Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro
Now we look at the three guys on the ballot who have strong connections to performance-enhancing drugs without overwhelming cases for the Hall. I don’t believe in automatically excluding PED users from the Hall (see my thoughts on Clemens and Bonds above), but I do believe drug use should be taken into consideration.
Palmeiro is up first. The biggest mark in his favor is that he has not one, but two of the historic Hall of Fame milestones. He blasted over 500 home runs, and he racked up over 3,000 hits- he’s the only eligible player with that many hits not in the Hall (other than Craig Biggio, who should go in this year or next).
The knock on Palmeiro’s playing career is that, while he was very good for a very long time, he was never great. He made only four All-Star squads, and while that’s not always the best measure of a career, in his case it’s fairly accurate. According to baseball-reference.com, he had just five seasons of at least 5.0 WAR (the baseline for an All-Star caliber year), topping out at 6.9 in 1993. He was rarely among the top 10 position players in the league and never seriously discussed as the best player in baseball.
In many ways, Palmeiro resembles Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, another 3,000 hit, 500-homer player who was more good than great for a very long time. Based purely on the merits of his playing career, I’d put him in.<
However, there's the not-so-small matter of the failed drug test that ended Palmeiro's career. It's one thing to use performance-enhancing drugs when they're basically being ignored by the sport. It's quite another to continue using them after the sport starts testing, and after vehemently denying being a user to boot.
If he'd had the same career without PED use, I'd call Palmeiro a solid, if unspectacular, Hall of Famer. With the PEDs, he's a 'no.'
What about Sammy Sosa? Even with the 600 home runs, his case is somewhat the opposite of Palmeiro's. Sosa was absolutely fantastic in a five-year span from 1998 to 2002. You probably know that he hit 60 home runs three different times; in the two years he didn't, he led the league.
The problem is that his whole case is basically those five years. He had two other All-Star caliber seasons (1995 and 1996) based largely on excellent outfield defense, and that's about it. Sosa ran well at times, fielded well at times, got on base at times, but the only reason he's getting any Hall of Fame support at all is the home runs, and he hit them during an unprecedented offensive explosion.
Also, yeah, he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Even if you take his numbers at face value, Sammy Sosa is a surprisingly borderline Hall of Famer – his career WAR is 58, below the median for right fielders. Apply a steroid discount, and he's a definite 'no.'
Finally, we have Mark McGwire. You probably know hi claim to fame, too. In addition to briefly holding the single-season home run record, he hit home runs at the highest rate of any hitter ever, by a comfortable margin.
Of course, Sosa and Palmeiro hit a lot of home runs, too, but McGwire was a better all-around offensive player than either of them. His career OPS+, adjusted for all-time, is 13th in baseball history. Yes, he benefited from playing in a high-octane era, but he dominated even by the standards of that era.
Besides his home-run power, what made McGwire great was his control of the strike zone. He twice led the league in walks and posted an OBP above .400 four different times, including a league-leading .470 mark in 1998. He was the complete package as a hitter, and that was true even when he was a fairly skinny 23-year-old rookie.
Did performance-enhancing drugs help Mark McGwire? Sure. Is he a Hall of Famer regardless? I think so.
He’s not on my fake ballot this year, but I’d vote for him if there were only more room.