Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Baines of our existence

For the first time in its 67 year history, the Baseball Hall of Fame is coping with the concept of player specialization and the criteria to be applied when assessing their qualifications to Hall of Fame induction. Last year Bruce Sutter became the first pitcher who was used exclusively in relief to be admitted to the Hall’s ranks. This season, another position takes center stage as a bevy of players who were designated hitters now are becoming eligible for induction.

The designated hitter (DH) is a very modern baseball creation. It was first instituted in the American League in 1973 in an effort to increase offensive output and thus, fan interest. By replacing the pitcher, usually the weakest hitting member of the lineup, with a player with greater offensive talent, fans would be able to see more runs score and theoretically have someone with a good chance of making a hit in every spot of the lineup. Purists of the game have argued that the designated hitter takes away the symmetry of the game. Before the DH, all nine players in the field also had a chance to bat. If one struggled in one facet of the game they could make up for it when they took the field or came to bat. There have been other arguments against the DH (encouraging beanball wars, causing injury to pitchers by having them pitch longer than they normally would since they cannot be removed for a pinch hitter) but there is no proof that these arguments hold water.

Although there continues to be those who would like the designated hitter to be eliminated, the position has remained for over thirty years and the DH was brought to the National League in 1997 upon the addition of interleague play. With the DH a permanent fixture of the baseball scene, it would be expected that those who perform well in the role would be accepted for their successes. Unfortunately this has not been true. The baseball writer community has seen fit to slight designated hitters as one-dimensional. This has been borne out in the Most Valuable Player voting and looks as if it will be a factor in the Hall of Fame voting as well.

This is unfortunate as there a number of great players who are on the Hall of Fame ballot who served significant time as a designated hitter. Among the players who were designated hitters, Harold Baines is the premiere candidate. No one in baseball history has played more games as a designated hitter than Baines’ 1652.

Baines falls a tad short on the numbers that are considered “automatic” induction into the Hall of Fame. He had 2866 hits, less than five percent off the magic 3000 mark. He had a career .289 batting average. His 386 home runs are impressive but not so much so as if he had added another fourteen for an even four hundred. But longevity is key to becoming a member of the Hall of Fame. Fully one-third of the players who have played 20 season in major league baseball are in the Hall of Fame. Voters are impressed by the accumulation of counting stats and the best way to achieve that is by playing a long time. Baines accumulated some impressive totals during his 22 seasons as a big leaguer.

Every Hall of Fame eligible player who has hit 350 homers, 450 doubles and 1000 walks is in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Dwight Evans and Harold Baines. Those who are in are Aaron, Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Williams, Reggie Jackson, Foxx, Kaline, Murray, Musial, Ott, Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson and Winfield. His Win Share total of 307 places him among the top 200 players of all-time.

Some of those players mentioned above played as a designated hitter (Murray, Jackson and Yastrzemski). But among Hall of Famers, only Paul Molitor has played more than 1000 games as a designated hitter. He did not become a full-time designated hitter until he had spent considerable time as a third baseman and an outfielder. It is likely that despite Baines’ totals, he will be frowned upon because of his role as a designated hitter. With any luck, though, voters will begin to view these “specialist” roles with an open mind and Baines will find his way into the Hall of Fame.


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