Thursday, January 11, 2007

Jim Rice - Hall of Fame?

A collection of thoughts and arguments that I've made in other places as Jim Rice has failed to reach the 75% of the vote necessary for Hall of Fame induction again.

OK. The Jim Rice Hall Of Fame Debate.

First off, I want to reiterate that I'm one of Rice's biggest fans. He was my favorite player from the mid-70s (when Yaz became my favorite player emeritus) until he retired. I was certain, when I was younger, that he was a Hall of Famer, and if he elected next year or the year after, which wouldn't surprise me in the least, I'll be, at least in some respects, happy to see it. That said, I don't think that his career warrants induction.

People make it to the Hall of Fame through either a period of dominance during a middling-length career, or being good enough to be productive over the course of a very long career. Clearly, the latter is not the case for Rice. Given the relative shortness of his career, he needs to go in on peak performance. And I don't think he makes it. I don't think that he peak was either high enough or long enough.

The other thing that goes into a Hall of Fame case is what we might call the "intangible" package. Are there special circumstances that make this player a greater or more important player than his statistics would indicate? Kirby Puckett was the undisputed leader of two World Series Champions, for example, and that played significantly into his case.

Bill James came up with what he (or others) called the "Ken Keltner list." Let's go through it for Rice.

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?

Yes. I think most people would or did consider him the best player in baseball in 1978. That was probably the only year, though his reputation as one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball persisted for several years in which it wasn't warranted.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

In 1978, he may have been. That was probably the only time, as he played with Fred Lynn early and Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens later. Considering everything, defense and OBP in addition to just raw power, Dwight Evans was a better player than Rice for much of his career as well.

3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?

He was the best hitter at his position a couple of times. He was never a great fielder, and it was one of the easier defensive positions.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?

Yes. He was important to the AL pennant race in 1975, 1978 and 1986. Had he not been hurt before the 1975 World Series, there are a whole host of issues that might be different, including his HoF case. (Seriously, had Rice rather than Fisk hit that HR in game 6, he might be in already.) But he was, and they aren't.

5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

Nope. He had a precipitous decline, and was out of the game very quickly after his last good season.

6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

No. Ron Santo, Dick Allen, Rich Gossage, Bert Blyleven - and there are others.

7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Looking at Rice's similarity scores, we see 4 Hall of Famers (Cepeda, who shouldn't be in, Duke Snider, Billy Williams and Willy Stargell), and 6 players who clearly aren't, including Ellis Burks, Andres Galarraga and Joe Carter. So no, they aren't.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

That's really the question, isn't it? Some say yes, I say no. He didn't meet any of the big milestone numbers (3000 hits, 400 HR, 1500 RBI) that people have used in the past for "automatic" induction. His batting average fell below .300, his OBP is only .352, his SLG is .502. None of those numbers screams for HoF induction.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

There's nothing that I'm aware of to provide value above what the numbers say. He didn't have a Fisk/Puckett/Carter moment, winning a World Series game with a HR. He didn't particularly carry a team to a pennant. There's no great defensive or base-running resume. No, his case rests, stands or falls, entirely on what he did with the bat.

The one statistical accomplishment that jumps out and gets talked about was his 1978 season in which he accumulated 406 total bases, the first time that any hitter had bettered 400 TB in 30 years.

And his statistics are skewed, because he put up his best numbers in a ballpark that was exceptionally friendly to offense. If you look at that period from 1977 through 1979, when Rice was considered one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, Fenway was playing very small. Whether due to wind and weather patterns, or something else, bad hitters looked OK, OK hitters looked good and good hitters looked great in Fenway during those years. From 1977 through 1979, Rice hit .350/.405/.699/1.105 at Fenway, and .290/.347/.498/.845 everywhere else. In his MVP season of 1978, he hit .361/.416/.690/1.105 at home and .269/.325/.512/.837 everywhere else. 231 (57%) of those 406 total bases were accumulated in Fenway and only 175 (43%) on the road. He was a great hitter in his home park.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?

No. Dick Allen was an outfielder. Was Rice clearly better than Fred Lynn or Sherry Magee or Dave Parker or Dwight Evans or Dale Murphy or Andre Dawson or Jimmy Wynn?

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

He won 1. He was 3rd twice and 4th twice, though I think some of those 3rds and 4ths were reputation votes, rather than deserved votes.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?

Jim Rice was an All Star 8 times. Half of the players with 8 All Star appearances are in, half are out. There are several 9 time All Stars who are also not in.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?

A team could probably win a pennant with Jim Rice, at his peak, as its best player.

14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?


15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

Yes, as far as we know, there's nothing to concern us here.

So, the Keltner list, in my opinion, leaves us where we started - he's a low-borderline case. He has some things in common with other Hall of Fame inductees, and some things in common with others who weren't. I see 7 clear "noes," 5 clear "yesses," and 3 "um, well, probably, but it's sorta-kinda-closes."

Questions and Answers:

If Kirby Puckett and Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda are in, doesn't that legitimately mean that Jim Rice should be, too?

I'm not going to dispute the legitimacy of the argument, and I'm not going to weep for the HoF if he gets in. But I am going to disagree with the argument. If every mistake is a precedent, then eventually, you have a Hall of Mistakes. There are always going to be borderline cases, and every time you shift the border, you add new guys to the borderline. Guys who clearly were borderline get in, and guys who were clearly below it become new borderline cases. If you add Jim Rice, do you all of a sudden have to start talking about Joe Carter? There are always going to be people who are close to the line but below it, whereever you draw it. I think Rice is below it, and the fact that others have been inducted who shouldn't have been doesn't change that.

How can you say that Jim Rice's peak wasn't high enough? I understand the longevity arguments, but not this. In 1978, he had one of the great offensive seasons of all time and he was the undisputed MVP. He had four truly great seasons.

I'm going to disagree with that assessment of his '78 season. He had the highest OPS+ in the AL, but it was only 158. That was the 2nd lowest OPS+ to lead the league in the 1970s. Even his raw OPS of .970 doesn't come close to the top 100 offensive seasons in history, and, as I noted above, the appearance of a monster season was greatly aided and abetted by an extreme offensive ballpark.

And any OPS discussion is going to overrate Rice, as his OBP was never great.

The 46 HR obviously doesn't make it a season for the ages. Nor does the .600 SLG, which doesn't come close to the top 100 SLG seasons of all time. Even adjusted for league context, his SLG was only 50% better than league average. Obviously, 50% better than league average is very good, but there are a lot of players with a lot of seasons that good, that did it in parks that didn't inflate their numbers the way Fenway inflated Rice's.

And that was his best season. If you look at his top 4 OPS+ seasons, they are 158 (1978), 154 (1979), 148 (1977) and 141 (1983). That's really good. But it's not an awesome peak, not when there's so little outside his peak, and little to no defensive value.

You said that he was only dominant for four years, and good for more. Doesn't that describe the careers of most Hall of Famers? Yastrzemski was only dominant for a couple of years, right? Didn't he get in because he played for so long? Don't most Hall of Fame careers consist of a few dominant seasons and a bunch of others?

That's probably true. I just don't see Rice's peak seasons being "dominant." I've seen Yaz brought up as someone who "was only really dominant for a couple of seasons." Here are the top-5 OPS+ seasons for Rice and Yaz.

Rice Yastrzemski
158 195
154 178
148 171
141 156
137 148

I think that represents a pretty big gap...

You said that Dwight Evans had a better career than Rice, and possibly even a better peak! How could you even think that?

Career OBP: Evans .370, Rice .352
Career OPS: Evans .840, Rice .856
When you take into account that OBP is more valuable than SLG, and that Evans played over 600 more games of better defense at a tougher defensive position, I think it's pretty clear that Evans had a signficantly better career than Rice did. BP's WARP3 (Wins Above Replacement Player, adjusted for all-time) has Evans at 119 and Rice at 89.2. Bill James Win Shares had Evans with 347 and Rice with 282.

As to the peak, that's debatable.

Rice Evans
158 163
154 156
148 149
141 147
137 137

Evans' best year was 1981, which makes it tough to evaluate, but it's a legitimate discussion as to peak, and a no-brainer as to career. Obviously, Rice hit more HR and drove in more runs than Evans. It's not at all obvious that that made him a better player. (There's more on Evans vs. Rice to be found here.)

How about Cal Ripken? His average year wasn't as good as Rice's.

He was playing SS. Well. Rice was playing LF. OK.

Robin Yount's average year wasn't as good as Rice's.

He was playing SS, and then he was playing CF. Rice was playing LF.

Dave Winfield is in the Hall of Fame. His average year didn't match Rice's. He never had 200 hits. His high in home runs was 37. He never won an MVP award. His career batting average is only .283. His career slugging percentage is well below Rice's. Isn't he in only because he hung around long enough to hit 400 HR?

Winfield finished with an OPS+ that essentially the same as Rice's, but compiled over 900 more games. That's an enormous difference in career value. Had Rice played 6 more good years, he'd be in the Hall of Fame like Winfield. But he didn't.

As to Ripken and Yount, well, arguing that Rice should be in the Hall of Fame because he has better offensive numbers than two guys who had significantly longer careers while playing SS and CF isn't a particularly strong case to make. And I don't think Rice has the peak advantage over any of those guys that you think he has.

Rice Ripken Winfield Yount
158 162 165 166
154 145 159 152
148 144 154 151
141 139 149 132
137 128 142 130

Tony Perez was not the player Rice was. His average year was inferior to Rice's in most categories, and he never had a year as good as Rice's awesome career year.

Again, I think people have an inflated view of Rice's career year. I've already said that I wouldn't have voted for Perez, but there's no dispute that he played longer and generated more value because of it. (James has him at 349 Win Shares, BP at 109.5 WARP3.) Well, the peak wasn't lower than Rice's, either.

Rice Perez
158 163
154 159
148 145
141 140
137 137

And, unlike Rice, he was credited with being a leader on one of the great Championship teams. Whether he deserves it or not is, of course, debatable. But it's definitely part of his case.

If those players have gotten in, doesn't that set a standard that should allow Rice, if he meets that standard, to get in, too?

Nope. That was a mistake. You don't compound the mistake by adding more mistakes.

Now longevity was Rice's enemy -- a couple of more even mediocre seasons to get to 400 homers and some of those milestones and he would have been in easy. Why does Kirby Puckett get in, with only 12 seasons?

1) No decline phase.
2) Reputation, now apparently undeserved, as a great guy.
3) Considered to have been the leader and best player on two World Series teams.
4) Sympathy votes for the condition that ended his career.
5) Better defense at a tougher defensive position.

I wouldn't have voted for him, but his admission doesn't make Rice's case.

If Rice had just hung on and played a couple of mediocre seasons, and hit 18 more home runs, he probably would have been a lock. But would that really have made him a more deserving player?

Yes, it would. People get credit for being good enough to still be productive Major League players at age 40 and 41. Rice's problem was that, by the time he was 36 he couldn't hang on. He couldn't play mediocre ball and build up the career numbers - he wasn't capable of it. He didn't walk away rather than play poorly - he played so poorly that no one would give him a job.

No offense to Jim Rice. I realize that some of this sounds harsh, and it's certainly not intended that way. But I really think that the case for his induction is weak, at best. I can't see any compelling reason to think he's a legitimate Hall of Famer. And it hurts me to say that - I wish it weren't the case. But I think it is...

(H/T to Sully at Baseball Analysts for doing some good Evans/Rice stuff, and Robert Machemer for information on some non-HoF outfielders, posted to the Red Sox newsgroup, and to phendrie at the Providence Journal Your Turn board, for providing some questions and impetus to do this...)

Technorati tags: Rice, Puckett,Evans, Perez, Winfield, Cepeda, HallOfFame



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