Raffy and the Big Hurt

December 17, 2013
 
(Voting is underway for this year’s BJOL HOF. The full ballot is here. Feel free to cast your votes in the comments section there. We’ll announce the entrants in early January.)
 
When I saw Frank Thomas’s name on this year’s Hall-of-Fame ballot, I had an automatic response: yes. Of course. Frank Thomas, The Big Hurt, the two-time A.L. MVP, the best pure hitter of his generation, yes. Absolutely.
 
I imagine that I’m not alone in this reaction. Just looking over the first thirty or so ballots that BJOL readers have submitted for our offshoot version of the BBWAA vote, I saw that only one reader didn’t vote for Thomas. That reader – rgregory - has a policy of not voting for any first-year players. No one, so far, has left Frank Thomas off their ballot because they think he’s not a Hall-of-Fame player.
 
Which makes sense, because Frank Thomas was a legitimately great player.
 
More than that, Frank Thomas was a famous player: a place-marker in the history of the game. Thomas, more than any other player, embodied baseball’s transition from the eclectic eighties, to the slugging 1990’s. That was going to be his decade, his and Junior Griffey’s.
 
For seven years, Thomas hit like the second coming of Jimmie Foxx. During his first seven full seasons in the majors, Thomas crossed the century mark in runs scored, runs batted in, and walks every year. He hit better than .300 every year. He hit 30+ HR’s every year except one. And he wasn’t just crossing over those lines…he hit 46 homers one year. He posted batting averages of .353 and .349 and .343. He drove in 134 runs, and 128. He walked more than anyone since Ted Williams.
 
Here’s a typical Frank Thomas batting line:
 
106 Runs, 38 HR, 101 RBI, 109 BB, .353 BA, .487 OBP, .729 OPS.
 
Pretty good, right? That’s a Hall-of-Fame season.
 
That was in 1994. Strike-shortened 1994. He played 113 games.
 
When I saw his name on the Hall-of-Fame ballot, I didn’t needto go look at his career statistics to see whether or not Frank Thomas was a qualified candidate. I just knew it. In the same way that you know it.
 
 
*          *          *
 
 
A brief interlude, for some Shakespeare….
 
 
Two players, both alike in uniform.
 
In fair Boston, where they made their names.
 
One a slugger Mississippi born,
 
The other who viewed walks as gains.
 
From voters writerly the die was cast,
 
A pair of teammates stood in review.
 
Their career numbers viewed at last,
 
One got lots of votes, the other only a few.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Alright…Rafael Palmiero. 
 
I followed Rafael Palmiero’s early career closely, more closely than I followed Frank Thomas. I was really into baseball cards around the time that Palmeiro broke into the majors. I’m sure I’ve told this already, but my brother and I had a system about our collecting: we’d try to find underrated players, and stock up on their cards. Somewhere, I have a bunch of cards of Julio Franco and Glenn Davis and Dave Smith and Joe Carter cards sitting in boxes, waiting to come into their value.
 
(They weren’t all busts. Nolan Ryan was probably the first players we collected obsessively, a couple years before he was traded to the Rangers, threw two no-hitters, and went from ‘borderline candidate’ to ‘legend.’ I have a lot of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine cards, too. We did well with the starting pitchers.)
 
Raffy was one of the guys we targeted: his rookie card (1987 Donruss) was dirt-cheap. I think it was listed at $5 in the first Beckett Baseball Card Monthly guide I ever bought. I think it was still listed at $5 ten years later.
 
Palmeiro, in his early career, was a lot like Mark Grace: a first baseman with middle-level power and a decent batting average. Grace came up a couple years after Palmeiro, which made it easier for the Cubs to deal Palmeiro away. They shipped Raffy and Jamie Moyer to Texas for Mitch Williams. This was not one of the more commendable trades, in retrospect.
 
I remember caring a great deal about the 1990 and 1991 batting title races. In 1990, a resurgent George Brett held off Rickey Henderson and Rafael Palmeiro, the only three AL hitters to post batting averages better than .304. In 1991, the great Julio beat out Wade Boggs for the crown. Raffy finished seventh.
 
Those years were when Raffy first seemed to ‘blip’ onto baseball’s radar screen. I think the average baseball fan knew two things about Palmeiro:
 
1)      He played college baseball with Will Clark, and,
2)      He had a good batting average.
 
His last year in Texas was his breakout performance: after consecutive seasons with 26 and 22 homers, he hit 37. He collection 100+ RBI’s for the first time in his career, and led the league in runs scored. He was 22-for-25 on stolen base attempts.
 
A free agent, Palmeiro signed a five-year contract with Baltimore, for a sizeable chunk of money. This must count as one of the best big-moneyfree-agent contracts any team has given a player. Palmeiro was steadily great: he hit .319 with 23 homers in strike-shortened 1994. He hit 39 homers in 1995 and 1996, dropped to 38 in 1997, and then went up to 43 in 1998. In five years in Baltimore, he hit 182 homers and drove in 553 runs, while posting an OPS of .916.
 
He hit free agency again, and the Rangers, being a sentimental team, offered him another big-money contract if he returned to Arlington: five years, for somewhere in the vicinity of $9 million per year.
 
Palmeiro was approaching his Age-34 season…while the Orioles were lucky to sign Palmeiro at the apex of his ability, any knowledgeable person would concede that the Rangers were buying in on a declining commodity. Having earned his first big-money contract, it wasn’t a sure thing that he’d make good on the second one.
 
But…he did make good on it. He signed two five-year contracts for megabucks, and played excellent baseball every single year of those contracts. 
 
His first year back in Texas, he hit .324, with 47 HR and 148 RBI’s….those are numbers that will have people talking Triple Crown. He followed that with 39 homers. Then 47. Then 43 and 38. Over his second five-year contract, Palmeiro hit 214 homers, drove in 608 runs, and posted an OPS of .956.
 
These superlative seasons were sort of lost in the mist, as a lot of players were having big, epic seasons with the bat. Palmeiro hit 396 homeruns over that ten year stretch, but he never won a HR title. He drove in 1196 runs, but never led in RBI’s. During his peak offensive seasons, Palmeiro led the league in nothing…his only black-ink comes in 1990 (hits), 1991 (doubles), and 1992 (runs scored).
 
Palmeiro still made a blip on the baseball radar. He was now known for four things:
 
1)      He played college ball with Will Clark. 
2)      Teams kept swapping him for Will Clark.
3)      He was a good hitter, and,
4)      He won a Gold Glove as a DH.
 
One of the reasons for Palmeiro’s late success was his improve discipline at the plate. In his twenties, Palmeiro walked in 8.9% of his plate appearances. In his thirties, he walked in 12.9% of his plate appearances. He aged well: he became increasingly selective at the plate, which helped him stay a consistently good hitter well past his peak.
 
He finished his career with an insanely improbably batting line: 3020 hits, 1663 runs scored, 569 homeruns, 1835 RBI’s, and a .288 batting average. He walked more times than he struck out. He ranks in the top-25 in career hits (25th) total bases (11th), doubles (17th), homeruns (12th), RBI (16th), extra-base hits (7th), and Runs Created (18th).
 
 
*          *          *
 
 
While my reaction to Frank Thomas’s name on this year’s BJOL ballot was an emphatic ‘yes,’ my thinking on Rafael Palmeiro’s candidacy has been significantly more muddled.
 
It’s with that in mind that I’ll present what I think is the single most startling comparison on this year’s BJOL ballot:
 
Player
Win Shares
rWAR
fWAR
Frank Thomas
405
73.6
72.4
Rafael Palmeiro
394
71.8
70.0
 
These are three ‘all-encompassing’ measures: statistics that attempts to boil everything a player has done into one metric. All three metrics have different weights and balances, but they come to the exact same conclusion: Frank Thomas and Rafael Palmeiro had comparable value over their careers.
 
They’re not exactly comparable, of course. Frank Thomas accumulated his value in 2000 fewer plate appearances, the equivalent of about 3.5 seasons. All of the metrics agree that the Big Hurt was a better player than Palmeiro: Thomas had bigger seasons, and added value to his teams. Each player’s five best seasons, according to Win Shares:
 
Thomas
Palmeiro
39
31
34
31
34
30
33
26
32
25
 
And rWAR:
 
Thomas
Palmeiro
7.3
6.9
7.0
6.3
6.9
5.7
6.3
5.5
6.2
5.3
 
Thomas is the better player. But…Rafael Palmeiro was very, very good. He had fewer great seasons than Thomas, but he had more good seasons than Thomas. His career value, across all three of the advanced metrics, suggest that they’re in the universe as players, if not the same solar system.
 
So what gives? Why was I so convinced of Frank Thomas’s candidacy, and so ambivalent about Rafael Palmeiro?
 
 
*          *          *
 
Getting back to that Shakespeare….you probably guessed that the characters in our tragedy were Jim Rice and Dwight Evans, two teammates with comparable batting lines, but very different results from the BBWAA voters.
 
Here are their traditional numbers:
 
Player
AB
R
HR
RBI
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
WAR
Rice
8225
1249
382
1451
.298
.353
.502
128
47.2
Evans
8996
1470
372
1384
.272
.370
.470
127
66.7
 
These are very comparable players. Rice has a better batting average, and the better slugging percentage. But Evans makes up ground because he walked a lot more than Rice, and grounded into fewer double plays. Rice drove in more runs, but Evans scored more runs. Evans was an excellent defensive outfielder, playing a difficult right field. Rice was a competent defensive player, who covered the smallest left field in the majors. They played on the same team, over similar years….there are no park effects that tilt the numbers unfairly.
 
Jim Rice appeared on the ballot in 1995, getting 29.9% of the vote. That number increased steadily: he crossed over 50% in 2000, and was elected to the Hall in 2009.
 
Dwight Evans appeared on the ballot in 1997, getting 5.9% of the vote. He received 10.4% of the vote. Then he received 3.6% of the vote, falling off the ballot. He received fewer votes from the BBWAA in three years on the ballot than Jim Rice received in his first year.
 
So how come the BBWAA elected Rice, and dropped Evans from the ballot?
 
Simple: first impression bias.
 
Jim Rice, as rookie, finished third in the AL MVP vote in 1975. He hit .309 on the year, with 22 homers and 102 RBI’s. Two years later, in 1977, Rice hit .320, and won the AL HR title. A year after that he won the MVP. He had a monster year in 1978: 46 homers, 139 RBI’s, .315 BA. He won two legs of the Triple Crown. He tallied 406 total bases, which was the first time anyone had crossed 400 since DiMaggio, if my memory of old baseball cards holds up. A year after that Rice won his third consecutive homerun title, again with 39. He hit .325, drove in 130 runs and scored 117. He finished fifth in the AL MVP vote.
 
When Jim Rice appeared on the Hall-of-Fame ballot, that’s what people who saw him play remembered. He was a hitter: he was feared. There wasn’t a question of whether or not he was a Hall-of-Famer….there was only the question of what the final line on his plaque would look like.
 
Dwight Evans, as a rookie, didn’t set the world on fire. His first year in the majors, Evans hit .223 with 10 homeruns. Let’s just put that alongside Rice:
 
Player
BA
HR
RBI
Evans
.223
10
32
Rice
.309
22
102
 
Yeah, it’s underwhelming. Evans was better as a second year player: he was actually quietly excellent. While he posted a not-too-inspiring batting line of .281/10/78, he had a great defensive season: Total Zone Rating rates Evans’ 1974 and 1975 seasons as two of the twenty best defensive seasons by any right fielder over the last half century.
 
That was the book on Evans: an elite defensive right fielder, but a bottom-of-the-order bat. That perception of Evans didn’t change until 1981, Dewey’s tenth season in the majors. Suddenly, he became one of the elite hitters in baseball, leading the AL in walks and homeruns, and finishing third in the AL MVP vote.
 
He was, with the exception of a dismal 1983 season, an excellent player for the next nine years….from 1981 to 1989. His average season over that nine-year stretch was:
 
Years
G
R
HR
RBI
BB
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
1981-1989
146
98
26
93
95
.281
.388
.498
139
 
Evans, like a few players, had his peak years in his thirties. This caused him to be underrated, even when set against a teammate and direct contemporary, like Jim Rice.
 
 
*          *          *
 
One of Bill’s lines about the Hall of Fame is that our rememberance player’s personality fades over time: when it comes down to getting elected to the Hall-of-Fame, the jerk draw even with the saints. Jim Palmer was a charismatic guy who gave good interviews. Steve Carlton never talked to the press. Guess which one got more votes from the BBWAA voters.
 
Carlton. The guy with fewer friends, and more wins.
 
But whereas our remembering of a player’s personality fades, our perception of the quality of that player lasts. And that perception is significantly shaped by how a player does in his early years: by the success that player had as the baseball-watching public starts to take note of them.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Here are the batting lines of Frank Thomas and Rafael Palmeiro in their twenties, converted to an 162- game season:
 
Player
Years
PA
R
H
HR
RBI
BB
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
WAR
Thomas
90-'97
724
119
191
39
129
110
.330
.452
.600
182
7.1
Raffy
‘86-'94
677
94
180
22
85
61
.298
.364
.480
131
4.3
 
These are incomparable players. Frank Thomas is a perennial MVP candidate. Rafael Palmeiro is a very good player: an All-Star level player.
 
Here they are in their thirties, again converted to 162-game seasons:
 
Player
Years
PA
R
H
HR
RBI
BB
BA
OBP
SLG
OPS+
WAR
Thomas
98-'08
688
93
157
35
111
103
.276
.389
.515
134
3.5
Raffy
95-'05
700
97
169
41
120
90
.282
.375
.539
133
4.1
 
Frank Thomas declines…his production essentially halved when he hit his thirties. But Rafael Palmeiro’s production stays at the same level….he continues to play like an All-Star.
 
Looking at their Win Shares:
 
Age
Thomas
Raffy
21
n/a
1
22
13
7
23
34
17
24
33
17
25
32
22
26
25
26
27
28
24
28
28
31
29
39
17
Total
232
162
 
In their twenties, Frank Thomas outpaces Palmeiro comfortably, netting 232 Win Shares to Raffy’s 162. In their thirties, this flips:
 
Age
Thomas
Raffy
30
25
21
31
16
30
32
34
18
33
1
24
34
16
31
35
23
23
36
12
25
37
3
18
38
21
19
39
17
12
40
5
11
Total
173
232
 
 Over the second-half of their careers, Palmeiro makes up ground on Thomas. Again, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking they are directly comparable: Frank Thomas nets his 232 Win Shares in a little over seven seasons. Raffy gets his 232 Win Shares over ten full seasons. Frank Thomas certainly had more impactful seasons: it is only their career value that is directly similar.
 
 
*          *          *
 
Frank Thomas is a Hall-of-Famer. My perception of his career is accurate: he was a truly great player for the first half of his career, and a useful player for the second half. 
 
I’ve completely missed, until now, just how good of a career Rafael Palmeiro had. I missed it because his peak wasn’t nearly as brilliant as Thomas’s, and because that peak happened later in his career, when I had already concluded that Palmeiro wasn’t great.
 
Frank Thomas came to the majors as a great player. So did Jim Rice.
 
Rafael Palmeiro came to the majors, and gradually became a great player. So did Dwight Evans.
 
Palmeiro gets, finally, my vote.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (31 Comments, most recent shown first)

eilandesq
I'm glad you did this study, because I remember the fact that people were making the same kind of rumbles back near the end of RP's career that they did when Don Sutton came up for Hall of Fame consideration, and aside from the PED issues it's certainly worth looking at what RP's argument for quick induction vs. grudging, punctuated with catcalls about "compilers" was before the Wagging Finger and that pesky drug test popped up.
8:34 PM Jan 26th
 
MWeddell
For some reason, my limited knowledge of Rafael Palmeiro's college career includes that Bobby Thigpen (as a position player primarily) also was a teammate in addition to Will Clark.
9:16 AM Dec 19th
 
chuck
Regarding Palmeiro's strange HR rate disappearance in 1988-90...
First, here are his home runs per batted ball ratios:
1987 7.1% (with Cubs)
1988 1.4%
1989 1.6% (goes to Texas this year)
1990 2.6%
1991 4.6%
1992 4.1%
1993 7.1%

Unfortunately we don't have the trajectory data for 1987. But here are his ground ball / fly ball / line drive percentages of batted balls:
YEAR GB / FB / LD
1988 45 / 33 / 22
1989 43 / 30 / 27
1990 41 / 33 / 27
1991 37 / 40 / 23
1992 36 / 40 / 23
1993 35 / 41 / 24
Wish we had 1987- I'd bet that he was more of a fly ball hitter that season, too, and that he or a hitting coach decided to change his approach in the spring of '88 for whatever reason. He was hitting in the .270's-.280's in 1987, with decent power. Starting in '88 he was hitting lots of groundballs but had upped his batting avg 30 points.

Despite his line drive ratio being high in 1989, his batting average went back down to where it'd been in '87. His strikeout rate rose at the end of '89, but without the HR to show for it.
In '90 he still hit lots of line drives, but was starting to hit more flys and fewer grounders. The last two months of that season, though, his HR rate fell and his strikeout rate, too, maybe signaling him going back to the line drive approach.

In '91 his strikeout rate increases, and he is suddenly hitting lots more fly balls and fewer grounders and liners. I see this as being a new approach just that season- that he'd been working toward it in the early part of '90. The trajectory ratios are almost the same in '92, and in '93 the fly balls go up a little more.

The AL was more a fly ball pitcher's league, so perhaps he figured this out after 1989-90, that his game would be better served by returning to his 1987 approach. McGwire re-vamped his swing right around this time, too, becoming an even more extreme fly ball hitter while also becoming a better low-ball hitter.

It was good timing on Palmeiro's part, as in '93, with likely a livelier ball, his fly balls left the yard much more often, and his HR rate was back where it'd been in '87 (with likely a very similar ball both years). That spike in his HR rate in '93 is not unusual; many many players saw that happen in '93-94, both sluggers and non-sluggers.
2:43 AM Dec 19th
 
chuck
Always good to see you on the site, Marisfan.
2:14 AM Dec 19th
 
MarisFan61
Ventboys: THANKS! Good to see you too.
Actually I've made comments on several of these articles in recent months (usually NOT about 'my favorite subject'!) and until this one, they've been uniformly ignored.
About not being on the discussion board: That's probably been better, because I would have been seeing most things of the past couple of years through the prism of PED's (being off them, being back on them, etc.) -- and there wasn't much interest in that point of view.
7:43 PM Dec 18th
 
stevebogus
To me, the thing that stands out in Palmeiro's career is not why he hit so many HRs but why his power disappeared in 1988-1990. He hit 17 HRs in his first 294 MLB at-bats, and then had full seasons of 8, 8, and 14. I know 1987 was a big HR season, but Palmeiro's HR rate that year foreshadowed what he would be for most of his career. 1988-1990 look like somebody else's stats.

When he hit 37 in 1993 that was the first year of the HR deluge. That could be seen as the natural result of taking advantage of a livelier baseball, having hit 26 and 22 in the previous two seasons. It was also the first season of 40+ HRs by Griffey, Bonds, and Thomas.
5:55 PM Dec 18th
 
Brian
To make it clear, I always thought he was a Hall of Famer. But I support Dave's position that there would have been issues regarding Palmeiro's candidacy even absent the steroid thing.
5:21 PM Dec 18th
 
Brian
Recalling the sports-talk discussions at the time he was in the last couple of years of his career, there were a decent number of talk-show hosts and columnists who were at least hesitant about Palmeiro's candidacy. He was considered a "compiler", and the lack of all-star appearances and black ink were often brought up.

I think being named by Canseco and then wagging his finger at Congress was a net gain for his candidacy. It made him more famous than he was all those years of playing. And next to McGwire and Sosa he came out of the hearings looking like the good guy.

He probably should've retired the next day.
4:16 PM Dec 18th
 
izzy24
That .729 OPS next to Thomas is supposed to be Slugging Percentage, right? Thanks for the article, Dave.
3:49 PM Dec 18th
 
DaveFleming
I wrote a long article about Spahn and Sain some years ago. It's here: www.billjamesonline.com/article1320/
2:02 PM Dec 18th
 
David Kowalski
Ah, Warren Spah. In 1962 he seemed like the best pitcher in a National League that had Drysdale and emerging pitchers like Koufax and Marichal. Of course, I was ten years old then but the Cy Young voters that year were no smartwer than I was. With one Cy Young given for both leagues, Whitey Ford finished first and the 40 year-old Spahn (who led the NL in wins and ERA) finished second.

I also remember Spahn for his distinctive wind-up, or at least it seemed distinctive. He was a Greg Maddux of his time, pitching to the outside 1" and the inside 1" of a 17.5" plate and doing it well. Spahnie was the first pitcher since Lefty Grovr to win 300 games. He did it in that same magical 40 year-old season of 1961, before expansion for the NL if not the AL.

I had one of those plastic figures of Warren Spahn at the time, I think they cost $2.98. I saw onre in the Hall of Fame on display this year but it was in much better shape even if I miraculously found mine. Collectors!

Spahn was also the ace of the 1957 and 1958 Braves teams that gave Milwaukee its first two pennants. Sure, Lew Burdette may have been the Series star but Spahnie and Hank Aaron took them there.

I heard about "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain", but that was not a memory for me as I wasn't born in 1948.
1:28 PM Dec 18th
 
Tubbs44
Evans primarily hit out of the 3 and 4 hole in '88 & drove in 111 runs en route to helping Boston take the AL East crown. Rice faded in '87 while Evans had a career year and late in the season, after years with Rice and either an aging Yaz, overrated Armas or Buckner clogging up the 3 and 4 holes, Evans finally got his chance to bat regularly in a prime-RBI spot in the order. After transforming himself as a hitter under Walt Hriniak in mid-1980, Boston still chose to bat Evans mostly #2 or 6 in the order for most of the decade, yet his still put up impressive RBI totals
1:21 PM Dec 18th
 
David Kowalski
It's simplistic and not entirely fair but once Raffy crossed both the 500 homer and 3,000 hit marks, he became a Hall of Famer. Once he not only got caught taking steroids but lied to Congress in a colorful and emphatic way, Raffy became a Hall of Shamer.

Thomas was a no-brainer from those first seven years. I remember being asked who was the best hitter in baseball and I said frank Thomas with no hesitation. Dwight Evans played a more subtle game than Thomas or Rice but he, too is a Hall of Famer. Personally, I would vote for Evans but not for Rice. Unfortunately, his best years came later in his career and his genius was largely defensive. Even in the late 70's, Evans was a much more beloved player in Boston (I lived there at the time) than was Rice. I was fortunate enough to miss the denouement to 1979 as it was memorably heart-breaking.

By 1988, I saw three Red Sox games in KC on a vacation (first stop) in 1988. By then Clemens was the star and Evans was still an after-thought.
12:26 PM Dec 18th
 
KaiserD2
Answer to Chuck: My method starts with the Baseball-reference figure for WAA but deletes their position adjustment, and substitutes, when available, Humphries' fielding data for theirs. That's where the differences come from.

DK
12:18 PM Dec 18th
 
Pale Hose
Got it.
12:07 PM Dec 18th
 
DaveFleming

Well...I was asking why I didn't support Palmeiro...not why you or the BBWAA doesn't support Palmeiro. I was trying to understand my personal ambivalence, and consider his candidacy in a fresh way.
11:49 AM Dec 18th
 
Pale Hose
It just seems to me the reason Palmeiro hasn't received more consideration than he has is precisely because of the steroids. To leave that discussion out of an article examining why he has received short shrift because it is an uninteresting issue seems to miss the mark.

Then you compare him to someone who who was a significantly better player and wonder why he doesn't get the same love as that signfificantly better player.

I think the more appropriate analysis for the phenomenom you wanted to discuss was the Rice/Evans comparison.

But thanks for the article. Anytime we can get some Big Hurt love I'm all for it. He was something special when he was young.​
11:37 AM Dec 18th
 
chuck
KaiserD2, what are you using for your wins above average source? I was looking at Thomas on BBR and his top 4 WAA are listed as 6.4 ('adjusting 1994), 5.1, 4.7, and 4.6. Are you using wins above average just on offense?
11:14 AM Dec 18th
 
DavidTodd
Winfield led the 92 Jays to a World Series
10:59 AM Dec 18th
 
KaiserD2
I do not have full data on Rice and Evans, but the baseball-reference data makes clear that neither one of them would rank with Thomas or Palmeiro by my method. It also suggests that they were almost equal in their four best seasons (though that may be a little unfair to Rice for reasons to complicated to go into), but that after that, Evans was much more valuable and was far more valuable over the course of his career.

It is rather interesting that Rice was third in the AL MVP voting in 1975, since there were surely at least 40 more valuable players in the league that year. Baseball-reference shows him at .8 wins above average for that year--my calculation would be a little higher because they penalize him for a position adjustment. It turns out, by the way, that the 1977-8 Red Sox had very average hitting and very superior pitching overall.

Winfield was a very overrated player, without question, and it's no accident that he never led a team to a pennant.

DK
10:41 AM Dec 18th
 
ventboys
Marisfan sighting!!! We miss you on the board....

I wondered how you managed to leave the elephant over in the corner, scratching himself, for an entire article about 1990s players. in a way, the Hurt/Raffy comparison and, to a lesser extent, the Rice/Evans comparison illustrate the importance of winning (or leading the league) to a player's legacy. Finishing in the top ten will make you valuable, but winnin' makes ya famous.
9:27 AM Dec 18th
 
KaiserD2
Just proofread my comment. I meant to say, Thomas obviously belongs in the Hall, based on his superiority to the league and contributions to his team.

DK
8:45 AM Dec 18th
 
KaiserD2
This comment is a short preview of a presentation I hope to give at the next SABR convention, and certainly at some local ones. It's about a new definition of greatness, and the presentation will relate specifically to Generation X, to which Thomas and Palmeiro both belong. And they are ideally suited to make my main point.

In my opinion it is very misleading to try to define greatness based upon lifetime totals, be they HRs, hits, win shares, or WAR. The point of baseball is to win pennants. The players who help win pennants are the ones furthest above league average (or, if you will, replacement, but I prefer average.) My definition of a great season is five wins above average. My definition of a great player is a player who had at least four seasons with five wins above average. That is a tough standard, and a great many Hall of Famers don't make it. But it's my standard.

Now it so happens that in this case, this system confirms Dave Fleming's instincts to a T. Frank Thomas had four seasons of over 5 wins above average, his best being 7.3, 6.3, 6.1, and 5.4. The 7.3 figure is an adjusted figure for 1994--for 1981 and 1994 I have projected everyone out to a full season, allowing for time they missed but not attempting to correct for people who had a first half they were unlikely to duplicate. He had four other seasons with more than 4 wins above average--all this despite being a significant defensive liability. That is an outstanding record and with respect to his performance relative to the league and his value to his team there is no way he obviously belongs in the Hall and he's much better than a lot of recent choices. (And wait just a minute before you start tossing the s-word at me.)

Palmeiro presents a completely different picture. His four best WAA seasons were 6.2, 5.1, 4.4, 4.3, and he never topped 4 WAA again. In other words, he was consistently at least 20% less valuable than Thomas, year after year.

That still makes Palmeiro a very good hitter, but to make my point further I'm going to list one more controversial Gen X player, Sammy Sosa. His four best seasons by WAA were 7.9 5.9, 4.9 (in 1994, adjusted), and 4.8. Meanwhile, within this generation, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Alex Rodriguez have 14, 9 and 6 seasons over 5 WAA. (Bonds, by the way, was already comparable to Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, and others of that ilk by this measurement before the late 1990s.)

My broader point, then, is that we are looking at the steroid issue from the wrong end of the telescope. Rather than ask, who exactly was using steroids, we simply have to adjust for the clear evidence that a very great many people were using them and that hitting 569 home runs in this era (as Palmeiro did) is not remotely comparable to hitting 500 home runs in earlier eras.

So, Dave, in my opinion your instincts were more than correct.

DK
8:30 AM Dec 18th
 
DaveFleming
Well...if you read 100 articles about Rafael Palmeiro this year, 99 of them will talk about steroids. Two-thirds of them will mention steroids in the first paragraph.

Sometimes it's more interesting to just leave out the part that everyone will talk about, and see what else is there.
1:24 AM Dec 18th
 
MarisFan61
All I can say is, Oy. :ha:

All that work -- and nary a word about "the reason" why Palmeiro didn't simply waltz into the HOF, and why he won't get there at least for a very long time.

Dave, it's not necessary to do all that, because it has nothing to do with why Rafael Palmeiro isn't in there. And I'd say further that to someone who thinks it matters about a player's greatness whether he did it "for real" or not, such analysis isn't even very interesting, no more interesting than an intricate analysis of (let's say) a hypothetical basketball player who might average 30 rebounds a game by wearing stilts, or, for that matter, fake b00bs. :-)
All that matters is, are they fake or not, and how do we feel about fake b00bs. There's no reason to spend time analyzing their size.

That said, I see that other people here ARE interested, so what the hey do I know....
12:33 AM Dec 18th
 
Tubbs44
Good article, Dave. I always love to see the underrated and overlooked Hall of Fame worthy career of Dwight Evans get some attention. After Evans got snubbed by the Historical Overview Committee that devises the Expansion Era HOF ballot, I compared Evans to the hitters who did make the Exp Era ballot and saw that he dwarfed them all in rWAR, fWAR, & WARP. Evans' career is actually more comparable to the most recent RF HOFers with whom his career overlapped (Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Tony Gwynn, & Andre Dawson--who spent half his career in CF). Jackson stands out among the rest but Dewey has a higher rWAR & fWAR than Winfield, a higher fWAR & WARP than Gwynn, & a higher rWAR, fWAR, & WARP than Dawson. I'd love to see Bill print his full win/loss shares and the win pcts of Dewey & other so I can compare them using his updated metric.

Palmeiro is a good comp for Dewey if we ignore the steroid issue. When people say they wouldn't vote for Raffy even if he never failed the drug test, I laugh because if you ignore steroids than he certainly belongs in the HOF. However, he did fail the test and while, like Dewey, he may have found his power stroke late, the timing of his power also coincides with having Canseco as a teammate (in addition to playing home games in a hitters park in Texas and the overall increase in power across baseball)
10:24 PM Dec 17th
 
evanecurb
Went back and looked at Aaron's records. OPS+ same in his Atlanta years as in his Milwaukee years, so I didn't remember that part of the story accurately. There were big home-road splits in both cities, though, so I had that part right. Speaking of guys who played well in their late thirties...
7:54 PM Dec 17th
 
evanecurb
In Milwaukee, Spahn was pitching in a pitcher's park, so I'm guessing that Braves Field was a hitter's park? I remember an article Bill wrote in one of the mid 1980s abstracts, where he compared Hank Aaron's years in Milwaukee to his years in Atlanta: the parks hid the fact that he was a much, much better hitter in Milwaukee than he was in Atlanta. The raw numbers show an almost straight line of 35-40 HRs. 90-110 RBI every year, but the home-road splits showed a player who went from being a great hitter to being a very good hitter.
7:43 PM Dec 17th
 
DaveFleming
Weirdly, Spahn's best year might've been his first full year, when he was twenty-seven: 21-10, led the league with a 2.33 ERA and 290 IP. rWAR credits him with 9.5 wins above a replacement-level pitcher, which is a bit better than 1953 (8.9), or 1952 (7.8).

Spahn's Cy Young Award season (1957) rates as...wait for it...the eleventh best season of his career.

He finished in second-place for the CYA three times: those seasons rate as his 12th, 13th, and 17th best seasons.

You can spend a day looking at Spahn's career record and find thousands of little tidbits like this. One of my grandfather's very favorite players.
6:53 PM Dec 17th
 
evanecurb
I believe the best example of a great player who had his best years after age 30 was Warren Spahn. ​
6:40 PM Dec 17th
 
evanecurb
Dave:

Nice research, and the Evans analogy makes sense. As always, you have done your homework. I would add one comment: there was never a season where Palmeiro was the best first baseman in the American League. Look at the number of all star teams he made - 4, and none as a starter, if memory serves. He was playing in the same league with Thomas and McGwire, then later Thome and Mo Vaughn (and probably someone I'm forgetting). So I think this is a big factor.

Another way we remember him is the way he exited the game: Lied to Congress, suspended for failing a drug test, then threw Tejada under the bus.

The reason the BBWAA won't vote him in may well be the same reason he performed better in his late 30s than he did in his late 20s: he was juicing. After he was identified as a steroid user, I remembered the Viagra ad that he did about 15 years ago. Isn't impotence a side effect of 'roids?

Palmeiro was one of my favorite players when he was with the Orioles, and I thought he was the Orioles' best hitter in the mid nineties. But I really didn't like it when he blamed Tejada for his failed drug test. That was shameful and I'm glad he didn't come back after that.

I voted for him in the BJOL HOF vote. I could have easily voted for more than 10 players on this year's ballot.
6:37 PM Dec 17th
 
 
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