The idea that McGwire is a step above Palmeiro certainly isn’t an uncommon one, but I’m far from certain it’s a correct one. McGwire was certainly a fearsome hitter who hit home runs like few other players in baseball history. His career .263/.394/.588 batting line is outstanding, as is the career 157 wRC+. From a purely offensive standpoint, Palmeiro’s .288/.371/.515 slashline and 130 wRC+ are obviously a step behind McGwire, but, while I certainly won’t endorse the “McGwire hit home runs and didn’t do anything else” line of argument you sometimes hear brought out, in some ways Palmeiro was superior at the plate to McGwire. His batting average is obviously better, but that’s trivial to this discussion. McGwire drew a fair amount more free passes than Palmeiro, thanks in no small part to an impressive number of intentional and un-intentional intentional walks he earned at the height of his mashing, but he also struck out in more than his share of at bats, and Palmeiro’s career strike out rate (11.2%) is just a little more than half that of McGwire’s (20.8%).
In other words, while McGwire could put a hurting on a ball like few players in history when he got a hold of one, Palmeiro was markedly better at putting the bat on the ball consistently. And with 1,192 career extra base hits and 569 home runs, Palmeiro wasn’t exactly the second coming of Slappy McNutt out there.
Of course, offense isn’t everything for a player, even for a slugging first baseman, and once you look at aspects of the game other than hitting, Palmeiro clearly stands above McGwire. The most striking difference is in defensive value, where both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs credit Palmeiro with being roughly 70 runs better than McGwire over the course of his career. Palmeiro was also much better at staying healthy than McGwire which, while not necessarily a true skill, is nonetheless a not unimportant aspect of value. A player on the disabled list isn’t helping his team, and McGwire played in at least 150 games only three times after his age 28 season, while Palmeiro played in fewer than 150 games just three times after his first full season at age 23. Those three seasons? 2005, his final season, and 1994 and 1995.
Add it all up, and I’m frankly not surprised that both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs have Palmeiro slightly more valuable for his career in terms of WAR, and the idea that McGwire would be a Hall of Famer without steroids while Palmeiro wouldn’t frankly lacks any sort of objective basis, to me. In fact, the very premise that PEDs are so effective that they can take a non-HOF caliber player and allow him to put up Hall worthy numbers seems completely dubious to me, and to be blunt, such a premise is way outside of the scope of what we know about the effects of steroid usage. At best, the player who was pushed over the threshold would have to have a “natural baseline” of being a borderline Hall-of-Famer to begin with to get such a boost from PED usage.
And also, just to play devil’s advocate, given that one thing we certainly do know about anabolic steroids is that they make you stronger, and considering that, without question, McGwire’s most valuable attribute was his raw power, I think it’s actually much easier to make a case that, absent any PED usage, Palmeiro would likely be the superior player of the two (considering their respective injury histories unchanged, anyway).
To sum it all up, the “this player wouldn’t be Hall-worthy without ‘roids” premise seems superficially fair and nuanced, but getting below the surface it seems far too similar to the old “he just doesn’t feel like a Hall-of-Famer” chestnut to me, and I absolutely despise that standard. And that’s why, though I certainly understand the desire to try to find a nuanced way to view this question, ultimately I don’t think there’s any way to apply such a standard in anything approaching an objective or scientific fashion.
And that’s why, if I had a vote, I’d vote based on performance, full stop, and pay no mind at all to the PED usage question.