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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Can Rafael Palmeiro's Hall of Fame Case Make a Comeback?

Former first baseman Rafael Palmeiro recently re-entered the news hemisphere again by indicating he is think about making a comeback at the age of 53 . That seems like quite the long shot, much like his chances to get in the Hall of Fame after he fell off the ballot in 2014 due to anemic support. However, his case for inclusion in Cooperstown is quite compelling and should not be dismissed as quickly as some may reject the notion that he may return to a major league stadium near you in the near future.

Palmeiro forged a 20-year career for three teams as a left-handed first baseman. He hit a combined .288 with 3,020 hits, 585 doubles, 569 home run and 1,835 RBIs. That's quite an impressive resume, yet he never received more than 12.6 percent of the votes during his four years on the Hall of Fame ballot. Although not exclusively the reason, a lot of it had to do with one wag of the finger. Months after emphatically testifying before Congress that he had never used performance enhancing drugs, he tested positive, served a 10 day suspension, went 2 for 26 in seven games upon his return and never played again.

Although the finger wag seemingly cemented Palmeiro’s status as a baseball outsider, he has faced criticism in the past and present that has the commonality of diminishing his accomplishments (PED use aside). Frequently mentioned are his lack of major awards and All Star games (4 appearances and no MVPs); never leading the league in a Triple Crown category; lack of playoff success (no World Series appearances); and having won a Gold Glove in 1999 despite playing just 28 games in the field that year. However, there are relatively mundane explanations for all of these.

Palmeiro did not get as much recognition in All Star or MVP votes because he played in an era of offensive explosion and was more consistently very good (evidenced by his 162 game averages of 33 home runs and 105 RBIs). He was also in a Golden Age for first basemen. For instance, he hit .310 with 39 home runs in 1995 but was 11th in MVP voting and did not make the mid-summer classic. However, the American League was typically flush with stand-out first sackers, including Mo Vaughn (MVP winner), Mark McGwire, Don Mattingly, John Olerud, Frank Thomas, Tino Martinez and Will Clark just to name a few in 1995 alone.

Granted, his Gold Glove win for a literal handful of games seems ridiculous in hindsight, yet that was a reputation-based award that is still a frequent occurrence. He had won the award the previous two seasons with what advanced numbers suggest was above average defense. He may not have been as deserving in 1999 but that certainly shouldn't be held against him. He declined in the field as he got older but was an overall competent fielder. Cherry picking at least one advanced stat, he was a total of 51 total zone fielding runs above average for his career, which is significantly higher than noted defender Mattingly and his 33.

There is so much evidence that screams for Palmeiro’s induction. He would be the only eligible player with at least 3,000 hits not inducted. He is one of just five players with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray and Alex Rodriguez are the others). He also ranks highly on a bevy of all time lists, including:

bWAR for position players- 71.6 (59th)

Games played- 2,831 (18th)

Runs Scored- 1,633 (33rd)

Hits- 3020 (28th)

Total Bases- 5,388 (12th)

Doubles – 585 (20th)

Home runs- 569 (13th)

RBIs- 1,835 (17th)

Walks- 1,353 (33rd)

Runs created- 2,040 (19th)

Extra base hits- 1,192 (8th)

Double plays turned as a 1B- 1,782 (4th)

Assists as a 1B- 1,587 (6th)

Putouts as a 1B- 17,738 (24th)

Another remarkable aspect of Palmeiro’s game was how consistent he was. Besides a 22-game call-up as a rookie in 1986 with the Chicago Cubs, he posted numbers that ranged from slightly above average to elite for the next 19 years. He walked more than he struck out, had no severe platoon splits and could do at least a little bit of everything during his career.

Simply put, as far as numbers go, Palmeiro should be a Hall of Famer with little equivocation. The PEDs are obviously a major hurdle but with voters seeming to ease up a bit recently in their judgement of players with such belmishes, it is likely that major players who were caught up in that scandal but otherwise deserving will find their way into the Hall. The “morals clause” is often cited where discussing the merits of Hall candidates, yet we know that their current ranks include cheaters, racists, PED users and worse. That is not to excuse him but to reinforce keeping him out on this basis is a double standard.

It will be extremely interesting to see if Palmeiro is given a chance in the future. Often overlooked as a player, that has only increased in retirement (assuming he does not make a successful comeback). When reviewing his production, it’s obvious that his greatness snuck up on us. Just because we have to open our eyes a little wider to realize this doesn’t mean his legacy should suffer for it.

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