Examining surprising Hall calls for Harold Baines, Lee Smith

Longevity surely helped the Hall of Fame cause for Harold Baines, who played 22 seasons in the majors and finished 34th all time in career RBIs. Getty Images

In an absolutely stunning Hall of Fame announcement Sunday night, the Today's Game Era Committee elected Lee Smith ... and Harold Baines.

I just hope this wasn't the Hall of Fame's "La La Land/Moonlight" moment.

Smith is understandable. He wouldn't have been my first choice on this 10-person ballot -- no general manager in the 1980s or 1990s would have traded Smith for Will Clark or Orel Hershiser -- but he did retire in 1997 as the all-time saves leader and still ranks third behind Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman. During his 15 years on the baseball writers' ballot, Smith peaked at 50.6 percent of the vote in 2012. Every player who received at least 50 percent eventually was elected to the Hall of Fame except for Gil Hodges (and five players on the current ballot). Smith's road was going to lead to Cooperstown at some point, and it turns out to be 2019.

But Baines? He played forever and had that beautiful left-handed swing -- 22 seasons, finished with 2,866 hits, 384 home runs and 1,628 RBIs, hit .289 in his career and .300 eight times, including at age 40. He was so beloved on the South Side of Chicago that when the White Sox traded him to the Rangers in 1989, the team retired his uniform number while he was still an active player.

When he was an active player, however, nobody thought of Baines as a Hall of Famer. And why would they? His career high in WAR was 4.3 in 1984, and while WAR didn't exist during his playing days, it's reflective of how Baines was perceived at the time. A nice player, good enough to make some All-Star teams, but not a great player, not in the way you think of Hall of Famers -- even if he did end up with some nice counting numbers thanks to his longevity (he's 34th all time in RBIs).

He received MVP votes just four times in his career, from 1982 to 1985, topping out with a ninth-place finish in 1985. That was when he was still an outfielder, before becoming a full-time DH in 1987. In fact, later in his career as he began approaching 3,000 career hits, one discussion point was that even if Baines achieved that milestone, he still wouldn't be a Hall of Famer. He lasted five seasons on the BBWAA ballot, peaking at 6.1 percent of the vote.

In terms of career WAR, Baines lagged well behind some of the other player candidates on this ballot:

Will Clark: 56.5 (four seasons of 4+ WAR)

Orel Hershiser: 51.6 (five seasons of 4+ WAR)

Albert Belle: 40.1 (five seasons of 4+ WAR)

Baines: 38.7 (one season of 4+ WAR)

Smith: 29.4 (one season of 4+ WAR)

Joe Carter: 19.6 (two seasons of 4+ WAR)

Relievers don't pitch enough to compile enough career WAR to compare to position players or starting pitchers, but none of the six players would be described as strong Hall of Fame candidates. After all, that's why none were elected by the BBWAA, which admittedly does have high standards (it's much easier to get 75 percent of the vote from 16 voters on a special committee than 75 percent from 400 voters). Baines' selection, however, is the most shocking Hall of Fame selection in years, even more so than the wacky 2012 Pre-Integration Committee that elected umpire Hank O'Day, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert and 19th-century catcher Deacon White (in a year in which the BBWAA spun a shutout).

Even Baines admitted his reaction when he got the call from the Hall of Fame was, "What?" He had been on the same Today's Game ballot in 2016 and received fewer than five votes (vote totals under five aren't revealed). Apparently, he got a lot better in two years.

It is worth noting: Four of the committee members were Jerry Reinsdorf, his owner in Chicago; Tony La Russa, his manager with the White Sox; Roberto Alomar, a teammate with the Orioles; and Pat Gillick, his GM in Baltimore. Furthermore, Bert Blyleven and executives Paul Beeston, John Schuerholz and Andy MacPhail have ties to the American League during Baines' playing days.

All this might sound harsh, and I don't mean any personal disrespect to Baines. It's quite possible that one reason he got elected -- aside from the hit and RBI totals -- is that he was so well-liked. He was a classy professional in an era when many of his contemporaries started juicing up.

It will be interesting to see if there's any ripple effect here. After all, this year's BBWAA ballot -- results of that vote will be announced in January -- includes 19 players with at least 50 career WAR. It certainly helps Edgar Martinez, another DH who fell just short last year and is now on his final year on the ballot. Martinez's career numbers are on a different level, at least in terms of triple-slash and WAR:

Martinez: .312/.418/.515, 68.4 WAR

Baines: .289/.356/.465, 38.7 WAR

Martinez has fared extremely well in the early ballots that voters have revealed so far, and Baines' selection should make him a lock. But he was likely to get there anyway after receiving 70 percent last year. The player on this year's ballot who could be most helped is Omar Vizquel, who received 37 percent of the vote his first year on the ballot. Like Baines, longevity would be the essential claim to his selection more than objective analysis. Or maybe Jeff Kent. His career WAR of 55.4 is borderline for a Hall of Famer, but he finished with 377 home runs and 1,518 RBIs. And he wasn't a DH. On the other hand, the BBWAA has been leaning more and more on objective analysis (witness the Tim Raines selection and Martinez's rapid improvement the past couple of years).

That could have been some of what happened here, a nod to old-school thinking over the purveyors of analysis. That still doesn't explain the Baines selection, however. If the traditional criteria of "he feels like a Hall of Famer" is applied here, Clark and Hershiser certainly had that feel much more during their careers than Baines.

Or maybe there's no ripple effect at all here. After all, you can't start putting in every player who was better than Baines (I'm starting the campaign now to get John Olerud -- 58.2 career WAR! -- elected) or you'll have to build a new wing in the plaque room that extends all the way into Otsego Lake.