Wednesday, January 02, 2002

My 2002 HOF Ballot - Jim Rice

Why can't Jim Rice get any love?

Rice seems to generate more explanations from BBWAA voters and online columnists about why they passed on him than any other player. It's almost as if they feel guilty about it and need to tell us all that it really isn't anything personal.

They do this by offering many supposedly solid reasons for leaving him off their ballots. Jayson Stark from concisely captured three of them when he explained why he didn't vote for Rice in 2000:

"He was a one-dimensional player whose career thundered to a halt just as he was on the verge of cementing his sure place in the Hall (only 31 homers,162 RBI after age 34). And you essentially have to vote on him as a hitter only,because he DH-ed extensively. He gave you no speed, no Gold Gloves, no off-field 'character-and-integrity' points."

So, according to Stark, Rice was one-dimensional, his career was too short, and he wasn't a nice guy. This year, I saw a fourth complaint mentioned, this time by Rob Neyer, who is also from According to Neyer, Rice's numbers would have been much worse if he had played half of his games in any park besides Fenway. He supported this by displaying Rice's home-road splits.

Those four views, or versions of them, are the essential criticisms of Rice. What I find odd about all of this is that you rarely, if ever, see positive statements about him. He's captured a very respectable percentage of the vote during his time on the ballot, so there are obviously quite a few Rice supporters out there, but for some reason they don't feel the need to sing his praises even though his detractors slam him regularly.

I simply don't understand this, particularly since each of the four arguments against Rice is at least partially wrong. Let's look at the four main areas of criticism one by one.

Rice Was A One-Dimensional Player

By one-dimensional, Stark seems to mean Rice could hit, but couldn't do anything else. For instance, Stark described Rice as having "no speed". That may be the first time ever that a player who led the league in triples was described that way. In fact, Rice's career total of 79 triples would be the third most in baseball if he were playing today. Was Jim Rice a Rickey Henderson clone? Of course not. But at the same time, it's certainly unfair to claim he had "no speed". Over the course of his career, Rice stole bases at the same rate as Kirby Puckett, who is often viewed as quick. The difference in total steals lies in the philosophies of their teams. Puckett's Twins liked to run every now and then. Rice's Red Sox run less than any team in history. The 10 steals Rice had in 1975 led the team. (And would have led them this year, too.) Obviously it's unfair to say he had no speed.

It's equally unfair to say Rice was poor defensively, as Stark's "no Gold Gloves" remark seems to do. In fact, a fair case can be made that Rice was actually an above average fielder. Just look across the Red Sox outfield for a comparison point. Dwight Evans had a reputation as a wonderful defensive player, which he was. He won eight Gold Gloves in a long, distinguished career. But look at Rice's numbers next to Evans' and you won't see much difference. Rice's career range factor was 2.10, Evans' was 2.11. Rice's career total of Fielding Runs, as calculated by Total Baseball, was 71; Evans' was 76. Rice threw out a baserunner once every 11.3 games he played in the outfield; Evans did so once every 13.7 games. To be fair, Rice posted a lower fielding percentage and made more errors in fewer games than Evans, so I'm not arguing that Rice was as good or better than Evans was. But no less than Peter Gammons, who saw most of the games each man played in their careers, stated in his book Beyond the Sixth Game that in 1983 Rice:

"...probably should have won a Gold Glove for fielding excellence. Dwight Evans, who had the worst defensive year of his career, won one instead, proving clearly the value of a reputation."

I guess it depends heavily upon your personal definition of one-dimensional, but if you take that term to mean that Rice did one thing well but was bad at everything else, as I believe Stark is arguing, then I think it's unfair to apply that label.

Rice's Career Was Too Short

I won't argue that Rice's skills deteriorated at a fairly early age, but the man did still play 2,089 games. That figure would place him close to the middle of Hall of Fame outfielders, 32 of whom played more games than Rice, 25 of whom played less. Beyond that, it should be noted that Rice was extremely durable during his twelve-year peak (1975-1986). With the 1981 strike year extrapolated to full length, Rice averaged 152 games each of those seasons.

Maybe it's fair to knock Rice's overall career length. After all, "too short" is another term that has a variable definition depending upon who you're talking to. That said, I have a hard time doing so given his twelve-year run of extreme durability and his position relative to other outfielders who have already made the Hall.

Rice Wasn't A Nice Guy

I have no way of determining this personally because I've never met the man. Anecdotal evidence from sportswriters generally points to him being a surly, uncooperative guy. In addition, Bill James recently included a quote in his new book from Bill Lee, in which Lee ripped Rice for being selfish. At the same time, I've seen a quote from Rice's former Boston roommate, Bill Campbell, in which he stated that Rice was a very nice, quiet family man who was misunderstood by the media and fans. Johnny Pesky has called him the hardest working ballplayer he's ever known. Peter Gammons has also attached the misunderstood tag to Rice, writing essentially that Rice was such a shy person and Boston such an aggressive media town that a conflict was inevitable.

Given the evidence, I think it's very fair to mention Rice's tempestuous relationship with much of the media. I think it's remarkably unfair to extend this, as Stark has done, to the claim that Rice had "no off-field 'character and integrity'". Since when does a failure to provide good quotes equate to bad character? If those two things were correlated in some way, wouldn't that mean that O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson have good character? After all, they are two of the most quotable characters in sports.

Jim Rice's character should never be questioned. He worked so hard in high school that he nearly never played professional baseball at all. Though he knew many scouts were waiting for him at an American Legion game, Rice refused to leave his job loading boxes at a produce company until his replacement showed up. Rice doesn't smoke, rarely drinks, has never been connected to any kind of off-field scandal or trouble, married his high school sweetheart, raised a family and worked for the same employer for thirty years. He once entered the stands at Fenway to help a little boy who had been hit by a foul ball, carrying him into the Sox dugout and clubhouse for medical attention. He's been active in the Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program, lending his name to a ballfield in one of Boston's worst neighborhoods. He was named an honorary chairman of the Jimmy Fund. Doesn't all of this add up to exactly the type of off-field "character and integrity" that we want represented in the Hall of Fame?

(Update, 4-7-06: I have since met Jim Rice, in October of 2004, the day after the Red Sox lost Game 3 of the ALCS, 19-8, and fell to a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees. He was in Kansas City for an autograph show, and I not only got an autograph, but shook his hand and got my photo taken with him as well. He was extremely gracious to everyone who greeted him, shook every hand, said "You're welcome" to every thank you, and laughed happily when a little boy ran up to him, gave him a hug, and said "You're like my grandpa". Rice's reply? "That's because I am a grandpa." Just a nice, nice man. And, oh by the way, after I shook his hand and told him he belonged in the Hall of Fame, the Red Sox never lost again that post-season. So I'm going to take credit for that World Series title, if you don't mind)

Fenway Was Too Hitter-Friendly

Fenway was and is a hitter's park. That's absolutely true. That said, it should be noted that we have no way of knowing how much the Sox players altered their swings to account for the quirks of their home park. We've all heard of players over-swinging when their team visited Fenway, with the Green Monster offering such an inviting target. Many times those players need a few games to get out of the bad habits Fenway started, or at least they say they do. Well, if visiting players alter their swings to try to take advantage of the park's features, doesn't it follow that the home club would do the same? And if some visiting players need a few games to fix Fenway-induced problems after just a three game visit, isn't it even safer to say that the home players have some serious kinks to work out after a ten-game homestand? The fact is that we have no way of quantifying how much the positive effects of Fenway actually hurt Sox players on the road, which would go a long way to explaining the extreme home-road splits of most Sox players.

What I find really odd about the Fenway argument is that it's never turned around. Why isn't Rice given credit for walking onto the field at Fenway, taking in all of those quirky dimensions, and making a conscious decision to tailor his swing to suit the field? Neyer's own home-road splits could be viewed as evidence that this is exactly what happened. If we need further evidence that Rice knew how to take advantage of Fenway's dimensions, consider the 12 years since Rice retired. In those seasons the Red Sox have ranked poorly in runs per game, finishing 7th three times, 9th once, 12th three times, and 13th once. Still, they posted one four-year stretch during this span in which they finished in the top-5 each year. And who was their hitting coach for each of those seasons? Jim Rice. Sorry, but I don't believe in coincidences.

In addition, if we're going to downgrade Rice's accomplishments because of Fenway, why isn't he also given credit for playing in a difficult era for hitters? In Rice's rookie year, the Red Sox led the league with an average of 4.98 runs per game. From 1994 through 2001, that figure would have averaged a 9th-place finish in the American League. During Rice's twelve-year peak the Sox averaged 4.86 runs per game and finished 3rd in the league on average. In the twelve years since Rice's retirement, the Sox have also averaged 4.86 runs per game, but have averaged just an 8th-place league ranking.

In the history of the American League, the era in which Rice played represents some of the lowest average batting totals of the Live Ball era. If we rank all 101 American League seasons by the OPS figure that led the league, 12 of the 16 seasons in which Rice played finish in the bottom third. If a player hit 39 homers or drove in 125 runs in any season of Rice's career, chances were that they were going to lead the American League. Do you know how many times each of those figures would have led the league since he retired? Excluding the 1994 strike year, it's happened just once, when Cecil Fielder had 124 RBI in 1992.

When all of this boils down, I don't find a lot of meat on these criticisms. Certainly not enough to balance out Rice's dominance as a hitter. From 1975 through 1986, Rice posted numbers that were simply unmatched by any other outfielder. The closest was Dave Winfield, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, who averaged 151 games, 634 plate appearances, 24 homers, 99 RBI, 91 runs scored and an OPS of .841. Rice tops all of those numbers, with 152 games, 655 plate appearances, 30 homers, 109 RBI, 94 runs scored and an OPS of .873. In fact, if we were to average the all-star and top-10 MVP seasons of every major league outfielder in this time period, we would find that they average - in their best years - just 146 games, 609 plate appearances, 22 homers, 85 RBI, 87 runs scored and an OPS of .844. (All of these numbers are extrapolated for the 1981 strike season.) In other words, Jim Rice spent twelve consecutive seasons posting numbers that were better than the average All-Star or MVP-caliber major league outfielder. No one else comes close; Rice was the best hitting outfielder of his day, and if not for Mike Schmidt would have been the best hitter period.
This certainly was recognized in his time, as he collected six top-5 MVP finishes in this span. If MVP finishes were converted to points, Rice's total of 50 would be tied with Reggie Jackson for 20th in the history of baseball. All of the 15 eligible players ahead of him have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. More than one hundred Hall of Famers rank behind him.

That clinches it for me. I'll admit to being biased because Jim Rice was my favorite player as a kid, but I just don't see where the negatives are as extreme as they've been represented.

Jim Rice would get some love from this would-be voter.

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