The Flawed Numerology of the Baseball Hall of Fame

Joe DiMaggio

More than any other professional sport, baseball cherishes and in many ways is defined by its numbers. Joe DiMaggio‘s 56 game hitting streak has stood the test of time, as has Ted Williams being the last man to hit .400. Numbers are the foundations upon which the game is anchored and memories are passed from generation to generation. I never saw DiMaggio play, but I can understand hitting in 56 straight games, and how hard that is, with the result that I can grasp just how good Dimaggio must have been.

Nothing in baseball is so reliant on numbers as the Hall of Fame. There are certain arbitrary marks that have become so hallowed that if a player should pass them, they are almost certain of being inducted into the Hall. 300 wins for a pitcher? You’re in. 500 home runs? You’re in (although the steroid era has altered the equation for this number).

3,000 hits? You’re definitely in!

Now, I respect numbers as much as the next person, and as noted above, they definitely have their place, but I’ve always believed that too many people fixate far too much on particular numbers, and not enough on whether or not a player was actually really good enough to be in the Hall.

Take the 3,000 hits milestone. I have a friend who has flat out said to me that any player who gets 3,000 hits is a Hall of Famer. A player who gets less than 3,000 could, for many reasons, also be inducted (a player like Lou Gehrig, for instance, who was clearly one of the all-time greats), but to my friend 3,000 hits is one of those milestones that should make induction automatic, for anyone.

I think that’s daft, and here’s why.

Tim Raines

Tim Raines, one of the best players of his era and one of the five best lead-off hitters of all time, is not in the Hall of Fame, despite several years on the ballot since he retired. He seems to be building a bit of momentum, and I think he’ll probably get in eventually, but he should have been a no-brainer from the get-go. Still, you hear people question his lifetime statistics, and they wonder whether Raines built up enough numerical credit to warrant induction.

Raines major stats?  He was a seven-time All-Star (and the MVP of the 1987 game), a member of three World Series winning teams, won a Silver Slugger award in 1986, the same year in which he won the National League batting title. He hit 170 home runs, batted in 980 runs, stole 808 bases, and batted .294 for his career, with 2,605 hits. He stole at least 70 bases in each of his first six seasons, a period where he was one of the most dominant players in the game. Among switch hitters, Raines ranks sixth in career hits (2,605), fourth in runs (1,571), walks (1,330) and times on base (3,977), fifth in plate appearances (10,359), seventh in singles (1,892), doubles (430), total bases (3,771) and at bats (8,872), eighth in triples (113) and tenth in extra base hits (713). Bill James, the guru of gurus when it comes to the numerology of baseball, ranked Raines as the 40th greatest non-pitcher in major-league history according to his win shares formula. Just for good measure, it’s worth noting that Raines was a pretty solid defensive player as well, and led the National League in assists by an outfielder in 1983.

Like I said, he should be a slam dunk, but he’s been on the Hall of Fame ballot since 2008 and the highest vote percentage that he’s obtained so far was this past years 48.7% (75% of the votes is needed for induction).

Raines has compelling career statistics, and anyone who actually saw him play in his prime knows just what an amazing player he was, but he lacks that one “milestone” number which jumps out at a person. If he had garnered 3,000 hits he would be in for certain, because people like my friend fixate on numbers like that, but instead Raines built a great overall career, and as a result remains on the outside looking in, at least for a few more years.

Juan Pierre

Meanwhile, we have Juan Pierre, a 34 year old outfielder currently playing for the Philadelphia Phillies. Now Pierre is actually a pretty good player (he’s a career .296 hitter so far, and has 560 stolen bases), and any number of teams could find a spot on their roster for him, but I can’t think of anyone who would consider him a Hall of Fame candidate – a slap-and-dash speed merchant, he only has 16 career home runs and 495 runs batter in (as of May 28, 2012). I think it’s a safe bet to say that Pierre will never be confused with Tim Raines, nor will he wind up on anyone’s “best of all-time / top 100″ list.

But here’s the thing. At the age of 34 (he turns 35 in August, 2012), Pierre has 2,073 career hits as I write this. He’s in good health, and has no significant injury history. He’s the kind of player that teams find useful, so there’s a fair chance that if he wants to, he can play into his early 40s – his skill set will probably hold up better than your average power-hitter’s skill set. So let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that he plays another seven years, with an average of 135 hits per season (last year Pierre racked up 178 hits, and 179 the year before, and he already has 53 so far this season). That would give him a career total of 3,018 hits. For my friend and all of those others who go solely by the numbers, that would make Juan Pierre a sure-fire Hall of Famer, at which point we slip into a bizarro universe where someone like Tim Raines might have to wait years to get enshrined, whereas someone like Juan Pierre would deserve induction with his 3,018 hits almost immediately.

Juan Pierre is not a Hall of Famer. Most casual fans probably don’t even know he has 2,000+ hits already, and they probably don’t give him much thought at all – the very antithesis of “fame”.  I’m pretty sure that he’s never struck terror into the hearts of opposing players either.

Tim Raines is a Hall of Famer. He was a dominant player, and in his prime everyone knew who he was, and other teams definitely feared him. He could change a game in many different ways in an instant.

But he doesn’t have 3,000 hits, or any other easy milestone number, so there he sits, on the outside looking in. In the meantime, Pierre grinds along, always getting closer to a magic arbitrary number that my friend and so many others think automatically confers greatness on a player.


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2 Responses to The Flawed Numerology of the Baseball Hall of Fame

  1. Chris Waters says:

    Raines certainly deserves to be in the HOF, but subjective things such as MVPs and All-Star selections seem rather irreverent to me. The Silver Slugger is especially a gratuitous attempt to get more awards out.

  2. Paul Kimball says:

    Thanks for the comment, Chris. Yes, I agree that the Silver Slugger award is a bit daft, but it exists and people do take it into account when assessing someone’s body of work, so I included it. Still, one could write the same post with the following title: “The Flawed Obsession with Individual Awards by the Baseball Hall of Fame / Fans”, so I do appreciate the irony of my listing such things. ;-)

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