Jim Palmer -- The Most Overrated Pitcher of All Time?

Everyone here knows who Jim Palmer is.  One of the all-time greats, a legend.

Palmer spent his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles, where he won the Cy Young Award three times, finished second twice, third once, and fifth two more times.  Palmer finished 2nd in the MVP balloting in 1973, one of eight seasons where he received MVP votes.

Palmer finished his career with 268 wins, a 2.86 ERA, and a 126 ERA+.

Palmer is a first ballot Hall of Famer, being elected in 1990 while being named on 92.6% of ballots.  He was named by Bill James, in the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, as the 17th best pitcher of all time.  He even modeled underwear.

Palmer is considered by almost all baseball fans, one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

And yet, he may also be the most overrated pitcher of all time.

Before we start, lets do a brief recap of DIPS theory.  DIPS (Defense Independent Pitching Stats) theory posits that a pitcher generally has very little control over whether a ball in play goes for a hit; instead, a pitcher generally can only exert a significant amount of control over strikeouts, walks, and home runs.

This applies, of course, only to those pitchers who are good enough to make it to the majors and stick there for any length of time.  If I, for example, were somehow to get out on the mound, hitters would hit lots of line drives against me, and my batting average on balls in play (BABIP) allowed would be well above normal.  As a result, generally speaking, good pitchers will have a BABIP a little below the league average, since the league average gets inflated by the various not good pitchers who pick up some innings before they are hammered out of the league.

Nevertheless, pitchers generally will have a BABIP fairly close to the league average (which is currently around .300, although it was lower in years past), and pitchers with particularly low BABIPs in a given season tend to gravitate back towards league average the next year. 

While BABIP for individual pitchers doesn't necessarily tell you much, however, a BABIP for a team does tell you something.  Better defenders convert more balls in play into outs.  Better fielding teams, therefore, have lower BABIPs than poor fielding teams.

So what does that have to do with Jim Palmer?

Well, Palmer spent his entire career pitching for the Baltimore Orioles, mostly with Earl Weaver as his manager.  While Palmer was active from 1965 through 1984 (although missing most of 1967 and all of 1968 with an injury), his dominant years, the stretch where he established himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer, was from 1970 through 1978. 

In that 9 year stretch, he posted a WAR (according to B-R) of 50.7.  In every season during that stretch, save 1974, Palmer pitched at least 274 1/3 innings and finished in the top 5 in ERA.  He was the dominant starting pitcher of the 70s.

And most remarkably, Palmer was able to do that despite pedestrian strikeout numbers.  Palmer finished in the top 10 in strikeouts just three times, and all three had more to due with durability than anything else -- he finished first in the league in innings pitched two of those three season, and second in the other.  He never finished in the top 10 in K/9. 

Palmer also wasn't a control artist.  He finished in the top 10 in fewest walks per 9 just once.  Palmer was pretty good at avoiding the home run ball, finishing in the top 10 in fewest home runs per 9 five times.  But looking at the graphs of his peripherals versus league average, one sees that Palmer wasn't exceptional in any of the "three true outcomes."

Thus, it isn't surprising that Palmer's career FIP of 3.50 is not nearly as impressive as his 2.86 career ERA.  While Palmer's ERA- (FanGraphs' version of ERA+, with lower being better) of 80 is outstanding, is FIP- of 96 isn't indicative of dominance.  And Palmer's .64 spread in FIP-ERA is extraordinarily large.

How much of an outlier is Palmer's FIP-ERA spread?  Since 1901, 621 pitchers have logged at least 1500 major league innings.  Only one of those 621 pitchers has a FIP-ERA spread greater than Palmer's .65 difference -- Hal Schumacher, a pitcher for the Giants in the 1930s, whose ERA is .66 lower than his FIP.  Only two other pitchers, Sal Maglie and Eddie Rommel, have an ERA at least .60 lower than their FIP, and only 10 others have an ERA more than .50 lower than their FIP.

And BABIP?  Of those 621 pitchers, only 5 -- Andy Messersmith, Catfish Hunter, Ed Reulbach, Sid Fernandez, and Hoyt Wilhelm -- have a BABIP lower than Palmer's career .249 mark.

That being said, the rule is that most pitchers have little control over BABIP.  That doesn't mean that pitchers have no control, nor that a rare case couldn't have a good deal of control over BABIP.  Voros McCracken, who first articulated DIPS theory, specifically exempted knuckleball pitchers from the rule, and there could be other pitchers for whom it doesn't apply.

It could be that Jim Palmer is one of those pitchers who induces "weak contact," and whose BABIP numbers are a reflection of skill.

Here's the problem, though...Palmer played all his career for the Baltimore Orioles.  And in particular, he spent the majority of his career pitching in front of three of the twelve best defensive players of all time (per FanGraphs) -- Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, and Paul Blair.  Robinson laps the field among third basemen, being 100 runs better than the #2 third baseman, Buddy Bell.  Belanger is first among shortstops, just ahead of Ozzie Smith.  And Blair ranks sixth among outfieldersPalmer also had Bobby Grich, who is in the top 20 among second basemen, playing behind him during much of this time. 

In Bill James' "Win Shares" book, he gave Blair and Belanger each a defensive grade of "A+," and Robinson an "A-".

And this is not ex post facto stathead revisionism...Belanger and Blair each won 8 Gold Glove Awards, and Brooks Robinson won 16.  They were considered, at the time, to be elite defensive players, and looking back, the statistical evidence bears that out.

And if we look back at the years from 1970-1978 -- the time of Palmer's dominance -- the Orioles have the lowest BABIP allowed of any team during that stretch, at .261.  Not surprisingly, they also had the biggest spread of FIP-ERA, at .33

Palmer, during that time, had the lowest BABIP of any Oriole pitcher with at least 250 IP, at .246.  His FIP spread in that period was .73.

So the question becomes...was Palmer's success due in large part to the defense behind him, or was the defense overrated because of the skill of Palmer (and others on the Orioles staff) at inducing weak contact?  Palmer was clearly an outlier even among his teammates in terms of his BABIP rate and FIP-ERA spread, but the Orioles, as a team, clearly were an exceptional defense team and, even removing Palmer from the equation, allowed fewer balls in play to go for hits than would be expected.

Without batted ball data, it seems impossible to provide a definitive answer to this.  But it does appear clear that, at the very least, Palmer's numbers benefited from having a strong defense behind him, and spending his entire career with an organization that consistently fielded not just winning teams, but clubs that supported its pitching staffs with quality defense.

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