One of the most colorful and significant players of the second half of the 1970’s, Dave Parker is on the Modern Game ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Parker, along with eight other players from the ’70’s and ’80’s and the former players Union Chief Marvin Miller, will be considered by a 16-man panel known as the Eras Committee (formerly known as the Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee). The panel, which will include several Hall of Fame players, will vote on this esteemed group of 10 at December 10th at baseball’s winter meetings in Orlando.

Cooperstown Cred: Dave Parker

  • Career: .290 BA, 339 HR, 1,493 RBI
  • Career: 121 OPS+, 39.9 WAR
  • 1978 N.L. MVP with Pittsburgh Pirates (.334 BA, 30 HR, 117 RBI, 215 hits)
  • Runner-up for 1985 N.L. MVP with Cincinnati Reds (.312 BA, 34 HR, 125 RBI)
  • 5 times in Top 5 of N.L. MVP voting
  • 2-time N.L. batting champion
  • Member of the 1979 World Champion Pirates and 1989 World Champion Oakland A’s
  • 7-time All-Star
  • 3-time Gold Glove Award Winner

Career Highlights (played from 1973-1991 for 6 different teams)

Standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing from 225 to as many as 270 pounds, Dave Parker was a figure larger than life and, though not the tallest, certainly the biggest player in Major League Baseball throughout most of his 19-year playing career. For his trademark bat-waving stance and lightning-quick swing, Parker earned the nickname “Cobra,” given to him by the Pirates team trainer Tony Bartirome and made famous by play-by-play announcer Bob Prince.

In his first two major league seasons (1973 and 1974) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the left-handed hitting Parker was mostly a platoon player and, despite his size, not much of a power hitter, swatting 8 home runs in 377 plate appearances. The ’74 Pirates were the champions of the National League East but lost in the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were led by N.L. MVP Steve Garvey, who is with Parker on the Modern Game Hall of Fame ballot.

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In 1975, Parker became a full-time player and one of the game’s biggest young stars. Parker hit .308 with 25 home runs, 101 RBI and a N.L.-best .541 slugging percentage. For his efforts, he finished third in the league’s MVP voting, behind Hall of Famer Joe Morgan and Greg Luzinski

Parker regressed a bit in 1976; he still hit .313 but dropped to 13 home runs and a .475 slugging percentage.

From 1977-1979, Parker was one of the three to five best players in the game. In ’77, he led the N.L. in batting (.338), hits (215) and doubles (44). He scored 107 runs while driving in 88 (with 21 homers). He earned his first All-Star berth and once again finished third in the MVP vote, behind George Foster and Luzinski.

Defensively, Parker also announced himself as one of the game’s top right fielders, displaying a powerful arm befitting a man of his physical stature. Parker gunned down 26 base-runners from right field, the most since Roberto Clemente‘s 27 in 1961 and still the most in the last 56 years. The assist total earned the Cobra the first of his three Gold Gloves His bazooka-like arm wasn’t always entirely accurate, however; he also led all N.L. right fielders with 15 errors. In his career, he led the league in right-fielder errors 7 times and the 134 for his career are the most all-time.

Parker followed up his stellar ’77 campaign with a MVP trophy in 1978. He hit 30 home runs with a 117 RBI. He led the majors with a .334 batting average while also leading the N.L. with a .585 slugging percentage. Although they were not known statistics at the time, Parker’s .979 OPS (and 166 adjusted OPS+) were the best in the majors.

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In the off-season following his MVP campaign, the Pirates rewarded their best player with a five-year contract that was reportedly worth $7.75 million, with much of the money coming in deferred payments scheduled over 30 years. Because of the terms, Parker was referred to as the first “million dollar ballplayer” and it was a moniker that didn’t go over well in blue-collar Pittsburgh.

Although he wouldn’t match the heights of his ’78 season, Parker’s 1979 campaign, the first under the new contract, was a success for him personally and for the team. The Pirates, made famous by the leadership of “Pops” Willie Stargell and the Sister Sledge song “We Are Family,” won the World Series in 7 games against the Baltimore Orioles.

Parker hit .310 with 25 home runs and 94 RBI and finished 10th in the N.L. MVP vote (a vote in which Stargell and Keith Hernandez were named co-MVP’s). Besides the World Championship, the highlight of Parker’s ’79 campaign was during the All-Star Game at the Kingdome in Seattle. The Cobra was the game’s MVP thanks to two assists from right field, the most famous being when he preserved a 6-6 tie by gunning down Brian Downing with a no-bounce throw to home plate to end the 8th inning. If you’ve never seen it, this throw is worth a look!

Although he made the ’80 and ’81 All-Star teams based on reputation, 1979 was the only season in that five-year contract in which Parker was one of the game’s top players. Due to injury, increased weight and (by his own admission) his use of cocaine, Parker was a larger shell of his former self from 1980-83; he averaged 415 plate appearances with 11 HR, 56 RBI and a .280 batting average, over 40 points below the .321 standard he had set for himself from 1975 to ’79.

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A free agent after the 1983 campaign, Parker signed with his hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds. He left behind the only major league team he had ever known and, to comply with his new team’s policy on facial hair, left behind his trademark beard. Although he drove in 94 runs in his inaugural season in the Queen City (his highest total since 1979), it was an otherwise average season. He hit .285 with 16 home runs with a lowly .328 on-base percentage.

1985 represented Parker’s renaissance campaign on the field. He set career highs with 34 home runs and 125 RBI, leading the league in that category and with 42 doubles. He hit .312 (his lone .300 season since 1979) and his 198 hits was the second best total in his career. It was also, according to the metrics on Baseball Reference, his best overall defensive season since 1977. Although modern analytics list his 4.7 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as just the 17th best in the league, thanks to his stellar offensive numbers, Parker finished 2nd in the MVP voting to Willie McGee.

Because of 31 home runs and 116 RBI, Parker finished 5th in the 1986 MVP vote but this was not a great offensive campaign. His batting average dipped to .273, with his OPS plummeting from .916 to .807. After his struggles in his final four years in Pittsburgh, perhaps Parker’s biggest accomplishment in Cincinnati was staying healthy; he averaged 158 games played per season.

After the 1987 season, the Reds traded Parker to the Oakland A’s for two young pitchers, including a 22-year old talent named Jose Rijo, who would emerge as the Reds’ ace starter for many years. In his first year in Oakland, Parker’s recent luck of good health came to an end. Strained ligaments in his right thumb due to a slide at second base knocked nearly two months off of his inaugural campaign on the east side of the Bay Area. He finished with pedestrian numbers: a career-low .257 average with 12 HR and 55 RBI. That Oakland team was heavily favored to win the World Series but succumbed in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

1989 was a little better for the Cobra; in a lineup featuring Mark McGwire, Parker (the team’s designated hitter) led the squad with 97 RBI (to go with 22 home runs). That team won the earthquake-delayed World Series in a four-game sweep over the San Francisco Giants.

Now exclusively a DH, Parker spent the last two seasons of his career bouncing from the Brewers to the Angels to the Blue Jays. 1991 was his last season in the majors.

The Cooperstown Case for and Against Dave Parker

As it is with two other members of the Modern Game ballot (Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy), Dave Parker’s Hall of Fame case is built exclusively on peak years early in his career in which he was one of the top players in the game. If you asked 100 sportswriters after the Pirates won the ’79 World Series whether they thought Parker was a future Hall of Famer, you would have gotten far more than 75% to say yes.

Here is how Parker ranked in 9 key statistical categories from 1975-1979:

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is an approximate value that measures offense, defense, and base-running with an adjustment for the relative importance of each player’s position. You can see the Glossary for more details.

This is a good list but not historically stellar, with Parker’s rankings here diminished slightly by his off-year of 1976. He was never a premiere power hitter, surprising because of his impressive physical size. He’s behind Foster in several categories and Ken Singleton in the key number OPS+, which adds on-base% with slugging% and adjusts for ballpark effects.

As it is so often in baseball history, fame can be fleeting and turn to infamy. In the years following the Bucs’ World Championship, Parker turned into the poster child for the overpaid and overweight athlete. From 1980-83, in what should have been the prime of his career, Parker was barely above a replacement level player:

As we’ve discussed, Parker had somewhat of a mid-career renaissance with the Reds but, in totality, the final eight years of his career (in Cincinnati, Oakland, Milwaukee, Anaheim and Toronto) did not enhance his Hall of Fame prospects:

The chief credential here is that the Cobra remained a RBI man. Still, he’s behind four non-Hall of Famers on the RBI list for this 8-year period of time (Bell, Mattingly, Strawberry and Joe Carter).

On these two charts, Parker’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is brutal. Remember, though, that WAR is an approximation and is context-neutral. It does not always give credit for what actually happened on the field, such as a run batted in. When Parker played in all 162 games with the ’86 Reds, he hit 31 home runs and drove in 116 runners. He was 5th in the MVP balloting. But on his Baseball Reference profile, his WAR was a woeful 0.2, thanks to a low on-base percentage (.330) and brutally bad defensive metrics. So WAR is telling us that the Reds could have replaced Parker with a player from the AAA level of the minors and it would have had no impact on the team’s winning percentage. Call me skeptical.

On the 1989 Athletics, Parker led the World Series Champions with 97 RBI in the regular season. As a result, the writers placed him 11th in the MVP voting. However, .308 on-base% dragged his WAR down to 0.3.

For the last 6 years of his career, Parker’s WAR is -0.5. During those years, he averaged 20 HR and 86 RBI. His OPS+ was 104, which is above average but not much so. His lack of walks throughout his career kept his WAR low. That’s entirely reasonable; a lack of walks can often make an player look better than he really is. By contrast, a high number of walks can legitimately indicate that a player is actually better than his reputation. But if WAR is telling me that Dave Parker contributed nothing of value to his teams for 6 years, I’m not buying it.

With that little tangential diatribe finished, Parker didn’t rate well in any category over the final two phases of his career (1980-83 with the Pirates and 1984-91 with five other franchises) so if there’s any Hall of Fame case to be made its in the cumulative value of his numbers and in the peak value of his five best years in Pittsburgh.

Despite a low number of walks, the rest of Parker’s game was so good from 1975-79 that, as we saw, his WAR was the fourth best among all position players in the majors (behind only Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Rod Carew). It was better than Joe Morgan’s (and that period of time includes Little Joe’s two MVP Awards); it was better than Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Jim Rice, contemporaries of a similar age.

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When I think about Dave Parker’s career, I often think of him in comparison to Rice.

  • They both became full-time players in 1975.
  • They each finished 3rd in the 1975 MVP voting.
  • Parker finished 3rd in 1977 N.L. MVP vote; Rice was 4th in the A.L.
  • In 1978, both won their league’s MVP trophy and were among the game’s greatest young stars.
  • Rice made 8 All-Star teams; Parker made 7 (and would have been on an 8th in ’78 if he hadn’t been injured)

The commonalities between the men also include the fact that neither player quite lived up to the potential that they showed in ’78. Rice retired after the 1989 season; Parker was finished two years later. Rice debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1995 and got 30% of the vote. Two years later Rice was up to 38% and Parker debuted with a 17.5% tally.

For Rice it was a 15-year slog through the BBWAA voting process. He was finally granted a Cooperstown plaque in his 15th and final try with 76% of the vote in 2009. Parker also stuck on the ballot for 15 years but never even cracked the 25% barrier. Here is how their career statistics look side-by-side:

While Parker is ahead in RBI and hits, he had 1,126 more career plate appearances. Pound for pound, Rice was the superior player. And hence this is the problem for the Hall of Fame candidacy for Dave Parker. Rice is considered by many pundits to have been a borderline (or even unworthy) Hall of Famer. I don’t feel that way but I’ll admit I’m biased. As a life-long Red Sox fan, Rice was one of my favorite players as a kid. The problem is that if your statistics fall short of the stats of a borderline inductee, that puts you below the borderline.

Allow me to share another comparison. The year before Parker won the N.L. MVP trophy, the N.L. MVP was George Foster of the Cincinnati Reds, who led the majors with 52 home runs and 149 RBI. So here’s how Parker and Foster match up during their five-year peaks, which happened to be the exact same five seasons:

Parker’s WAR is higher (thanks to superior base-running metrics) but Foster dwarfs him in home runs and RBI. I would pick Foster’s peak over Parker’s.

Despite a vastly shorter career (with 2,372 fewer plate appearances), Foster out-homered Parker by 348 to 339. His career OPS+ was better (126 to 121) and, thanks to superior defensive metrics, had a higher WAR (43.9 to 39.9).

Let me finish with one more comparison, side-by-side with the other outfielder on the Modern Baseball ballot, the Atlanta Braves long-time center fielder Dale Murphy. Like Parker (and Don Mattingly, also on the ballot), Murphy had a terrific peak but faded in his later years. I’ll have much more on Murphy soon but, for now, let’s just take a look at his numbers next to Parker’s.

It’s pretty close. Parker, thanks to an additional 1,143 plate appearances, had many more hits and RBI. He had a much higher batting average but 59 fewer home runs. Ultimately, other then the long balls, Parker’s stats are a little better, but not much. Murphy’s WAR, however, is higher because he played a more important position on the defensive spectrum, center field. Also, Murphy won two MVP’s to Parker’s one. He won five Gold Gloves to Parker’s three. Murphy also had a longer peak, one that was eight years long (1980-1987).

Off the field, Murphy was a choir boy while Parker was a bad boy. Murphy was a Latter-Day Saint who did not drink alcoholic beverages while Parker dabbled in cocaine. Whether the 16 members of the Eras Committee care about that will depend on who those members are.

Traditionally, the pursuit of a Hall of Fame career has been a pursuit of milestones. For a position player, the two key milestones are 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. The steroid era has erased those milestones as automatic achievements for a Hall of Fame plaque but they remain relevant for any player deemed “clean.”

When a player falls shy of those benchmarks, other criteria come into play. Why did they fall short? Injuries? Retiring early? How many awards did they win? How dominant were they at their peaks? What other achievements do they have?

Parker had some injuries but not an inordinate amount. He played in 148 or more games 10 times in 19 seasons. Three other years he played in over 130 contests. He was 40 years old when he retired. 25 of the 31 players with over 3,000 hits had achieved the milestone by their age 40 season.

Parker is one of just 86 players in MLB history with over 10,000 plate appearances (his total of 10,184 is the 75th most). Of those 86 players, 66 played in the outfield, at first base, third base or DH, so we’re excluding catchers and middle infielders here. (Note: because he played more than 50% of his career games at first base, Ernie Banks is one of these 66). 

  • Parker’s 2,712 career hits are 46th out of those 66. Nine of the players with less are in the Hall of Fame (with Jim Thome a likely 10th in 2018). Of those ten players, five had more than 500 home runs (with Thome being the 6th). Billy Williams had 426 (87 more than the Cobra). The eighth and ninth players are Max Carey (who stole 738 bases) and Tim Raines (who swiped 808), just inducted and one of the greatest percentage base-stealers of all time. The tenth is Harry Hooper, who won four World Championships, primarily playing with the Boston Red Sox from 1909-1925.
  • One of the fallacies about looking solely at hit totals is that it penalizes players who had high on-base percentages (due to their propensity to take walks). If you look at total “times on base” (including walks, hit batsmen and reaching on an error), Parker’s total of 3,560 is 61st out of the 66 outfielders, DH’s or corner infielders with 10,000 or more plate appearances. The players behind him? Vada Pinson, Steve Finley, Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles and Bill Buckner, none of whom got remotely close to the Hall of Fame. (As an aside, one could make a case for Nettles, who hit 390 HR to Parker’s 339 and was a fantastic defensive player).  
  • Overall, among the 66 outfielders and corner infielders with over 10,000 PA, Parker’s WAR of 39.9 is the 3rd lowest (only Harold Baines’ and Buckner’s are lower).

Dave Parker had some flashes of brilliance and had a nice, long career, but he was not a Hall of Fame player. The years in which most Hall of Famers build their Cooperstown resumes (their age 29 to 32 seasons), Parker was in the lower tier of all major leaguers. In 1975 and from 1977 to 1979, he was one of the best players in the game. From 1980 to 1991 he was a mostly solid, occasionally excellent, sometimes below par player but nothing resembling a Hall of Famer. Those four great years simply aren’t enough to justify a plaque in Cooperstown.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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