Dave Parker, the slugging outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates among others, is an interesting Hall of Fame case. During his years of eligibility through conventional means, support for his candidacy was a bit tepid. He is a very good example of a borderline player, someone who fell just short of being a slam dunk case. So here’s why Dave Parker isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and who says he should be in, and why.
Dave Parker’s contemporaries
I can think of four contemporaries who have a similar case: Dale Murphy, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, and Don Mattingly. Two of them are in the hall, and two are not. But Dave Parker has the endorsement of a certain former player named Rod Carew. Carew has said that of all of his contemporaries who aren’t in the hall, Dave Parker is the one who deserves to be there the most.
So let’s take a look at why he’s not in, as well as the counter argument. Not everyone gets an endorsement from Rod Carew, after all. And does any other living human being know more about hitting a baseball than Rod Carew? I can’t think of one.
The 1981 and 1982 seasons
Parker was coming off three consecutive monster seasons when the 1981 strike happened. A labor dispute resulted in the players going on strike, and there wasn’t enough time in the year to play a full season. And the problem for Dave Parker was that that shortened 1981 season interrupted his Hall of Fame case. He didn’t have a bad 1981 season, but he wasn’t the dominant player he had been. Baseball can be a funny thing. Sometimes short seasons help certain players and hurt certain others.
And then 1982 happened. He didn’t play a full season in 1982, and his 1982 season looks a lot like his 1981 season. Had he played two full seasons in those years, it’s easy to imagine he would have gotten back on track, and at least looked like his 1983 form, which would have made his case much stronger. Part of his problem was that he didn’t get 3,000 hits and he had a career batting average of 290. If he had collected 200 more hits in those two seasons during his prime, his end of career outlook would have been different. Perhaps instead of retiring at age 41, he hangs on for one more season to get that 3000th hit. At 41, he seemed like he had a hundred hits left in him. He did not seem like he had 300.
The era he played in
Parker was a power hitting outfielder by the standards of his day. But he never hit more than 34 home runs in a single season, and he had a number of seasons where he hit more like 20 home runs.
The trouble was, when he was being considered for the Hall of Fame, the starting shortstops for both leagues were Barry Larkin and Alex Rodriguez. They could hit like Dave Parker, both for average and home runs. Dave Parker played right field, a position that is expected to be a bat-first position, but by the time he was being considered for the Hall of Fame, his numbers looked like a shortstop.
There are three reasons for this. First, during Parker’s era, conventional wisdom was that baseball players shouldn’t lift weights, and that being musclebound was detrimental to hitting. It was late in his career that players started challenging that notion.
The result was players started hitting more home runs. As time wore on, Parker went from looking like an all-star to looking like the guy who hits behind your all-star in the lineup. Not necessarily in all-star himself, but good enough to keep the opposing pictures honest.
The second reason was the PED scandal. When Dave Parker hit 34 home runs in 1985, that was still a sizable number. Not necessarily enough to lead the league, but enough to make you a contender. Then in 1987, Mark McGwire came along and launched 49 home runs and his rookie season.
And the third factor. The stadiums changed. During Parker’s best seasons, multi-purpose stadiums ruled the day. These were large, open air stadiums designed to host either baseball or football. They had deep outfields and artificial turf. Parker played much of his career in two of those stadiums, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. A good number of sacrifice flies and doubles that Parker hit would have been home runs in today’s parks. Parker never led the league in home runs, but he led the league twice in both sacrifice flies and doubles.
It’s the same problem Dale Murphy ran into. He was a feared power hitter during his prime seasons, but by the time he retired, those seasons didn’t look fearsome anymore. It wasn’t the player who changed, it was the environment.
There is a modern statistic called OPS+ that attempts to measure a player against their contemporaries. It takes the OPS statistic, which is a reasonably good and easy to calculate estimate of a player’s overall hitting ability, and averages it. Parker’s career OPS+ is 121. That is right along the lines of Harold Baines, Jim Rice, and Andre Dawson. For what it is worth, Dale Murphy also had an OPS+ of 121. We’ll get back to OPS+.
Dave Parker has never been credibly accused of using performance enhancing drugs, but he was caught up in another drug scandal. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a cocaine scandal rocked MLB. A number of prominent stars, including Dave Parker and Keith Hernandez, admitted to using cocaine and faced suspensions unless they met strict guidelines of behavior.
Parker admitted to using cocaine from 1979 to 1982 and said he stopped when he noticed it was affecting his playing ability.
There seems to be something to that. His 1979 season wasn’t as good as the two seasons before, and he just couldn’t seem to get on track and 1981 and 1982. He started trending back upward in 1983 and 1984, and followed up with a big 1985 season.
Without the cocaine, perhaps all of those seasons would have looked more like 1985. With a .300 career batting average and 3,000 hits, he’s an automatic Hall of Famer.
Without them, he is borderline. And that scandal didn’t help his borderline case. I would also argue that he’s a victim of a double standard. If using cocaine is reason enough to keep Dave Parker out of the Baseball Hall of Fame, why is Eric Clapton in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Parker had an outstanding throwing arm, one of the best of his generation. Fielding is much harder to quantify than hitting, but modern analytics suggest that for most of his career, Parker was not an elite defender. He had a great arm, but his other abilities in the field were not elite. And since he played the bulk of his career in the National League before the universal designated hitter, planting him at DH wasn’t an option until late in his career when he signed with American League teams.
It also doesn’t help him that he was playing in those large multi-purpose stadiums with spacious outfields.
His defense wasn’t a showstopper. Early in his career, he did win three gold gloves. His defense late in his career wasn’t necessarily bad enough to keep him out, but not good enough to push him over the line.
The counterpoint to this is Harold Baines is one of his comparables, and Baines rarely played the field after the age of 30. Parker played the field regularly until age 37 and played the field 1/3 of the time at 38.
The case for Dave Parker
I will admit I put together a pretty long list. But none of the items above are showstoppers. They are the kinds of things that can push you over the line if you are close. The problem for Dave Parker is he was extremely close, and getting enough voters to agree on one thing to push him over the line has thus far been fleeting.
Here’s why I think there is still a possibility that the veterans committee will let him in.
He aged like a Hall of Famer
Ordinary players frequently go into decline in their early 30s. Hall of Famers will sometimes manage to defy age a couple of years longer, delaying their decline until their mid 30s, but the other thing they typically do is have a Renaissance in their late 30s. Sprinkled in between these years where they put up decidedly average numbers, they will have the occasional season where they put it all together again, and have another all-star season. Parker was right about average at 32 and 33, so he went into decline when most other players do.
But Parker came back and had two monster years during his late 30s, and he didn’t have a season where he was significantly below average until age 40.
This may be part of why Rod Carew thinks how he does. Carew has spoken publicly about how hard it is to play after age 32 unless you really put in the work. Parker was still very much a dangerous player from ages 32 to 39.
Conventional stats versus modern analytics
Measuring the quality of a baseball player is difficult. The very best of the best leave no doubt. Willie Mays was so good at so many things, it doesn’t really matter how you measure his accomplishments. If he’s not a Hall of Famer, nobody is.
Modern analytics sometimes surprise us. Sometimes we find out a player was better than they seemed. Other times, we find out they aren’t quite as good as they seemed. Gary Carter was an example of someone who fell a bit short by conventional standards, but modern analytics showed he was not only underrated, but one of the greatest ever play his position. Dale Murphy is an example of someone whose case wasn’t helped by modern analytics. Modern analytics suggests he wasn’t quite as good as we remember.
The interesting thing with Parker is that modern analytics line up pretty nicely with his conventional statistics. He is right on the line either way. Some of his numbers are a touch below what you expect for a likely Hall of Famer, others are a touch above.
Well I’m not saying that should be the deciding factor, it’s unusual.
And if you’re like me and grew up watching a lot of baseball on TV and the 1980s, you probably saw him play a fair bit. There’s a reason for that. In the mid-1980s, 3 television stations broadcast every game from their local team, and they offered their programming to cable TV services for free, or very close to it. Those stations were WOR in New York, WTBS in Atlanta, and WGN in Chicago. That meant no matter where you lived, if you had cable TV, you could watch the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Cubs. All of them were National League teams, so you got to see them play against Parker’s team an awful lot.
And modern analytics tell us he is just as good as we remember him being.
Not only that, we can quantify it.
As a statistic, WAR has some flaws, but it is easy to calculate, and it can turn up players who are overlooked by more conventional statistics. The plus version is pretty cool. It compares a player against everyone else from the same season or range of seasons. And it tells you how far they deviate from average. In Dave Parker’s case, over the course of his career, he was 21 points better than average. At his best, he was 66 points better than average. And even when he wasn’t having a great season, he was still no worse than 10 points below average. Even when he wasn’t hitting home runs or hitting for high average, he was finding ways to contribute.
Rod Carew has been pretty outspoken about Dave Parker belonging in the Hall of Fame. And that number probably best summarizes what Rod Carew sees in Dave Parker. When he was at his best, he could rack up the glitzy statistics like home runs and batting average. He might or might not lead the league, but he would be among the league leaders. But when he wasn’t at his best, he still found ways to do damage. He could get on base by drawing a walk, keeping an inning alive. When he did get a hit, it tended to be the kind of hit that would allow a runner to advance two bases and not just one.
The other thing about being 21% better than average is so are his comparable contemporaries who are in the Hall of Fame. Maybe he wasn’t as good as Rod Carew. But you can’t tell me he wasn’t as good as Harold Baines.
Raising the bar
The attitude of Hall of Fame voters during my lifetime has been that it is a Hall of Fame, not a hall of very good. And there are some players, particularly from the early 20th century, who belong in a hall of very good more than in a Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that means the presence of some of these players contributes to an attitude that if a player’s election doesn’t raise the stature of the average Hall of Famer, they aren’t going to get in.
But it’s mathematically impossible for everyone to be above average. The standard means that Dave Parker isn’t in because he didn’t play early enough. If he’d played a decade earlier, when the average was a bit lower, he would have gotten in.
I think he will eventually get in. You didn’t hear the words underrated and Dave Parker in the same sentence during his playing career. Everyone knew he was a dangerous hitter.