Baseball writer and analyst Bill James probably should be given a spot in the Hall of Fame someday -- but this isn't about that. This is about 2017 inductee Tim Raines, and how, if not for James and his legion of intellectual descendants, he may never have landed in Cooperstown.
As you might have guessed, this is also about baseball statistics. In Raines' case, it always was.
In the early years of his window to be elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the stats worked against him. Gradually, however, they came to elevate him all the way to immortality. Turns out, at the beginning, too many were looking at the wrong stats. We figured it out in time for Raines to be elected in his 10th and final year of eligibility.
"I wasn't exactly sure if it was going to happen," Raines said after his election in January. "I know last night was probably the worst night I've had out of the 10 years."
During each of Raines' first five years of eligibility, he was named on less than 50 percent of the writers' ballots. Why? There were a lot of reasons tossed around. One of the craziest I saw was that he was too conservative on the basepaths -- yeah, the guy who stole 808 bases -- which I assume is a residual of the incessant practice of comparing Raines to Rickey Henderson. There were also suggestions that his period of dominance lacked duration, though it was easy to match his peak years with a number of other Hall of Famers. And there was the fact that he ended up with 2,605 career hits, a fine total but shy of the magical 3,000 barrier that more or less ensures enshrinement (extracurricular criteria aside).
It's hard to say when the first analytical case for Raines was made, though he had his advocates at the very beginning. The nuances of the debate were captured in this seminal back-and-forth between ESPN's Jayson Stark and Peter Gammons nearly a decade ago. (Because it's an archived page, it's a little hard to tell who was writing what, but you can get the gist.) There was a website created on Raines' behalf that tracked articles written in his favor and also targeted writers the site was trying to sway.
"We didn't have the stats the way they have them today, but I think if we would have, I think my chances of getting in might have been even earlier," Raines said last week in a conference call. "So it helped me tremendously. I think it played a really big role in my induction."
The day after Raines retired, Joe Sheehan wrote about his candidacy for Baseball Prospectus, so you have to assume that was where it started, and Sheehan's compatriot Rany Jazayerli picked up the ball a week later. CBS Sports' Jonah Keri, an unapologetic Expos fan, beat Raines' drum louder than anyone, up until this past December with one of his open letters to the electorate. Keri told FiveThirtyEight's Rob Arthur in January that his efforts helped sway at least a few writers.
The crux of all those arguments never really changed. Where Raines fell short by the old measures, he shined by the new ones. It began, of course, with on-base percentage and his career .385 mark. Whereas Raines fell short of 3,000 hits, when you factor in his No. 38 all-time ranking in walks, Raines actually got on base more often than five members of the 3,000 hit club: Tony Gwynn, Nap Lajoie, Lou Brock, Ichiro Suzuki and Roberto Clemente.
"I really think a lot of it, because I think it compelled me to get into the Hall because of it," Raines said. "I didn't really think too much about it as a player. You know, I didn't really look at it that close, and I think as a fan and as a baseball person, starting to see the way things are looked at in baseball and now, it's really interesting."
Meanwhile, the catch-all, bottom-line metric of WAR began to be used widely, even in mainstream circles (though not always wisely), and by that measure, Raines' 69.1 career total put him in a better contextual light than his hits total or lack of MVP votes. That ranks 108th all time, ahead of a number of Hall of Famers.
Additionally, Hall metrics guru Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which seeks to blend both career and peak-value ratings and uses WAR methodology, became available on the influential baseball-reference.com. And that perhaps provided the most eye-popping measurement of Raines of all: He ranks eighth all time in JAWS among left-fielders. Those ahead of him are either in Cooperstown or have been kept out for off-the-field reasons (Barry Bonds, Pete Rose).
As these works of analysis piled up, Raines' vote share continued to climb. He hit 55 percent in 2015, 69.8 percent in 2016 and, finally, in January, he soared past the 75 percent needed for admittance with 86 percent. It was a long journey.
There were other baseball statistical analysts before James, but, let's face it, it was his Baseball Abstracts series -- a set of books that began their publishing history around the time Raines was drafted in 1977 -- that got the ball rolling. So much of the way we look at the game now, whether it's as writers, analysts, fans, players or general managers, is directly or indirectly derived from those books and countless other works James has produced. And if it wasn't James himself who elevated awareness of Raines' career, it certainly was the work of so many influenced by him.
Without the heightened comprehension of baseball provided by analytical frameworks, Raines may have simply exhausted his eligibility this past January, or maybe even have dropped off the ballot long ago. His election is a triumph, not just for him, but for everyone who has learned to look past the traditional measures. In fact, we can begin the process of exploding the differences between traditional accomplishments and sabermetric accomplishments, and just call them accomplishments.
"I think back in the day, when you looked at a Hall of Famer, you looked at 500 home runs, 300 wins and 3,000 hits," Raines said. "A lot of times, if you didn't reach those criteria, it was kind of hard for anyone to look at you as a Hall of Famer. The game has changed today, the way they look at the stats and everything. It has changed a lot of people's minds."
Will James join Raines in Cooperstown someday as a contributor to baseball? You can bet on that campaign gathering steam in the years to come from writers and industry professionals so indebted to his work.
But if James needs a Hall of Fame player ambassador, someone might call Raines on his behalf. He owes James a solid.