Hall of Fame: Cubs Style Part III – Longballs and Juice

In the third installment of the Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame series, we take a look at two players who amassed impressive statistics over the course of their careers. By historical standards, these two players posted numbers that merit first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame. While one player smashed over 500 home runs and collected more than 3,000 hits, the other candidate swatted over 600 home runs and won the 1998 National League’s Most Valuable Player (“MVP”) award. However, neither player should begin drafting his acceptance speech, as they will not garner enough votes for Hall induction this year. Off-field considerations, namely speculation about possible steroid usage, have dogged both players for the past several years. In fact, one of these players runs the risk of receiving so few votes that he loses Hall of Fame eligibility. Herein lie their stories.

Side note: Over the next few years, Major League Baseball and the BBWAA will continue to face a conundrum about how to analyze player achievement marred by steroid accusations. Many players suspected of steroid use never formally failed drug tests or, we are told, failed anonymous drugs tests. Others were caught using performance-enhancing drugs and suffered the correlative public recrimination. Even more confounding is the reality that anabolic steroids and amphetamines were used by some baseball players far before the home run explosion of the late 1990s.

Some baseball writers take the broad view that all players from the “steroid era” must be viewed as suspect. This simplistic approach forfeits reason and critical thought by arbitrarily condemning all the players from one specific era. Others address player performance absent any consideration as to whatever chemical enhancement may have contributed to the bottom line. The frustrating aspect for those who want to properly discount steroid-enhanced performance, while crediting players for their deserved achievements, comes in differentiating between the two. The majority of BBWAA members seem resigned to wading through suspected steroid-using players on an individual basis and drawing variable conclusions.

Take, for example, the case of Barry Bonds. Early in his career, Bonds played solid center field defense while stealing over 200 bases. As Bonds reached his late 20s and entered his early 30s, his power numbers increased and he won three MVP awards. Unlike any other player in history, however, Bonds’s performance unexpectedly and dramatically improved at the age of 35. From age 35-39, Bonds hit an incredible 258 home runs while also drawing an astronomical 872 walks. Separating Bonds’s “legitimately” earned statistics from his possible performance-enhanced output proves nearly impossible. One can analyze Bonds’s high level of performance prior to his suspected steroid use and extrapolate future performance. However, this approach fails for two reasons: 1) there is no confirmable point at which we know for certainty that Bonds began using steroids; and 2) we have no way to truly measure the degree to which steroid use contributed to Bonds’s later career statistics. Clearly, Bonds’s career arc that produced four MVP-level performances in his late 30s and almost 60 home runs in his 40s has no historical peer. Parsing through those numbers to obtain a baseline for what Bonds’s “clean statistics” might have been is merely an exercise in imagination. The Bonds case, similar to other suspected steroid users, creates a dilemma for BBWAA members for which there is no clear answer.

Rafael Palmeiro

Palmeiro The statistical case for Rafael Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame candidacy is an easy one to make. In 20 major league seasons, Palmeiro recorded 3,020 hits, 569 home runs, and 1,835 runs batted in. On the all-time major league list, these gaudy numbers rank 25th, 12th, and 16th respectively (matched only by Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray). Over the course of his eleven-year peak, Palmeiro finished in the top 20 in MVP voting 10 times. In addition to his hitting prowess, Palmeiro won three Gold Gloves at first base. Palmeiro’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) totaled 71.8. To place Palmeiro’s numbers in perspective, Baseball Reference identified his closest comparator as none other than Frank Robinson (and similar to Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, and Mel Ott). At face value, these impressive numbers clearly merit election to the Hall of Fame. Yet, due to concerns about steroid use, Palmeiro’s first three years on the Hall of Fame ballot resulted in a rather pedestrian 11%, 12%, and 8% of the vote. If he falls below 5% of the vote this year, he will be ineligible for future ballots.

Palmeiro’s Cubs career predated the suspicions of steroid use that have held back his Hall of Fame election. In 1988, at the age of 23, Palmeiro broke through with the Cubs and earned his first All-Star Game appearance as a left fielder. Palmeiro hit .308 that season with 41 doubles, but only eight home runs. After the season, the Cubs traded Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers in a nine-player trade that netted the Cubs’ future closer Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams. While the Cubs won the 1989 National League Eastern Division, the Rangers received a perennial MVP candidate. At the time of the trade, the Cubs banked on the hope that Mark Grace would out-produce Palmeiro in the long term. Like Grace, Palmeiro projected to be a high average hitter with little power. Since both players were best suited to play first base, the Cubs jettisoned Palmeiro.

A quick look at Palmeiro’s career arc does nothing to diminish the speculation that he utilized performance-enhancing drugs to achieve his prodigious career statistics. After four strong, but not spectacular, seasons with the Rangers, Palmeiro’s power numbers exploded from age 28-38. During that eleven-year period, he averaged almost 39 home runs and 115 runs batted in per season. In fact, apart from the strike-shortened 1994 season, Palmeiro hit at least 37 home runs and drove in at least 104 runs in each of those seasons. In retrospect, the later career peaks of Palmeiro and others of his generation fall outside of historical norms and now appear like glaring anomalies.

Jose Canseco, baseball’s unofficially-excommunicated bogeyman, claimed in his 2005 book that he personally injected Palmeiro with steroids. Later that year, Palmeiro testified at a Congressional hearing that he had never used steroids. Less than five months after his unequivocal testimony, Palmeiro received a ten-day suspension from Major League Baseball for testing positive for steroids. Although Palmeiro was never charged with perjury for lying to a Congressional committee, and he still professes his innocence to this day, the positive steroid test result cast a devastating shadow over his on-field achievements. It now appears that the television sound bite of Palmeiro professing his innocence, in the face of his subsequent suspension for steroid use, proved damaging, if not fatal, to his Hall of Fame election.

Projected percentage of Hall of Fame vote: 7%.

Sammy Sosa

Sosa

Unlike the other players covered in this series, Sammy Sosa is most recognized for his time spent as a Chicago Cub. Sosa’s career numbers (including 545 of his home runs) and individual season achievements are almost all attributable to his Cub playing days. Beginning in 1998, Sosa emerged as an icon in Major League Baseball as he battled Mark McGwire for the all-time single-season home run record. Over the course of his 18-year career, Sosa hit 609 home runs and drove in 1,667 runs – good for 8th and 27th all-time. During his peak, Sosa finished in the top ten in league MVP voting six straight times and he won the 1998 award. In those six seasons, Sosa swatted 66, 63, 50, 64, 49, and 40 home runs respectively. Sosa led the league in runs batted in twice with 158 and 160, in home runs twice, and in total bases three other seasons. While Sosa’s career WAR of 58.4 places him only 191st all-time (behind Palmeiro among others), Baseball Reference compares his career most closely with that of Jim Thome (and likewise similar to Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Eddie Mathews, Mickey Mantle, Willie Stargell, and Willie McCovey). Like Palmeiro, Sosa’s on-field achievements certainly merit Hall of Fame recognition.

On his first attempt at Hall of Fame entrance, Sosa received only 12.5% of the vote. Sosa’s Hall of Fame chances, as in the case of Palmeiro, have suffered due to suspicions of steroid use. Keep in mind, at the same 2005 Congressional hearing where Palmeiro testified he had never used steroids, Sosa’s attorney made similar definitive denials on Sosa’s behalf. Unlike Palmeiro, however, Sosa was never suspended for a positive steroid test. Sosa’s reputation took a blow, though, when the New York Times reported in 2009 that he was one of 104 players who tested positive for using a performing-enhancement drug in 2003. Major League Baseball cannot confirm these test results as the league and player’s union agreed the test results from that season would remain anonymous. Nevertheless, the New York Times report likely damaged Sosa’s Hall chances considerably. Whether or not one accepts the validity of news reports that Sosa tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, the general consensus among baseball writers appears to be that he did at some point do so. Sosa’s denials have failed to carry the day and his quest for Hall of Fame election appears improbable.

Projected percentage of Hall of Fame vote: 14.8%.

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