Raffy and the Hall

He didn’t quite make the picture-perfect swing that produced most of his first 2,999 hits, but Rafael Palmeiro went the other way with a Joel Pineiro pitch Friday night, lining it down the left-field line and into the corner at Safeco Field. The double drove in a run to give the Orioles a 4-1 lead over the Mariners and also made Palmeiro just the 26th player in baseball history to reach 3,000 career hits. “I was just trying to drive the runner in,” Palmeiro said afterward.

Palmeiro was already a member of the 500-homer club, and in becoming the first player to reach 3,000 hits since Rickey Henderson in late 2001, Palmeiro has all but sealed his Hall of Fame fate. His candidacy, wrapped up in just one sentence, would probably be that he is just the fourth player in baseball history to reach both 500 homers and 3,000 hits, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray.

While Palmeiro has slowed down considerably in recent years, he is still piling up numbers at the age of 40. After a slow start, he has turned things around and enters play today at .276/.347/.475 with a 25-homer, 90-RBI pace. Since the end of April, Palmeiro is hitting .286/.372/.527 with 15 homers and 45 RBIs in 67 games. If he can stay healthy for the rest of this season and come back next year, at 41, and put up similar numbers again, Palmeiro has a chance to top 600 home runs by the end of the 2006 season. By that time he will also have likely moved into the top 15 all time in hits with around 3,200.

And yet despite all of that, there are still some doubters when it comes to Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame case. For instance, in discussing Palmeiro’s impending 3,000th hit last week, Newsweek‘s Mark Starr wrote:

Judging a Hall of Famer should be far more akin to assessing obscenity, at least in the fashion of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously put it: “I know it when I see it.” Well I know a Hall of Famer when I see one. And Rafael Palmeiro isn’t one.

Or as ESPN.com’s Skip Bayless put it:

Most baseball writers will also tell you he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But is he? If you had to stop and think about it for even a moment, he isn’t.

[...]

Retire his number.

And go ahead, put him in the Hall of Never Was On the Disabled List.

Or in the Hall of Sweetest Swings.

Or in the Hall of Very, Very Good.

But not the Hall.

There are a few knocks against Palmeiro that are often cited in making the case against his being a Hall of Famer. His career was more longevity than peak. He posted his numbers in a high-offense era. He benefited from playing his home games in good ballparks for hitting. He was selected to just four All-Star teams. He never finished higher than fifth place in an MVP vote.

Some of those things can likely be dismissed off hand. For instance, does it strike anyone else that the same people complaining loudly about Derek Jeter being left off the American League All-Star team this year are also the ones who bring up things like Palmeiro making just four All-Star teams when discussing his Hall of Fame resume? As if the fact that Danys Baez was an All-Star in 2005 and Jeter wasn’t should somehow be used against Jeter when judging his career.

With that said, for the most part those are certainly the types of issues that need to be considered when thinking about someone’s Hall of Fame candidacy, and in Palmeiro’s case each of the above statements are more or less true. However, those things are merely factors in evaluating a player’s career, they do not preclude him from being a Hall of Famer. The beauty of baseball is that such factors can be quantified with varying degrees of confidence.

If you think Palmeiro benefited from playing in hitter’s ballparks during an era in which offense was plentiful, you don’t have to simply write off his career numbers. Instead, you can examine them more closely, with an towards comparing his home numbers to his road numbers:

             G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      HR     RBI
Home      1412     .287     .377     .531     .909     310     930
Road      1399     .291     .366     .502     .868     257     897

As you can see, there is little question that Palmeiro has benefited from friendly home ballparks. His on-base percentage and slugging percentage are each higher at home, and he has 53 more homers at home in just 13 more games. Of course, performing better at home than on the road is true of many players throughout big-league history, and Palmeiro’s home advantage essentially boils down to an extra 2-3 homers over the course of a season. Take a look at the home/road splits for the other members of the 500-homer club:

                       HR     HOME     ROAD     DIFF
Mel Ott               511      323      188     +135
Ernie Banks           512      290      222      +68
Jimmie Foxx           534      299      235      +64
Frank Robinson        586      321      265      +56
RAFAEL PALMEIRO       567      310      257      +53
Sammy Sosa            583      309      274      +35
Ken Griffey Jr.       519      275      244      +31
Hank Aaron            755      385      370      +15
Willie Mays           660      335      325      +10
Harmon Killebrew      573      291      282       +9
Willie McCovey        521      264      257       +7
Reggie Jackson        563      280      283       -3
Mickey Mantle         536      266      270       -4
Barry Bonds           703      346      357       -9
Mark McGwire          583      284      299      -15
Mike Schmidt          548      265      283      -18
Eddie Murray          504      243      261      -18
Babe Ruth             714      347      367      -20
Ted Williams          521      248      273      -25
Eddie Mathews         512      238      274      -36

Palmeiro’s 53-homer home advantage ranks fifth among the 20 members of the 500-homer club, behind Mel Ott (+135), Ernie Banks (+68), Jimmie Foxx (+64), and Frank Robinson (+56). And right on Palmeiro’s tail in sixth and seventh place are Sammy Sosa (+35) and Ken Griffey Jr. (+31). In other words, Palmeiro benefited from his home ballparks no more than a half dozen other great home run hitters did and not even close to as much as an extreme case like Ott. Oh, and if you simply ignore his home numbers and just double his road stats instead, Palmeiro would have 514 homers.

Now, none of the home/road stuff accounts for the fact that Palmeiro has also benefited from playing in a high-offense era. Over the course of Palmeiro’s career the average hitter, adjusted to Palmeiro’s playing environment, has hit .270/.339/.421. Over the course of, say, Willie McCovey‘s career, the average hitter batted .261/.326/.388, for a difference in slugging percentage of nearly 10%. That is significant and without question should be accounted for when comparing Palmeiro’s credentials to other great hitters. Luckily, we have plenty of metrics that do that (and look beyond his raw numbers).

One such metric is Runs Created Above Average (RCAA), which calculates each player’s Runs Created and then compares it to the league average. Doing so more or less wipes out whatever advantage Palmeiro has had by playing in the 1990s and 2000s instead of the 1950s and 1960s. And here is the all-time RCAA leader board among first basemen:

Lou Gehrig                 1247      
Jimmie Foxx                 985   
Dan Brouthers               967   
Roger Connor                807   
Frank Thomas                803   
Cap Anson                   730   
Jeff Bagwell                681   
Johnny Mize                 667   
Mark McGwire                665   
Willie McCovey              606  
RAFAEL PALMEIRO             574   
Jim Thome                   561    
Hank Greenberg              549   
Harmon Killebrew            516   
Dick Allen                  511

Over the course of his 20-year career, Palmeiro has been worth 574 runs more than an average hitter. That number is good enough to rank him 11th all time, within shouting distance of a Hall of Famer like McCovey and ahead of Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Hank Greenberg.

Another metric that attempts to even the playing field for players across different eras is Win Shares, which has the added benefit of also accounting for a player’s defense (which was a strong point of Palmeiro’s game for many years). Here is how Palmeiro ranks among first basemen in Win Shares:

Lou Gehrig                  489
Eddie Murray                437
Jimmie Foxx                 435
Willie McCovey              408
RAFAEL PALMEIRO             392
Jeff Bagwell                388
Cap Anson                   381
Harmon Killebrew            371
Roger Connor                366
Frank Thomas                363
Dan Brouthers               355
Tony Perez                  349  
Mark McGwire                343 
Dick Allen                  342
Fred McGriff                341

This time Palmeiro ranks fifth, once again right behind McCovey and ahead of Killebrew. Ah, but what about the issue of peak versus longevity? There’s no easy way to determine how good a player’s peak was (does it have to be consecutive seasons, and what qualifies as a great year?), but I’ll make a quick-and-dirty attempt. Below is a list of two dozen of the best first basemen in baseball history and how many times they reached a) 30 or more Win Shares in a season (what Bill James calls an MVP-caliber year), and b) 50 or more RCAA in a season (which just seemed like a nice round number):

                           WS     RCAA     TOT
Lou Gehrig                 12       12      24
Jimmie Foxx                 8        9      17
Dan Brouthers               2       11      13
Frank Thomas                5        8      13
Johnny Mize                 6        7      13
Hank Greenberg              6        6      12
Roger Connor                3        8      11
Jeff Bagwell                5        6      11
Mark McGwire                3        8      11
Jim Thome                   3        6       9
Dick Allen                  5        4       9
Willie McCovey              4        4       8
RAFAEL PALMEIRO             3        4       7
Harmon Killebrew            4        3       7
Cap Anson                   1        5       6
Eddie Murray                3        3       6
Tony Perez                  3        2       5
Bill Terry                  2        3       5
Will Clark                  3        2       5
Don Mattingly               2        3       5
Orlando Cepeda              2        2       4
Fred McGriff                1        2       3
George Sisler               1        2       3

Palmeiro clearly can’t compare to guys like Lou Gehrig or Jimmie Foxx when it comes to peak seasons, but not many players in baseball history can. Instead, Palmeiro ranks tied for 13th with seven total 30-Win Share/50-RCAA seasons, amazingly sandwiched between McCovey and Killebrew once again. He also compares favorably to Hall of Famers Cap Anson, Eddie Murray, Bill Terry, Orlando Cepeda, and George Sisler, not to mention contemporaries Will Clark, Don Mattingly, and Fred McGriff.

I think it is clear, from his raw career numbers, statistical milestones, and rankings in more advanced metrics like RCAA and Win Shares that Palmeiro is already one of the dozen greatest first basemen in baseball history. The fact that he is still going strong makes it likely that he will end up as one of the top 10 of all time, if he isn’t there already. Regardless of what your criteria for a Hall of Famer is, being among the top 10 players at a position should meet it.

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