Nothing has caused more problems for the Hall of Fame than the specter of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. It creates a legalistic, moral, and problematic statistical argument all at the same time. So, navigating through these requires that we do some compartmentalizing. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro have both reentered the news in the past year for ludicrous reasons. Palmeiro made some noise about returning to the game nearly 15 years after he left. McGwire commented that he thought he could hit 70 home runs without the help of steroids.
Both developments were likely motivated by the desire to reboot their Hall of Fame chances. In Palmeiro’s case, the clock would start over and he could potentially enter the ballot fresh at a time when voters were more sympathetic. McGwire’s comments were more transparent and pathetic in a way. All that being said, that likely muddies the water. If we follow that down the rabbit hole we will come away more confused. The case for confirmed users is three-fold. First, you consider their numbers on their own without adjustment as if they were normal. Secondly, you consider the historical account of their use and try to find a reasonable adjustment based on those facts. Finally, you consider the moral implications.
The Raw Numbers
The beauty of the index is that it allows us to distill out the noise and focus on the facts. Granted, the addition of use creates quagmires because many of the statistical arguments are colored by our feelings about the use. This is particularly true of McGwire. His detractors often look at batting average, a low hits total, and few contributions outside of the batter’s box. This is true but is largely irrelevant when looking at the overall value. Overall value according to the index considers all of those factors.
So, an argument against him based on a lack of speed, defensive value, or ability to hit to all fields or in small ball situations is just a mask for the disdain of the cheating. He wouldn’t be the first guy in the Hall of Fame to have significant weaknesses in his game. He wouldn’t be the last one either.
Palmeiro was more well-rounded, so his problem is that the perception of the drug use clouds more of his career as a whole. This has little to do with the facts of use and more to do with the nature of his numbers. Palmeiro never had a signature season, so his signature was his consistency. Even without the drugs, a vote for Palmeiro would be a vote for 3000 hits and 500 home runs and not necessarily any specified greatness.
Joe Morgan released a letter on behalf of the living Hall of Famers in opposition of any known user getting into the Hall of Fame. I suppose we shouldn’t be shocked by his black and white views on the subject and we should give him some benefit of the doubt. After all, he was representing not only himself, but those that feel they have a stake in the debate. However, while my views have changed some over the years, they have always been pragmatic in nature and it is why I use this approach.
A player that is a borderline Hall of Famer can easily be dismissed if he has the stain of PEDs, but someone that is clearly superior cannot be dismissed so easily and really shouldn’t be. So, were Palmeiro and McGwire clearly superior? We won’t know for sure until we look at the peak value, but based on the numbers above we have to say they appear to be pretty solid Hall of Famers based on the numbers alone.
Before we consider drugs we must look at the numbers because there are interesting things going on here. The index changed some from the book version. The book called on us to find the ten best seasons in their career where here we are looking at the best consecutive ten seasons. That seems like a battle of semantics, but it had an impact on McGwire because of his frequent injuries. He lost a couple of productive seasons with this model. That might seem unfair, but it probably correctly categorizes his career. Attendance matters and these numbers reflect his problems with staying healthy.
As for Palmeiro, his numbers reflect a tremendous consistency and durability, but also demonstrates a noticeable lack of greatness. The win shares deficit can be explained through methodology. WAR is based on runs while win shares are based on wins. The Rangers and Orioles were decent clubs, but they never had the success of the Athletics or Cardinals during McGwire’s career. Is it fair to penalize Palmeiro for the shortcomings of his teammates? That’s certainly one way to look at it. Another would be to simply demonstrate that he was never good enough to carry a team to anything.
The Historical Account
McGwire and Palmeiro are clearly Hall of Famers according to the basic numbers, but the next question comes in how much the drug use helped them. This is a two-fold discussion. The first asks us to determine when use started. This can be difficult when the players and witnesses aren’t being particularly helpful. It often involves looking at their numbers and offering our best guess.
Palmeiro famously wagged his finger at Congress and said he had never ever used steroids. He tested positive later that same season. He still has never admitted to long-term use, but the numbers would seem to say otherwise. The Cubs traded Palmeiro because they also had Mark Grace. They felt Grace would develop more power. The two were similar players when Palmeiro left and the two brought similar skills the table when you remove power. So, a simple look at Grace’s career value would give us some clue.
Grace was a heck of a player. He brought good defensive value to the table and was a productive hitter for more than a decade. However, his numbers don’t quite add up and that would have likely been the same fate for Palmeiro. Palmeiro had enough of a defensive reputation to win a Gold Glove at first when he played more than 100 games that year at DH. Still, it is pretty clear he wouldn’t have been Hall of Fame worthy without the power.
McGwire’s case is a lot murkier. His recent comments were obviously aimed at making the case that much more debatable. If we assume that he began his heavy use in the 1990s then we have enough seasons before that to demonstrate that he did have the potential to hit 40 plus home runs without the drugs. In his case, the drugs served two purposes. Yes, they made him stronger, but they also helped him stay healthy. The best evidence of that comes when he broke down so quickly following the use.
Anyone that watched him during that 1998 season had to know something wasn’t kosher. In batting practice he would hit home runs to parts of the ballpark no one could touch in a million years. So, he could claim that he would have hit 70 home runs without the PEDs, but that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given what we saw.
The Moral Argument
I have a few major problems with the Joe Morgan (I realize it is more than him) view of PEDs. The most obvious problem is the obvious hypocrisy from at least a few of those players. Players from Morgan’s era popped “greenies” like they were candy. So, hearing from at least some of those folks is like the guy smoking a pack of cigarettes looking down on the drinker. Granted, I’m not going to pretend to know who in that group partook of the greenies, but the point is that it is highly unlikely that none of them did.
Then, you get the idea that one could go into a GNC or other major supplement store and buy many of these substances. They can also buy legal supplements that have many of the same effects (although in different proportion). Add in the surgical advancements of the age (Tommy John surgery) and it is hard to look at the modern game in the same light as past.
All of this is to say that we have to take each player on an individual basis. Why did they begin using? When did they begin using? What exactly did they use? Some players wanted to recover from injury. Yes, that absolutely affects their numbers (thus the need for the second part of the test) but they didn’t necessarily turn in Paul Bunyun. In other cases they may have been attempting to prolong an already Hall of Fame caliber career.
All of this is to say that I think the drug use excludes McGwire and Palmeiro, but it doesn’t do it for moral reasons. We simply cannot say that they would have been worthy without the use. However, other players we will cover along our journey could have a different result. Specifically to these two, their use started early in their career and was designed to boost performance in addition to health.