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Tony La Russa: Anti-Harold Baines arguments are ‘weak-a–, superficial bulls—‘

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LAS VEGAS — We’ve talked a lot about Harold Baines’ recent election to the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game Committee. The executive summary: Baines — however nice a guy he is and however much people liked him — did not have a career that came close to the standards of most Hall of Fame inductees.

As I wrote on Monday, my view as to how this happened is that Baines was the beneficiary of an extremely friendly 16-person committee, at least three members of which had personal connections to him. While I am happy for Baines for for receiving baseball’s highest honor and for Baines’ fans for getting to grok some of the glory vicariously, it’s hard to view it as anything other than a product of cronyism and a conflict of interest on a part of the Hall of Fame and the Today’s Game Committee. Nothing personal, Harold, it’s just a fact.

One of those three members of the Today’s Game Committee was Tony La Russa, who managed Baines in Chicago and in Oakland and whom Baines described on Monday as a close, personal friend. As I wrote on Monday, I don’t begrudge La Russa for voting for Baines. Once you’re on the Committee you have free rein to vote your conscience and that’s what La Russa did. But leave it to La Russa — a guy with a law degree who has never met an untenable position he didn’t at least make an effort to argue with a straight face — to claim he didn’t vote for Baines because he knows him and loves him.

La Russa was on Chris Russo’s show on MLB Network this morning, and Russo confronted him about Baines’ election, trying to get the Hall of Fame manager to admit that, really, Baines is not up to typical Hall of Fame snuff. La Russa pushed back on that forcefully, claiming that it was not a matter of him knowing and loving Baines, but that Baines was, by objective baseball standards, a worthy Hall of Famer. What’s more, he claimed that anyone who disagreed with him on that was basing their argument on “that weak-a**, superficial bulls**t.”

Watch:

I’m not sure what about the case against Baines is “weak-a**” or “superficial bulls**t.” Indeed, the case is about the most straightforward and substantive case there could possibly be. As I and others have observed, Baines led the league in exactly one offensive category in his long career: slugging percentage in 1984. His highest finish in MVP balloting came in 1985 when he came in ninth. Those relative-to-Hall-of-Famer modest hitting numbers look worse when you consider that for well over half of the 2,830 games he played he was a designated hitter. As Jeff Snider of BaseballEssential.com tweeted yesterday, Baines was rarely even a top-five player on his own team.

La Russa is a very smart man and he knows this. But he also has a long and rich history of trying to tell people that black is white when he has been second guessed. He didn’t screw up, it’s you who got it wrong. Or perhaps you simply misunderstood.

In 2011 he made a famous mistake with his bullpen in the World Series and claimed he didn’t screw up, it was simply too loud, which never really added up. I witnessed something similar in person. In 2010, after a spring training game — spring training! — I was in the clubhouse as he explained to a very well-respected reporter that a very clear mistake which was made in the game — by a player, not La Russa — did not in fact happen or did not happen in the way the reporter saw it (note: the reporter was right). One could charitably chalk this up to La Russa protecting his players and coaches as many managers do. With him, though, it often seems driven by arrogance and zero tolerance on his part to be questioned by people he does not feel are as smart or qualified as him. Which is, well, almost everyone.

La Russa was a great manager and baseball mind, but he is full of crap here. He knows dang well why he voted for Harold Baines. He tries to save it here by citing “the things we looked at” and making references to Baines’ “greatness” and “longevity” but the case holds no objective water. As I said, once the Hall of Fame put La Russa on the Committee he was entitled to vote for whomever he wanted and, if he wanted to, he could simply say “Harold Baines was a great man and a great professional and I think he’s a Hall of Famer.” We’d take issue with that as being enough, but it would at least constitute the honest reason why La Russa gave him his vote.

Instead we get this. A highly disingenuous argument combined with a profane insult aimed at anyone who disagrees with La Russa (i.e. almost everyone). What a sad performance from a guy of La Russa’s stature.

Lou Whitaker snubbed from the Hall of Fame again

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Long time Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker has long been one of baseball history’s most underrated players. He and Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell formed one of the best up-the-middle combos ever, teammates since Whitaker’s debut in 1977 to his final year in 1995.

Trammell is actually a great jumping-off point to support Whitaker’s candidacy. Here are their career counting stats:

  • Whitaker: .276/.363/.426, 420 doubles, 65 triples, 244 homers, 1084 RBI, 1386 runs, 143 stolen bases, 1197 walks (9967 plate appearances)
  • Trammell: .285/.352/.415, 415 doubles, 55 triples, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs, 236 stolen bases, 850 walks (9376 plate appearances)

Whitaker also had slightly more Wins Above Replacement over his career according to Baseball Reference, besting Trammell 75.1 to 70.7. FanGraphs’ version of WAR puts both players slightly lower but with Whitaker still in the lead, 68.1 to 63.7.

Trammell, like Whitaker, did not make the Hall of Fame through initial eligibility on the ballot voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, beginning five years after their retirement. Trammell was elected two years ago on the Modern Era ballot. Whitaker fell off the ballot in his only year of eligibility, earning just 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. Whitaker was again snubbed on Sunday night, receiving just six of the 12 votes necessary for induction. Trammell became eligible on the BBWAA ballot in 2002 and had a 15-year run, with his support running as far down as 13.4 percent in 2007 and peaking at 40.9 percent in his final year in 2016.

Trammell and Whitaker critics cited things like never leading the league in any important categories and never winning an MVP Award as reasons why they shouldn’t be enshrined. That last reason, of course, ignores that both contributed to the Tigers winning the World Series in 1984, but I digress.

Trammell should have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the BBWAA ballot. And, since the distinction matters to so many people, he should have been inducted on the first ballot. Among Hall of Fame shortstops (at least 50 percent of their games at the position), Trammell has the eighth-highest WAR among 21 eligible players. He has ever so slightly more WAR than Barry Larkin (70.4), who made it into the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility with 86.4 percent of the vote.

Now, what about Whitaker? Among Hall of Fame second basemen (at least 50 percent of games at the position), Whitaker’s 75.1 WAR would rank sixth among 20 eligible second basemen. The only second basemen ahead of him are Rogers Hornsby (127.0), Eddie Collins (124.0), Nap Lajoie (107.4), Joe Morgan (100.6), and Charlie Gehringer (80.7). Whitaker outpaces such legendaries as Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.1), and Craig Biggio (65.5). Sandberg made it into the Hall in his third year on the ballot; Alomar his second; Biggio his third.

Among the players on the 2001 BBWAA ballot, the only player with more career WAR than Whitaker was Bert Blyleven (94.4), who eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Dave Winfield (64.2) and Kirby Puckett (51.1) were elected that year. Also receiving hefty support that year were Gary Carter (70.1 WAR), Jim Rice (47.7), Bruce Sutter (24.1), and Goose Gossage (41.2) and each would eventually make the Hall of Fame.

WAR is not, by any means, a perfect stat, so the WAR argument may not resonate with everyone. Dating back to 1871, there have been only 66 players who hit at least 400 doubles and 200 home runs while stealing 100 bases. The only second basemen (same 50 percent stipulation) to do that are Whitaker, Hornsby, Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, Biggio, Chase Utley, and Ian Kinsler. Additionally, Whitaker drew more walks than strikeouts over his career, 1197 to 1099. The only second basemen to do that while hitting at least 200 career homers are Whitaker, Morgan, Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Gordon.

Whitaker was not without accolades: he won the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was a five-time All-Star and took home four Silver Sluggers along with three Gold Gloves to boot. Trammell took home a similar amount of hardware: though he never won a Rookie of the Year Award, he did make the All-Star team six times. He went on to win four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.

In a just world, Whitaker would have been on the ballot for the then-maximum 15 years. In a sentimentally just world, he would have gone in side-by-side with Trammell in 2002. Whitaker’s candidacy certainly shouldn’t have fallen to the Modern Era ballot, and it shouldn’t have been further fumbled by a committee that gave him as many votes as Steve Garvey.