Monday, January 7, 2013

One more way Tim Raines is underrated

It's no secret that Tim Raines is a baseball stathead favourite. He gets a lot of ink for being underrated, which he is. His OBP and stolen base % made him one of the finest leadoff men of all time, but he had only modest power and didn't drive in many runs in an era where RBI was valued perhaps above all else. Unlike many other top leadoff men, Raines only had 2605 career hits and fell short in most other counting stats. He had a lot of good seasons but never hit 20 homers, and never put up more than 71 RBI.

We've since seen past all that, noting his career .385 OBP and consistent production into his late 30s that made him an always-valuable leadoff man.

But there's one more thing we've missed: Raines' career numbers suffer considerably because he was used mostly as a leadoff man. No, I'm not talking about his RBI totals; those obviously would have been higher.

Like just about every hitter in history, Raines' numbers were better with men on base than with the bases empty:

Bases Empty 6358 0.289 0.369 0.424
Runners on 4001 0.301 0.411 0.427
Raines came to bat with men on base only 38.6% of the time.

Let's compare Tim with another recent inductee, Jim Rice.

Bases Empty 4429 0.291 0.344 0.495
Runners on 4629 0.305 0.359 0.509

Like Raines (and most players), Rice sees a nice boost in his numbers with men on base. There's a number of things at work there. Both players got a decent number of intentional walks (148 for Raines, 77 for Rice) with men on base; neither player was ever intentionally walked with the bases empty. This boosts OBP (about 3.7 points for Raines; 1.7 points for Rice).

There's also sacrifice flies: 76 for Raines, 94 for Rice. With the bases empty, a fly out hits your average, OBP and SLG. When it scores a runner on third, your OBP falls, but not your average or SLG. If sac flies were scored as outs, both Raines and Rice would lose 7 points of average and SLG with men on.

What's different, though? Rice had men on base for 51.1% of his career plate appearances. That's a clear advantage over a leadoff hitter like Raines. Though Rice certainly faced pressure to succeed with men on base, it's a more statistically favourable situation for any major-league hitter. You're going to get more walks and your average and SLG will be protected by sacrifice flies that don't count against you. What's more, you have all the benefits of a pitcher under pressure who is distracted by the men on base, and will probably have to throw you more fastballs.

Here's an experiment: what if Raines had batted more often with men on base? What if he had been used as a middle-order hitter?

Rice's 51.1% of plate appearances with men on base is a high number - typical middle-order guys see more like 48%. Here's a totally non-random sample:

  Bases Empty Runners On % w/ men on
Jim Thome 5347   4966               48.2%
Albert Pujols 4162 3941 48.6%
Carlos Delgado 4430 4227 48.8%
Vernon Wells 3597 3157 46.7%
Bobby Abreu 5301 4625 46.6%

So let's imagine what would happen if Tim Raines had come to bat with men on 48% of the time rather than 38.6%.

Bases Empty
0.289 0.369 0.424
Runners on
0.301 0.411 0.427

Career Total (38.6%) 0.294 0.385 0.425
Career Total (48%) 0.295 0.389 0.425

I know, it doesn't look like much. One measly point of batting average? Four points of OBP? What's that worth?

A lot, in fact. Over a 10000 plate-appearance career, that's worth an extra 41 walks and 41 fewer outs; which is worth 24.6 offensive runs - and about 2.5 extra WAR. No, it's not earth-shattering, but it means Raines would be valued at 68.7 career WAR rather than the 66.2 Baseball-Reference has him at.

That would move Raines up 12 spots on the all-time WAR leaderboard to #85, leapfrogging guys like Reggie Jackson, Johnny Mize, Jim Thome, and Barry Larkin. It doesn't make him inner-circle; but it does help to cement him as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

Raines is typical in this regard. By playing most of his career as a leadoff hitter, his rate stats will underrate him because he took tougher at-bats than middle-order guys. He's not alone: the numbers turn out the same for other leadoff men like Biggio, and basically every modern leadoff man (except Juan Pierre, but that's for another article). OBP is much harder to come by when the bases are empty, and the guys that are tasked with the job - are being underrated for more than just a lack of RBIs.

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