Jim Rice, HOF?

Rickey Henderson once declared himself the greatest who ever lived-he was talking about baserunning, which probably isn't accurate, but he was undeniably one of the greatest, and probably the greatest, leadoff hitter the game has ever seen. So isn't it delightfully ironic that the news of the induction of this man who spent his whole career celebrating his own greatness, the time when we should all be celebrating it, is instead overshadowed by the debate sparked over the induction of his classmate, Jim Rice? After all, debate is more interesting than agreement, and Rice is one of the most controversial inductions in some time.

A lot has been written on Rice's credentials and why he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, so I won't go over everything, but the one thing his supporters seem to hinge everything on is how he compared to his peers over a 12 year period from 1975-1986. Nevermind for a moment that that was essentially his entire effective career (he hung on for 3 more years, but declined rapidly, slugging just .408, .406, and .344 in his those final years) and that 12 years of pretty good hitting has never really been grounds for the Hall of Fame: let's just look at those 12 years and see what he did and who he compares to.

As his supporters point out, he led the AL in HR, H, RBI, and SLG over those 12 years (unless you count players who didn't play the whole 12 years, like Don Mattingly, in the SLG category).  Mike Schmidt, of course, had 90 more HR and a better SLG over those 12 years, but played in the NL, as did Dave Kingman, who hit 15 more HR (in 700 and 1600 fewer ABs, respectively).  Less commonly cited is the fact that Rice led the AL over those 12 years in outs by 261 and GDP by 95.  He was 3rd in in the AL in Ks, but he walked 115 fewer times than Gorman Thomas and 249 fewer times than Reggie Jackson (who was 40 by this time), the 2 ahead of him.   It makes sense that he would be at least near the top in most counting categories:  only Steve Garvey had more ABs, and there were only 13 other hitters even within 1000 ABs of Rice in those 12 years (partially because he played so much, but also because he played for the offensive powerhouse Red Sox and especially because he didn't walk much), so leading the group in a bunch of counting stats isn't necessarily grounds for enshrinement.

Let's ignore these counting totals for a moment and try to make some more substantial comparisons to some of the best hitters of his era.  Note especially Rice's propensity for making outs and his poor batting eye.

From 1975-1986
RiceSchmidtBrettWinfieldMurray (10 yrs)
HR350 440207282275

Keep in mind that this is pretty much the entire case for Rice-the others all had significant careers beyond these 12 years, and none are in the Hall for this one stretch.  Still, Mike Schmidt was clearly the best hitter over these 12 years with everyone else pretty far back.  George Brett was the best hitter in the AL (in addition to the advantage in the raw numbers, keep in mind he was hitting in Kauffman-a pitchers' park, while Rice was hitting in Fenway, a right-handed hitters' heaven).  Had Brett and Rice switched places in KC and Boston, we would never be having this argument.  Eddie Murray also made a strong case after missing the first 2 years in this stretch.

So it's not like Rice was head and shoulders above his contemporaries, even for his relatively short effective career.  In fact, he was pretty far behind the best hitter of his time.  He had other contemporaries who were just as good or better hitters over that time, and they all kept hitting for a long time after he stopped.  If someone were to deserve induction based on just 12 years, they had better be 12 damn good years, as in, among the best 12 year stretches ever.  Like Sandy Koufax-type stuff.  Not just in the company of some of the best hitters over those 12 years in one of the biggest lulls in offensive starpower in baseball history.  I could compare Rice's 1975-1986 stretch to 12 year stretches by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, or a number of other hitters, but I think we all know how it would turn out.  It's not like Rice's stretch was close to anything special historically.

In fact, for half of that 12 year period, he wasn't even clearly the best hitter in his own outfield.  Take a look:

From 1981-1986

Dwight Evans pretty much outhit him across the board.  Perhaps you thought I was going to go with Fred Lynn here, and I could have, since he was a pretty comparable hitter to Rice in the other half of the sample, but Rice did at least hold a significant slugging advantage over Lynn.  He doesn't even have that over Evans.  It's hard to say a guy was the dominant hitter of those 12 years when he wasn't even the best hitter on his team for half that time.

Another term people like to throw around when discussion Rice is "feared".  He was, allegedly, the most feared hitter in baseball for those 12 years.  Opposing managers and pitchers were slow in catching on, though.  From 1975-1980, he didn't lead his team in intentional walks a single time (Lynn led the team twice, Evans three times, and Yaz once).  He fell short of the team lead again in 1984, this time to Tony Armas.  In all of baseball, oddly enough, pitchers seemed to fear the better hitting Schmidt and Brett quite a bit more, as they intentionally passed them each twice as many times as they did Rice.  Other hitters who were intentionally walked more than Rice over those 12 years:  our old friends Winfield and Murray, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Ken Singleton, Greg Luzinski, and Jack Clark.

I mentioned earlier that Rice benefitted from playing in Fenway.  The primary reason I included OPS+ in the first table above was because it is park-adjusted, so you can get an idea of how much Rice benefitted from Fenway (notice, for example, how his raw OPS compares to Dave Winfield's, but how Winfield's is actually better once you park adjust it).  Even this adjustment understates the advantage Rice had because Fenway is so skewed toward helping balls hit to left:  park-adjustments are done based on the overall park, which, in Fenway's case, is tempered by the deep center and right-center fields.  I don't like home-road splits in general, but in this case, they're the simplest way to demonstrate the kind of boost Rice got from Fenway because of the skews in the overall park factors.

Jim Rice Career Home/Road Splits
HomeRoadDifferenceML-ave. diff.

Notice the huge jump in slugging especially, which is what Rice was best known for.

All this is to say, Jim Rice was not really the clear standout hitter his candidacy requires.  He was not even close to the best hitter in baseball in his peak.  His production dropped off a cliff and he was out of baseball long before his contemporaries' production waned.  His 12 good years certainly don't compare to anything baseball's greatest hitters have done in 12 year periods, and his career doesn't stack up with other HOF hitters.  Heck, it doesn't even stack up that well against Jim Edmonds'.  And all this ignores the fact that he was a poor defender at a non-premium position in the easiest park in baseball to play that position, and a DH for much of his career, as well as ignores his baserunning.  He is a prime example of our general overvaluation of power hitting and our under-appreciation of defensive value, positional and park adjustments, patience at the plate, and complete sets of skills in power hitters.  His represents our tendency to look for roundabout ways to find support for a case in the numbers when the numbers just aren't there when you look directly at them.  Going back to Schmidt and Brett, they both were good third basemen in their primes, Schmidt in particular, in addition to being better hitters, which made them much more valuable players, even ignoring the longevity they had over Rice.  Winfield was a better fielding outfielder.  These guys were all much better players than Rice, who played and were productive a lot longer on top of it.  To list Rice as the best hitter of his era is severely uninformed, given that Mike Schmidt and George Brett played throughout his career, and once you consider the Fenway effect, to even list him amongst the elite hitters over his short 12 year period of productivity in an era very short on great hitters is something of a stretch.  To extend that from listing him among the best hitters of his era to listing him among the best players of his era is beyond that.  And for 12 years of that, he belongs in the Hall of Fame?

Oh yeah, Congrats, Rickey.


hostile postulate said...

brett didn't play in kauffman during the 70's and 80's. in fact, no one played in kauffman until 1993.

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