Today's Game: Harold Baines

All this week we're taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

Some years ago, in an effort to find a meaningful definition for “professional hitter,” I put together a list of players who had the most seasons between 101 OPS+ (just above league average, and 145 OPS+ (which is roughly where MVP consideration begins).

And I have to tell you: I love this list SO much. And here’s why: It worked. I do probably 25 of these kinds of lists every week, no exaggeration, and they’re usually busts. The players who show up on the list very rarely match the idea that I had in mind. But this one — I mean, it’s near perfection.

There ARE some all-time greats on the list — Yaz, Yogi, Morgan, Winfield, Dawson — who aren’t quite the essence of what I would consider “professional hitter.” They’re a little bit too good, plus they all had strong defensive reputations. They’re just not quite professional hitters.

But the rest of the list is marvelous.

At 15 seasons: Vic Wertz, Tony Perez, Ron Cey, Paul Molitor and Ken Griffey — the dad, not the son — all are great examples of professional hitters. Dwight Evans is on the list too, as are Rafael Palmeiro and Tim Raines, whose speed sometimes overshadowed his prowess as a professional hitter

At 16 seasons: Darrell Evans, Brian Downing, Enos Slaughter, yes, totally, professional hitters. Downing and Evans — I mean, both of them are first-ballot inductees into Professional Hitters Hall of Awesome.

At 17 seasons: Sam Rice, Lou Whitaker and Tony Gwynn. Rice and Gwynn are in the Hall of Fame, and Whitaker should be; this isn’t quite as representative a group of what I mean by professional hitter, but it’s still good.

And then, alone at the top, is the all-time professional hitter.

At 19 seasons, the one and only: Harold Baines.

How do you judge the career of a player who was always good but was never quite great?

— Baines hit .290 13 times, but he never hit .315.

— He hit 20 homers 11 times, but he never hit 30.

— He was on four MVP ballots, but he never got a first-place vote.

— He led the league in one single-season category in his whole career: slugging, with the White Sox in 1984.

— If you look at his Baseball Reference page, you will see that he won two awards in his career: The 1987 and '88 Edgar Martinez Awards as best designated hitter. It’s a strange thing to see, because Edgar Martinez was barely in Major League Baseball yet; he played a total of 27 games those two seasons. Harold Baines winning the Edgar Martinez Award is like Kate Hepburn winning the Meryl Streep award -- it’s time-bending weirdness.

[caption id="attachment_23716" align="aligncenter" width="473"] Nobody embodied "very-good-but-not-great" the way Baines did.[/caption]

Let’s say something else, though: If not for the quirks of baseball, Harold Baines very well could be in the Hall of Fame right now. Look: He finished with 2,866 hits. That’s 134 hits shy of the magic 3,000.

In 1981, he probably lost 50 or 60 hits because of the strike. Baines crushed the ball after the strike, hitting .330/.368/.651.

In 1994, he probably lost another 40 or 50 hits because of the strike. Baines was 35 then, playing for the Orioles, and he put up a classic Baines-like season: .294/.356/.485.

He was even better in 1995, and he might have lost another 15 or 20 hits because of the shortened season.

I think when you put it all together — he would have either gotten to 3,000 or come so close that he undoubtedly would have stuck around at the end to get it. And with 3,000 hits, I don’t know, I think there’s a pretty good chance he would have been elected to the Hall of Fame.

This is the problem with numbers like 3,000 hits. If he had reached 3K, Baines wouldn’t have deserved to be in the Hall of Fame any MORE than he does now, just like he doesn’t deserve any LESS consideration because he fell a few hits shy. Because I spend night and day thinking about the Hall of Fame, I’ve started to think more and more that the Hall would be so much more interesting and fun if we inducted players by CATEGORIES rather than throwing them all into one, massive and convoluted pile.

I’m probably the only one who thinks this, so I don’t expect this idea to go anywhere. But I think it would work. Look at Baines: If you put all the ballplayers in one giant pile, the way we do now, Harold Baines is not a Hall of Famer. His 38.7 career WAR, his 30.1 JAWS, his lack of signature seasons, his defensive shortcomings (mostly because his knees couldn’t hold up to the pounding) and his overall good-but-not-great patterns suggest that he isn’t especially close to the Hall. And he won’t get elected this year, that’s a sure thing.

But this is the second time he’s been put on the Today’s Game ballot, and there are a lot of people who want him in the Hall because he was so cool, so consistent, so much a part of baseball fans’ memories.

Ah, if there were only a Professional Hitters Wing in the Hall of Fame. For that, Harold Baines would be first-ballot.