Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hall of Fame Postmortem: Jim Rice

I've waffled back and forth on how to proceed with my take on this year's Hall of Fame voting. At first, I thought maybe I'd go alphabetically, but now I've just decided to write about whoever I want to whenever I want to. It's my blog, so you just have to deal with it.

Today's topic is the Hall of Fame candidacy of Jim Rice. Many in the blogosphere are tired of the debate on Rice's candidacy by now. If any of you are reading this, I apologize. For those who aren't, here's my take.

Jim Rice played for the Boston Red Sox from 1974 through 1989. He never played for any other team. He won an MVP award in 1978. He finished in the top five in MVP voting six times. He made the All-Star game eight times. He never won a World Series (after all, he played for the Red Sox). He finished with a career line of .298/.352/.502 and an OPS+ of 128. He accumulated 1249 runs, 1451 RBI, 2452 hits, and 382 home runs.

However, Rice never had a season with a WARP3 greater than 10, a roughly MVP level season, and his career was short by Hall of Fame standards, ending with only 83.2 WARP3. Contemporary Hall of Fame left fielders include Willie Stargell (100.4 career WARP3), Carl Yastremski (133.5), and Lou Brock (88.2). For comparison, Ted Williams has 167.2 WARP3; Barry Bonds has 234.8; Rickey Henderson has 187.7; and Tim Raines has 123.9.

In 2008, Rice fell just short of being inducted into the Hall of Fame with 72.2% of the vote (75% is required for induction).

Even Rice's greatest advocates will admit that he did not have a long career, nor will they argue that his play defensively contributes at all to his Hall of Fame case. Instead, the focus is on whether or not Jim Rice was so offensively dominant during his peak that he makes up for his short career and mediocre defense. Even examining only this question, Rice's advocates will admit that he does not fare well enough by using more modern valuations of offense to be considered a Hall of Famer.

Indeed, the more one reads arguments for Rice, the more it seems that Rice's candidacy stems from three basic arguments, two of which are silly enough that I'm not going to spend a lot of time on them.

The first argument, which has appeared numerous times, I have lifted from Rice's Wikipedia article:
From 1975 to 1986, Rice led the American League in total games played, at-bats, runs scored, hits, homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, total bases, extra-base hits, go-ahead RBIs, multi-hit games, and outfield assists.
The first thing to note here is that we've cherry-picked a select set of statistics from a select set of years. This is the combination of stats and years that makes Jim Rice look his absolute best. You can do this for just about any good player in history to make them look great. This is as close to the wrong way to use statistics as you can get.

Furthermore, notice how correlated all the statistics are. Most of them are counting stats, which means they are highly related to the fact that Rice lead the league in games played and at-bats. Yes, this speaks to durability, but it also means that he had a lot of opportunities to accumulate numbers. Notice too that homers, slugging percentage, total bases and extra-base hits are all basically saying the same thing: he had power. The outfield assists aspect of this is silly, because Rice played left-field in Fenway park, which massively boosts the assists total of every outfielder who plays there, due to the small left-field created by the Green Monster.

Ultimately, it's telling which stats are not on this list. There's no mention of outs, double plays, walks, or on-base percentage. Why? Because Rice made a ton of outs and hit into a ton of double plays all while not walking that much. We'll address this later on, but the key point here is that cherry-picking in this fashion is amateurish at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

The second argument for Rice is that he was the most "feared" hitter of his generation. There's just no way to talk about this objectively, so I'm not going to try. The only way to back this assertion up, besides the notoriously unreliable and crotchety ramblings of ex-ballplayers, is to cite the first argument. Personally, I need something more concrete than that.

The final argument for Rice, and the best one by far, is to simply admit that, yes, Rice's game had serious deficiencies by today's standards. However, in Jim Rice's day, he was not expected to walk. He was expected to drive runs in. This expectation lead him to a style of hitting that we understand today as suboptimal. However, Rice was doing what was asked of him and he did it extremely well.

This is the argument that Buster Olney has been making in his back and forth with Rich Lederer on this subject. I have three points to make regarding this debate.
  1. The available evidence shows that Jim Rice walked exactly as often with men on base as he did with the bases empty. In other words, if Jim Rice were altering his style of play in order to drive more runs in, the stats show that he was not succeeding at this. It's far more likely that Rice was the same player with men on base as he was with the bases empty: an out machine with tremendous power.
  2. Jim Rice had a lot of men on base in front of him. During the later part of his career, he had Wade Boggs setting the table for him. Boggs is one of the best on-base men in the history of baseball. If we look at Rice's OBI%, the percentage of baserunners driven that Rice drove in, we find that he ranked 9th, 21st, 15th, 4th, 8th, 17th, 49th, 31st, 14th, 10th, 33rd, and 10th in that twelve year period from 1975 through 1986 (500 PA minimum, except for 350 PA minimum in 1981, a strike year). Keep in mind that there are only around 70 names that qualify to be ranked this way. That's just not an impressive showing, especially if driving men in is the one skill on which your Hall of Fame case is hanging.
  3. Finally, why is it that Rice is virtually the only Hall of Fame candidate whose candidacy desperately needs the voter to accept the idea that we should judge Rice not on what is objectively valuable, but instead on what was perceived to be valuable while he was playing? So many other players from Rice's day have been admitted to the Hall of Fame with the support of both those who believe in an objective standard and those who do not. Why is Rice the only player who seemingly needs this argument? To me, the answer to that question is that the argument itself is born not of the desire to select the best candidates but rather of the desire to select Jim Rice. The bottom line is that when you compare Rice to other Hall of Famers, we find that those men performed objectively well despite the perceptions of the people playing, coaching, and covering the game during their era. I don't see why we shouldn't hold Rice to that same standard.
There's one final argument against Rice: he played his home games at Fenway Park. There is no question that Rice benefited enormously from this. Had he played elsewhere, it is likely his numbers would not be so impressive and we would not be having this discussion.

That being said, the hyperbole from some opponents of Rice's candidacy with respect to his home park has absolutely got to stop. It's being claimed in different places from otherwise solid objective analysts that Rice was a poor hitter on the road and that he would have been a mediocre player had he not played for the Red Sox.

Comments like these server only to inflame the passions those who are inclined to vote for Rice. Furthermore, they have the disadvantage of being both untrue and intellectually dishonest. Hitters tend to hit better in their home park in general. If they play in a pitcher's park, they do not see as much of a decline. If they play in a hitter's park, they see even more of a boost. To extrapolate from Rice's road numbers that he was a crappy hitter who only looks good because he played at Fenway is just not correct. Rice's games at Fenway still count, even if we have to devalue them a little to correct for the hitter's haven that it was and is.

In any case, I would not vote for Jim Rice. It's too hard for me to buy the argument that he could have been an objectively better player if he had been asked to be one. And objectively, he just doesn't stack up against other Hall of Fame players, and even one, Tim Raines, who is not in the Hall of Fame.

None of this is a knock on Jim Rice as a person or as a player. There's no shame in being not quite good enough to be a Hall of Famer and if you gave me the option of having Rice on my team and not having Rice on my team, I'd take Rice without thinking about it for even a fraction of an ounce of a piece of a second.

However, the Hall of Fame is about more than that. It's about honoring a select few of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. Jim Rice simply is not one of them.

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