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Tim Raines’s Crappy Luck

June 30, 2010

So fast. So unlucky.

For somebody so damn fast, Tim Raines very well could have had the worst timing of any great ballplayer. Well, any great ballplayer not named Alan Trammell or Duke Snider. Or, uh, anybody in the Negro Leagues. Which is to say that there were a lot of gosh-darn obstacles getting in Raines’s way of being acknowledged as one of the best ballplayers – and possibly the second-best leadoff hitter in – history. Bill James, in his 2001 Historical Baseball Abstract, ranked him the 81st greatest of all time, right behind Roberto Alomar and right ahead of Willie Stargell.

Generally speaking, those who have embraced new(ish) ideas like total runs created above average and wins above replacement players are vocal supporters for Raines’s inclusion to the Hall of Fame. And the old-school writers who don’t care about weighted statistics but are still voting for him remember anecdotes and quotes like Pete Rose’s statement in 1984:

“Right now he’s the best player in the National League. Mike Schmidt is a tremendous player and so are Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson, but Rock can beat you in more ways than any other player in the league. He can beat you with his glove, his speed and his hitting from either side of the plate.”

But this isn’t about that and his HOF-worthiness. Read Joe Posnanski for that. Or Tom Tango. Or Rob Neyer. Or Joe Sheehan. Or Rany Jazayerli. No no, this is about how Raines had some really bad luck. I mean, there were a bunch of things he had to contend with. To wit:

*He played in Montreal.

Hmm. I mean this three ways.

1. He played in Montreal. As in, where? Canada? Those leftist bastards, with their Labatt’s and torturous health care lines? Right. The place where nobody had heard of Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Randy Johnson, Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero until they came stateside? Yeah, that Montreal.

(It’s funny. I was reading an article the other day about how there weren’t any good ballplayers from Florida (as opposed to California and other big states) before the early 1980s. Obviously, even when that was ‘true,’ it wasn’t true, but there was an influx of Floridians in the ‘80s, like Dwight Gooden, Derek Bell, Gary Sheffield, not to mention the all-Florida outfield for the early ‘80s Expos with Andre Dawson and Warren Cromartie.)

Lookit. Even if it’s an argument made all the time to explain why there isn’t a groundswell of support for players from smaller cities/markets, it’s worth underlining it. For example: Mark Teixiera (.230 BA, .751 OPS as of this writing) could get voted into the All-Star Game this year by virtue of playing in New York and for the Yankees. If T-Rex doesn’t get voted in, he’s not making the squad. But if he does, 17 years from now, sportswriters may talk about his credentials and note the 2010 AS Game appearance.

2. After 1981/2, Montreal became a very bad run-scoring team. This is from Bill James’s 1985 Baseball Abstract:

“The 1984 Montreal Expos, not meaning to slight Charlie Lee (sic) or anything, had essentially two strengths. In Gary Carter, they had one of the greatest catchers in the history of baseball. In Tim Raines, they had the outstanding lead-off man in the history of the National League. Raines hit .309, got on base almost 40% of the time, reached scoring position under his own power 130 times (with the help of 75 stolen bases and 38 doubles) and, playing center field, was second among National League outfielders in putouts. Raines scored 106 runs with a terrible offense coming up behind him, led the league in stolen bases and is now five years ahead of Lou Brock’s pace as a base stealer. He doesn’t throw real great, but if you’ve got to have a weakness that’s a good one to choose, because it really doesn’t cost the team a half-dozen runs a year. He is a great ballplayer, one of the ten best in baseball.”

In 1984, Raines directly contributed 26.6% of his team’s runs. That is, he had 106 runs scored and 60 RBIs; minus the 8 homers he had that would double up the runs and RBIs, and of the Expos’ total 593 runs scored that year, Raines – again, directly – contributed 26.6%. A year before, using that same simple formula, Raines contributed 28.5%.

Contrast this to Jeff Bagwell’s 2000, when he scored 152 runs and had 132 RBIs (with 47 homers), and this directly contributes 25.3% of the Houston Astros’ 938 runs. (Though Bags did contribute 30% of his 1994 Astros’ runs.)

Bill James’s Runs Created stat is slightly different than this criteria, but it’s worth noting that Bagwell finished his career with 1,788 RC for 37th place total, while Raines finished with 1,636 for 54th place all-time, tied with…Tony Gwynn.

Raines stayed with the Expos through 1990, his best years, before being traded to the Chicago White Sox, who were looking for a reliable leadoff hitter. (Raines had since dropped to the three-hole in favor of Marquis Grissom in Montreal.) Guess what also wasn’t a good hitters’ park? Yeah, Comiskey.

3. Montreal ruined Andre Dawson’s knees. 

And Gary Carter’s. According to this article, Carter and Dawson each had 12 knee operations in their career. Yeah, Dawson’s was sort of a precondition because of his high school football days, but turf exacerbated the problem like an epileptic watching Sailor Moon.

Baseball players, especially those who value their knees (Dawson) or back (Scott Rolen), don’t like playing on turf. Raines played a very speedy outfield and was using his legs more than those guys. Raines never said as much, but I’d imagine there was a little speed sapped from him after a decade on turf when he reached his 30s. After all, this was the guy who, according to his first wife, was offered more than 100 football scholarships. And this was also the guy who, according to an August 14th, 1982 Montreal Gazette piece, was clocked “from home plate to first base…in 3.5 seconds batting right and 3.4 seconds batting left. And why not? When he played high school football in Florida, he did 40 yard sprints in 4.3 seconds.”

*Collusion.

Raines lost two things from being one of the worst hit from collusion:

1. April of the 1987 season. 1987 was his best season. This isn’t Ted Williams losing four and a half years to World War II and Korea, but think about Raines playing another 20 games in his career year. Say another 25 runs, 10-15 sbs, 4 HRs…he may not have displaced his former teammate Dawson from the MVP voting, but he would’ve finished better than 7th.

2. A better contract from a better team. As it is, Dawson – literally – gave the Cubs and Dallas Green a blank check for his services. That made all the headlines, and is a lot of people’s favorite story about collusion. Dawson’s salary went from just over a million dollars in 1986 to $500K in 1987 (not including incentives). Not that Dawson didn’t deserve a better salary than that, but his previous year wasn’t great, he was on the wrong side of 30, and there was legitimate reason to believe his knees had had it. Well, Dawson’s knees had had it (see “Played in Montreal,” above), and he was eager to skedaddle out of Montreal.

Raines, however, had a great 1986. He led the league in batting. And very easily could have won the MVP that year.**** And for that, the Expos offered to up his salary from $1.5 million to $1.6 million. Raines understandably rejected Montreal’s offer, and no other legitimate offers came in (save for two bullshit offers from Houston and the Padres that were below the Expos’). Raines had to wait until May 1st to re-sign with the Expos, who then upped their offer by $66K to 1.66 million plus a signing bonus. And of course, in his first game back, Raines went 4-for-5 with a triple, stolen base, and game-winning grand slam. A couple of years later, Raines got $868K in damages a couple of years later.

****Agh. I hate to quote Bill James so repeatedly and thoroughly, but he’s so worth quoting. So 1986. Raines and Schmidt had comparable years, according to a James argument in his 1987 Baseball Abstract:

“(Raines) would have been a deserving recipient of the National League Most Valuable Player award last year, which is not to say that Schmidt wasn’t. . .Raines created more runs than Schmidt despite playing a much tougher hitter’s park. . .Raines played left field, where he is an exceptional defensive player at what is not a key defensive position. Raines was third in the league in outfield assists, and twice ended games by throwing out the potential tying run at the plate. . .Raines’s remarkable base stealing (70/79) is easy to overlook. . .I’m not criticizing anybody for his vote. I too thought, just looking at the statistics, that Schmidt had had the best year. . .But having looked at the issue more carefully, I now realize that Tim Raines was, in fact, the best and most valuable player in the National League in 1986.”

*Rickey Henderson.

Oh, Raines happened to play during the same years as the most prolific basestealer and best leadoff hitter in the history of the game. Just like Duke Snider was a fantastic ballplayer, but happened to play centerfield at the same time IN THE SAME CITY as two of the 20 best ballplayers of all time, both of whom were also centerfielders. Jesus!

*Paul Molitor.

A leadoff hitter as well, Molitor overshadowed Raines not only in counting stats, but also in cocaine dabbling (see below).

*Vince Coleman.

Coleman wasn’t in the same league as Raines in other categories, but because he took the SB crown from 1985 to 1990, Raines had some attention drawn away from him in favor of another speedy black guy.  But again, Raines was more than just speed on the basepaths. He was also a smarter runner. From Posnanski:

Percentages of players who have stolen 500-plus bases (since caught stealing was measured):

1. Tim Raines, 808 steals, 84.6%
2. Willie Wilson, 668 steals, 83.4%
3. Davey Lopes, 557 steals, 83.0%
4. Joe Morgan, 689 steals, 81.0%
5. Vince Coleman, 752 steals, 80.9%

And anyway, Raines’s adjusted OPS of 123 is 48% better than Vince Coleman’s 83. Yeeps.

*The White Devil.

No, I don’t mean Whitey. Or Whitey Herzog, for that matter. Or even Brian Mulroney, the Canadian prime minister from 1984 to 1993. But rather, cocaine, the same thing that derailed, oh, a lot of other black ballplayers in the 1980s. Raines predated the whole Pittsburgh drug trials when Dale Berra, Keith Hernandez, and a bunch of other players had to testify and the Pittsburgh Parrot ended up getting busted for helping get MLB high. Raines was there, sure, but this was three years after he admitted to it in the middle of a letdown sophomore 1982, and was put in a celebrity California rehab clinic for 30 days at the end of the season.

*The 1981 Strike.

In Raines’s rookie year, he was on pace to shatter Lou Brock’s single-season stolen base record before the strike. In his first 55 games, he stole FIFTY bags. By the end of the 88-game season, he had 71 swipes. The next year, Henderson broke the record with 130; in his first 55 games, he had 54 SBs. Of course, by that time, Raines was shoving $1,000 of coke up his nose every week, and the record was Henderson’s, despite a pretty big difference in his stolen bases before and after the midpoint of the season. It’s possible that, had the 1981 strike not occurred, Raines would indeed, given his very similar stolen base splits in the early ‘80s, set a record far out of reach.

*Lupus

What the what!? Yeah, remember? He had lupus. Ok, this was in 1999, and he was 39 years old (same age Flannery O’Connor was when she died of it!), and he wasn’t doing himself much favors playing out his years with the A’s. But still. Nobody wants lupus. At least, nobody I can think of.

So, again, I’m not making the very easy case for the Hall of Fame that this wonderful website and any baseball writer worth his salt ought to be making. (Except for Tracy Ringolsby, whom I sometimes just don’t get.) I’m just saying that there were some damn difficult circumstances in Tim Raines’s career.


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