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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Palmeiro way back on list of great ones

What did you think when you realized that Rafael Palmeiro had become the fourth player to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in a career?

Here's a typical exchange:

"Rafael Palmeiro got his 3,000th hit."


"Yep. He also has 567 home runs."

"I didn't realize he was that good."

Palmeiro's career achievements have really sneaked up on most of us. Sure, he's played in a hitters' era and has always played in hitters' parks, but numbers that lofty ensure a future plaque in Cooperstown. This is a guy whom the Cubs once traded (along with Jamie Moyer) for Mitch Williams, Paul Kilgus, Steve Wilson, Curtis Wilkerson, Luis Benitez and Pablo Delgado. Hey - that's why they're the Cubs.

Cumulative totals in any sport are subject to a wide array of mitigating factors, but it's especially true in baseball, where run-scoring environments transmogrify and ballpark factors vary wildly from stadium to stadium.

Palmeiro has always been a player regarded as good, even very good. But great? Here's an excerpt from a wire-service story that came out after Friday's milestone game:

"There's no way to accurately determine the greatest left-handed hitter in baseball history, but an argument can be made for Palmeiro, who now has 346 more hits than Ted Williams, nearly 450 more home runs than Ty Cobb and 127 more hits than Babe Ruth."

Nonsense on stilts. It would be a little bit too easy to poke holes in that particular bit of inspired analysis. Instead, let's take a glimpse of where Palmeiro does rank among the great lefty hitters in baseball's annals.

Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) is a good tool for looking at issues on the offensive side of the ledger. RCAA accounts for ballpark differences and allows for the different offensive environments across eras, though some bias towards players from offensive eras seems to exist. RCAA data is taken from Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.

Through the All-Star break, Palmeiro ranked 22nd on the all-time list for left-handed batters in RCAA with 574. He's still going, but the nature of RCAA means that he has to keep producing at an above-league-average rate to add to his total. Joe Jackson is next on the list with 580. George Brett is 19th with 593.

Far out of reach for Palmeiro are Ruth (1,795), Barry Bonds (1,496), Williams (1,475) and Cobb (1,369). Those are the big boys, and Palmeiro simply isn't one of them. They should have a separate Hall of Fame for some players, and guys like Palmeiro should have to buy a ticket. You could call it The Pantheon, and an angry portrait of Bonds could hang over the entrance.

Ballparks and eras are not the only factors to weigh in the comparative evaluation of players. The player's position is another key consideration.

A player who can adequately hold down a key defensive position while also producing with the bat is more valuable than a player, like Palmeiro, who plays first base or is employed as a designated hitter.

To account for this, you can measure what a player produces versus other players who play his position. Compare shortstops to shortstops, first basemen to first basemen, etc.

Whereas RCAA measures a player's production compared with that of a league-average counterpart, regardless of position, Runs Created Above Position (RCAP) compares a player with a league-average counterpart who plays the same position.

In terms of RCAP, Palmeiro ranked 63rd among lefty hitters entering this season. Ruth (1,594) leads. Brett (508) ranks 20th.

Don't misunderstand - 63rd among the approximately 16,000 players who have played big-league baseball is pretty impressive. But, given the era in which he has played, does the ranking make Palmeiro great?

Let's recognize Palmeiro's career for what it is - a testament to durability and sustained competence that unfolded in the most optimum of circumstances.


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