May 12, 2003
Rafael Palmeiro hit his 500th career home run Sunday night and along with that milestone has come a lot of talk about his career as a whole and, more specifically, how it measures up regarding the Hall of Fame. Since a lot of other people are doing it, I figured I would take my own shot at looking at Rafael Palmeiro's Hall of Fame candidacy.
However, before I do so, I want to give one "disclaimer." Basically, I think it is very difficult to look at someone's Hall of Fame credentials while their career is still going on. There are rare cases where the player in question is so obviously a Hall of Famer that it is not much of an issue (see: Bonds, Barry). Still, in other cases, a player that appears to be a "lock" suddenly is a whole lot less of one just a few years later (see: Griffey, Ken Jr.).
In Rafael Palmeiro's case, the remaining time he has in his career is essential to any Hall of Fame argument. Palmeiro is still pretty much at his peak (or reasonably close to it), so stopping now to measure his career is difficult. He hit 47 homers in 2001, 43 last year and appears headed towards another 40+ homer season this year. Stopping to examine his career as a whole right now can't help but short-change him, at least a little bit. If he hits 42 homers this year, does that increase his Hall of Fame credentials? Of course. What if he hits 42 this year and 40 next year? And so on and so on.
Determining if a very good player deserves to be a "Hall of Fame player" is difficult enough when that player has been done playing for five years, but it becomes damn near impossible when the player is not only still playing, but still playing at a very high level and still adding tons of value to his career.
With all that said, let's take a closer look at Rafael Palmeiro...
The Chicago Cubs made Rafael Palmeiro, a sweet-swinging left-handed hitter from Missisippi State, the 22nd overall pick in the 1985 draft.
Palmeiro started his pro career at Single-A Peoria in 1985, where he hit .297 and slugged .459 in 73 games. He hit only 5 homers, but showed good doubles power and good plate discipline. He moved to Double-A Pittsfield in 1986, where he hit .306/.367/.442 with 12 homers and 29 doubles in 590 at bats. That performance earned him a late-season call-up with the Cubs and, as a 21 year old left fielder, Palmeiro made his major league debut on September 8th by going 1-4 with a single and an RBI in a 7-4 win over the Phillies. He played 22 games and got 73 at bats that first year, hitting .247/.295/.425. All in all, not a bad MLB debut for a 21 year old player.
The next year, Palmeiro started the season back in the minors, at Triple-A Iowa. He hit .299 and slugged .547 with 11 homers and 14 doubles in only 214 at bats, before the Cubs called him up again. Palmeiro appeared in 84 games with the Cubs in 1987, splitting time between left field, right field and first base. He hit .276/.336/.543 with 14 homers and 15 doubles in 221 at bats, while batting almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. If he had had enough playing time to be eligible for the batting title, his .543 slugging % would have ranked him 7th in the National League, right behind Mike Schmidt (.548) and right ahead of Pedro Guerrero (.539). At 22 years old, Palmeiro looked like a superstar in the making.
In 1988, the Cubs made Palmeiro their everyday left fielder. In his first full-season, he hit .307, but his "raw" power numbers were way down from the previous year. He hit only 8 homers in 580 at bats and slugged just .436. There were, however, several reasons why his first full-season was not as "bad" as it looked.
First and foremost, the National League in 1988 was a lot less offensive than in 1987. The league slugging percentage in '88 (adjusted to Wrigley Field) was .384. It was .427 in 1987. If you take Palmeiro's 1988 slugging percentage of .436 and adjust it to 1987's level of offense, it comes out to .484, which looks a whole lot better than .436 and is quite impressive for a young hitter in his first full-season.
In addition to that, Palmeiro was also no longer strictly a platoon player and he faced a lot of left-handed pitching, which he did not do in 1986, when 88% of his total at bats came against righties. The fact that his slugging percentage dropped off a little bit (and not nearly as much as the raw numbers suggest) is not unexpected from a player moving into a bigger role for the first time.
Another aspect of his power in 1988 that is somewhat "hidden" is that, while he hit only 8 homers, he also smacked 41 doubles. I am a big believer in doubles being sign of future home run power in young hitters, so a 23 year old hitting 41 doubles in a league that slugged only .384 is pretty impressive to me. Still, Palmeiro's raw numbers - .436 SLG, 8 homers, 53 RBI - were certainly not impressive and definitely looked a lot worse than the numbers he put up the season before. I don't know for sure, but I would guess that his "drop" in performance had something to do with the Cubs trading him - which they did in December of 1988.
If I were writing Palmeiro's career as a "story," I could definitely see where it was going next. A well-regarded young hitter comes up with the Cubs and slugs .543 his first year. Then his slugging % drops all the way to .436 the next year, but his potential power is hidden because of a league-wide drop in hitting and the fact that he hit a very impressive 41 doubles. The player gets traded to a new team and *BOOM*, he suddenly realizes all of that power potential.
Well, that's how it would have gone, except it didn't. Palmeiro came to the Texas Rangers and was their everyday first baseman in 1989. He hit only 8 homers in 559 at bats and his slugging % dropped all the way to .374, which was below the American League average (.387) in 1989. Heck, Palmeiro didn't even hit a lot of doubles (23) in 1989.
Palmeiro's first few seasons really are quite interesting:
1987 - A former 1st round pick and top prospect, he makes a big splash in his first taste of extended major league action.
1988 - He gets everyday playing time and sees power numbers drop, although they are made worse by the league-wide drop in offense.
1989 - He is traded to a new team and a new league and his power drops once again, this time below league-average and without good doubles power.
He went from "Wow, Palmeiro is great" to "Palmeiro had a down year, but it's better than it looked" to "What the heck happened?!"
Would you stick with a 25 year old Rafael Palmeiro at this point? After his slugging had dropped for the 2nd year in a row and some of the "hidden" things that suggested he would become a good player were vanishing? I would like to think that I would have, but really, who knows? To the Rangers' credit, they stuck with him and were rewarded with the first truly outstanding season of Rafael Palmeiro's career.
As Texas' everyday first baseman in 1990, Palmeiro hit .319/.361/.468 with 14 homers, 35 doubles and 6 triples in 154 games. The American League hit only .259/.327/.388 in 1990 and Palmeiro's adjusted OPS+ was 131, which ranked 10th in the AL.
Palmeiro followed that up with an even better season in 1991. He hit .322 and saw his homers go from 14 to 26 and his doubles climb from 35 to a league-leading 49. He also improved his plate discipline and posted a 72/68 K/BB ratio on his way to a .389 on-base % and 115 runs scored. All of that was good for an OPS+ of 155, which ranked 5th in the AL.
And just like that, at 25 years old, Rafael Palmeiro was a star hitter...
Well, not quite. After his breakout 1991 season, Palmeiro dropped way off in 1992. The power development that he had shown regressed quite a bit and he went from 26 homers to 22, from 49 doubles to only 27 and saw his slugging percentage drop nearly 100 points. It was certainly not a bad season by any means. Palmeiro hit .268/.352/.434 in a league that slugged only .378, which was good for an OPS+ of 124. Still, for a player that looked to be developing his power and turning into a superstar hitter, it was a disappointing season.
Then, in 1993, Rafael Palmeiro put everything together. He hit for the good batting average he had shown he could hit for, he continued to have great plate discipline, he laced a ton of doubles and, for the first time in his career, he belted a ton of homers. Palmeiro hit .295/.371/.554 with 37 homers, 40 doubles, 105 RBI and 124 runs scored in 1993. He even went 22/25 on stolen base attempts.
The gradual power development that had been taking place since he was a rookie had finally arrived in full and Palmeiro had turned into a real slugger for the Rangers - just in time for them to lose him to the Orioles in free agency.
After the 1993 season, Rafael Palmeiro signed a 5 year contract with Baltimore for $27 million dollars, making him one of the highest paid hitters in baseball.
In his first season as an Oriole, Palmeiro took up right where he had left off as a Ranger, hitting .319/.392/.550 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Palmeiro went on to hit .310/.380/.583 in 1995, the first of 8 consecutive seasons with 35+ homers and 100+ RBI - a streak that looks likely to be extended to 9 this season.
After the 1998 season, his 5th as an Oriole and one in which he hit .296/.379/.565 with 43 homers, Rafael Palmeiro became a free agent once again and this time headed back to Texas to play for the Rangers again.
In fact, the Rangers and Orioles did an interesting first baseman-swap prior to the '99 season. Palmeiro left Baltimore, signed with Texas and replaced Will Clark as the Rangers' first baseman, while Will Clark left Texas, signed with Baltimore and replaced Rafael Palmeiro as the Orioles' first baseman. Making it even more interesting is the fact that Clark and Palmeiro were once teammates at Mississippi State and were both first round picks in the 1985 draft.
Will Clark had a good but injury-plagued 1999 season with the Orioles and retired from the game just a year later, after being traded to the Cardinals at the 2000 trade-deadline.
Palmeiro, on the other hand, had the best season of his career in the first year of his second stint with the Rangers, hitting .324/.420/.630 with 47 homers, 30 doubles and 148 RBI. His 1999 batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are all career-highs, as are the 148 runs batted in. Palmeiro's OPS+ in 1999 was 160, which ranked 3rd in the American League. He also ranked second in the AL in both homers and RBI.
The past three seasons for Rafael Palmeiro have seen him transform his offensive game, for the second time in his career. After starting his career as a singles hitter without much power, he made himself into an all-around offensive threat, with good batting averages, excellent power and a fair amount of walks. This most recent change has been into that of a patient slugger.
Palmeiro has drawn 100+ walks in each of the past 3 seasons, the only 3 times he has done that in his career. In addition to that, his batting average has gradually been dipping. From 1986-1999, Rafael Palmeiro was a .296 hitter that hit .300+ 6 times, including .324 in 1999. Since then, his batting averages have been .288, .273 and .273.
He is defintitely playing the part of the "aging slugger." He has probably lost some bat speed and reflexes, but he adapted his game by being more patient at the plate and working more walks, in order to continue to get on base despite the lower batting averages.
Thus far this season, Rafael Palmeiro is continuing his recent pattern of less batting average, more walks and a lot of home run power. Through his first 35 games, Palmeiro is hitting .258/.380/.556 with 10 homers, 7 doubles and 23 walks. That works out to 44 homers, 31 doubles and 101 walks over a full-season.
He is currently 6th in the AL in homers and 12th in both slugging % and OPS. All of which brings me back to my original point of how difficult it is to judge someone's career while he is still in the middle of it.
How many more seasons with Palmeiro play? How many of those will he be a star-level hitter in? How many more homers will he hit? How many more runs will he drive in? I could try to make some educated guesses to find the answers to those questions and others, but it is really all just a guessing game.
Instead, I think it might be most useful to simply act as if Rafael Palmeiro had retired prior to this season. Let's say he thought 17 seasons were enough and he decided he would rather spend his time making Viagra commercials or something.
Here is what his finished career would like:
G PA AVG OBP SLG HR 2B RBI RUN BB
2413 10319 .293 .373 .522 490 522 1575 1456 1140
Before I try to dig a little deeper into Palmeiro's qualifications, let me say that those numbers look to me to be "Hall of Fame numbers," whatever that means. Over 10,000 career plate appearances, over 1,000 extra-base hits, 1,500+ runs batted in - those are numbers that make me think of a Hall of Famer, and not even someone that is a questionable selection. That said, my "gut" reaction to his numbers shouldn't determine anything, so let's try to do some serious analysis of his career.
To me, the quick and easy way to look at the total value of a player's career is to look at how much and how well he played, which can be summed up as follows:
Games - 2,413
Plate Appearances - 10,319
OPS+ - 135
The homers, the doubles, the walks, the RBI - all that other stuff is basically covered in those three stats above.
In the history of baseball, there are 87 players - including Rafael Palmeiro - who have played in at least 2,300 games. For the purposes of comparison, I would suggest that this is the group Palmeiro belongs in. 2,300+ games means a player played in at least 15 seasons - Palmeiro played in 17 (prior to this year).
Of that group of 87, 13 are not eligible for the Hall of Fame. Of the 74 that are eligible, 52 of them are Hall of Famers (70.3%).
I think that percentage is pretty startling. Basically, if you are good enough/healthy enough to play in 2,300+ games in your career, you have a 7 in 10 chance of being a Hall of Famer. And, with 2,413 games played, Palmeiro is almost a full-season's worth of playing time above that cutoff.
Does that mean Rafael Palmeiro, no matter what else he did during his career, has a 70% shot of going into the Hall because of how many games he played? Well...I don't know.
As a power hitting first baseman, is it really worthwhile to compare Palmeiro to all players that played 2,300+ games, when guys on that list include Ozzie Smith, Joe Morgan, Luis Aparicio, Carlton Fisk and other players who played much more demanding and less offensive-oriented positions? Probably not.
I would say that the positions most comparable to first base as far as defensive difficulty and offensive production are designated hitter, left field and right field. With that in mind, of the 87 players with 2,300+ career games, here is the positional breakdown:
First Base - 16
Left Field - 9
Right Field - 18
Designated Hitter - 4
(Note: For the positions, I simply looked at the place each player played the most at during his entire career, which is, admittedly, maybe not the greatest way to do it...)
I think that group gives us a better set of players to compare Palmeiro to. There are no slick-fielding shortstops, no speedy center fielders or durable catchers - these are the big boppers that managed to play a lot of years in the majors.
So, the "new" group of 2,300+ 1B/DH/LF/RF-types consists of 47 players, including Palmeiro.
Of those 47, it breaks down as follows:
Hall of Famer (27) - Musial, Murray, Perez, McCovey, Banks, Carew, Killebrew, Beckley, Foxx, Yastrzemski, Brock, B. Williams, Wheat, Stargell, Aaron, Winfield, Kaline, R. Jackson, F. Robinson, Ott, Waner, Crawford, Ruth, Clemente, Rice, Slaughter, Hooper
Not Eligible (10) - Baines, Molitor, C. Davis, Rose, Palmeiro, McGriff, Henderson, Raines, Bonds, Gwynn
Eligible and not in (10) - Downing, Buckner, Fairly, Vernon, Garvey, J. Cruz, Staub, Dawson, D. Evans, D. Parker
Let's ignore the guys that aren't eligible for a moment. If we do that, then 27 of the 37 guys playing "offensive positions" with 2,300+ career games are Hall of Famers. That works out to 73%, which is even higher than the overall percentage of everyone with 2,300+ games.
Here are the career OPS+s of the 10 1B/DH/LF/RF with 2,300+ games that are eligible for the Hall, but not in it:
That's an interesting list and, aside from Buckner, they are all fairly equal in OPS+ - ranging from 116-127.
Rafael Palmeiro - 135 OPS+
Palmeiro, if put into the above group, would stick out like a really good hitting sore thumb.
If there are 37 players eligible for the Hall of Fame with over 2,300+ games that played 1B/DH/LF/RF and only 10 of them are not in the Hall of Fame, what does it say that Rafael Palmeiro's hitting stats are above and beyond all 10 of them?
Actually, maybe not as much as you think. I hate to bring up the same thing over and over, but one of the reasons why it is so hard to compare a player's not-yet-completed career to other, retired players is that the player that is still playing not only has not finishing adding value to his career, he also has not experienced his full "decline." Except in rare cases, most great players finish their careers as not-so-great players.
Just a few examples from the 10 guys on the above list...
Steve Garvey had a career OPS+ of 116, but he finished his career with a 4-season run of 91, 109, 91, 36.
Andre Dawson had a career OPS+ of 119, but he finished his career with a 4-season run of 91, 82, 90, 93.
Jose Cruz had a career OPS+ of 120, but he finished his career with a 2-season run of 89, 52.
Of course, there are exceptions. Brian Downing finished off his career with OPS+ seasons of 137, 132 and 139.
So, what's my point? Well, basically that Rafael Palmeiro's career numbers look to be a step above those 10 players, but he has not had a chance to experience his entire "decline" yet (if such a decline is coming).
That said, with the way Palmeiro is hitting this year, I am confident that, no matter how bad the end of his career ends up being, his career OPS+ will remain a step above guys like Dawson, Parker, Garvey, etc.
I'll ask it again: If only 10 of the 37 players I've deemed appropriate to compare to Palmeiro are not in the Hall of Fame and Palmeiro appears to be a step above them, doesn't that make him a Hall of Famer?
Again, maybe not. The argument could be made that simply being a step above a bunch of guys that aren't Hall of Famers doesn't mean anything if you aren't an equal of guys that are Hall of Famers.
Okay, let's take a look at how Palmeiro's OPS+ (135) stacks up against those 1B/DH/LF/RF with 2,300+ games that are Hall of Famers...
Stan Musial - 159
Eddie Murray - 129
Tony Perez - 122
Willie McCovey - 148
Ernie Banks - 122
Rod Carew - 131
Harmon Killebrew - 143
Jake Beckley - 125
Jimmie Foxx - 163
Carl Yastrzemski - 130
Lou Brock - 109
Billy Williams - 132
Zack Wheat - 129
Willie Stargell - 147
Hank Aaron - 155
Dave Winfield - 129
Al Kaline - 134
Reggie Jackson - 139
Frank Robinson - 154
Mel Ott - 155
Paul Waner - 134
Sam Crawford - 144
Babe Ruth - 207
Roberto Clemente - 130
Sam Rice - 112
Enos Slaughter - 123
Harry Hooper - 114
16 of the 37 guys (43%) have a career OPS+ lower than Palmeiro's. Even if you take out Rod Carew and Ernie Banks, who both played almost half their games at tougher defensive positions, Palmeiro's OPS+ is still higher than 14/35 (40%).
Not only is his OPS+ above and beyond the OPS+s of the 10 guys in this little group that aren't in the Hall, it is pretty much right in the middle of the group of 37 that are Hall of Famers.
The main point against Palmeiro seems to be that he has played in a very good era for offense and has never really been one of the top handful of players in baseball.
The second of those points is almost undeniable. Palmeiro has never won an MVP and has only been a "serious" MVP-candidate a few times. However, the idea that he has played in an era filled with offense is only half true, in my opinion.
Palmeiro has played 15 seasons in which he had at least 400 plate appearances. Of those 15, here are the adjusted league-average OPS figures for the leagues he played in:
For the first 6 full-seasons of his career, Palmeiro played in environments that were not very good for scoring runs. And, since 1994, he has played in leagues/environments that have been good for offense.
Whether or not you want to call the leagues he played in good for offense or bad for offense, that all becomes irrelevent when his OPS+ is being discussed, because OPS+ is a stat that adjusts for the league and environment that performances are achieved in.
So, maybe his 500 career home runs don't mean quite as much as Mike Schmidt's or Reggie Jackson's, but there are only 19 players in the history of baseball with 500 home runs, so it is not as if achieving that stat just gets you to a "borderline" Hall of Fame case. And, regardless of that, Palmeiro's career is much more than 500 home runs. He has a .293 career batting average, over 1,100 career walks and over 500 career doubles.
And, again, OPS+ adjusts his hitting for league and context and still spits out a number that, along with the amount of seasons he has played, is definitely Hall of Fame worthy in my opinion.
A quick-and-dirty recap of Palmeiro's HoF "case":
70% of all HoF-elibible players with 2,300+ games played are in the HoF.
73% of all HoF-elibible 1B/DH/LF/RF with 2,300+ games played are in the HoF.
Of those with 2,300+ games that are not in the HoF, Palmeiro's career OPS+ is a step above all of them.
Of those with 2,300+ games that are in the HoF, Palmeiro's OPS+ is better than 43% of them.
He has the "magic number" of 500 homers - and he's still hitting more.
I am sure there are very intelligent arguments that could be made for Rafael Palmeiro not being a Hall of Fame player, but I suspect most of them center around his career numbers, specifically his homers, being overvalued because of the league levels of offense he has played in. To me, those arguments are valid, but only to a certain extent, because OPS+ adjusts for any overvaluing that may take place. And, after such adjustments, I think it is clear that Rafael Palmeiro's Hall of Fame resume is worthy of enshrinement, and it's only going to get better.
Rafael Palmeiro's career is an amazing one. He began as a sweet-swinging singles hitter whom many thought would never develop power and transformed himself into one of the most consistent power hitters of his era and one of only 19 players in major league history with 500+ career home runs. The end result is a remarkably productive and consistently good career that out-classes the careers of perhaps anyone that is not in the Hall of Fame and certainly compares to many of those in the Hall of Fame. I believe it is a Hall of Fame career.
Philadelphia (Millwood) -170 over Arizona (Webb)
Houston (Redding) -120 over Pittsburgh (Suppan)
Anaheim (Lackey) +220 over New York (Mussina)
Detroit (Maroth) +200 over Oakland (Lilly)
Total to date: + $1,590
W/L record: 79-72 (Made only one pick yesterday and got it right. Unfortunately it was against my Twins...)
*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****