The Strange Career of Jim Palmer

How did Jim Palmer become one of the great pitchers of his generation? Consider this chart briefly:

Wins ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 Cy IP/162
268 2.86 5 3 0.7 3 249
284 3.34 6.4 2 1 1 243
329 3.22 7.1 3.2 0.7 4 245
287 3.31 6.7 2.4 0.8 0 245
224 3.26 5.2 2.5 1 1 240
324 3.19 9.5 4.7 0.5 0 232
314 3.11 5.9 2.3 0.7 2 248
318 3.35 5.6 3 0.8 0 233

The number of Cy Young awards probably give away who is who, but just in case they are, in order, Palmer, Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, Catfish Hunter, Nolan Ryan, Gaylord Perry, and Phil Niekro.

Palmer sticks out for three reasons. First, he averages the heaviest workload, though only slightly. Second he has by far the lowest ERA. And most importantly for my question at the top, he has an atrocious set of strikeout/walk numbers. Palmer has the lowest K/9 of anyone in the group, and he has the worst K/BB ratio of anyone on the list by a decent margin. How do you get from that to the Hall of Fame career of Jim Palmer?

Let’s start by disposing of the most obvious explanation. Palmer’s component stats are not a result of a long decline phase. He peaks at 6.4 K/9 in 1966, his second season, and he only tops 6.0 in two other seasons. For his prime, from 1969-1977, Palmer averages 5.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9, a 1.88 K/BB ratio. That ratio brings him even with Phil Niekro for his career, and Niekro had the second worst ratio, behind Palmer, on the chart above. Yet in that stretch Palmer is putting up 275 innings per season with a 2.53 ERA. Even at his peak, Palmer was a great pitcher who walked a lot and did not strike out many, unlike basically anyone else since WW2.

Second, the Orioles played in a slight pitcher’s park. Memorial Stadium, where they played for Palmer’s entire career. The multi-year park factor for the park hovered in the mid-90’s, artificially depressing Palmer’s ERA by a bit, but not by much. He is not pitching at Dodger Stadium in the 1960s with a park factor near 90.

Third, and this is the key, Palmer played in front of the best left side of the infield in baseball history. As one bit of proof, consider career Total Zone Runs, a measure of how many runs a particular player saved with their glove. #1 on the list? Orioles 3rd baseman Brooks Robinson. #2? Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger. Combine that with #10, Orioles center fielder Paul Blair, and you have the perfect environment for a low strikeout pitcher to succeed. For this reason, Palmer’s ERA is much lower than his FIP, 2.86 to 3.50, and his BABIP for his career is an astonishingly tiny .255 (Greg Maddux, for example, is at .295).

Why was Jim Palmer a great pitcher? He fit his team perfectly. Nolan Ryan would have been wasted on the Orioles. When you are backed by superior fielders like Robinson, Belanger, and Blair, contact is acceptable or even desirable. I can’t think of a pitcher more suited to his team than Palmer, and that carried him to three Cy Young Awards, 3 World Series championships, and the Hall of Fame.

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4 Comments on “The Strange Career of Jim Palmer”

  1. sportsphd Says:

    For any readers interested in Southern history, the C. Vann Woodward reference in the title was intentional.

  2. I agree that it is true that Palmer fit the Orioles perfectly. His defense benefited him tremendously, as you point out.
    However, like Whitey Ford and Catfish Hunter, Palmer’s success is less an indication of his own greatness than it is an example of how playing on a great team can benefit a pitcher’s reputation tremendously.
    In other words, if Palmer pitched on the Mets teams of the ’70’s, it is questionable whether or not he would ever have made it to the Hall of Fame. Seaver, meanwhile, would have benefited less from the Orioles defense than Palmer, but he still would have been a very successful pitcher because A. His team would have been better and B. He could strike guys out.
    What astonishes me, in fact, is that Palmer “only” won 268 games in his long, 19 year career in which he made over 500 starts for one of the best baseball teams of his era. Meanwhile, Seaver, Carlton and Ryan each won over 300 games in their careers while often playing for average or poor teams.
    Palmer was a very good pitcher. Probably in the top 25 all-time.
    But give me Seaver any day.
    Interesting post, Bill

  3. sportsphd Says:

    Seaver is undoubtedly the better pitcher, and he is surely in the argument for top 5 pitchers ever. Nonetheless, the greatness of the Orioles is not enough to explain why Palmer’s ERA is 0.25 lower than any of the pitchers I list above. Being on a great team helps, but it is also easier to be a great team if you have Jim Palmer as your ace.

  4. I guess in the long run, great careers are made up of intangibles that can never be fully quantified or explained by statistics, however hard we try. Good job, Bill

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