Sunday, July 27, 2014

Card #80: Jim Palmer

Who Can It Be Now?
James Alvin Palmer was born an orphan in New York City on October 15, 1945. Palmer was adopted two days after his birth by wealthy garment industry executive Moe Wiesen and Polly Kiger Wiesen.  He received the name James Alvin Wiesen immediately thereafter, and he also immediately gained an older sister named Bonnie, who was 18 months older than Jim but adopted around the same time.

Palmer/Wiesen's early childhood was spent first on Park Avenue in New York followed by primary school in Rye and White Plains in Westchester County.  When Jim was 9, Moe Wiesen passed away. Polly moved to California with the kids, eventually settling in Beverly Hills.  There, Polly met a man named Max Palmer, an actor with credits on several television shows (and not the professional wrestler, as the SABR biography for Palmer takes great pains in pointing out).

Jim's family decided to move to Arizona before Jim started high school in Scottsdale.  An excellent athlete, Jim was named to the all-state teams for baseball, football, and basketball and considered his collegiate options strongly.  But, according to the SABR biography, Jim Palmer wanted to be a baseball player. He was given the opportunity to play summer ball in South Dakota in 1963 at the age of 17 on a team with Jim Lonborg, Merv Rettenmund, Bobby Floyd, and Curt Motton.  It was in South Dakota that Palmer caught the eye of Baltimore Orioles farm director (and later GM and Brewers GM) Harry Dalton.

Dalton convinced the Orioles to make Palmer a big offer to sign a contract.  The O's offered a $50,000 contract, which Palmer accepted.  Palmer then used the opportunity to be a teenage groom, marrying his high school sweetheart Susan Ryan.  On signing, the Orioles sent Palmer back to South Dakota to Aberdeen.  There, Palmer was all over the place.  He gave up just 75 hits and 4 homers in 129 innings pitched (including a no-hitter), but he walked an incredible 130 batters.  Baseball Reference does not have strikeout totals for Palmer, though they must have been impressive.

The next spring, Palmer made the jump from Single-A Aberdeen directly to the major leagues at the age of 19 in 1965.  The Orioles coddled Palmer somewhat that season, putting him on the mound for just 92 innings.  The next season, though, the Orioles let Palmer throw 208-1/3 innings in the regular season and, famously, a 9-inning shutout against Sandy Koufax in Game 2 of the World Series in Dodger Stadium.  

Despite the breakout season, however, things took a turn for the worse for Palmer.  He started feeling arm and shoulder soreness in 1966.  The shoulder issue plagued him into 1967, and it led to Palmer being sent down all the way to Single-A Miami.  Palmer spent all of 1968 in the minor leagues, leaving both he and the Orioles wondering if Palmer had become just another flash-in-the-pan flameout who fell victim to "too much too soon." Luckily for Palmer, he got the right treatment for his shoulder -- recall the story from Bob Bailor's biography at Card #79 about Palmer mentioning Dr. Robert Kerlan to Bailor when Bailor's shoulder was injured? -- and Palmer bounced back in 1969.

Over the course of the 1970s, Palmer was certainly one of the best pitchers in the American League and probably baseball as well, though both Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton would have something to say about that.  Palmer won three Cy Young Awards -- 1973 (22-9, 2.40 ERA), 1975 (23-11, 2.09 ERA), and 1976 (22-13, 2.51 ERA).  

By advanced metrics, Palmer was lucky to get two of those awards -- in 1973, for example, Palmer won 73% of the votes despite the fact that WAR says Palmer was no better than 6th place of the pitchers who received votes, and, further, in 1976 WAR puts Palmer at 4th best in the league behind Frank Tanana, Vida Blue, and Mark Fidyrch's amazing 9.6 WAR.  But WAR agrees that Palmer was the best pitcher in the AL in 1975, just ahead of Goose Gossage and Catfish Hunter.

Otherwise, the 1970s were very, very good years for Palmer.  His overall record for that decade was 186-103 -- 19-10 was his average year -- with 175 complete games (just shy of 50% of his starts were complete games) and 44 shutouts and 1559 strikeouts in 2745 innings.   He was an all-star in 1970, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, and 1978 and a Gold Glove winner in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1979.

By the time 1982 rolled around, Palmer was 36 years old but still pitching at a fairly high level.  In fact, 1982 would be his last full season as a starter for the Orioles, as he led the team to a second place finish in the AL East. Unfortunately for Palmer -- and fortunately for the Milwaukee Brewers -- Palmer did not pitch well on October 3, 1982.  Coming into a four-game series over the final weekend of the season, the Brewers needed just one win against the second place Orioles to clinch the AL East.  As the Brewers luck would have it, the Orioles won games one, two, and three of that series to put the teams into a tie at the top of the standings.  That third game was demoralizing -- an 11-3 shellacking thanks to yet another crappy Doc Medich performance.

But a series sweep was not in the cards for Palmer and the Orioles.  The Brewers put their wily veteran, August acquisition Don Sutton, on the mound.  Sutton was helped out by two Robin Yount homeruns -- in the 1st and 3rd innings -- that Yount hit off Palmer as well as a Cecil Cooper solo shot off Palmer to put the Brew Crew ahead 4-1 after six innings.  Palmer was yanked after the Cooper home run, and the game got out of hand in the 9th inning when Milwaukee added 5 insurance runs off Dennis Martinez and Mike Flanagan to seal the title for the Brewers and the MVP Award for Robin Yount.

Palmer added another 94-1/3 innings over the next two seasons to close out his career. Palmer then received 92.6% of the votes cast for the Hall of Fame in 1990.

Mustache Check: No hair on Cakes's face here -- nor do I think I have ever seen a photo of Palmer with a mustache.

Trivial Pursuit
According to his page at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum website, Jim Palmer is the only pitcher who won World Series games in three different decades.  He racked up wins in the 1966 (vs. Dodgers, Orioles win Series), 1970 (vs. Cincinnati, Orioles win Series), 1971 (vs. Pittsburgh, Orioles lose Series), and 1983 (vs. Philadelphia, Orioles win Series).  He did not record a victory (in fact, he recorded a defeat) in the 1979 World Series against Pittsburgh, a series that the Orioles lost.

The World According to Garp
It's been a while since we had an author-player, but Jim Palmer has written a few books along the way.  The most known book is probably Together We Were Eleven Foot Nine: The Twenty-Year Friendship of Hall of Fame Pitcher Jim Palmer and Orioles Manager Earl Weaver.  He also wrote the imaginatively titled Pitching in 1975 and tried to capitalize on his good looks and name recognition -- and his hairy chest on the cover -- of a book he wrote in 1987 called Jim Palmer's Way to Fitness

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Because this Palmer card is followed by an In Action card, I have to save some things for that card.  But, I will say that Jim Palmer was not a personal favorite player in large part because he was playing for the Orioles -- the Brewers' big rivals in 1982.  I took great joy in seeing the Brewers use Palmer for batting practice in that last game of the season, but really only because it meant that the Brewers had won the AL East and were going to the ALCS.

When I was a kid, though, I really thought that Jim Palmer was much more of a strikeout pitcher over his career than he really was.  Instead, as I look at his career numbers now, it turns out that Palmer averaged exactly 5.0 K/9 over his 19-season career.  Palmer was very good at not giving up hits, though almost certainly the key factor in that analysis is looking at the infield behind him.  

At third base and from 1965 through 1975, Palmer enjoyed watching Brooks Robinson hoovering up everything in a three-county radius.  Robinson's stint at third was followed by Doug DeCinces -- who also was a very good defensive player.  

At shortstop for nearly all of Palmer's career was one of the best fielding shortstops around in 8-time Gold Glove winner Mark Belanger.  The guy smoked like a chimney and eventually passed away from cancer, if I recall correctly, but boy could Belanger pick it at short.

At second base from 1972 through 1976 was four-time Gold Glove winner Bobby Grich. Once Grich was gone, he was replaced by another good fielding second baseman in Rich Dauer.  

So, what I'm saying is that Palmer always had a great fielding infield behind him.  And, Palmer's FIP bears this out.  He never had a year in which his FIP was lower than his actual ERA.  In other words, FIP says that Jim Palmer was always lucky in the number of runs he should have given up per nine innings based on the three outcomes that Palmer himself controlled -- walks, strikeouts, and homeruns allowed.  

Now, does that mean that I agree with a post from a few years ago on Lone Star Ball which wondered whether Jim Palmer might be "The Most Overrated Pitcher of All Time"? That discussion is for tomorrow.

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