Oh No! Not Another Rafael Palmeiro Article!

This one hurt.

I’m still holding out hope that a mistake was made.

That’s the trouble with being a fan: your heart tries to scream loud enough to drown out the voices in your head—sometimes your heart makes enough sense to make you think it‘s your head talking.

I’ve always been a fan of unappreciated/overshadowed greatness (or very good-ness). I enjoyed cheering on guys like Tim Salmon, Jamie Moyer, Alan Trammel, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Abreu, Lance Parrish, Bobby Grich, etc. I’ve also had a long time fascination with past players who I felt never got their due, like Lon Warneke, “Indian Bob” Johnson, Tommy Bridges, Bob Caruthers, Vic Raschi and Wes Ferrell.

You get the idea.

Which brings me to Rafael Palmeiro.

Palmeiro was my modern-day “Indian Bob” Johnson. He was having the career that I thought Johnson would’ve enjoyed had he made it to the majors as a regular before he turned 27. Like Johnson, Palmeiro never lit up the league with a jaw-dropping season and never had a peak that made you stand up and whistle in admiration; no, he just put together quality season after quality season like punching a clock.

Palmeiro, as you know, accumulated some amazing career milestones, becoming just the fourth player to notch 3000 hits and 500 HR. Indeed he might well crack 600 HR (569 HR), 600 doubles (he needs 16), and 2000 RBI (166 shy)–something only accomplished by Hank Aaron. I’ve been rooting hard for him to do just that.

Now the spotlight shines brightly on Palmeiro … for all the wrong reasons. Instead of being the third major leaguer to potentially notch 3000 hits and 600, HR his name will be linked with stanozolol–the steroid discovered in his system.

Now Congress is investigating him for perjury. For the moment, Palmeiro seems cooperative, which can mean one of two things: A major league mistake has been made somewhere and he’s confident that an investigation will exonerate him, or Palmeiro knows he really doesn’t have much choice in the matter when you get right down to it.

I’m hoping for the former but thinking it’s the latter.

So how does this affect his Hall of Fame chances? Right now I wouldn’t take the media’s pulse too seriously. Most of what we’re reading now is a knee-jerk reaction. Indeed, most of the articles penned on the subject happened within hours of the story’s breaking. That means that they were put out with deadlines in view, and in many cases likely written before various reporters and columnists had a chance to really think things through. It’s been several days since the story has broken and I’m still turning things over in my head. What is being said at the moment will change between now and when Palmeiro’s name first appears on the ballot, which is at least 5 years in the future. In the ensuing years a lot will be learned about performance-enhancing drugs and their effect on ballplayers, more players will be caught and hopefully the scope of the problem will be better understood. Perhaps by the time Palmeiro appears on the ballot, players will be using things that make stanozolol look like Gatorade in comparison.

Now, I cannot guarantee that this will remain my opinion in the ensuing years since there’s plenty to be played out yet.

We know that regardless of how it got there, Rafael Palmeiro has used steroids. He has been caught. How do we view his career numbers in light of that? Has his whole career been pharmaceutically driven? Unless some new evidence surfaces, it appears that Palmeiro’s statements before Congress were lies; hence everything he says from this point on will be viewed with suspicion. Having said that, there are a number of things that have to be entered into the equation when re-evaluating Palmeiro’s career.

  • With the exception of Barry Bonds, heavy use of steroids seems to take a toll on ballplayers’ longevity. Those noted for their possible usage have had their bodies break down and have been out of the game by their late 30’s: Mark McGwire retired at 37, Ken Caminiti made it to 38, Jose Canseco was gone at 36, and Sammy Sosa appears to be declining at 36. Palmeiro will be 41 at season’s end. This can mean one of three things:

    • He hasn’t been using that long.
    • He’s been on a well-regulated program.
    • He’s just been very fortunate.

    It’s possible that he hasn’t been using that long. His use of stanozolol rather than more sophisticated substances would indicate that that his program hasn’t been well-regulated, making it unlikely that he has simply been fortunate.

  • Palmeiro has been the mark of durability, playing at least 150 games in every non-strike year since 1988. A lack of physical breakdown is remarkable–all the more so if he’s been a long time user. According to Canseco’s book “Juiced”, Palmeiro’s usage stretches back over a decade. The amusing thing about Canseco’s claims is that they implicated Palmeiro when he wasn’t being tested, but now that Palmeiro has been tested and caught, Canseco says he’s innocent. So, do we believe Canseco or not? The bottom line is this: We do not know how long he has been using steroids. There is no way of finding out conclusively. We have Canseco’s say-so and that’s it. In the interests of fairness, the only evidence we have that Palmeiro was clean before is his say-so, but his credibility is lacking as well.
  • We don’t know 100% how steroids improve a ballplayer’s performance. It varies from person to person. In a sense, they’re a lot like having a batting cage and a pitching machine in your backyard. It can improve your performance if you have the natural physical gifts to play the sport at the highest levels and you use the equipment correctly. Sticking a syringe into your backside will do you little good unless you have significant gifts to begin with and the work ethic to along with it. You only get out of them what you put into them. Just as steroids won’t automatically turn Manny Alexander and Alex Sanchez into Manny Ramirez and Rickey Henderson, a lack of steroids won’t turn a Rafael Palmeiro into Rafael Belliard.

Personally I don’t feel Canseco’s word, coupled with a failed drug test in 2005, meets either the legal requirement of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” or the civil requirement of “preponderance of the evidence” to discount everything Palmeiro has accomplished since 1993. If more evidence becomes available, we can readjust accordingly. Am I being naïve? Possibly, but those are the standards I’d want to be judged by, I’m going to cut people the same slack that I’d want to be cut for me.

Let’s assume for a moment that 1993 was Palmiero’s first “steroid” year. In his first 3270 career at-bats (presumably before steroids) Palmiero batted .296/.358/.457. Now we’ll look at his first six “steroid” years from 1993-98 (3446 at-bats): 292/.371/.547. Suspicious? Perhaps, but during those seasons Palmeiro was between the ages of 28-33–generally a power hitter’s peak. So is the jump in power due to steroids, a normal power peak, or both? Interestingly, assuming steroids, Palmeiro’s power improved, but unlike Barry Bonds, his batting average did not (.296 to .292). Bonds batted .294 from 1995-99 (2462 at-bats). However, from the time it was assumed he started using (2000-2004 … 2122 AB) he jumped up to .339 and his slugging over those aforementioned stretches went from .600 to .781. Bonds’ first [assumed] steroid year was at age 35, Palmeiro’s first [alleged] steroid year was at age 28. Which would you assume was the steroid user, the 28 year-old whose subsequent batting average dropped six points while his slugging jumped .090 or the 35 year-old whose subsequent batting average jumped .045 while his slugging vaulted .181?

Since he turned 34 (discounting this year‘s stats) Palmeiro is .280/.385/.545, which is pretty close to his age 28-33 seasons but those totals are propped up from his years between his age-34 to age-37 years. In his past two full seasons, his age-38 and age-39 seasons, Palmeiro is .259/.357/.473, which looks like a normal decline phase.

When we look at Palmiero’s career, his first alleged “steroid” year came about the same time as a normal hitter’s power peak.

In other words, the numbers don’t scream: “This is when he started using steroids” a la Barry Bonds.

My point? If Palmeiro has indeed been a long-time user, the benefits to his game were primarily in the power department. His “pre-steroid” years featured his best batting averages, which might well mean–steroids or not–he’d still be a member of the 3000 hit club. Since the durability knife with regards to steroids cuts both ways (it can prolong or shorten careers, as well as make one more durable or more susceptible to injury) we cannot assume with any certainty that steroids contributed to the durability that allowed him to bang out 3000 hits. If you wish to discount 25% of the home runs he hit since he allegedly started using then he’s left with 3000 hits and over 450 HR (and probably well over 600 doubles).

As of Thursday August 4, 2005 my opinion is that Palmeiro has enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame type career.

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