12 May 2003

Palmiero Piloting His Path to Cooperstown

Rafael "Emerson, Lake &" Palmeiro hit career home run #500 on Sunday, in a 17-10 beat-down of the woeful Cleveland Indians. There is significant debate about whether or not Palmeiro is really a "Hall of Famer" and I expect that the debate will continue until (or even after) he is, in fact, given a plaque in Cooperstown.

And make no mistake: He will, someday, be presented with a plaque in Cooperstown. No player with 500 homeruns has yet been denied. In fact, only three eligible players with at least 400 homers have been denied so far: Andre Dawson (438), Dave Kingman (442) and Darrell Evans (414). The real question is "Should Raffy's 500 homers get him into the Hall of Fame without paying the price of admission?"

I don't know. I know he's got impressive career numbers: 500 homers, maybe 550-575 by the time he's done. Sixteen-hundred RBI, maybe 2000 RBI, before he retires. Maybe 3000 hits (he has 2666 now)? No question that numbers like that have always been an automatic Ticket to Immortality in the past, but if there's one thing we know always stays the same about the Game of Baseball, it's that it's always evolving.

Twenty-some years ago, there were twelve guys in the 500-Home Run Club. That number could be doubled by the end of this decade, since Fred McGriff, Ken Griffey Jr., Juan Gonzalez, Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas are all potentially within striking distance. And I hear that there's a shortstop in Texas who hits OK too. None of these guys is guaranteed, but there's a distinct chance that there could be quite a few more in this club within the next five years or so. So that makes:

1868-1980 (112 years): 12 guys
1981-2010 (30 years) : 12 guys

What's up with that? Well, offense, especially the home run, is cheaper now. With that said, it should be noted that Palmiero has been much more than just a slugger over the last 15 years. While he's rarely led his leagues in any offensive categories of consequence, he's been a model of consistency and durability, with an adjusted OPS (Onbase Plus Slugging %) better than the league average every year for a decade and a half. With the exception of 1989, when he was only about 4% better than average, he's been between 21% and 60% better than a league average hitter every season since 1987. That's pretty damn impressive.

His career adjusted OPS is 35% better than the league average (thanks, BaseballReference.com), which is better than Hall of Famer outfielders Dave Winfield, Al Kaline, and Carl Yastrzemski, to name a few, and HoF first basemen Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, Orlando Cepeda, George Sisler, and others. That +35% mark is like hitting .290 with 30 doubles, 40 homers and 100 walks in today's game. Except for sixteen years, and he's not even done yet! Plus he's played good defense and even stolen bases successfully, on occasion. Mark McGuire, eat your patellar tendon out.

So, back to our question:

"Should Raffy's 500 homers get him into the Hall of Fame without paying the price of admission?"

No. If he had hit .260 with so-so walk rates, piles of strikeouts, a sharp decline in playing ability and a reputation asa numbskull, the 500 homers might not be enough to make up for all of that. 462 homers definitely isn't, but that's a discussion for another time.

But his other career numbers probably merit the honor now:
500 homers
1600 RBI,
1400 Runs
2600 Hits

His in-season accomplishments, despite the general lack of having led the league much, are also significant:
Eight seasons with at least 95 runs scored
Nine seasons with at least 104 RBI
Six seasons batting .300+
Nine seasons getting on base at a .379 clip or better,
Three Gold Gloves as a firstbaseman (OK, two as a 1B and one as a DH)

In two or three years, when Palmeiro hangs up the spikes for good, and has 550 dingers, 1900 RBI, 1600 runs, maybe 3000 hits, and maybe 1500 walks under his belt, there will be no more debates. But he gets my vote now.

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