Raines, Bagwell: similarly snubbed . . . until today?

Getty Images

The Hall of Fame voting results will be announced tonight at around 6pm Eastern on MLB Network. Obviously anything can happen — only fools are confident in voting predictions these days — but if the current projections and guesstimates hold, we will have two new inductees: Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell.

If Raines and Bagwell are elected together, it will be quite appropriate, as there are some striking similarities in their Hall of Fame cases. While both were all-time greats, their Hall of Fame resumes were peak-heavy and relatively counting stat light. Both had the best season in their career cut short by labor strife. Both were likewise severely underrated by voters for what are manifestly unfair reasons. As they enter, perhaps, their final hours as non-Hall of Famers, let’s take a look back at their careers and examine why, exactly, they have been overlooked for so long.

Raines was arguably the NL’s best player in a five-year span from 1983-87. He was if you judge the matter by WAR, anyway, as he ranked higher by that measure than Mike Schmidt, Tony Gwynn and Dale Murphy. He hit .318/.406/.467 during that span and averaged 114 runs scored and 71 steals per year. During those five years, only Rickey Henderson scored more runs (572-568) and only Wade Boggs had a better OBP (.443 to .406). He, of course, was the best base stealer in the National League over this time by a wide margin.

Raines led the NL in average and OBP in 1986, but 1987 may well have been his best season. It was a season cut short, however, as he was forced to sit out the first month because of baseball’s collusion against free agents. From his SABR biography, which notes how there was no market for the free agent Raines despite coming off an amazing 1986 season:

Ordinarily, a free agent would have difficulty keeping track of all the offers coming his way after a season like that, but this was the infamous era of collusion among major-league owners, so for Raines the overtures from other teams were few and far between.

“Raines, given no opportunity to counter take-it-or-leave-it offers from the San Diego Padres, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, has reportedly agreed to return to the Montreal Expos at the same terms he initially rejected: Three years for $4.8 million, with another $200,000 a year thrown in to counter Canadian taxes,” wrote Ross Newhan in the Los Angeles Times.

Under the rules at the time, Raines couldn’t sign with the team until May 1.

We now know that owners illegally colluded in a scheme in which they agreed not to sign other teams’ former players who hit free agency.

While Raines’ former teammate, Andre Dawson, won the 1987 MVP Award with the Cubs, Raines was a far more valuable offensive player that year, hitting .330/.429/.526 with 123 runs scored in 139 games while stealing 50 bases and being caught only five times. If he had been given another month to play he would’ve had a strong shot at the MVP himself. His Expos — who stumbled to an 8-12 record in his absence in April but went 83-59 once he rejoined the team — may not have finished four games out of first place either.

Raines fell off his peak after that but he remained a good player for a very long time. Perversely, this was held against him by many, as his superstar days faded from memory and he came to be thought of as more of a journeyman. Also held against him: he was not quite as good as the player most consider to be most similar to him: Rickey Henderson. As we’ve argued many times, however, being slightly inferior to one of the greatest players in baseball history does not make one a bad player and certainly does not render one’s Hall of Fame case lacking. Even if it has taken a decade on the Hall of Fame ballot and a concerted P.R. pitch by his supporters to get him to the brink of election.

Bagwell has likewise been overlooked.

Easily one of the top hitters of his or any era, Bagwell has experienced a long tenure on the Hall of Fame ballot due, in part, to the fact that his case, like Raines’, was heavy on peak production instead of familiar career statistical milestones. He was a career .297/.408/.540 hitter with 449 homers and 1,529 RBI. Just as Raines’ best season came in a year shortened by the greed of baseball owners, Bagwell’s best year came in 1994, a season shortened by the 1994-95 labor stoppage, likewise fueled by the owners’ greed. That year he hit .368 while leading the league in slugging, OPS, OPS+ and total bases. Only Tony Gwynn kept him from winning the batting title and, though he did win the MVP, a 110 game season kept him from a sparkling 50-homer season which may have elevated Bagwell’s stature in the eyes of some voters.

Despite Bagwell’s fantastic numbers –between 1994 and 2001, he averaged (averaged!) a line of .306/.428/.589, 37 homers and 120 RBI while playing in one of the game’s worst hitters parks — he has had to wait until his seventh go-around with the BBWAA to, likely, gain induction. One reason for the long wait: Bagwell didn’t reach 3,000 hits or 500 homers and much of his value was tied up in less-appreciated rates stats like OBP and slugging percentage.

Perhaps a bigger reason for it: the suspicion of many BBWAA voters that Bagwell used performance-enhancing drugs. A suspicion never once matched with actual reporting on the matter, but which was characterized by rumor, gossip and, in some cases, rank McCarthyism. Thankfully, at long last, attitudes about such matters appear to be changing.

Both Raines and Bagwell have been unfairly overlooked for several years. Both, however, stand on the brink of election today, their ten and seven-year’s worth of snubbing about to end.