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May 12, 2003

Prospectus Today

The Case for Raffy

by Joe Sheehan

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Yesterday, Rafael Palmeiro became the 19th player in major-league history to hit 500 home runs, joining the club with a three-run blast to right field in the seventh inning off the Indians' David Elder. His achievement has been met with lukewarm response, unusual for someone reaching such an important milestone. Not only has no eligible 500-home run hitter ever been left out of the Hall of Fame, none have ever sparked serious debate over their candidacy.

Palmeiro's accomplishment, though, is being hailed not as the signature feat of a great player, but as an example of just how "cheap" home runs have become in the early 21st century. Palmeiro's qualifications for the Hall are being questioned, and he's being lumped in not with Reggie and Eddie and Michael Jack, but with modern DHs like Harold Baines and Jose Canseco.

Which is, to be unnecessarily blunt, BS.

Rafael Palmeiro has been a durable, productive hitter for 15 years. Unlike the players with whom he's being classified, Palmeiro has done a lot more than merely hit home runs. He's hit for average, drawn walks, played defense and stayed in the lineup. He doesn't merely meet the established standards for the Hall of Fame; he exceeds them by so much that this entire debate borders on the insane.

Palmeiro is 19th all time in home runs. He's 24th all time in total bases, 25th in doubles, 24th in RBI, 50th in walks, 59th in runs scored. His career line of .292/.374/.523 is comparable to Willie McCovey's .270/.374/.515 or Willie Stargell's .282/.360/.529. His comps aren't the Hall of Fame's mistakes; they're the guys just outside the inner circle who were great sluggers for a very long time.

Somehow, this player who has played in 97.6% of his team's games since becoming a regular in 1988, who was considered one of the best defensive first basemen of his era, and who did so much more at the plate than yank homers, is being characterized as a guy who just happened to play in a hitters' era, a Ken Williams for Generation Y, and as little more than a DH.

Part of the perception problem stems from the fact that four players have joined the 500 Club since 1999, so there's a notion going around that the feat is becoming commonplace. Of course, you might have said the same in 1971. With Harmon Killebrew and Frank Robinson joining that year, the 500 Club had gone from four members to 11 in just seven seasons:

1965: Willie Mays
1967: Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews
1968: Hank Aaron
1970: Ernie Banks
1971: Frank Robinson, Harmon Killebrew

After that, just four players popped #500 over the next quarter-century (McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Eddie Murray), as any number of players you might have called contenders in 1971--Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, Billy Williams--fell short.

It's important to remember that last point. Right now, people are pointing to the many players in the 300-480 home-run range and extrapolating from that a list of oh-so-many players who will reach 500, and thereby continue to dilute the pool. The fact is, many of the players who get projected forward into the 500 Club have as much chance of getting there as I do.

Here's the active HR leaders list, starting with Fred McGriff at 483:


Player               HR    Age

Fred McGriff        483     39
Ken Griffey Jr.     469     33
Juan Gonzalez       416     33
Andres Galarraga    389     42
Jeff Bagwell        391     35
Frank Thomas        383     35
Matt Williams       377     37
Greg Vaughn         352     37
Mike Piazza         351     34

Of these guys, only Ken Griffey Jr. is better than even money to get to 500. McGriff will probably get there, if only because he's so close and can likely find work as a part-time player for a few years even if he doesn't hit #500 in 2003. Juan Gonzalez's hot start this year makes him a candidate again, although he's been so erratic and fragile of late that it's hard to know what to expect. Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza are excellent hitters, but they all have to sustain productivity for at least another four seasons, and baseball's history is chock-full of great sluggers who couldn't get the bat around at 36, much less 38.

As for the many great players who haven't even hit 350 home runs yet, I think it's reasonable to say that projecting anyone to have six or seven years of production left in them is a bit optimistic. Alex Rodriguez, with 309 home runs at age 27, could rewrite the record book, and Manny Ramirez is a fair bet with 314 at age 31, but beyond that, we're deep into the realm of wishcasting. Vladimir Guerrero doesn't have 250 home runs yet.

Rafael Palmeiro has done something rare and great. Knocking that accomplishment because some guys did it just before he did, or because more guys might do it in the coming years, makes little sense. In seven years, when he comes up for the Hall of Fame, he could very well be part of a club with just two more members than it has today.

Finally, Palmeiro is still playing and playing well. He has his 500 knocks and there's a good chance he'll hit another 50, maybe even make a run at 600. He was the one of the top 10 hitters in the AL last year, and with a .315 EqA is just outside the top 20 so far this year. If anything, he's part of an even more elite group within the 500 Club: players who reached the mark while still among the best at their craft.

Rafael Palmeiro is a Hall of Famer. If he's not, just close the doors and use the building for storage space.

Jeff Torborg Fired

On a less pleasant note, Jeff Torborg was fired Saturday, ending his latest managerial tenure with a record of 95-105 in just over a season with the Florida Marlins. That brings Torborg's career managerial record to 634-718, with exactly two seasons over .500.

The question with Torborg is not whether he should have been fired. The question is whether he should have been hired. The fact is, other than two years in Chicago when he stumbled into the White Sox run of tremendous talent (Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas, Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez) generated by Larry Himes, Torborg has never had success as a major-league manager. He got this job not because of his curriculum vitae, but because he was Jeffrey Loria's friend dating to their days in Oklahoma City.

If it actually was the injury to A.J. Burnett that got Torborg fired, then Loria has no one to blame but himself, because Torborg's record in that regard was pretty evident. Even if Loria didn't know about Torborg's previous work, he got to watch with his own eyes as his manager rode Javier Vazquez into the ground in the second half of 2001.

At Saturday's Pizza Feed, I talked about how baseball's hiring practices are one of the critical flaws in the game, and how management roles, from GM on down, are filled not with the best available men for the job, but with drinking buddies and old teammates and baseball lifers who have never had their qualifications examined.

Jeff Torborg got hired that way, and I'd like to think that the experience will be one more small step in the game's evolution toward running itself like a real business, and hiring people who bring more to the table than a head full of received wisdom and the ability to ignore evidence that contradicts it.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Jeff Torborg,  Jeff Loria

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