Ahead of next week's Hall of Fame election announcements, I wanted to take a closer look at the candidacy of former Oriole first baseman, Rafael Palmeiro.
When Palmeiro retired, I thought he was a slam dunk and was surprised by those who thought he wasn't. 500 home runs and 3,000 hits? He was only one of four players to reach those milestones, milestones that by themselves have assured players of election to the Hall.
We know the traditional case for Palmeiro and we also know the traditional arguments against him. The first is his link to steroids, having failed a drug test in 2005. He also has been called an "accumulator", a guy who hung around long enough to rack up big numbers but never having elite seasons.
With that, I wanted to take a closer look at Palmeiro's offensive production (since that is what his case for the Hall is primarily based on) as compared to his peers in terms of OPS+ and in terms of WAR.
Here is a look at Palmeiro as he compares to his fellow first basemen. From the years 1986 - 2005, the seasons encompassing his 20-year career, the OPS+ rates of all players who played 1B for 75% of their career (that eliminates Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, although they would probably be considered first basemen by most fans...):
OPS+ McGwire 162 Bagwell 149 Helton 148 Delgado 143 Clark 137 McGriff 134 Palmeiro 132 Vaughn 132 Olerud 128 Hrbek 128
That's a rather sobering comparison. OPS+ is a rough tool but it does show us a level of offensive prowess measured against your peers and the environment you played in. Here, Palmeiro comes in way behind the likes of McGwire, Bagwell, Helton and Delgado and even comes in behind Will Clark and Fred McGriff. If Frank Thomas and Jim Thome were included, he wouldn't be any better than the 8th or 9th best bat at his position for his generation.
Now, career WAR for these guys courtesy of BaseballProjection.com:
WAR Bagwell 79.9 Palmeiro 65.7 McGwire 63.1 Clark 57.4 Helton 57.3 Olerud 56.6 McGriff 50.5 Delgado 43.9 Hrbek 35.4 Vaughn 25.7
As a total player (WAR includes fielding), Palmeiro is rewarded a bit more. Of course, his longevity helps him too since WAR is essentially a counting stat. Do you penalize the player who is consistently valuable over the course of his career because his peak was not high enough? Personally, I don't think so but that's going to be the argument against Palmeiro.
But how does he stack up against other Hall of Fame first baseman? Career OPS+ for some Hall of Fame first baseman.
OPS+ Gehrig 178 Brouthers 166 Foxx 163 Mize 158 Greenberg 158 Connor 152 McCovey 147 Terry 136 Chance 135 Anson 134 Cepeda 133 Murray 129 Beckley 125 Bottomley 124 Sisler 124
By this measure, Palmeiro would come in just ahead of Eddie Murray which is a bit ironic since the Murray model is the best case for Palmeiro's induction. Murray was also a steady guy, a player who never won an MVP but was consistently great over a long career. Murray vs. Palmeiro in terms of WAR by season, from highest to lowest:
Palmeiro wouldn't join the HoF elites here but he wouldn't be a bad choice in terms of bat alone.
Career WAR for these players and Palmeiro:
WAR Gehrig 118.3 Anson 99.2 Foxx 94.0 Connor 87.1 Brouthers 83.7 Mize 70.1 Murray 66.7 Palmeiro 65.7 McCovey 65.1 Beckley 61.4 Greenberg 56.9 Terry 55.3 Sisler 50.4 Chance 49.4 Cepeda 46.6 Bottomley 32.3
Again, WAR serves Palmeiro well, even amongst stiff competition. He is within a hair of Murray and ahead of Willie McCovey and Hank Greenberg.
Palmeiro does not embarrass himself in terms of WAR or OPS+ against Hall of Fame first basemen. Against his peers? He does not seem to be among the elite. But I'm not a guy who likes to penalize a player just because he was not considered the best of his generation at his position, especially when he is a part of a strong class. There are only 18 first basemen in the Hall of Fame. Among Palmeiro and his peers, there are 5 guys who will probably be elected (Thomas, Thome, McGwire, Bagwell and Palmeiro) and maybe another one could sneak in. (Likewise, there is no sense in rewarding a player for being the Best (Position) of His Generation when the competition was weak...)
But what about the factors beyond the numbers? What about PEDs? I don't care about PEDs and while that issue may concern the people who vote, it will only serve to delay his election, not to scuttle it. There are younger writers from more diverse backgrounds voting for the Hall of Fame every year now, people who understand that there are tools you can use to judge players beyond counting stats. The Steroid Era provides plenty of white noise to the argument but there are measures that help squelch it. PEDs won't be keeping steroid users out of the Hall 10 years from now.
How about the argument that he was never considered among the best in the game? Again, Palmeiro is part of a very strong offensive class of first basemen. While he doesn't have a great peak, he was consistently one of the better hitters in the league for almost 20 seasons. You can't just hang around and "accumulate" 3,020 hits and 569 home runs. 500 home runs doesn't mean what it once did but that's still an impressive number and 3,000 hits is nothing to sneeze at.
Is he the slam dunk I thought he was 5 years ago? No. There are some chinks in the armor when you look closely. But he compares favorably to other first basemen in the Hall of Fame and he's certainly not going to be an outlier in terms of value among them. Not only do I think he is deserving, he has history on his side. 3,000 hits and 500 home runs still means something and he would be the first with either of those totals alone to not be elected to the Hall of Fame, let alone the first with both those milestones. He's going to get in but it may take a few years (as he is overshadowed by stronger candidates) for the voters to recognize his greatness.
He's going in and he's deserving. I predict election in 2017.