Egg, Meet Face

Monday morning brought shocking news that Rafael Palmeiro, who recently celebrated his 3,000th hit, became the first high-profile player to test positive for a banned substance under Major League Baseball’s new testing policy. As such, he’s been suspended for 10 days as a first offender, just like the six relative no-name major leaguers who flunked their whiz quizzes earlier this year. But the cost for Palmeiro is likely to be much, much greater.

Implicated by Jose Canseco’s book and called upon to testify before Congress, Palmeiro has always vehemently denied using steroids. Accompanied with a finger-wag, his opening statement at the March 18 hearings began, “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids. Period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.” In his carefully worded comments on Monday, his story had shifted:

“When I testified in front of Congress, I know that I was testifying under oath and I told the truth,” he said during a telephone conference call Monday. “Today I am telling the truth again that I did not do this intentionally or knowingly.”

In the distance from “never” to “not knowingly,” Palmeiro implied that the banned substance he’d been nailed for had come from an over-the-counter supplement, but his denial rang hollow. Salon’s King Kaufman, for one, wasn’t buying:

Even if Palmeiro’s denial is legitimate and he got caught unknowingly using a banned substance in some over-the-counter supplement, you have to either admire the nerve or wonder at the chuckleheadedness of a guy who would wag his finger at Congress, knowing he’d be tested at some point, and then not double-, triple- and quadruple-check the ingredients in anything he put in his body.

The revelation of Palmeiro’s guilt also brings to mind a quote of his that becomes much more telling in hindsight: “In my opinion, everyone that plays baseball in this era has been tainted… Not just the people that he has named in the book, I think this whole era over the last 10, 15 or 20 years has been tainted. Regardless of whether you did or you didn’t do anything, this whole era will have that label.” When Palmeiro said that, he had to know he was talking about himself, whether or not he could have foreseen being caught. Rereading those words four months later, there’s a sadness and resignation there, rather than the hubris of one who believes he can beat the system.

Within Baseball Prospectus, the Palmeiro news set off a five-alarm fire for Will Carroll, who’d already spent the weekend working overtime to update a wonderfully entertaining clearinghouse for trade deadline rumors called “Will’s Mill.” Carroll assembled a quick FAQ for a special version of his regular “Under the Knife” column, and since I’d just gone on Baseball Prospectus Radio to analyze Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame case in the wake of his 3,000th hit, he called upon me to field that question.

What does this do to his Hall of Fame chances?

It gives voters skeptical about his credentials an easy excuse not to vote for him. Palmeiro’s already a target for a number of reasons. He’s never led the league in any major category nor won an MVP or a championship. He’s played his entire career in hitter’s parks (Wrigley Field, Arlington Stadium, the Ballpark at Arlington, and Camden Yards) that have certainly inflated his numbers. He’s a shining example of a player whose consistency obscures his peak value. And now he’s got a steroid rap.

Even with the inflated totals, Palmeiro measures up well against Hall of Famers once his stats are normalized; using the Jaffe WARP Score system (a.k.a. JAWS), he would rank fourth among Hall first basemen, behind only Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Eddie Murray. Among active and recently retired hitters, only Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken, and Rickey Henderson rank ahead of him. Those are rock-solid credentials. The only two players with similar or better JAWS scores who aren’t in the Hall are Pete Rose, who’s ineligible, and Bert Blyleven, who’s been jobbed for having a resume similarly favoring consistency over peak (at least in perception).

Palmeiro has almost certainly put himself in the unenviable position of being the first bona fide Hall candidate with a positive test on his resume. He’ll likely be made an example of, at least in the early voting. He might have an easier time once the voters admit players linked to the steroids scandal but without so much (or any) hard evidence in their dossiers, such as Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa. But his wait for Cooperstown just got several years longer.

If some of that sounds familiar, it’s because I cribbed it from my recent blog entry on Palmeiro. I did err on one point in my answer: Arlington Stadium, where Palmeiro played from 1989 through 1993, was something of a pitchers’ park; in those five years, the Park Factor for runs (according to Baseball-Reference‘s numbers), averages out to 98.4, meaning it depressed scoring slightly. D’oh!

One way or another, I’m saddened but not entirely surprised at the whole mess, and I’ve been trying to gauge my own emotional reaction to Monday’s news, given my recent high-profile support for Palmeiro. I don’t regret having supported his candidacy, because I’ve been adamant about due process and the presumption of innocence when it comes to steroids. Before yesterday, the best available evidence we had on Palmeiro was the confession of an attention-hungry house-arrested snitch motivated by money; today we have the fact that he failed the test, and a handful of questions. How that changes my own opinion about his Hall case is too early to tell, but right now, I’d withhold my vote until more evidence comes in. I think the five years Palmeiro will have to wait before coming up for election will be agonizing for him, but I also think they’ll lend us a perspective on this era that we lack now. Will he be one of the few examples of stars who’ve been busted, or will we be so jaded by then that we merely roll our eyes at the latest revelation?

Still, I’m saddened because Palmeiro’s positive test takes the shine off of some major accomplishments that were still being celebrated; the Associated Press account of Monday’s Orioles game leads with the observation that a 20-foot sign saying “CONGRATULATIONS RAFFY! 3000.” still hangs on the warehouse beyond Camden Yards’ rightfield wall. It’s likely that MLB had his tainted sample in hand even as they bought a full page newspaper ad congratulating his accomplishment; according to one source I talked to, the test had to have been done before June. If that’s the case, Bud Selig is going to be subject to even more ridicule for failing to control the problem (not that he could), and he’ll have a lot of explaining to do regarding a potential cover-up. Awkward!

I’m saddened as well because of Palmeiro’s hollow denial. Palmeiro’s hiding behind the same excuse as many of the half-dozen scrubs who’ve tested positive, but it’s tough to believe he could have been careless and blameless in taking what he took. Half-measures when it comes to accountability don’t play well; he’ll never be able to put this behind him until he takes responsibility. Jason Giambi may be celebrated in Yankee Stadium for his recent homer binge, but he’s still getting killed in the media — but that’s a topic worthy of a separate article.

Fnally, I’m saddened because the weight of Palmeiro’s statistical profile is there; I’d even done some research and proposed a Prospectus article on the power spikes of the players Canseco accused before deciding that I didn’t want to be party to a statistical witch hunt.

BP reader Diane F, who keeps a blog called Diamonds Are For Humor, notes the connection between Palmeiro’s spike and Canseco’s arrival in Texas on September 4, 1992. Reformatting it according to the Futility Infielder Manual of Style and Suave Sophistication for the Display of Statitstics, we have:

            AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS  AB/HR 
1986-91 .302 .360 .462 .822 36.47
1992* .261 .343 .407 .750 34.73 (pre Canseco's arrival on 9/4)
1992-1993 .283 .350 .500 .850 19.22 (with Canseco, 9/4/92-6/23/93)
1993-2005 .286 .379 .545 .924 14.94

All of which brings me to the point of dredging up my own research into the matter, dating from back in those crazy days of March between the Canseco book’s release and the hearings, a period in which I even got to go on cable TV to discuss the steroid issue. Will Carroll had written a piece for the YES Network’s website (home of Steven Goldman’s Pinstriped Bible) in which he analyzed some of Canseco’s claims and took a look at the year-by-year aging patterns of Palmeiro and fellow Texas teammates Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez, both of whom were also implicated in Jose’s tell-all. I took issue with what Will called “no significant change” in Palmeiro’s statistical profile, writing the following in an email to BP’s internal mailing list:

Raffy came into the season with a career line of .296/.351/.440 and put up that nice .322/.389/.532 line in his age-26 season. I think that if we somehow retro-PECOTA’ed him to that point, we’d find that performance would be above his 75th percentile (I’m guessing here, but it doesn’t matter exactly where) — possible, especially given that he was still young enough to be on the upside of the growth curve, but perhaps not so likely. Still, those kinds of things happen, whether they’re fluke seasons or real growth. FWIW, his park HR factor that year was 97, so it wasn’t like he suddenly got help there.

But for him to chain together the sequence of seasons he’s had beyond ’92, to pull off what essentially comes out to one of the greatest sustained HR binges in history (how many people pulled off 456 HR in 12 years? Less than 10, I’ll wager, and invite somebody with da mad data skillz to count them for me) as he’s aged into his late 30s, that would have to show up as extremely unlikely by any forecasting measure. I mean, even if you re-PECOTA’ed him after each of those seasons, as his baseline moved up, you’d find him consistently exceeding his weighted mean projections as he aged (the same would hold true for Bonds, of course). Beating those projections like a rented Rockies staff until you’ve got a guy who’s #10 on the all-time HR list. Whether that’s due to the needle or to the Viagra or to voodoo, that would have appeared extremely unlikely, yet it happened.

I don’t recall if I ever got that list of 456+ homer hitters (anybody with the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia who can bang out that query, please email it to me), but I did do some crunching of Palmeiro’s numbers. I compared his homer rate to that of the league on a per plate appearance basis (AB + BB), adjusted for park, and indexed it to the league, such that an HR+ of 150 means a rate 50 percent better than league average (like ERA+):

Year  Park        Raffy  League HR PF   HR+
1986 Wrigley 3.9% 2.1% 91.2 203
1987 Wrigley 5.8% 2.5% 123.9 187
1988 Wrigley 1.3% 1.8% 127.0 57
1989 Arlington 1.3% 2.0% 119.7 53
1990 Arlington 2.2% 2.1% 94.2 110
1991 Arlington 3.7% 2.3% 96.9 168
1992 Arlington 3.2% 2.1% 101.6 152
1993 Arlington 5.5% 2.4% 71.5 318
1994 Camden Yds 4.7% 2.9% 121.3 133
1995 Camden Yds 6.3% 2.8% 118.4 191
1996 Camden Yds 5.4% 3.1% 96.9 179
1997 Camden Yds 5.6% 2.9% 122.6 158
1998 Camden Yds 6.2% 2.9% 102.3 208
1999 Bpk Arling 7.1% 3.0% 103.2 226
2000 Bpk Arling 5.8% 3.1% 123.4 153
2001 Bpk Arling 6.7% 2.9% 95.3 240
2002 Bpk Arling 6.6% 2.9% 134.8 170
2003 Bpk Arling 5.9% 2.9% 119.6 169
2004 Camden Yds 3.6% 3.0% 104.6 114

86-92 2.7% 2.1% 106.0 117.3
93-04 5.8% 2.9% 107.1 186.5

So we’ve got a big spike from Palmeiro relative to the league, even as we entered an era when homers rose by about 40 percent. The biggest jump coincides with Canseco’s arrival in the last year of Arlington Stadium, and after that Palmeiro hit homers at nearly twice the adjusted league average rate. Hmmmmm.

I had intended to get similar numbers on other players implicated by Canseco’s book, but after some prepwork, I decided I was in no mood to use my meager spreadsheet powers to add fuel to the fire and never followed up. Though I’ve got a few other projects on the burner, it looks as though I ought to return to that data.

Once again, it’s clear that the steroid controversy isn’t going away. Palmeiro holds the distinction of being the highest profile player to test positive, but don’t be surprised if more shoes continue to drop and he becomes just one of many.

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