Garvey. People will not let go of Steve Garvey’s Hall of Fame case. He was on the ballot for all 15 years — at one point getting as much as 42.6% of the vote — and did not get in. After all that he ALSO made the Veteran’s Committee Expansion Era ballot. He did not get in. There are strong voices still pushing his Hall of Fame case even after all that.
Why? What is it about Steve Garvey that makes a group of people so adamant that he deserves to be the Hall of Fame? Forget his personal issues. Forget the advanced stats. Let’s look at basic ones. He didn’t hit .300. His on-base is a below average .323 (assuming OBP is not an advanced stat). He didn’t get very close to 3,000 hits, he didn’t manage even 300 home runs, he only once hit 30 homers, he never hit 40 doubles, he never scored 100 runs, he only five times drove in 100 RBIs (Joe Carter did it 10 times). What gives?
The answer: Steve Garvey was famous. He won an MVP award he almost certainly should not have won in 1974. He did noticeable things like get 200 hits per season and win Gold Gloves. He was on television every time you turned around, he hit well in the postseason, he had an extremely likable persona. And even when things turned sour for him with all the paternity cases and money issues and whatever, he was STILL famous or infamous, and in today’s world it’s often hard to tell the difference.
Now consider … Al Oliver. I think I can say this pretty confidently: Al Oliver was a better hitter than Steve Garvey. His career batting average (.303), his career on-base percentage (.344) and his career slugging percentage (.451) are all higher than Garvey’s. He created 100 more runs in his career than Garvey did.
And you could not really say Garvey had a higher peak. Oliver’s best season, 1982, is clearly bit better than Garvey’s best season in 1974.
Oliver: .331/.392/.514, league leading 43 doubles and 109 RBIs, 90 runs scored, 125 runs created, 150 OPS+.
Garvey: .313/.342/.469, 102 runs created, 130 OPS+, MVP.
After that, their second, third, fourth, fifth best seasons all more or less match up.
Oliver had more hits, more doubles, more triples, more runs, more RBIs and even one more stolen base. Garvey does have a lead in home runs and that’s about it.
Defensively, Garvey had a much better reputation and he was probably somewhat better … but the numbers don’t show much difference between them.
Does anyone push for Al Oliver’s Hall of Fame case? He was on the ballot one year, did not get 5%, and fell off. He was not on the Expansion Era ballot, nor was there any clamor about his exclusion. He does not have a particularly vocal Hall of Fame support group. Al Oliver was not famous, not like Garvey. He never had that moment. He was never MVP. He only started in one All-Star Game. He was not as good in the postseason. He wasn’t on game shows. He was known in his day largely for being underrated (much to his disgust) and that simply doesn’t carry over very well after retirement.
Tim Raines never had that grand moment either. He too was never MVP. He had an MVP case three or four times, but he never really came close to winning one. He started in only two All-Star Games, played much of his best baseball outside the United States, never led the league in anything after age 27, and was a player whose greatest skills (getting on base, running the bases, scoring runs, stealing bases at a historically high percentage) tend not to be as appreciated as others (batting average, hitting home runs, driving in runs).
Tim Raines was so underrated that even he didn’t realize how good a player he was. He would often talk about Andre Dawson being the real offensive star of the Expos. But Raines — even if he would deny it — was a better offensive player than Dawson most years. It wasn’t even that close. Here are Andre Dawson’s top five seasons in runs created:
1. 113 (1983)
2. 111 (1987)
3. 106 (1982)
4. 105 (1980)
5. 101 (1990)
The basic runs created is simply on base percentage times slugging percentage times at-bats. That’s all. We’re not talking about some hugely involved thing.
Now, here are Tim Raines five best seasons in runs created:
1. 132 (1987)
2. 130 (1986)
3. 124 (1984)
4. 124 (1985)
5. 120 (1983)
Raines’s fifth season was higher than Dawson’s best. He was just a more productive offensive player because he got on base a lot more than Dawson. But, like I say, you can’t even get TIM RAINES HIMSELF to believe that, so it would be hard to convince a skeptical crowd.
These days, many of Raines’ biggest Hall of Fame supporters will make the Tony Gwynn comparison, which I think is a good one. People think of Gwynn as an all-time great because he really was a fantastic player and, like Garvey (well not LIKE Garvey, exactly), he was famous. He won eight batting titles. He won five Gold Gloves. He was a hitting artist and known for being one. He was elected first ballot into the Hall of Fame, 97% of the vote, a slam dunk of slam dunks.
Was Gwynn better than Raines? Maybe. But every time you break down their careers, you see how close it is. Gwynn and Raines came to the plate almost the same number of times. Gwynn had 100-plus more doubles. But Raines had more triples and homers. When you put all that together, the total bases match up almost exactly (Gwynn had 226 more total bases in doubles; Raines had 224 more total bases in triples and home runs).
But, Gwynn had a much higher batting average (.338 to .294) which suggests he hit many more singles. He did. Gwynn had 536 more singles than Raines. That’s certainly a big lead. But Raines’ on-base percentage is almost the same as Gwynn’s (Gwynn .388, Raines .385) and the reason is that Raines had 540 more walks than Gwynn. A hit is worth a bit more than a walk, especially in certain situations (runners advancing an extra base or scoring when not forced in) and so this gives Gwynn a slight edge. Gwynn was also the better defender.
But Raines was the much better base stealer. That’s no knock on Gwynn, who stole more than 300 bases in his career. Raines was the maestro, though. He stole 808 bases. He was caught just 146 times. He did not steal as many bases as Rickey or Brock or Cobb, but he was thrown out many fewer times. I think he was the best pure base stealer of all time.
Was Gwynn a better player? I think so — he’s higher on my list. But it’s so close. So close. If Gwynn was a 98% Hall of Famer, Raines should be 90% Hall of Famer. Sadly, that’s not the way it works. Raines, even without great fame as a player, does have a vocal Hall of Fame group behind him and I think he will get in eventually. But I wonder if he would be in right now had he set the stolen base record as a rookie.