Did Dave Parker's Drug Use Cost Him a Hall of Fame Spot?
After attending a celebration at PNC Park this weekend to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1979 World Series champions, Parker told AP writer Alan Robinson that he often wonders if his involvement in baseball's drug trials in the '80s is what's keeping him from being inducted. It's a fair question and it's one that I've pondered myself in the past.
The question comes up because of Jim Rice's induction this year. One of the biggest criticisms of Rice's induction is that it opens the door for many other players (Parker and Andre Dawson come immediately to mind) that are probably in a tier just below true Hall of Fame quality.
Robinson does a good rundown of the surface statistical comparison between the two in the story and it's true; they have a lot in common. To really compare the two, I wanted to look at their career Wins Above Replacement (WAR). WAR is a composite stat which takes batting runs, fielding runs, and baserunning runs and combines them all to quantify how many wins in a season a particular player is worth. Sean Smith compiles historic WAR on his BaseballProjection.com site, so finding Parker and Rice is an easy exercise.
According to WAR, Parker was worth 37.9 wins over the course of his career while Rice was worth 41.5. Both players had their best seasons in 1978, when they both were named MVP, with Parker's 7.1 wins edging out Rice's 7.0. Interestingly, Rice's defense rates as much better than Parker's. His total zone number is +9 and his arm rates as +13 while Parker's numbers are -25 and +4. That's in stark contrast to conventional wisdom, as Parker won three Gold Gloves and Pirate fans that watched him play routinely say that his arm from right field was only surpassed by the great Roberto Clemente.
Of course, these numbers are calculated from Retrosheet, so they're not nearly as accurate as the highly advanced ball-in-play metrics we have available to evaluate modern players. The WAR you find on FanGraphs uses UZR as its defensive component, which makes it a little stronger than the historic WAR. Thus, it's possible that Rice gets a defensive bonus from spending his entire career in front of the Green Monster at Fenway, which left him with less ground to cover and easier throws in from the outfield (remember how many assists Manny Ramirez used to rack up playing there?). That would close the gap between Parker and Rice even a little more, maybe down to just a win or two instead of the four that we currently see.
So Parker and Rice really were comparable players playing in a similar era. But is it the drug use that costs Parker? That's some of it, but I think more of it has to do with the way their careers unfolded. Parker had a short, but very strong peak between 1975 and 1979 where he was worth 30.1 wins, then he only approached that level one more time in his career, in 1985. Besides that year, he battled injuries, weight problems, and the drug trials and he had several years where his value was below replacement. In contrast, Rice is famous for the 12-year run between 1975 and 1986 when he led or was close to leading the American League in most important batting categories. He never had a peak quite like Parker's, but he never bottomed out like him either.
In the long run, I think that's what makes the difference between Parker and Rice when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. Parker's role in the drug trials don't help him at all, but if he'd just stayed healthy for a few more years in the early '80s I think there's a good chance he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame anyway.
Whether Parker deserves to be in right now is a different question. There is something to be said for Rice's longer period of production, but Parker was probably the best player in baseball between 1975 and 1979 and in the end, his career is pretty even with Rice's. It's certainly very easy to make a case for Parker now that Rice has been inducted.