I've been away for several days, and so missed much of the fun surrounding Rafael Palmeiro. While creating a post on his Hall-of-Fame worthiness in the accompanying sidebar poll, I went into more detail than usual and ended up with something I thought I'd post as a short feature, to while away a few minutes of your day.
When considering Rafael Palmeiro's HoF worthiness, one possible angle is to compare him to the player he statistically most resembles: Eddie Murray. Murray is Palmeiro's second-closest BB-Ref comp (I trust no one here thinks Palmeiro is truly comparable to his number-one match, Frank Robinson), and as a fellow Oriole first baseman who received less attention than his performance merited, Steady Eddie seems a good fit.
My continuing problem with Palmeiro has long been a nagging sense that he was never among the best players in the game in most seasons he played. To test this, I looked at the Top-Five finishes throughout his career in several offensive categories (and one significant award category). I also added a similar line for Murray. The table below lists the total number of Top-Five finishes, with first-place finishes in parentheses:
Player BA R H 2B HR TB RBI OBP SLG MVP Palmeiro 2 2(1) 3(1) 4 6 6 2 0 1 1 Murray 2 2 0 0 5(1) 5 5(1) 5(1) 4 6Palmeiro ranks surprisingly well, I think, in hits and doubles -- he never seemed to be that well-rounded an offensive player, but he clearly was, especially relative to Murray. Where the older Oriole has a clear advantage, however, is in on-base and slugging percentage: Murray was conistently among the league leaders in these key offensive categories, while Palmeiro was not. And while RBIs are kind of a cheap stat, the fact is that only twice did Palmeiro finish in the top five in that category, one that matters to Hall voters. To my mind, Palmeiro measures up pretty decently against Murray, but falls short in terms of overall dominance of his era.
Murray himself is an interesting case: a perennial MVP runner-up (6 times in the Top 5 in MVP voting, compared to just once for Palmeiro), he was universally recognized as among the best in the game for virtually the first ten years of his career. But in 1988, Baltimore dealt him to the Dodgers for the immortal trio of Juan Bell, Brian Holton, and Ken Howell, and Murray's career went seriously off-track. Although he played 9 more years, he had only one other great season (1990 for LA at 33) and one pretty good one (1993 with the Mets at 37). At 32, in his last season with the O's, Murray's best years were behind him. His skills and legendary durability deserted him just as the offensive era of the mid-90s arrived.
Palmeiro's career, in many ways, went in reverse. Whereas Murray was a star from his rookie 1977 campaign at 21, Palmeiro didn't nail down a full-time job till he was 23 (1988 with the Cubs), and didn't crack 20 home runs until he turned 26 (1991 in Texas). After his age-27 campaign, in which he hit 22 dingers, Palmeiro was a .300 hitter with an average of 15 home runs a season; Mark Grace, if you will. Murray had already hit 25 or more homers 6 times after his age-27 season.
Late in the 1992 season, the Rangers obtained Jose Canseco from Oakland. Starting the very next year, Palmeiro's annual home run totals went like this:
Put differently: from age 30 onwards, Eddie Murray hit 246 of his 504 home runs (48.8%). From age 30 onwards, Rafael Palmeiro hit 396 of his 551 (71.8%).
Interestingly, the four seasons in which Palmeiro finished in the Top Five in hits and doubles were '88, '90, '91 and '93. Despite his power explosion, he finished as high as 2nd in home runs only once (3rd twice), while after 1994, he only ever finished as high as 10th in doubles.
Eddie Murray was well on his way to the Hall of Fame by age 30: nine straight seasons as one of the best in the game. Rafael Palmeiro, by age 30, had hit more than 30 home runs only once and was still widely regarded as a solid hitter with medium power -- his age-29 comp is John Olerud, his age-30 comp Will Clark. Palmeiro didn't start building his HoF statistics in earnest until after he turned 30, and as we all know, his post-30 accomplishments are currently under review and are potentially tainted.
Until the questions about his possible chemical enhancements are fully put to rest, it would be irresponsible to support a Hall of Fame vote for Rafael Palmeiro. He may very well be an innocent victim -- or he may have used steroids, but only sparingly and to no great assistance to his performance. But we have to clear that up, in full, to protect the integrity of the Hall. The appearance of wrongdoing, from the average fan's perspective, is too strong to risk looking the other way.
Palmeiro is the first player of his era to have to withstand scrutiny of his Hall-worthiness in light of steroid allegations. But he won't be the first player to hold a commanding spot on a Cooperstown ballot and experience an actual debate over whether he used steroids and whether steroids unfairly improved his performance. That honour will go to Mark McGwire.