It seemed like Rafael Palmeiro was a lock for the Hall of Fame when he hit his 500th home run in 2003, but he may never get in. (Bob Rosato/SI)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
Mark McGwire's relatively short career and admission of performance-enhancing drug use makes him an easy target for Hall of Fame voters to shun, despite his place on the all-time home run list. In his own way, the same is true for Rafael Palmeiro. Though one of just four players to reach the twin milestones of 3,000 hits and 500 homers — Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray are the others — Palmeiro has become a poster boy for the so-called Steroid Era. Months after his finger-wagging testimony in front of Congress and weeks after he collected his 3,000th hit, it was revealed that he had tested positive for steroid usage.
As Palmeiro had approached that hits milestone, a fair bit of debate sprung up over whether he had indeed put together a Hall of Fame career. Citing a career spent in hitter-friendly venues and a relative lack of recognition in the All-Star, MVP and postseason departments, his critics called him a compiler, a player whose impressive statistical totals outweighed his true impact.
Though his suspension was a mere 10 days — first-offense penalties would increase to 50 games the following season — it appears to have ended such debate, just as it soon ended his career. Upon returning, Palmeiro struggled and was booed so loudly that he didn't even finish out the season. If the BBWAA voters have their way, that transgression will keep him out of Cooperstown; through two go-rounds on the ballot, he has received 11.0 and 12.6 percent of the vote, far less than even McGwire.
|Avg HOF 1B
Born in Havana, Cuba, Palmeiro emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1971, when he was six years old; his father had been an outstanding amateur ballplayer in his own day. Palmeiro grew up in Miami, and played college baseball at Mississippi State University, where Will Clark was his teammate. Both players were chosen in the first round of the 1985 draft -- Clark second overall by the Giants and Palmeiro 22nd by the Cubs. That same round was headed by future Orioles teammate B.J. Surhoff, and it also produced Barry Larkin (fourth, to the Reds) and Barry Bonds (sixth, to the Pirates).
Palmeiro reached the majors in September 1986, just before his 22nd birthday, and arrived for good in mid-1987, hitting .276/.336/.543 with 14 homers in 84 games as a rookie. He earned All-Star honors and finished second in the NL batting title race in 1988, hitting a relatively thin .307/.349/.436 with just eight homers. The Cubs had Leon Durham and then Mark Grace at first base during those days, so Palmeiro played primarily in left field. After the 1988 season, he was dealt to the Rangers in a nine-player trade that also included Jamie Moyer and Mitch Williams. Palmeiro emerged as a minor star in Texas, leading the American League with 191 hits in 1990 and earning All-Star honors for the second time in 1991, when he hit .322/.389/.532 with 203 hits, a league-leading 49 doubles and 26 homers; his 5.6 WAR ranked ninth among AL position players. He set a career high with 37 homers in 1993, hitting .295/.371/.554 and ranking fourth in WAR at 6.5. The Rangers finished above .500 in four of his five years with the team, but they never won more than 86 games or finished higher than second in the seven-team AL West.
Palmeiro parlayed that big season into a five-year, $30.35 million deal with the Orioles, becoming the most expensive of the four free agents signed by new owner Peter Angelos in his quest to build a winner to fit the team's new Camden Yards ballpark. Over the next five years, Palmeiro hit a combined .292/.371/.545 while averaging 36 homers a year despite the 1994-1995 strike. His 39-homer, .289/.381/.546 showing in 1996 helped the Orioles reach the playoffs for the first time since 1983; he homered in three consecutive postseason games, and got on base in all five plate appearances in the infamous Jeffrey Maier game, but hit a lopsided .206/.317/.500 in 41 plate appearances during a run that ended in the ALCS against the Yankees. He fell off somewhat the next year (.254/.329/.485 with 38 homers), but did win a Gold Glove for his play at first base. (TotalZone shows him at 10 runs above average.) While Baltimore made it back to the playoffs again with a star-studded lineup that also included future Hall of Famers Murray, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr., plus Brady Anderson and Harold Baines, they couldn't get to the World Series.
After a strong walk year in which he tallied 5.9 WAR (seventh in the league), 43 homers (sixth, and a career high) and a second Gold Glove, Palmeiro returned to Texas via a five-year, $45 million contract. In the hitter-friendly Ballpark at Arlington, he set career highs in all three slash stats (.324/.420/.630) as well as homers (47) and RBI (148) while helping the Rangers to their third division title in four years. He finished fifth in the MVP balloting, his highest showing ever, and won one of the most dubious Gold Gloves in history in a season where he played just 28 games in the field, spending most of his time DHing.
Palmeiro hit .284/.390/.566 and averaged 43 homers during his five-season stint in Texas; his total of 214 dingers during that span were surpassed only by Sammy Sosa, Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Jim Thome. Between the high-scoring era, the hitter-friendly environment, and his increasing amount of time at DH, his total of 19.2 WAR during that stretch (3.8 per year) ranked 37th-highest among position players — good but not as valuable as his raw numbers would suggest. On May 11, 2003, he hit his 500th homer, off Cleveland's Dave Elder, becoming the 19th player to reach that plateau. He turned 39 at the end of that season, and after entering the free agent market yet again, decided to return to Baltimore to chase 3,000 hits. Whether due to age or environment, his power dissipated; he declined from 38 homers and a .508 slugging percentage in his final year in Texas to 23 and .436 in 2004.
Prior to the 2005 season, Palmeiro was among the former teammates named by Jose Canseco in his tell-all book, Juiced. Canseco claimed that during his 1992-1994 stint with the Rangers, he had not only introduced Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez to steroids, but to have personally injected them as well. Palmeiro denied the assertion via a statement: "At no point in my career have I ever used steroids, let alone any substance banned by Major League Baseball. As I have never had a personal relationship with Canseco, any suggestion that he taught me anything, about steroid use or otherwise, is ludicrous." In March, both Canseco and Palmeiro were among the major leaguers subpoenaed to testify under oath in front of the House of Representatives Government Reform Committee regarding the spread of steroids in baseball. Palmeiro was blunt in his testimony. "I have never used steroids. Period," he said, punctuating his denial by wagging his finger at the panel.
That image was still burned into the collective consciousness when Palmeiro collected his 3,000th hit, a double off Seattle's Joel Pineiro on July 15, 2005. Just over two weeks later, all hell broke loose when MLB announced that he had tested positive for a banned substance, later revealed to be Winstrol. Palmeiro claimed to have not taken the drug intentionally, and received a 10-day ban, the penalty in place at the time for first offenders. A celebration in honor of his milestone hit was canceled, and when he returned from his suspension, he was showered by so many boos that he took to wearing earplugs. That state of affairs didn't last long. After collecting just two hits in 29 plate appearances over a two-week span, he left the team and never played again. Later, it surfaced that he had been sent home by the Orioles after implicating teammate Miguel Tejada as having provided him with an allegedly tainted B12 supplement, both before MLB's Health Policy Advisory Committee and a Congressional perjury investigation. He was not prosecuted any further.
Setting the steroid saga aside for the moment, Palmeiro's dual milestones suggest he belong in Cooperstown. Save for the banned-for-life Pete Rose, every player who reached the 3,000 hit mark prior to Palmeiro is in Cooperstown, with all who did so during the post-1960 expansion era elected on their first ballot appearance. All of the previous members of the 500 home run club save for McGwire were elected to the Hall of Fame as well, though it took four ballots for Harmon Killebrew to gain entry, and five for Eddie Mathews. The knock that Palmeiro racked up his numbers under extremely favorable conditions and was never considered a star doesn't entirely hold up under scrutiny; his total of four All-Star appearances is low for a potential Hall of Famer, but he received MVP votes in no less than 10 seasons, and while he cracked the top 10 in those votes just three times, that still means he was considered among the league's best hitters in half of the seasons he played. He scores 178 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor metric, which measures how likely (not how deserving) a player is to be elected, with 100 rating as "a good possibility" and 130 "a virtual cinch." For what it's worth, Palmeiro didn't derive a great advantage from his home parks, hitting .285/.375/.527 in Chicago, Texas and Baltimore, and .291/.366/.502 elsewhere, a fairly typical split.
That said, while Palmeiro surpasses the career WAR standard among Hall of Fame first baseman by nearly four wins, he's about four wins shy of the peak standard; he ranks 11th in the former category, ahead of 12 of the 18 enshrined first basemen, but just 25th in the latter category, ahead of only seven of the 18. Only five times did he crack the league's top 10 in WAR, and only once did he reach the top five. His overall JAWS ranks 14th among first basemen, with seven Hall of Famers above him; it's just 0.2 below the standard, which might be enough to wave off if the circumstances were different given his achievements.
Alas, they are not. Whereas none of the other PED-implicated players who have reached the ballot in recent years or this one — McGwire, Gonzalez, Ken Caminiti, Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa — have tested positive since baseball began cracking down in 2004, Palmeiro has. As I outlined in my McGwire piece, it took a complete institutional failure to forestall the introduction of punitive measures for PED usage, with roles played not only by individual players but by the commissioner, team owners, the players' union, the media, and even fans who kept showing up in ever-increasing numbers. Thus, I believe it's worth drawing a distinction between infractions that are alleged to have occurred during the game's "Wild West" era, and those for which we have the proof of a positive test. That sets Palmeiro apart from the pack, and makes his exclusion a reasonable place to start when trying to come up with a coherent stance on PED usage as it relates the Hall of Fame.
I honestly don't know if the infraction should be enough to bar him from Cooperstown for life, or simply enough to justify the writers passing him over for a given number of years. Palmeiro wasn't setting the world ablaze during the season in which he tested positive (.266/.339/.447), and we will never know the extent to which he used the drugs during his prime, or whether they had an impact on his production. Did he make a mistake as his career was waning? Was he caught red-handed after years of relying upon the drugs? Was he set up by a teammate? We don't know.
Whatever the case, the voters seem quite disinclined to grant him any benefit of the doubt. Amid the growing crowd of qualified candidates, he may well fall off the ballot with less than five percent of the vote this year. That might ultimately work in his favor; out of sight and out of mind, his candidacy may benefit from a more dispassionate review with further distance from the era. For now, he's on the outside looking in.