Why I discount PED use in HOF evaluation

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.

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

About Brien Jackson

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

21 thoughts on “Why I discount PED use in HOF evaluation

  1. Agreed. I've thought from the start that there is no way to go back and parse PED use – and if we try, shouldn't we then root out the players who used coke, greenies, doctored baseballs, corked bats, etc.?

    The approach you lay out is the only sane one.

  2. The problem that I have with Palmeiro is the picture of him shaking his finger at Congress, and not too long after thatgetting caught with steroids in his system.

    As to HOF, I feel that WAR is as good a point to start as any, and my personal baseline is 50 WAR total career, I'll think about it, and 75 WAR for his career should be a slam dunk first ballot HOF.

  3. I agree that trying to guess what a player's number would be without PED's is a horrible way to do this. It is also unsatisfying to simply look at their numbers due to the decent chance that the PED's allowed some of these players to accumulate many more PA's in their career then they otherwise would have had. However, there is no way you can accurately perform the "discount" that Calcaterra (and others like Heyman) use as their measuring stick. So I say you have to just go by the numbers. It's still the closest guess we have to their true ability.

    The ballot is going to be a giant mess very soon if some of these guys aren't voted in. It will be even harder for guys like Raines and Edgar and Bagwell to gain votes when the huge names come on the ballot and some of the writers will not have enough room on their 10-man ballot to include Raines and Bagwell and Edgar along with Clemens, Bonds, Maddux, etc. Even if the PED guys only get 40% of the vote, that will still result in some deserving guys getting pushed off enough 10-man ballots to make a difference. In other words, not voting for the PED guys will not only keep them out of the HOF, but by allowing them to linger on the ballot and soak up 40% of the vote every year, it will hurt the chances of other guys like Raines, Edgar, Mussina, Schilling, Smoltz, etc as well.

  4. I agree with you completely, Brian, that PEDs should be ignored altogether, as there is no reliable way to account for their effect. But one other thing that troubles me here is this notion that there is a known list of players – Bonds, Palmeiro, Clemens, Giambi, A-Rod – who are "PED guys," while everyone else is not. But how do we know? Certain guys were named in the Mitchell report. There's the list of 177 that no one has ever seen. There are guys like A-Rod who had the misfortune of being the target of a sportswriter with an obvious ax to grind. And there are also guys that everyone suspects but were not named or ever "outed" in some other way (e.g., I-Rod, whose head and body seemed to baloon and then deflate).

  5. (continued from above) Look, I love Bagwell and Edgar, but how do we know they were clean? I think everyone who played in the era and had any semblence of a muscular physique is under a cloud of suspicion, which is sad. But that also means that when it comes to HOF consideration, the PED "effect" — if any — has to be ignored for both those who are "known" PED users and those who we just can't know about. Which means pretty much everybody. If a writer wants to keep Clemens and Bonds out of the HOF — or Palmiero for that matter — do it because they committed perjury, which is a crime — not because of the fact that they took steroids.

  6. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought taking steroids was a crime. It just wasn't a crime that mattered because it wasn't explicitly against the rules of MLB. Plaxico Burress didn't break the rules, he was just an idiot, and if you want a baseball reference, the names Lenny Dykstra and Doc Gooden com immediately to mind. Ty Cobb may have committed murder, right? Do crimes actually keep people out of the hall or perhaps just limit their ability to perform because of physical damage (drug use), or jail terms. This subject is too shifty to squarely hit with the moral sledge and quite frankly I come down on the side of measuring the players of the PED era against each other in a league relative context (I'm pretty sure that's already been done) and maybe culling based on historical data suggesting the number of HOF players that an era is capable of producing. It doesn't make sense to put them all in if that means a significant abberation in, let's say, HOF'ers per decade, but PED use is such a marginal boost that it only makes sense that the best get in. I hope everyone gets over this soon. I mean, there's compelling evidence that Ruth used a corked bat. Kenny Rogers cheated in a playoff game on national TV in '06. WTF?

  7. While I appreciate your point of view, it is no more objective and scientific than the one you criticize. Since you can't tell who used steroids, you are going to ignore the fact that some players cheated, and essentially pretend that it is right to put heavy users on the same level as those who never touched the juice. I hate to break it to you, but as much as I support the use of advanced stats in baseball, HoF worthiness is a qualitative and subjective judgement. Lie to yourself if you must, but your method is no better than any other.

  8. It seems to me that what steroids enabled hitters to do was hit for both average and power. Prior to the steroids era, very few players could do both. I have read that steroid use could improve eyesight and reflexes. Thus, players were not only stronger, but could see better and react quicker to pitches.

    When we look at Palmeiro as a young player with the Cubs, he had no power, but was an accomplished hitter. He even lead the NL in singles one year. The Cubs traded him because they did not think that he would develop power and Mark Grace was ahead of him. So, it is plausible that Palmeiro had a potential 3000 hits type bat, but the real question is whether or not he would have received the playing time necessary to reach that number without the power he gained from using steroids.

  9. I don't think steroids should be a factor in HOF voting in any case. It's the "Hall of Fame" not "Hall of Morals" Cheating is defined as: "Act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, esp. in a game or examination" Like someone else pointed out, other current HOFers had been caught cheating and were still enshrined, whether it was corked bats or loading the baseballs. Wherever there is any sort of competition in life there will always be people looking to beat the system. After steroids there may be other "upgrades" that can be done to the human body (pills like in the movie "Limitless" or chips implanted in the brain that turn the body into a 100% efficient machine, etc) My point is that cheating is a part of life and will never be 100% eliminated. If you are going to allow some cheaters into the HOF then it is not fair to draw the line at a specific form of cheating, like steroids use.

    Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, etc were all good for baseball, they put people in the seats and made games interesting. Sure they manipulated the "purity" or "morality" of the game but then again the game is not the same as it was when it was first invented, there have been variables added to give/take away advantages to certain players (higher mound, different strike zones, etc) and now we have a few extra playoff teams. All I'm saying is that a juiced Barry Bonds made the game much more entertaining with his mammoth home runs that the Barry Bonds in his Pittsburgh days when he was a 5-tool player (and for the record I definitely believe that Bonds would have made the hall regardless of his steroid use, maybe not break the home run record but his talent was undeniable)