Reflecting on Dave Parker’s time with the Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates legend Dave Parker never came close to Cooperstown on the regular Hall of Fame vote, but he’s back in contention thanks to the Modern Era HoF ballot.

Editor’s note: this is a guest post from Ron Ieraci, the singular force behind The Green Weenie, a wonderful Pittsburgh Pirates history site that should be a part of any Pirates fan’s daily reading.. Here, Ron gives us an overview of Dave Parker’s notable career.

So the debate rekindles…is former Pittsburgh Pirates OF Parker one of the greats or just another of the pretty good posers?

That depends a lot on the decade.

Reflecting on Dave Parker's time with the Pittsburgh Pirates
Dave Parker with the legendary boppin tee.

He was a high school sports legend, with football losing out when the 6’5”, 225 pounder tore up his knee. The Pirates drafted him after looking at his HS teammate Bill Flowers (he went in the first round to the Indians in 1970; the Pirates claimed Parker in the 14th go-around. Flowers never made it to the show.) Parker’s arm was so strong they used him briefly as a pitcher, but it was his bat that separated him. He legendarily hit an 160-mile homer when his ball cleared the fence in Charleston, West Virginia and landed in the coal car of a passing train, finally touching down in Columbus, Ohio.

Parker first came to Pittsburgh in July of 1973, and it took Danny Murtaugh a couple of years to realize that he was more than a platoon guy. Starting in 1975, the Cobra (trainer Tony Bartirome christened him; Bob Prince just popularized it) went on a five-year tear that put him on baseball’s Olympus after claiming right field from Manny Sanguillen and then Richie Zisk.

From 1975-79, he put up a line of .321/.377/.532 with an OPS+ of 147 and won back-to-back batting titles in 1977-78, a MVP with three more Top Ten finishes, a pair of All-Star bids with a game MVP and two Golden Gloves. Parker could run, throw lasers and played the game hard, like the old high school grid star he once was. Heck, he even took the field with a broken jaw for the last three months of 1978, wearing a helmet with a football facemask on the bases. The big right fielder was 28 and on top of the baseball world.

But the eighties would see a different guy, weighed down by a variety of woes mostly of his own making. Two of the problems began in 1979 – he signed a contract that made him baseball’s first Million Dollar Player, and as he would testify years later, he began to indulge in less than desirable habits.

“The Richest Man in Team Sports”

The contract (he never actually made $1M/year; it was a heavily backloaded deal with years of deferred payments) was a burr under the fans’ saddle. At best, it produced expectations of greatness with the accompanying fan pressure and at worst exposed the racists in the TRS crowd; neither Parker nor the Pittsburgh Pirates nation would play the grown up.

Reflecting on Dave Parker's time with the Pittsburgh Pirates
Imagine what this list would look like today

The noise started almost before the ink dried, and by the end of the championship year of 1979, Parker and Pittsburgh folk were already nose-to-nose; he even skipped out of the downtown victory parade. The Pittsburgh Pirates faithful expected more for the money; Parker was big, brash and going through issues of his own

Things came to head in 1980 when a transistor radio battery was zipped past his head as he patrolled the pasture and he responded by wearing a helmet in the field. Physically, Parker was becoming a wreck, too. He had bad knees and he was playing way above the 225 pounds he had packed when he arrived in Pittsburgh. Parker said he never added more than 20 pounds; the Bucs said he scaled in at 270. Either way, he was missing games; his Rambo style of play, poor conditioning and coke use were a bad trifecta.

His line during the five years of his groundbreaking deal were good, but not what they once were. He slashed .289/.335/.464 with an OPS+ of 117 over its life. However, like all wise baseball businessmen, he saved a burst for the end of his contract and salvaged a dismal start with a days-of-old finish in 1983, going .301/.331/.458 during the year’s second half.

It was enough to get himself a three-year deal with his hometown Reds. He was Superman in 1985-86, missing just two games while hitting .292 with 65 homers/241 RBI (133 OPS+) and making the AS team both seasons, and Parker came in second and third in the MVP race. But mostly he was just Everyday Dave.

As for his Hall of Fame bid; here are three sets of numbers:

Reflecting on Dave Parker's time with the Pittsburgh Pirates

1973-79: .317/.370/.521 143 OPS+

1980-91: .275/.322/.444 109 OPS+

Lifetime: .290/.339/.471 121 OPS+

The first set of numbers get him into the Hall with no questions asked; the second line leaves him out in the cold and the lifetime slash is borderline. Bill James makes a good case for him, scoring The Cobra well in three of his All-Star categories and listing him as the best RF’er not honored back in 2003. But the other omens bode not so well.

The committee system itself, since being revamped in 2010, has only sent one guy, Ron Santo, to the Hall. And it’s not like Parker is riding a crest; he never got to 25% of the vote on the regular ballot and the lingering taint of drug use is a huge hurdle to clear. The numbers themselves don’t present a very compelling case to anyone but Bill James.

The Cobra’s lifetime WAR is 39.9; the average RF-HoF’er carries a career mark of 73.2. It’s low due to a ridiculous defensive WAR of -15.5, but he still posted just six seasons out of 19 with a WAR higher than 1.6 (per Baseball Reference) thanks to running and fielding anchors. His JAWS score (a modified WAR that compares HoF candidates to same-position members)  is also lacking; Parker’s is 38.6 compared to the Hall members’ 58.1 rating.

The Cobra was among the elite MLB performers for a nice slice of his career, but his HoF case is a matter of what could have been if he could have kept his body strong for five years longer.

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