Sluggers Harold Baines and Albert Belle Likely to Whiff on Today’s Game Ballot

This post is part of a series concerning the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, covering executives, managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas on December 9. Use the tool above to read the introduction and other installments. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com and Baseball Prospectus. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2019 Today’s Game Candidates: Baines and Belle
Player Career Peak JAWS H HR SB AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
Harold Baines 38.7 21.4 30.1 2866 384 34 .289/.356/.466 121
Avg HOF RF 72.7 42.9 57.8
Albert Belle 40.1 36.0 38.1 1726 381 88 .295/.369/.564 144
Avg HOF LF 65.4 41.6 53.5
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Harold Baines

The weight of expectation that comes with being selected with the No. 1 overall pick of the amateur draft is heavy enough without anybody bringing up Cooperstown, yet after Baines was chosen first by the White Sox in 1977, out of a Maryland high school, Chicago general manager Paul Richards said that the 18-year-old outfielder “was on his way to the Hall of Fame. He just stopped by Comiskey Park for 20 years or so.” Baines had actually been spotted playing Little League in Maryland by once and future Sox owner Bill Veeck Jr. when he was 12. No pressure, kid.

While Baines did spend 22 years in the majors and racked up an impressive hit total and compares favorably to other No. 1 picks, his accomplishments were nonetheless limited by injuries to his right knee that led to eight surgeries. From his age-28 season onward, he served mainly as a designated hitter while rarely playing the field. His 1,643 games at DH are more than any player besides David Ortiz.

Highest Career WAR by Overall No. 1 Draft Picks
Rk Player Year School WAR
1 Alex Rodriguez 1993 Westminster Christian HS (FL) 117.8
2 Chipper Jones+ 1990 The Bolles School HS (FL) 85.2
3 Ken Griffey Jr.+ 1987 Archbishop Moeller HS (OH) 83.8
4 Joe Mauer* 2001 Cretin HS (MN) 55.1
5 Adrian Gonzalez* 2000 Eastlake HS (CA) 42.2
6 Darryl Strawberry 1980 Crenshaw HS (CA) 42.2
7 Harold Baines 1977 St. Michael’s HS (MD) 38.7
8 David Price* 2007 Vanderbilt University (TN) 37.9
9 Justin Upton* 2005 Great Bridge HS (MD) 35.0
10 B.J. Surhoff 1985 U. North Carolina-Chapel Hill (NC) 34.4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = Active, + = Hall of Famer

Baines made the White Sox out of spring training in 1980. After struggling as a 21-year-old rookie, he emerged as a productive hitter during the strike-shortened 1981 season, then, from 1982 to -88, averaged 21 homers and 96 RBI per year while hitting .290/.343/.467 for a 118 OPS+. He helped the White Sox to a division title in 1983, led the AL in slugging percentage in 1984 (.541), and made three All-Star teams in that span, though he averaged just 2.6 WAR annually, with a high of 4.3 in 1984. On September 27, 1986, he collided with Twins pitcher Neal Heaton and tore cartilage in his right knee. He underwent his first knee surgery in October and played just one game the following season before needing a follow-up that sidelined him for a few more weeks. Upon returning, he was cast almost exclusively as a DH; he didn’t play right field again until July 27 of that year and made just 80 appearances in the outfield over the next six seasons, with just one two-inning appearance after that.

While DH-ing full-time, Baines hit .297/.380/.476 for a 130 OPS+ from 1989 to -99, but with virtually no defensive contribution, he averaged just 1.9 WAR over that span, never topping 3.0 and topping 2.0 just five times. Even so, he was beloved on the South Side. Traded to Texas in a 1989 deal involving Sammy Sosa, he became the rare player to have his jersey number (3) retired while still active; the White Sox did so when he first came back to town as a Ranger. An August 29, 1990 deal from the Rangers to the A’s put him aboard a World Series-bound team, and three further midseason deals also sent him to the playoffs, with the Orioles (1997, his second of three stints in Baltimore), Indians (1999), and White Sox (2000, beginning the last of his three stints in Chicago). In six postseason appearances, he hit a robust .324/.378/.510 with five homers in 113 postseason PA.

Retiring after the 2001 season, Baines finished with impressive traditional statistics as well as five All-Star appearances and a handful of records for DHs including games, hits (1,690), homers (236), and RBI (981), though Edgar Martinez and/or Ortiz would eclipse most of them. His rate stats weren’t on par with those two mashers; he had just one top-10 finish apiece in on-base and slugging percentages, and he never cracked a WAR top 10. Among right fielders, his 38.7 career WAR is tied for 56th, ahead of only two of the 25 enshrinees. He’s 104th in peak WAR, having just been surpassed by J.D. Martinez, and he’s 74th in JAWS, ahead of only Tommy McCarthy among Hall of Famers. Somehow, he managed to last five election cycles on the BBWAA ballot despite never receiving more than 6.1% of the vote. He doesn’t merit a better fate from the Today’s Game panel.

Albert Belle

Belle was baseball’s No. 1 bad boy in the mid-1990s, not to mention one of the game’s elite sluggers, flat out terrorizing pitchers for a decade before a degenerative hip condition forced his retirement at age 34. Even at the height of an offense-heavy era, his numbers are something to behold. From 1991 to -99, he hit a combined .300/.377/.582 for a 150 OPS+ (eighth in the majors) with 350 homers (third behind Mark McGwire and Griffey Jr.) while earning All-Star honors five times and finishing in the top three in MVP voting three times. Four times, he slugged over .600, going as high as .714 in the strike-abbreviated 1994 season, second behind future teammate Frank Thomas at .729. The following year, he walloped 50 homers, something only two other players (George Foster in 1977 and Cecil Fielder in 1990) had done since 1965 — and he did it in a 144-game schedule. Furthermore, he became the only player ever to pair 50 homers with at least 50 doubles in the same season (52, actually). His 1994 and -95 seasons made him central to the resurgence of the Indians franchise, one of baseball’s feel-good stories of the decade.

Born Albert Jojuan Belle in 1966, the slugger played as Joey Belle during his collegiate career at Louisiana State University, in the minors after being drafted in the second round in 1987 by the Indians, and into 1990 after playing a total of 71 games in parts of two seasons with Cleveland. He built an unfortunate reputation under that name. After chasing a heckling fan shouting racist insults, he was suspended and missed the College World Series. At Triple-A Colorado Springs,, he destroyed a clubhouse sink after a bad night at the plate, which led to a five-game suspension and the discovery that he was battling a drinking problem. He spent 10 weeks undergoing counseling for alcoholism and anger management, after which he reemerged as Albert Belle.

Belle secured his spot in the majors with a 28-homer, 134 OPS+ season in 1991, then emerged as the centerpiece of a Cleveland powerhouse that included Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome. He finished among the top five in homers annually from 1992 to -94 (with totals in the 34-38 range), leading the AL in RBI in 1993 (129). In 1995, he hit .317/.401/.690, leading in slugging percentage and RBI (126) while ranking third in both OPS+ (177) and WAR (7.0). The Indians reached the postseason and won the pennant that year, both for the first time since 1954. He homered off the Braves’ Steve Avery and Greg Maddux in Games Four and Five in the World Series, but the Indians fell in six games.

Even while becoming one of the AL’s most feared sluggers, Belle still struggled to control his anger and to avoid controversy. In 1991, he fired a baseball in the direction of a fan who shouted, “Hey, Joey! Keg party at my house after the game!” at him in the Municipal Stadium parking lot, earning a six-game suspension. In 1994, he was suspended for 10 games after being caught with a corked bat, but only after teammate Jason Grimsley crawled through a false ceiling to steal the offending lumber from the umpires’ dressing room, which resulted in an FBI investigation. During the 1995 World Series, he was fined $50,000 for screaming profanities at NBC reporter Hannah Storm, who was in the Cleveland dugout. Shortly after the Indians’ loss, he made headlines for chasing a group of teenagers who egged his house on Halloween.

Belle hit free agency following another monster season (48 homers, 158 OPS+, 5.7 WAR, a league-high 148 RBI, and his third straight top-three MVP finish) in 1996. His five-year, $55 million contract with the AL Central rival White Sox briefly made him the majors’ highest-paid player, but he slumped to 30 homers, a 116 OPS+, and 1.5 WAR in his first year before rebounding to 49 homers, 152 RBI, league highs in slugging and OPS+ (.655 and 172, respectively), and a career-best 7.1 WAR in 1998. Via a contract clause guaranteeing he would remain one of the game’s three highest-paid players, he opted out when the White Sox refused to give him a raise, and signed a five-year, $65 million deal with the Orioles, again making him the highest-paid player. But after two seasons in Baltimore, one solid and one subpar, he was forced into retirement at age 34 due to degenerative arthritis in his hip. Of the remaining $39 million owed to him, 70% was covered by insurance.

Had Belle remained healthy, he may well have put the finishing touches on a Cooperstown-bound career even while his age and defense sent him down the DH path. He certainly had the talent to reach 500 home runs and, unlike many of his contemporaries, was never credibly linked to PEDs. As it is, he ranked in the AL’s top five in WAR three times and cracked the top 10 an additional time during the 1994-98 span, but lousy defense (-63 runs, with three years of double-digit negatives) and adjustment for the high offensive levels of the day take some of the starch out of his advanced stats. Though Dick Allen-like in his nearly career-long immersion in controversy and early exit, his 144 OPS+ pales next to Allen’s 156 in 639 more plate appearances.

Likewise, Belle’s 36.0 peak WAR is nearly a win per year short of the Hall standard among left fielders, ranking 30th at the position, ahead of just four out of 20 Hall of Famers. He’s below Jim Rice (36.4), not to mention Foster (36.9), Roy White (37.1), and Lance Berkman (39.3). He’s 40th in career WAR, ahead of just one enshrinee (Chick Hafey), and 38th in JAWS, ahead of only Hafey and Jim O’Rourke.

Belle didn’t amass much support for the Hall among BBWAA voters. He received 7.7% of the vote in 2006, enough to stick around for a second year on the ballot, but fell off after receiving 3.5% in his second go-around. He was among the group of 2017 Today’s Game candidates who received “fewer than five votes,” the Hall’s intentionally vague reporting for candidates to avoid embarrassment, and it’s difficult to see him surging to 75% in this format this time around.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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19 Comments on "Sluggers Harold Baines and Albert Belle Likely to Whiff on Today’s Game Ballot"

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theojd
Member
theojd

Belle was such a beast. My favorite Belle stat – his per 162 game averages: 40 HR, 130 RBI. Not many can top those numbers. Oh, he was also a career .295 hitter. BEAST

Don Zimmer will have his revenge on Pedro
Member
Member
Don Zimmer will have his revenge on Pedro

He was also extremely good at chasing teenagers in cars and stalking women, so there’s that…

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Beast? Yes. And he also behaved that way in the clubhouse and off the field.

If there was ever a player that the character clause was written to keep out of the Hall of Fame, it would be Albert Belle.