Baseball was launched into its own version of existential crisis this week with Rafael Palmeiro’s suspension for violating MLB policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The Baltimore Orioles first baseman reportedly tested positive for stanozolol, a steroid not available over the counter, despite his protests that he had merely taken a contaminated supplement.
What’s going on in the game? Whom should we believe? What do statistics racked up over the past 15 years mean? Palmeiro’s response to us was that he never “intentionally” took steroids, and he expects us to believe that. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but you have to admit the news makes you wonder.
Is Palmeiro still a Hall of Famer? The bigger question is how much steroids help a player’s career. What would Palmeiro’s career have looked like had steroids not been involved? It makes you wonder.
Palmeiro came up through the Chicago Cubs organization after being drafted in the first round out of Mississippi State. He got his first big league cup of coffee in 1986, playing in 22 games. He played another season and a half for the Cubs before being dealt to the Texas Rangers before the 1989 campaign. The story goes that the Cubs felt they could let Palmeiro go because, though he had a good stroke, they didn’t believe he would hit for enough power for a first baseman, something I have heard the Cubs ridiculed for during game broadcasts in recent years. It makes you wonder.
Palmeiro did improve his power numbers some what during his early tenure with Texas. Though he only hit eight homers in his first full year with the club, he went on to hit 26 and 22 homers in 1991 and 1992 respectively, during which time he turned 27 and 28 years old, the age at which players are said to have already hit their prime. He was a quality first baseman, but not a star. As Ruben Sierra, a teammate of Palmeiro’s in Texas said, “When we played together, I saw him as a line-drive hitter with power. I was surprised he got 500 homers, but then again he’s got such a sweet swing. He’s not one of those guys who hits the ball so far all the time. But he hits it just far enough, just over the fence.” If he hit it “just far enough, just over the fence,” how many fly balls could be turned into home runs with a spritz of juice? It makes you wonder.
Jose Canseco was traded from the Oakland A’s to Texas during the 1992 season for Ruben Sierra. He has since alleged he was involved with steroid-taking by Palmeiro, among other teammates. I don’t like Jose Canseco; I think he’s a slimeball. However, Palmeiro’s vault to star status does coincide with Canseco’s arrival. In 1993, Palmeiro’s home run totals shot up to 37, over a 40 percent increase from his previous career high. He continued to log HR totals in the high 30’s and 40’s from there on out. He suddenly discovered a major power stroke at the age of 29. Impossible? Not at all, but it makes you wonder.
Palmeiro is part of an exclusive club—the 500 Home Run Club—so why not look at the rest of the members of that club to see when their power numbers emerged? As a young fan, I took notice of any player hitting 30 homers in a year. So, just for a benchmark, let’s consider how it took the all-time greats to crack that plateau. We’ll leave out players of the steroid generation, whether they are under suspicion or not; these players include Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey Jr.
That leaves 15 players, plus Palmeiro, in the 500 HR club. The following chart lists the age at the end of the season in which they first notched the 30 HR mark, the number of dingers they hit that year, and the number of seasons of regular major league experience it took them to get there (meaning years in which they played in at least half of the regular games).
Palmeiro versus the all-time greats
Without exception, no other player in the “original” 500 HR Club was older than 25 before cracking the 30-homer plane. The average age for that is just short of 23 years old (22.8), and it took an average of just under 2.5 seasons for each to develop this power. By contrast, Palmeiro was 29 and in his seventh full year when he reached that mark. Most members of the club had well exceeded 30 homers in a year by the time they had reached age 27. It appears that a significant power hitting threat is very likely to have developed that power before entering his prime. Rafael Palmeiro was certainly not on the same trajectory as the all-time greats prior to his encounter with Canseco in Texas.
Let’s entertain Canseco’s assertion for a moment and consider that Palmeiro could have taken steroids after Canseco joined the team. Steroids could have helped his career in two ways, by adding to his home run totals in any given season and by adding longevity to his career. Palmeiro was no slouch before the alleged steroid use, but what would his numbers have looked like at the end of his career were his career trajectory to fall in line with that of other all-time greats? The all-time hitters did not have any significantly greater HR seasons after the career bests established by age 27. Some slightly bested their total best by that time—Ted Williams among them—but for the most part their best single-season total at 27 was comparable with their career bests.
Let’s say that Palmeiro could have added a bit more power than he had at 27. We can grant that Palmeiro would have averaged his career high to that point—26 home runs—for the remainder of his career. This is something that Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Robinson, et al could not do, but let’s say Palmeiro could. The next question is how long he could have kept it up. Perhaps he could have lasted until 39, roughly the average age at which the all-time greats retired. If we grant these assumptions —and to be clear, they are assumptions—Palmeiro’s total would have taken him to 371 career homers and retirement after the 2003 season. We could operate under the same assumptions, except allow that he could have averaged 30 HRs a year from age 29 on. This would entail not just beating his career best by age 27 once, but beating it every single year—again something the all-time greats did not do. By that formulation, he would have finished with 415 career home runs. To date, he has 569.
I suspect Palmeiro could have fallen somewhere between 371 and 415 home runs. That’s a career anyone should be proud of, but it would put Palmeiro in a category with his contemporaries Andres Galarraga, Dale Murphy, and Joe Carter. Those guys had very good careers and should be admired as good power hitters, but their names hardly evoke thoughts of the Hall of Fame or comparisons to the all-time great hitters from before the days of steroids. It makes you wonder.