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May 13, 2003

Prospectus Today

Raffy Roundtable

by Joe Sheehan

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My column making Rafael Palmeiro's case for the Hall of Fame inspired a lot of great e-mail. I'm running some of it today.

You're overstating Palmeiro's credentials a bit by comparing him to Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell. While those guys are superficially similar to Palmeiro, they played in homer--killing times and homer-killing parks. Raffy has played in neutral or better parks in one of a few historic times for offense.

His PECOTA comps perhaps are a better indicator of his quality. His best comp, by far (similarity score 56) is Darrell Evans, who is a perfect borderline Hall of Famer. His next best (40) is Norm Cash, who is a perfect "as good a player as you can be and clearly NOT be a Hall of Famer" player. Then, with similarity scores in the thirties, come four Hall of Famers (Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, McCovey and Mike Schmidt).

Palmeiro is a Hall of Famer, but he's as bad a player as you can be and still clearly be a Hall of Famer. Billy Williams/Dave Winfield/Chuck Klein feels better than McCovey/Stargell/Reggie Jackson/Eddie Mathews.

--David Edelman

I don't think Palmeiro's era advantage should be simply swept under the rug when discussing his career. You mention that his raw stats are similar to McCovey's, which is true. What is also true is that Palmeiro's best adjusted OPS was 160, in 1999, a figure that McCovey topped seven times, including an unbelievable 211 in 1969. Stargell topped it six times as well.

--Mark Armour

David and Mark both raise a good point: I was a bit glib in equating Palmeiro with the twin Willies, because the latter both played in a considerably lower run environment for much of their careers. I was simply trying to make a statement about where Palmeiro really falls along the continuum of players, but the readers are right: Palmeiro isn't as good as they were.

Palmeiro's adjusted OPS coming into 2003 was 135, meaning he's been a 35% better hitter, by that metric, than the average player. McCovey's career figure was 148 and Stargell's 147, so even though their career stat lines are comparable, clearly both McCovey and Stargell were better hitters. Clay Davenport has Palmeiro producing 905 batting runs above replacement, with a .309 career EqA. The figures for McCovey are 937 and .330, while Stargell checks in at 846 and .316. Palmeiro hasn't been quite the hitter those two were, although his durability and longevity given him an edge in batting runs.

With all due respect to PECOTA, I think grouping Palmeiro with Norm Cash (.315 EqA, 678 BRAR) and Darrell Evans (.292 EqA, 687 BRAR) is off base. Longevity counts, and Palmeiro has produced nearly 30% more runs than those two guys did. That's why, even though he is "between" that group and the Willies, he's clearly closer to the Willies (and their brethren such as Jackson, Mathews et al).

Just so we're clear: Fred McGriff is going to the Hall of Fame, too, right? He has career numbers of .286/.379/.513.

If it's simply the accumulation of 500 home runs that gets you in (with comparable secondary numbers), then the case you make for Palmeiro is the case you make for McGriff. And I think that's what makes people scratch their head a little bit about this one.

--Chuck Johnson

It works for me.

Palmeiro is comparable to McGriff--most comparable, according to the sim scores at baseball-reference.com. However, Palmeiro has a big edge over McGriff defensively, and because Palmeiro is currently more productive than the Crime Dog, likely to stretch the offensive difference between them-especially in counting stats-before he retires.

That said, I think McGriff is clearly a Hall of Famer, too. Unlike Palmeiro, he spent some time in pitchers' parks that dragged down his numbers, and he wasn't quite as good in his thirties as Palmeiro was. However, being just behind Rafael Palmeiro-who is overqualified for induction-is a good place to be in the grand scheme of things. Davenport has McGriff at a .323 EqA and 837 BRAR coming into 2003, safely above the Cash/Evans group and closer to the Willies than even Palmeiro is, at least by rate.

A number of people referenced Rob Neyer's ESPN.com piece, one (along with Jayson Stark's) I intentionally avoided reading until after I'd written my column.

I was surfing around on the Davenport player cards, prompted somewhat by Rob Neyer's remark that "there are too many first basemen in the Hall already." [JSS: I can't find this quote, and believe it to be a paraphrase, perhaps a poor one.] It turns out that, by Clay's WARP measures, Palmeiro is certainly among the top 10, and ranks behind only the three inner-circle guys: Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Eddie Murray (plus Cap Anson and Roger Connor, if you use the more 1800s-favorable WARP-1 measure).

To me, the starting point for any intelligent discussion of Hall of Fame credentials is: About how many more games did this guy's teams win with him than they would have without him? And the most through estimates that people have done show that Rafael Palmeiro has done more to win ballgames than almost any other first baseman in the history of the game. That's a Hall of Famer in my book.

--P.C.

Rob argued that Palmeiro is, possibly, only the sixth- or seventh-best first baseman of his era and, therefore, not quite good enough for the Hall. If Rob's ranking of first basemen is correct, my instinct would be to agree with him. However, Rob's definition of Palmeiro's "era" is on the broad side and included people like Todd Helton, Jim Thome and Jason Giambi, who are coming in at the tail end of Palmeiro's career (although, in fairness, Rob does say that we need to wait a few years to see how these other guys do to really judge where Raffy ranks.) Others Rob ranks above Palmeiro are Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas. He also says that Palmeiro is comparable to McGriff and that a vote for one entails a vote for the other.

What is your opinion of Rob's logic about judging entry relative to other players at the same position during the same era? And do you agree with Rob's placement of Raffy at number 6 or 7?

--S.E.

As Sophia will attest, I get into the most trouble when I disagree with someone smarter than myself.

That said, I think Rob got this one wrong in his column, although it's far from a black-and-white issue. While one of the arguments against Palmeiro is that he hasn't been as good as Frank Thomas or Jason Giambi at those players' peaks, an argument in his favor is that he's been good enough, long enough, to be a peer of both players. Thomas was better than Palmeiro through 1997 or so; since that time, Palmeiro has run circles around him. Giambi and Palmeiro are pretty good comps...if you ignore everything Palmeiro did before Giambi came into the league. The guy is six weeks older than me and he doesn't even have 250 home runs, so forgive me if I don't see a Hall of Fame case just yet.

Palmeiro is being compared with such a deep group of first basemen because of his longevity, which means players who peaked in 1994 (Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell) and 2002 (Jim Thome) are finding their way into the discussion. That's wildly unfair to Palmeiro, a way of turning his key strength-extended consistent performance-into a weakness.

The parenthetical point in S.E.'s e-mail above is the key to this argument. Yes, all of these guys--Thomas, Giambi, Bagwell, Thome, Carlos Delgado--might look better than Palmeiro if they do what Palmeiro did through his fourth decade. But it's because Palmeiro actually did it that crazy people like me want to put him in the Hall of Fame. Lots of guys look like they might be Hall of Famers at 33, but can't get to 38 while hitting .300/.380/.550 every year. When Palmeiro's peers do that, then the argument that what he's done maybe isn't that special will have merit.

Frank Thomas is one of the 10-15 best hitters in the game's history, and clearly superior to Palmeiro even given the way his career derailed after '97. Mark McGwire was a better hitter, and probably a better player overall. McGriff is slightly behind Raffy, as I mentioned. The rest of them--Bagwell, Thome, Delgado, Giambi, Lee Stevens--have work to do. Palmeiro isn't the "sixth- or seventh-best" first baseman of his era. He's No. 3.

Todd Helton? Even setting aside the issues of context, Todd Helton is almost nine years younger than Palmeiro, and made his major-league debut more than a decade after Raffy did. The two players aren't peers. For that matter, I think calling Giambi and Delgado his peers is stretching it.

See the next letter for my real objection to what Rob wrote.

I'm sure others will mention this--I'm not that creative--but there is one legitimate way to argue that Palmeiro is not a HOFer, and it was presented by Rob Neyer on ESPN.com: over the last 15 years or so, among players who've had long careers as first basemen, Palmeiro has NOT been as productive as Thome, Giambi, Bagwell, Thomas, and Todd Helton. I'd also add McGwire. Maybe all THOSE guys are HOFers, but how many other guys are there during that era who are even eligible? Are there 15 first basemen who've had careers that significantly overlapped the last 15 years who would even qualify for the Hall? And, of those, Palmeiro ranks maybe sixth? 40 percentile, to me, is middle of the pack. Based on his offensive contributions alone, he's easily a HOFer. Based on his rank among his contemporaries, it's less clear. If every first baseman of an era happened to be a .290/.365/.550 guy for 15 years, would that make every one a HOFer? Maybe, but it's reasonable to argue "no."

Has there EVER been a period of time when six guys playing a single position with basically overlapping careers made the hall?

--Sokho Moon

Let me run the relevant portion of Rob's column:

"Perhaps Rafael Palmeiro belongs in the Hall of Fame. But let's give this a few years, and look at his career in the context of other great first basemen of the late-20th and early-21st century. Because if he's only the sixth- or seventh-best first baseman of his era, he doesn't belong in the Hall."

The thing is, even if Palmeiro ends up behind some of the guys we're talking about in this column, he'd still be a Hall of Famer. We know, looking at the scope of baseball history, that talent at various positions ebbs and flows over time. Hall of Fame plaques aren't granted by selecting an all-decade team. Looking over the guys in the Hall-and focusing just on the BBWAA picks and the more lucid efforts by various iterations of the Veterans Committee-we see that ebb and flow; the 1930s were a great time for first basemen, with three of 16 teams, all in the AL, having inner-circle Hall of Famers at the position (Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx). In 1999, we had four of the game's dozen best shortstops ever at or near the height of their powers (Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin) and you will hear Hall arguments made for Omar Vizquel. Just as we currently have a peak in great first basemen, we had one in starting pitching in the 1990s: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson are inner-circle Hall of Famers, while Pedro Martinez is a couple of healthy years from becoming an automatic selection, and there were guys like Tom Glavine and John Smoltz floating around.

There are gluts and gaps like this throughout the game's history. It's entirely possible that no Hall of Fame starting pitchers entered the league between Bert Blyleven in 1970 and Clemens in 1984. Certainly, no Hall of Fame third basemen have made their debut since Wade Boggs came on the scene in 1982. The '50s and '60s were great for outfielders.

The argument that Palmeiro, with a list of accomplishments that puts him square in the group of Hall of Famers elected by the BBWAA, shouldn't go into the Hall of Fame because he played with a lot of other great first basemen is just as wrong as the argument that Jack Morris should be in because he was the best pitcher in his exceedingly weak peer group. It happens that Palmeiro played in a time when a number of players who might have been able to handle more difficult defensive positions-Palmeiro included-were moved to first base. Thome, Bagwell and Giambi were all third basemen, and Delgado was a catcher. It's a historical blip, and far from a reason to deny Palmeiro the honors he's earned.

One last comment about the ESPN.com piece: I wouldn't take it as gospel that Rob believes everything he wrote. It's possible that he was assigned the B side of the Point/Counterpoint piece with Jayson, which happens sometimes.

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

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