Tim Raines is looking like he’s heading into the Hall of Fame and some voters seem to think that’s less disappointing than having some great players who used PEDs get in.
Don’t get me wrong, Raines had a nice career and in particular an excellent run between 1983 and 1987 when he posted five consecutive season with 6 fWAR each and seven All-Star appearances in a row. Problem is, he never managed to finish higher than fifth in the NL MVP voting, didn’t return to an All-Star Game after his age 27 season, or produce 5+ fWAR after his big five campaign run. If you don’t like fWAR, his traditional counting stats don’t help much either. Raines checks in 80th on the all-time hit list tied with the great Rabbit Maranville. There are plenty of players further down the rankings in the Hall, but they often hit a ton of homers or played a premium position. He is in the top 5 in career stolen bases, but that’s generally seen as more of a sweetener stat than one to build a resume around. To his credit, he also sits eighth among all time left fielders in JAWS ranking. Problem is, Raines will go in before number one, Barry Bonds, and number four, Pete Rose on the list.
While I think Rose should be allowed to enter the Hall, even if Ichiro is my hit king, I won’t make a case for him today. Instead, my efforts are reserved for Barry Bonds and his Hall of Fame blackballing due to his steroids and Human Growth Hormone usage. Clearly, he cheated and that’s simply based on how he defied the aging process enjoying his peak years in his age 36 and 37 seasons. However, no one goes from the Hall of Very Good to arguably posting the best hitting numbers ever based on pharmacology alone.
What makes a home run hitter? In 2007, Tufts University physicist R.G. Tobin completed a study on how steroids might impact power production. I’m not citing his study to somehow discredit the impact PEDs have on stats. Clearly, they do and that’s part of his conclusions which I’ll get into shortly. However, he does note something that is often overlooked.
To hit a large number of home runs, a player must put the ball in play, not strike out or walk many times; and must hit a large fraction of the batted balls over the fence. Putting the ball in play is largely a matter of skill, and is not likely to be greatly affected by the use of strength-enhancing drugs. Hitting those balls over the outfield wall is a matter of both skill and physical strength, and could be influenced by the use of drugs that build muscle mass.
In other words part of hitting home runs at a high rate requires possessing an abnormally high skill set and not just raw power. Understood, there have been a number of player over the years who simply mash, but truth is, they have enough power or pitch recognition to punish mistakes. I could have taken all the steroids in Oakland and I probably wouldn’t have been able to hit the ball out of the park once. To hit 762 and 2900 total hits requires something and beyond elite.
Bonds put a nice down payment on his Hall of Fame resumé before he even left Pittsburgh. Generally speaking, no one is making an argument he started using PEDs in the Burgh. He won two MVPs and finished runner up once. He also led the league in slugging and on base percentage twice. He led the league in homers his first year in San Fran. The seven year stretch from 1987 to 1993, he produced a higher bWAR than Carl Yastrzemski, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, and Frank Robinson did over their best stretches.
Back to Tobin. He notes that steroids translate to about a 10% increase in muscle mass assuming there is a corresponding weight training program. This in turn translates to a 5% increase in bat speed. He then goes into a bunch of physics stuff that I only vaguely understand.
Tobin also notes that normal to elite homerun rates on balls in play runs somewhere in the .05-.1 range. Some sluggers of the steroids error like Mark McGwire saw their homers for balls in play spike to .15, 50% higher than a normal great slugger. Bonds’ HR to balls in play were excellent but not unbelievable in San Francisco until 1998, averaging .092 per season. From 1999 until the end of his career, the number spiked to .11. This roughly equates to roughly 40% increase over his previous norm, a clear increase, but certainly at the low range of Tobin’s expected performance improvement. Sure, Bonds spiked even higher some years including an outrageous .19, but he never went higher than .14 in other years. Steroids had an impact, but maybe not the same kind of impact as others like McGwire. If you adjust his HR per balls in play to his previous norms, Bonds drops about 100 HRs from his career total. This isn’t considering any extension of his career that the PEDs allowed, so we’ll arbitrarily lop off the last two years of his career and another 54 HRs. That takes him to 602. Good enough for 8th all time and the Hall of Fame.
Bonds likely won’t be voted in again this year. With about half the votes cast, he’s only receiving votes from about 63%, so far short of the required 75%. I had some theories about who was voting for him or better yet against him. I always presumed that there was an age gap, that older writers felt compelled to protect the “integrity of the game.” By the integrity of the games, I mean the players they loved as a youth. I also thought the voting pool was overwhelmingly old and white. I took a random sample of 60 voters who had cast their ballots by Monday and did my best to ascertain their age and race. If I could not, I moved on to someone else. I broke them down by by generational category with Baby Boomers being born prior to 1965 and Millenials being born after 1980. There weren’t any Millenials in the sample, meaning Boomers and Gen Xers composed it completely. If only Gen X voters were allowed, Bonds would have received the 76% of the vote, 1% more than the 75% needed. The majority of Boomers sampled voted for Bonds, but just barely at 51%.
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The sample was disproportionately old, 35 Boomers to 25 Gen Xers and disproportionately white. Only 5% were black, and all three voted for Bonds. Ten percent were Hispanic and they split 4 to 2 in his favor.
Another argument against Bonds is the respect for the game. Again, he cheated and, yes, that is disrespectful of the game. He probably used some illegal and some legal means of getting an edge. However, no dirty tests exist confirming his steroids usage and HGH wasn’t banned in baseball until 2005. Bonds retired (or got black balled) in 2007, but his HR per balls in play percentage returned to his normal his final two seasons. While the intended purpose of HGH isn’t to prevent aging or reduce the effect aging, doctors have prescribed it for that effect. Bonds never took speed like players in 60’s or used coke in the middle of games. Of course a lot of those players are in or are about to go in. I’ll accept the character clause when scumbags like Ty Cobb are kicked out.
The tide is turning on who belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t. As PED hold out Dave Albee points out, not only are voters moving in the direction, but the old guard exercising too much power is slowly being forced out. Voters, many of whom don’t even write about baseball anymore, are being required to go to more games and capping honorary members of the BBWA at ten years. The Hall of Fame committee wants players like Bonds in and they are stacking the deck to make it happen.
Thankfully, it’s a matter of when, not if, but Cooperstown won’t feel complete until the best of the steroids era players make it in. Bonds is tainted, but there are plenty of players with dirt on their resume in the Hall of Fame already. MLB has already locked out the all-time hits leader while the press has the homerun and walk leader blocked at the moment. Eventually people will forget Bonds’ controversies and see only the numbers. Eventually, he will be seen for having the all-time great career he had. Despite any asterisks on his resumé, admitting Bonds to the Hall of Fame means admitting a new all-time great that trumps a lot of heroes from an earlier age for older voters. That might be too difficult for some of them to stomach.