Would the Orioles Be Better with Rafael Palmeiro?

Chris Davis is having a no good, terrible, very bad season. He’s hitting .163/.245/.310, good for just a 49 wRC+, and overall has contributed 25 weighted runs below average. His once-solid defense at first base seems to have deteriorated, as well: his -3.6 UZR/150 this year at that position represents the lowest figure he’s recorded since playing there in limited fashion for the Orioles back in 2012. Overall, he’s posted -2.2 WAR, and if that sounds like it’s close to historically bad, that’s because it is. And while Davis is no longer in danger of authoring the worst season ever, there’s no disputing that, as a player, his 2018 campaign leaves much to be desired.

Davis’s futility led a reader to pose an interesting question in Dan Szymborski’s chat this week: would the Orioles be better off using Rafael Palmeiro at first base in 2018 than Davis? Because this seemed like a question worth answering, I enlisted Dan’s help (in exchange for crafting some documents so he could buy the Orioles) in doing just that.

Rafael Palmeiro, in case you were wondering, is now approaching his 54th birthday. Back in his heyday, he was one of the more underrated superstars of the game. Over more than 2,800 games spread across 20 major-league seasons — mostly at first base and DH — he hit .288/.371/.515 (130 wRC+) and accrued 70 fWAR, including 10 (!!) seasons above 4 WAR. His counting stats, too, are impressive: 3,020 hits, 569 home runs, and even 97 stolen bases (including 22 in 1993). Perhaps most incredible of all, Palmeiro struck out 1,348 times in his career and walked 1,353 times , posting identical 11.2% rates.

Palmeiro was, in many ways, a complete hitter. He would probably be a deserving member of the Hall of Fame, too, had he not told Congress under oath that he’d never used performance enhancing drugs, then failed a steroid test just six weeks later. Congress even considered perjury charges against Palmeiro before concluding there was insufficient evidence to charge him in a report which, notably, called Palmeiro’s testimony “compelling” and included that he had passed a polygraph test.

But we’re not talking about prime Palmeiro. We’re talking about 2018 Palmeiro. While at first that might sound bizarre, Palmeiro is currently playing professional baseball. He and his son are teammates on the Cleburne Railroaders, a team in the independent American Association. And wouldn’t you know it, Palmeiro is raking. Though a full 26 years older than the league’s average player, Palmeiro is hitting .301/.424/.495. (His son Patrick is hitting .239 with a .654 OPS.) He has 20 walks to 25 strikeouts, showing he still has some plate discipline skills, and he’s been getting better as the season wears on, raising his OPS from .801 to .919 just since June 27.

Small sample warnings abound here, obviously — Palmeiro has played in just 31 team games (Patrick has played in 80) — but what he’s doing at age 53 is still rather impressive, even against indy-league competition. After all, depending on whom you ask, the American Association is roughly equivalent to either Double-A or High-A. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but Palmeiro’s .919 OPS would be second in the Carolina League. Of course, were Palmeiro doing this in the Carolina League at 53, he’d probably be a bigger story.

In any case, back to our hypothetical scenario. Let’s assume the Orioles decided to purchase Palmeiro’s contract, stick him at designated hitter (53-year-olds shouldn’t field), move Mark Trumbo to first base, and bench Davis completely. According to Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system, Palmeiro would hit .186/.248/.271 against major-league pitchers (albeit in 49 at-bats). That’s not great, obviously. It’s also almost identical to Davis’s slash, however — and Palmeiro’s projection is actually for a higher batting average and on-base percentage than Davis has posted this year. In other words, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Palmeiro could outhit what Davis has done so far.

However! That projection doesn’t include Palmeiro’s 2018 stint with Cleburne, where he’s been a better hitter than most of the league despite being twice the age of the pitchers he’s facing. Integrating his most recent numbers, it’s theoretically possible that Palmeiro could have more short-term upside than Davis. Last year, Clay Davenport calculated the American Association as among the highest of the independent leagues, with a rating of .644 (each run in AA is worth .644 in MLB). We don’t have any park factors for the 2018 American Association, so we can’t do a good Major League Equivalency calculation, but it’s not hard to think that two-thirds of Palmeiro’s AA batting line would be better than Davis’ 2018 performance. After all

ZiPS projects Davis to be an exactly replacement-level player the rest of the way (with an 87 wRC+), but it’s hard not to take the under on that given his season to date. If anything, Davis may have actually gotten worse at the plate as the season has gone along. Although Davis is hitting .205/.265/.364 in August, his best slash line by month so far (!), it’s on the back of a .350 BABIP, and his nightmarish August strikeout (46.9%) and walk (6.1%) numbers are his worst so far this year.

So there you are: it is actually possible that a 53-year-old Rafael Palmeiro would post a better batting line the rest of the way in 2018 than Chris Davis has posted so far. It’s also possible that he would be better than Davis the rest of the way, too. And if Baltimore were to do this crazy thing (please do it, Orioles!), it may reset Palmeiro’s Hall of Fame eligibility, giving him another shot at induction in 2023.

It’s also not entirely unprecedented: the ageless Julio Franco lasted a hundred plate appearances at 49 years old, and Jamie Moyer pitched until he was 49. Palmeiro isn’t that much older. And in a season where the Orioles are already challenging records for being the worst baseball team ever, it’s hard to believe Palmeiro would make them any more awful than they already are. And unlike Davis, Palmeiro doesn’t gave four years left on the seven-year, $161 million megadeal he signed before the 2016 season.

When Davis completes that deal, Rafael Palmeiro will be 58 years old.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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4 years ago

This is awesome. Thanks for turning my question into this piece, Sheryl!