Welcome to installment #13 of our How the Hall Failed series. Today we review the case of Jim Rice, the extremely questionable case of Jim Rice. In many ways Rice is the Jack Morris of hitters if we just substitute “pitcher of the ‘80s” for “feared”. But one thing we can say about the baseball writers is that they at least got the Morris call right by not putting him in. Rice made it on his fifteenth and final ballot. Whether he made it because of the narrative, because of momentum, or because of a misunderstanding of his offensive contribution isn’t important. What matters is that he’s in. And he shouldn’t be.
Among those who we classify at the position, both Eric’s system and mine view Rice as the 36th best left fielder ever. So if you believe in a Hall about twice the size it is today, we think Rice has a legitimate argument. If you don’t, this post should deliver.
The Hall has messed up at this position. Heinie Manush was a bad selection. Chick Hafey was miserable. A guy we both prefer to Rice, Willie Stargell, has already received his How the Hall Failed post. And a guy extremely close in value, Lou Brock, has received his too. Players in left we both see as better include Charlie Keller, Luis Gonzalez, George Foster, Albert Belle, Roy White, and Jose Cruz.
Overall, Rice is a lot like Jim Fregosi, Carlos Delgado, Tony Oliva, Matt Williams, Tim Salmon, Lenny Dykstra, Ken Caminiti, and Dave Parker in terms of value. These were all good players. So don’t think I’m exaggerating in this post. Rice was a good player. He was miles better than the likes of Tommy McCarthy and Lloyd Waner. And the BBWAA has done worse work by voting in guys like Luis Aparicio and Bruce Sutter. But Jim Rice was clearly a mistake on the part of the writers. Seriously, he’s similar in value to Tim Salmon.
Why Was Rice Overvalued?
We overvalue Rice’s bat. According to the Rbat statistic, which measures the number of runs better or worse than average the player was as a hitter, Rice ranks #125 all time. That’s ground Rice shares with guys like Tim Raines, Jim Edmonds, and Keith Hernandez, three players who brought so much more to the table than just a bat. Raines, one of the best baserunners ever, has just two more tries on the BBWAA ballot. Keith Hernandez, perhaps the best defensive first baseman ever, dipped under 5% on his ninth and final ballot. And Jim Edmonds, who had seven seasons of All-Star type play according to straight BBREF WAR compared to only five for Rice, is expected by many to fail to reach the 5% needed to stay on the ballot next year when he’s eligible for the first time.
Rice also shares ground by Rbat with Ellis Burks, Rocky Colavito, and Moises Alou, good players all, but nobody’s idea of Hall of Famers.
And the bat was the good part of Rice’s game.
Some argue that Rice is in the Hall because he’s the most feared hitter of his day. Let’s examine that theory for a moment. I’d say pitchers should fear the hitters who do the most damage with the bat, right? So what I did was take a look at Rice’s career, which will bias our results in favor of Rice (or anyone whose span of play matches Jim Ed’s). What we find is that Rice had the 27th most value of all non-pitchers during just time he played. And with just the bat. Most feared? I think not.
But maybe we should be talking AL only. Rice was the most feared in the AL, right? Rice played his entire career in the Junior Circuit, yet when examining just that league and just during Rice’s career, he ranks #16. Hitters who caused more fear in pitchers – or at least should have because they did more damage – include Bobby Grich, Toby Harrah, and two teammates, Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn.
Let’s narrow things even more. Maybe when people talk about fear, they’re talking only about AL right-handers. From 1974-1989 Jim Rice was the 14th most feared right handed hitter in the American League. Man, we’re limiting this a lot, and there’s still not a whole lot to be scared about.
Think I’m being unfair? First, I beg to disagree. My sample is super-biased in favor of Rice. But what I’ll do is look at just the best decade of his career, just among righties, just in the AL, just with the bat, and just when Jim Rice was at his scariest, 1977-1986. Now we have something! Rice is fourth, trailing only Brett, Yount, and Murray.
Let’s look at who comes in right behind Rice. First we have Toby Harrah. This sample misses his best year and includes his worst. Next is Dwight Evans. This sample ignores his third and fifth best years at the plate. Then there’s Willie Randolph. That’s right, when Rice was at his very best, he was just a shade scarier offensively than Willie Randolph.
Let me just say that Jim Rice was not a scary hitter. Barry Bonds was a scary hitter. He was intentionally walked 688 times during his career. Hank Aaron was a scary hitter. He took four wide ones 293 times during his. How scary was Rice? He received only 77 intentional passes during his time. That’s good for 195th place all-time, exactly as scary as Jerry Grote, George Hendrick, Pete O’Brien, Geoff Jenkins, and Fred Lynn. That guy again.
I know, intentional walks aren’t the only measure of fear. If you have great hitter behind you, perhaps you’re not going to be passed intentionally anywhere near as much as if you don’t. Roger Maris, somewhat famously, didn’t receive a single intentional walk during his record-breaking 1961 season because he had the great Mickey Mantle batting behind him.
But still. Former teammates Carl Yastrzemski, Wade Boggs, Tony Perez, Tim McCarver, Bill Buckner, Carlton Fisk, Bob Watson, Don Baylor, George Scott, Cecil Cooper, and Mike Greenwell all drew more intentional walks during their careers than Rice. Maybe I missed a teammate or two, but I think you get the point.
The Opposite of Scary
We’ve already learned that pitchers weren’t particularly fearful when Rice stepped to the plate with a man on second and less than two outs. Now let’s discuss how they were downright giddy with a man on first and less than two outs.
Jim Rice is tied with Eddie Murray for sixth all-time in double plays grounded into. Sixth! To be fair, everyone ahead of him on the list is in the Hall or going: Cal Ripken, Pudge Rodriguez, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, and Dave Winfield. But counting stats aren’t as valuable as rate stats, so let’s examine the Rdp number from the folks at BBREF. Rdp is a statistic that expresses the number of runs better worse than average the player was at avoiding double plays. Drum roll…
The worst player ever at avoiding double plays was, you guessed it, Jim Rice. In all of baseball history, Jim Rice killed rallies at the highest rate. That’s not scary. That’s a combination safety net and security blanket.
Rice hit the Hall ballot in 1995 with 29.8% of the vote, ironically tied with another poor selection, Bruce Sutter. Just for a sense of how poorly the writers have done, I’m going to offer one player from each year Rice was on the ballot, almost always a guy who fell off the ballot that year, who I believe has a better Hall case than the Red Sox slugger. The numbers you see below come from my player ranking system, MAPES. The system adjusts for length of season, defensive regression analysis, outfield arm, peak value, and other stuff. Basically, it’s my answer to JAWS and to Eric’s CHEWS. Rice finished his career with 38.2 MAPES points. The fifteen guys below all failed to get into the Hall, and all of them were better.
Year Player MAPES Vote% Rice% 1995 Buddy Bell 53.5 1.7% 29.8% 1996 Chet Lemon 44.0 0.2% 35.3% 1997 Graig Nettles 52.0 4.7% 37.6% 1998 Willie Randolph 49.2 1.1% 42.9% 1999 Dwight Evans 50.4 3.6% 29.4% 2000 Willie Wilson 43.3 2.0% 51.5% 2001 Lou Whitaker 54.9 2.9% 57.9% 2002 Keith Hernandez 54.1 6.1% 55.1% 2003 Brett Butler 43.2 0.4% 52.2% 2004 Dave Stieb 47.7 1.4% 54.5% 2005 Tony Phillips 46.3 0.2% 66.7% 2006 Will Clark 47.1 4.4% 64.8% 2007 Bret Saberhagen 48.2 1.3% 63.5% 2008 Chuck Finley 44.8 0.2% 72.2% 2009 David Cone 51.2 3.9% 76.4%
Jim Rice and Fred Lynn
For a while Red Sox fans had a nice little in-house debate about which of their outfielders was better, CF Fred Lynn or LF Jim Rice. And at the end of the 1979 season, very reasonable people could have backed either of the two as more likely than the other to eventually get to the Hall. Below is how they looked through their first six years in Beantown, at least according to my adjusted WAR numbers.
Rice Lynn 1974 0.0 0.9 1975 2.5 6.5 1976 1.9 4.0 1977 5.3 1.0 1978 7.1 4.0 1979 6.4 8.1 Total 23.3 24.4
Lynn had him by a win, but Rice was a year younger. Lynn won the 1975 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year, and Rice was the runner up in 1975 and won his MVP hardware three years later. Lynn had five All-Star appearances, a pair of Gold Gloves, and a triple slash triple crown. Rice had three All-Star games, a pair of HR titles, and an RBI crown.
As we know, however, the two took different paths.
Or did they?
Rice Lynn 1980 2.0 4.5 1981 2.6 0.4 1982 3.1 4.3 1983 7.4 2.2 1984 2.2 3.5 Total 17.2 14.9 '74-'84 40.5 39.3
In their first eleven seasons, the difference between the two was just 1.2 wins. Surely Rice would pull ahead over the next few years. After all, he was one of the most feared hitters of his time, and Lynn was an often-injured vagabond who played for five teams.
Rice Lynn 1985 2.3 0.3 1986 4.5 2.4 1987 0.4 1.1 1988 0.4 2.2 1989 -0.7 0.6 1990 -0.4 Total 7.0 7.2 Career 47.5 46.4
Whoa! Wait a second. Jim Rice was only worth one more win than Fred Lynn over the course of their careers?
Yep. That’s true. And that’s just one of many indicators that the Hall failed in their election of Rice.
Jim Rice was a fine player. Really, he was. But the fear narrative is just silly. From 1977-1979, Rice’s absolute peak, if we look at only AL righties and only offense, he edges out Ken Singleton as the game’s best player. So framed in the best possible quantitative way, Jim Rice is barely better than Ken Singleton. That’s not a Hall of Famer, right?