Numbers say Palmeiro not worthy of a Hall of Fame vote
Wins Above Replacement suggests Rafael Palmeiro wasn't a Hall of Famer
Voters can only select 10 players each year and others are more deserving
Bert Blyleven, Jeff Bagwell and Mark McGwire all are better candidates
Rafael Palmeiro was always distinct mainly for being completely indistinct. He might have made a terrific spy. He did not fit the role of a great ballplayer.
Before testing positive for steroids in 2005, months after denying that he had ever taken them while giving testimony to Congress, Palmeiro was probably best known for inspiring lurid urban legends, shilling Viagra in television advertisements and winning a Gold Glove award in a season where he played in the field just 28 times.
Through a long career during which he became just the fourth man ever to amass both 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, Palmeiro never did anything memorable on the field. He never drove in a run or made a diving stop or a smart play on the bases that defined a a pennant run; he was never a serious contender for the Most Valuable Player award, or the best player on a playoff team. I suspect he was the favorite player of fewer fans than any other 500 home run man.
Because Palmeiro contributed so little to the game that can't be found in his statistics, they should be judged very carefully by Hall of Fame voters, even those who don't really care that he violated baseball's drug policy. They're fantastic statistics, and it would be silly to claim that a man who ranks among the top 20 all-time in games played, doubles, home runs and runs batted in, among other important categories, doesn't have the numbers for Cooperstown.
Claiming that they aren't enough to qualify him as one of the 10 best players on the ballot even in a strictly statistical sense, though, is a different thing entirely. And this is the relevant issue, as electors are only allowed to vote for 10 players and no one is going to vote for him for any reason other than his statistics.
The basic problem here is that without context, statistics are just numbers on a page. Tom Glavine won nearly twice as many games as Sandy Koufax, but only a dunce would claim he was nearly twice as good, and few (none?) would claim he was better at all. Knowing that Palmeiro had a lot of home runs and RBIs doesn't tell us anything about his position, or if he handled it well, or how he ran the bases, or the parks and environments in which he played, or lots of other stuff.
One way to get around this is to use a measure like Wins Above Replacement, which adjusts for context and sums up a player's value at the plate, in the field and on the bases in one number. (Two is an average year, five is a typical All-Star campaign, and at his best a player like Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez will break double digits.) Doing so seems to support Palmeiro's case. His 66 WAR put him in seventh place on this year's ballot, and of the 86 eligible players with more career WAR, 77 have brass plaques hanging on a wall in upstate New York.
This misses the point. The real objection to Palmeiro -- at least the one not having to do with Congress, failed drug tests or unfortunate commercials -- is that he was never great, but was rather a very good hitter who played forever in an era when it was uniquely easy to pile up gaudy numbers. Noting his high career WAR total doesn't answer this charge, and tells us nothing we didn't already know.
Just as you don't have to judge a player's statistical record by his hits total, though, you also don't have to judge it by his total WAR (or win shares, or whatever you like).
To return to a previous example, Tom Glavine has 67 WAR to Sandy Koufax's 54.5, largely because he had a lot of solid years where he threw 200 innings with an ERA around 4.00, seasons in which he ran up around three WAR. Those were good years, and had real value to his teams, but they just aren't relevant to the question of who was the greater pitcher, in the sense that we (by which I mean I) mean it when discussing the Hall of Fame.
If you only count the years where the two bettered four WAR, though -- the years in which they were playing at what we (by which I mean I) consider a Hall of Fame level -- the numbers change and Koufax takes the lead, 47.6 to 32.8. This is clearly a better representation of their relative greatness.
This is, of course, an arbitrary standard. Some people really value solidly-above-average but not necessarily excellent years, and they would set the bar lower. Some people only value truly great performance and would set it higher. None are right, none wrong. There is an advantage to discounting lesser years, though, which is that real greatness -- the kind the Hall of Fame is meant to honor -- comes through.
Take the following read on the 2011 ballot, rating players only by what they did in years in which they had four or more WAR. This isn't a listing of the candidates in order of strength -- more goes into that than statistics, and more goes into an analysis of the statistics than fiddling with WAR totals. It is, though, clarifying. (To put the numbers in context, consider that Rickey Henderson, who was elected in 2009, would score at 97.8, Tony Gwynn, Hall Class of 2007, at 40.5 and Jim Rice, Class of '09, at 28.)
1. Bert Blyleven: 77.1
I am not a member of the Bert Blyleven Appreciation Society, and would flee if I saw the actual members were holding a meeting in my neighborhood, but the man is hugely overqualified by any measure. Think of it this way: If you added 2,672 2/3 innings of 3.31 ERA to Roy Halladay's career line, you'd have Blyleven's.
2. Jeff Bagwell: 70.4
Bagwell was a truly great player, the best first baseman to play between Lou Gehrig's retirement and Albert Pujols' debut. He hit for average and power, drew lots of walks, was excellent in the field and better on the bases, played every day and led a fine team. I have no idea why anyone would not vote for him.
3. Edgar Martinez: 58.1
I was surprised to see Martinez rate this well, but the fact is that while he got started late, he did not have an especially short career, and he was a remarkable hitter, behind only Frank Thomas in the American League for a decade. Even if you knock an additional half-win off his annual totals because you think the WAR system doesn't penalize him enough for being a designated hitter, he still rates third here.
4. Alan Trammell: 52.9
The difference between Trammell and Derek Jeter is far smaller than most people think. Jeter has been a lot more consistent at the plate, but Trammell was much better and more consistent in the field, and was a key player on some very good teams. Imagine Jeter struggling to get votes on 20 percent of the ballots while Andy Pettitte is clearing 50 percent with the support of a large, loud crew of supporters and you have some idea of how absurd it is that Jack Morris is the member of the 1980s Detroit Tigers most likely to eventually make the Hall.
5. Mark McGwire: 52
Leaving everything else aside, McGwire was, and is, an overrated ballplayer. By the time he had his best hitting years, he was giving up a lot of value in the field and on the bases. One can be overrated and still great, and he was, but he was far closer to someone like Will Clark than to a machine like Bagwell.