Despite Stardom and Swagger, Dave Parker is Still Short of Cooperstown

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Dave Parker
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Dave Parker 40.1 37.4 38.7
Avg. HOF RF 71.5 42.1 56.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2712 339 .290/.339/.471 121
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

A five-tool player whose power, ability to hit for average, and strong, accurate throwing arm all stood out – particularly in the Pirates’ seemingly endless and always eye-catching assortment of black-and-yellow uniform combinations — Dave Parker was once considered the game’s best all-around player. In his first five full seasons (1975-79), he amassed a World Series ring, regular season and All-Star MVP awards, two batting titles, two league leads in slugging percentage, and three Gold Gloves, not to mention tremendous swagger, a great nickname (“The Cobra”), and a high regard for himself. “Take Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and match their first five years up against mine, and they don’t compare with me,” he told Roy Blount in a 1979 Sports Illustrated cover story.

Parker, who had debuted with the Pirates just seven months after Clemente’s death and assumed full-time duty as the team’s right fielder a season and a half later, once appeared to be on course to join the Puerto Rican legend in Cooperstown. Unfortunately, cocaine, poor conditioning, and injuries threw him off course, and while he recovered well enough to make three All-Star teams, play a supporting role on another World Series winner, accrue hefty career totals and play past the age of 40, his game lost multiple dimensions as he aged. Hall of Fame voters greeted his case with a yawn; he debuted with just 17.5% on the 1997 ballot, peaked at 24.5% the next year, and while he remained eligible for the full 15 seasons, only one other time did he top 20%. He made appearances on both the 2014 Expansion Era ballot as well as the ’18 Modern Baseball one, but even after going public with his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, he didn’t come close to election. Aside from the precedent set by Harold Baines‘ election last year — a small committee can throw us a wild card now and then — there’s little reason to believe his fate will be different this time.

Born in Grenada, Mississippi in 1951, Parker and his family (which also included five other children) moved to Cincinnati when he was four years old. Both of his parents were athletic. “”My mother had a cannon for an arm, threw all sort of things at us – shoes, books, whatever – and usually connected,” Parker said in 2014. “My dad never got to play organized ball. But he’d crush that ball.”

A three-sport star in high school, Parker was on track to play college football — he would grow to 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds as a young major leaguer — until a left knee injury ended his senior season after just one game. Per Blount, it wasn’t his knee injury but concerns about his ability to hit the ball in the air and a history of clashing with coaches that let to his being chosen in the 14th round by the Pirates in in 1970, instead of the first. Beginning in spring training 1971 — the dawn of the Pittsburgh Lumber Company — Parker picked up the finer points of the game from Clemente, Willie Stargell, and coach (and later manager) Bill Virdon.

Aside from a rough 30-game stint at Double-A Waterbury, where he started the 1971 season at age 19, Parker hit at every minor league stop, earning MVP honors both in the Gulf Coast League in ’70 and the Carolina League in ’72. He debuted in the majors on July 12, 1973, going 0-for-4 out of the leadoff spot against the Padres’ Clay Kirby, then spent the remainder of that season and all of the next one (during which he lost more than two months to a hamstring injury) in a platoon role, making just three starts against lefties. He took over the full-time right field job in 1975, once the Pirates moved Stargell to first base and incumbent right fielder Richie Zisk to left, and the results were revelatory. The 24-year-old Parker hit .308/.357/.541 with 25 homers and 101 RBI; his slugging percentage led the league, his 149 OPS+ ranked third, his 6.3 WAR (including defense that was 15 runs above average) fifth. The Pirates won the NL East for the second straight season, but bowed to the Reds in the NLCS; Parker went 0-for-10, reaching base only on a walk and a hit-by-pitch. After the season, he edged out both Johnny Bench and Pete Rose to place third in the NL MVP voting behind Joe Morgan and Greg Luzinski.

Though he slipped to 13 homers and a .475 slugging percentage, Parker’s 1976 was still more than solid (133 OPS+, 3.7 WAR). He started 1977 so hot that he was above .400 as late as May 14 (.408), and as high as .349 in early September; he finished at .338/.397/.531, beating out teammate Rennie Stennett for the NL batting title, ranking first in both hits (215) and doubles (44), third in WAR (7.4), fifth in OPS+ (145) and on-base percentage, and sixth in slugging percentage. He made his first All-Star team, won his first Gold Glove, and again finished third in the MVP voting, this time behind George Foster and Luzinski.

“The Cobra” — a nickname given to him by Pirates trainer Tony Bartirome — developed into such an intimidating hitter that opposing pitchers intentionally walked him a league-high 23 times in 1978. He had more help from Bartirome that season. In a home plate collision with Met catcher (and former college football player) John Stearns on June 30, Parker was not only thrown out to end the game but he suffered a fractured jaw and cheekbone, as well as a concussion, though he only realized the latter years later. “That was like the Pennsylvania Railroad colliding with the B&O,” said Pirates manager Chuck Tanner. When Parker returned to action on July 16, he was wearing a two-toned hockey goalie’s mask that Bartirome had customized, then with the help of the Steelers’ equipment manager — the two teams shared Three Rivers Stadium — switched to a football face mask, which he wore while running the bases. It set off a trend among similarly injured players, and scared the living hell out of Morgan, who threatened to sue if he sustained injury in the event of the two players colliding at second base.

Despite the injury, Parker hit .334/.394/.585 en route to another batting title and slugging percentage crown; he was second in on-base percentage, but 36 points behind the league leader, Jeff Burroughs. He reached 30 homers for the first time, a total that ranked third in the league, and both his 166 OPS+ and 7.0 WAR led the circuit as well. In January 1979, just before he began what otherwise would have been his walk year, he signed a five-year contract that was widely reported to be worth at least $5 million, making him the game’s first million dollar a year player, though the deal included something closer to $2.1 million in current salary and $5.3 million in deferred compensation, the payment of which the Pirates would later challenge.

Though his numbers fell off slightly in 1979 (.310/.380/.526, 25 HR, 6.7 WAR), Parker won All-Star MVP honors thanks to a game-tying sacrifice fly and two spectacular outfield assists in the late innings of the NL’s 7-6 win. In the seventh, with the AL leading 6-5, Parker lost track of a Jim Rice fly ball against the Kingdome roof, but recovered to cut down Rice trying to stretch a double into a triple.

Then, with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, Parker threw out Brian Downing trying to score from second on a Graig Nettles single, positioning his throw such that catcher Gary Carter just dropped his tag on Downing’s head like an anvil. Forty (!) years later, I still get goosebumps watching this one:

With Parker and Stargell (who would share MVP honors with Keith Hernandez) leading the way, the “We Are Family” Pirates won 98 games, then swept Morgan, Foster, and the Reds in the NLCS; Parker singled in the winning run in the 10th inning of Game 2. Though hampered by a late-season left knee injury that limited his ability to pull the ball, he went 10-for-29 in the World Series as the Pirates came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Orioles in seven games. Parker made a crucial catch of an Eddie Murray fly ball with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Game 7. “He hit a line drive to me, a carrying line drive,” said Parker in 2014. “I broke to my glove side, slipped, and almost fell. I recovered and managed to catch it. If I don’t catch that ball, I’d have kept running right through the fence and on out into Baltimore somewhere.”

To this point, Parker was rightly regarded among the game’s elite. His 31.1 WAR from 1975-79 ranked fourth in the majors, trailing only Mike Schmidt (38.7), George Brett (35.0), and Rod Carew (32.0), while his 21.1 from ’77-79 trailed only Schmidt (23.0) and Brett (21.6). But even with the championship, Parker was so stung by criticism for his slight decline given his million-dollar status that he skipped the World Series parade. Continued trouble with his left knee in 1980 — in September, the New York Times‘ Jane Gross wrote that he “looked like a lame horse on the base paths” — didn’t help, nor did being sued for divorce. He dipped to 17 homers, 79 RBI, a 115 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR in just 138 games, including one in which he removed himself after a 9-volt battery thrown by a fan at Three Rivers Stadium whizzed by his head. Parker later said it was the fourth or fifth time he’d been targeted, and asked the Pirates for a trade, though he later cooled down.

After the 1980 season, Parker had surgery to remove torn cartilage in his left knee, but the injury bug kept biting. Achilles and thumb injuries as well as the players’ strike limited him to just 140 games, 15 homers, and 0.7 WAR in 1981-82, his weight ballooned — some estimated as high as 260 pounds, though Parker disputed that figure — and he managed just 12 homers, a 97 OPS+ and 0.2 WAR in his 144 games in ’83, even with a .305/.331/.458 showing in the second half. A free agent after the season, he signed a two-year deal with the Reds. While he only improved slightly (104 OPS+, 1.0 WAR), his 94 RBI (up from 69 the year before) fed the perception of a stronger rebound, and the Reds inked him to a three-year, $3.325 million extension.

On the field, Parker’s 1985 was his best season after ’79 (34 homers, a league-high 125 RBI, .312/.365/.551 line, and 4.7 WAR); he made his fifth All-Star team (and first since ’81), won the first All-Star Game Home Run Derby, and finished second behind Willie McGee in the NL MVP voting. Off the field was a nightmare. Called to testify in the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, he admitted to having used cocaine as early as 1976 and “with consistency” from 1979 until late ’82, when he realized it had eroded his play. “I was going downhill,” he testified. Though he had been granted immunity from prosecution, he received a one-year suspension from commissioner Peter Ueberroth, waived on the condition of submitting to drug testing for the remainder of his career, performing 200 hours of community service, and contributing 10% of his salary to programs to combat drug abuse. Meanwhile, the Pirates filed suit in an attempt to avoid paying him the deferred salary because his cocaine “negatively affected his ability to perform.” In 1988, the two sides reached settlement for an amount that was “significantly less.”

In retrospect, Parker said that his contract — which happened against a backdrop of steel mill closures, which hit the Pittsburgh area hard — was a burden. As he told The Undefeated in 2018, “Being the first [to make a million per year] and being a black guy didn’t make it that much easier, and some fans turning against me didn’t make me feel too good. And making that kind of money wasn’t a good fit for nobody involved. The fans weren’t having it, and I wasn’t having it from my end as well.”

Thankfully, by the time he was in Cincinnati, Parker had cleaned himself up and was able to enjoy his elder statesman role while continuing his career. Though he hit 31 homers and drove in 116 runs while making another All-Star team in 1986, he declined from a 149 OPS+ to 117 as well as from +5 runs (via Total Zone) to -17; his WAR plummeted to 0.3. While he would reach 20 homers three more times and 90 RBI twice over his age 36-40 seasons — even making his seventh and final All-Star team in 1990 with a 21-homer, 92-RBI season as the Brewers’ full-time DH — the truly productive phase of his career was over. He did play for two pennant winners and one championship team while serving as the A’s DH in 1988-89, homered three times in the latter postseason, and was valued as a clubhouse leader, but his 92 homers and 400 RBI for the Reds (1987), A’s, Brewers, Angels and Blue Jays (both ’91) during this stretch amounted to a combined OPS+ of 101 and a net of -0.7 WAR, with a high of 1.1 for that Milwaukee season.

Because of his longevity, Parker finished with impressive counting stats, though it’s not hard to imagine that had he steered clear of cocaine and taken better care of himself, he might well have reached 3,000 hits. BBWAA voters were not particularly moved by his case, though he did spend the full 15 years on the ballot, and has since gone 0-for-2 on Era Committee ballots.

From an advanced statistical standpoint, Parker’s case is not unlike that of Dale Murphy’s, for as different as the two were off the field — and you can’t get much further apart than the distance between Parker’s swagger and misadventures and Murphy’s wholesome, milk-drinking persona. Both finished with a 121 OPS+ and have seven-year WAR peaks that are within hailing distance of the standards at their respective positions; Murphy (41.2) is 3.3 wins below the mark for center fielders while ranking 19th, Parker (37.4) 4.7 below that for right fielders while ranking 28th. Both are much further away as far as career WAR and JAWS; Murphy ranks 25th in the latter, 13.9 points below the standard, while Parker is 39th, 18.1 below the standard. The drastic fall-off of the latter’s defense, from +40 runs from 1973-79 to -61 for the remainder of his career, and then the positional adjustment hit for shifting to DH, accounts for the main discrepancy between the two.

They’re both clearly better than Baines, whose longer stretch at DH puts his 30.1 JAWS 75th among right fielders, but as with Murphy, even given the time he spent at the center of the baseball world, it’s harder to justify including Parker on a ballot where the likes of Lou Whitaker, Ted Simmons, Thurman Munson, and Dwight Evans are all within five points of the standards at their positions. We can be glad that he’s gotten his life in order and has taken a prominent role in raising money for the fight against Parkinson’s, but that doesn’t mean that his road has to end in Cooperstown.

We hoped you liked reading Despite Stardom and Swagger, Dave Parker is Still Short of Cooperstown by Jay Jaffe!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

newest oldest most voted
emh1969
Member
emh1969

What’s always struck me are the parallels between Parker’s and Andrew McCutchen’s careers.

1) They both obviously played the early parts of their careers with the Pirates.
2) They both had incredible peaks between the ages of 24-28.
3) They had almost exactly the same amount of WAR during their peaks: 31.1 for Parker, 31,2 for McCutchen.
4) During their peaks, they both won an MVP and both finished 3rd twice. (McCutchen also had a 5th whereas Parker had a 10th and 20th).
5) They both seemed to be on a HOF pace at that point but both of them started to fade at age 29 for various reasons.

Anyway, it’s hard to justify a HOF vote for Parker but he was a heck of a player during that 5 year peak. He was 2nd in the NL for position player WAR behind only Mike Schmidt. And 4th in all of baseball, behind only Schmidt, Brett, and Carew. And just ahead of Joe Morgan. That’s some excellent company…

gtagomori
Member
Member
gtagomori

Hi emh,

I feel that Parker was far more explosive in ability and as a personality. I think McCutcheon is remarkable rounded in his skill set and his personality.

As for Parker for HoF, Evans is clearly superior. In fact I wonder if Reggie Smith would be better candidate.