It’s Hall of Fame Week at Umpbump. We’ll be taking a look at the guys on the ballot and giving you our take on who does and doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. Making his 14th appearance on the HOF ballot: Jim Rice, one of the most dominant hitters of any 10-year period. But did his career have the longevity to get him the brass plaque?

I know that Jim Rice’s career numbers make him a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame. I know that, if selected, those numbers would put him in the bottom quartile. But you know what? Someone has to be. We can’t all be valedictorians. We can’t all win gold medals. We can’t all date Angelina Jolie. Some of us have to be in the bottom half of the class. Someone has to win the bronze. Someone has to end up with Jennifer Aniston. Why not Jim Rice?

Because although Jim Rice’s 16 years in the majors are on the short side for the Hall, Jim Ed’s fast rise, complete dominance during his prime, and durability for most of those years should be enough to make up for that. No, he did not manage to hang on through his late 30s, and thus could not pad his career offensive numbers like so many other HOFers. And yet, if I may be forgiven for quoting my own article from last week’s Boston Metro:

In 1975, he was one of many glorious Red Sox rookies and finished third in MVP voting and second in the Rookie of the Year tally. In ’77, ’78 and ’79, he was in his prime. He hit more than 35 homers in each of those three years, while also collecting over 200 hits — the only major-league player to ever accomplish that feat.

Six times did Rice finished in the top five in the MVP balloting. Eight times was Rice elected an All-Star. And perhaps most impressive to me, twice did Rice break his bat on a checked swing alone. An ash bat. In the pre-steroids era. Yes, Rice had a temper, but so did many other Hall of Famers. In Rice’s defense, it can’t have been easy working for a deeply racist organization—an organization that was the last major league club to integrate and which, for season after season, would only field one African American player at a time. Add the fact that Boston is a tough media town, and you have a recipe for surliness. There’s the famous incident in which he strode into the stands at Yankee stadium to get his hat back from the impertinent fan who had to foolishly swiped it. But he also entered the stands on another, less noted occasion: in Fenway, when a child had been struck by a foul ball. He carried the boy into the clubhouse for treatment.

And for those who say that Rice had no speed? In 1975, his rookie season, he led the team in steals. Sure, he only had 10—but then, the Red Sox organization has never been known for encouraging the stolen base. But to accuse him of no speed? In 1978, he led the majors in triples. During the same annus mirabilis, he also led baseball in homers and RBI—and he’s the only player to ever lead baseball in triples, homers, and RBI. That year also made him one of only a handful of players to collect 400 total bases in a season—putting him in the company of Joe DiMaggio and Hank Aaron. In fact, though Rice is now remembered as a lead-footed, perennially injured slugger, he was actually possessed of the rare ability to hit for both power and average. Though his lifetime batting average of .298 and 382 total home runs may not look like much on their own, look at them together and the impact is powerful: out of all retired players, Rice ranks tenth in terms of batting average and homers. Needless to say, those players (Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams) are all in the Hall of Fame.

As for his defense, which is either overlooked or derided, Paul White at BaseballLibrary has done a nice job of applying modern defensive stats to Rice’s glove, and showing that his numbers weren’t substantially different from his outfield contemporary, eight-time Gold Glove winner Dwight Evans:

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.

Sure, Evans made fewer errors and Fenway’s right field is more difficult than its left field. Nonetheless, let this put to rest the unfair accusation that Rice’s “poor defense” should keep him out of Cooperstown.

Many have looked at Rice’s numbers, and seen his name included on the ballot every year for fourteen years, and wondered why he continues to garner enough votes to stay on that ballot—while somehow always falling short of never the support needed to actually be elected. Are the same old codgers who may have gotten the rough side of Rice’s tongue now bearing grudges against the slugger-turned-hitting coach-turned-broadcaster? I hope not. Because no Red Sox has worn Jim Ed’s number 14 since he retired. In a decade that saw few excellent hitters and even fewer excellent power hitters, he was the best. He was the last man any pitcher wanted to see stepping into the batter’s box with the game on the line. And the Red Sox are just waiting for Cooperstown to call. And as soon as they do—if they do—number 14 will hang in right field forever.

Room for one more?

9 Responses to “A Song for Jim Ed”

  1. I used to love Jim Rice. I think I was one of only three kids in my inner-city Atlanta middle school to know who he was. If you put him in the Hall, there’s a whole lot of other folks that should probably go as well. Not saying he doesn’t deserve it, but just as there is a group of guys that were the last to get in, there has to be a group of guys who were the last ones left out. Dale Murphy doesn’t get mad (he’s too nice), but he would probably wonder why Rice made it and not him.

  2. Sarah Green says:

    Danny O, The Murph was good and of course you’re right that he’s very similar to Rice: both were power-hitting outfielders. But Murphy didn’t hit for average like Rice could.

  3. I think of Rice as one of the, if not the best, hitters of his era to not make the Hall. But I also think that his detractors (not quite convinced that I should consider myself one) have a good point when they state how much better Rice was at Fenway than when playing away. Here’s the split for his career:

    HOME: .320AVG/.374OBP/.546SLG/.920OPS

    AWAY: .277AVG/.330OBP/.459SLG/.789OPS

    What do you think?

  4. Sarah Green says:

    I think you can’t fault a man for the park he plays in, especially one with such quirky dimensions. Who’s to say the Red Sox didn’t sign him because they knew what he could be playing half his games in that ballpark? Who’s to say Rice didn’t adapt his swing to Fenway? For what it’s worth, Paul White’s 2002 article (link above) makes this argument pretty convincingly:

    “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.”

  5. Coley Ward says:

    What frustrates me about Hall of Fame debates is that we tend to slip back into old, outdated measurements when evaluating players.

    When we talk about the MVP, we talk about OBP and OPS, and we tell ourselves batting average shouldn’t matter, because it doesn’t matter how a player reaches base, just as long as he gets on.

    But when we talk about HOF worthiness, we slip back into the trap of outdated statistics. We say things like “Murphy didn’t hit for average like Rice could.” And it’s easy to see why. We’re used to thinking about players like Ted Williams in terms of batting average. And players like Ozzie Smith in terms of Gold Gloves won. And when we compare Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn to those players, we sometimes forget that we’ve since found better ways to evaluate player performance.

    I think there’s a case to be made for Jim Rice. But I don’t think his batting average should have anything to do with it. His lifetime OBP is .352. We should judge him more based on that.

    Dale Murphy’s OBP, FYI, is .346.


  6. Paul Moro says:

    I know what you’re saying, Coley. But when it comes to HOF-voting, I don’t think we should entirely ignore more “traditional” stats either. You know about as well as anyone that I prefer percentages to counting stats. But these two really should be used side-by-side and not against each other. What percentages can’t do very well is express sustained excellence. What counting stats can’t do is accurately express how well someone performed with the opportunities were given to them. It’s only with all of this stuff that an accurate judgment can be made.

    Besides, while here in the blogosphere we collectively may tend to place a higher emphasis on sabermetrics, it’s still not a method that’s employed by the voters. And I don’t expect them to, really. They’ve accumulated years and years of knowledge that they were taught to be true. It’s not really fair to try and convince them that they’ve been doing it “wrong” for all those years. Who knows? In a few years, something else could come along that completely undermines sabermetrics. And I won’t be ready for it.

  7. Sarah Green says:

    It’s a good point, Coley, but I think you also have to take into account that Rice and Murphy did not benefit from having sabermetrics at hand, either. Those were not the days of coaches saying “a walk is as good as a single.” I like how new stats can help us take a second look at guys who were overlooked before, or help us reevaluate guys who’ve been unfairly maligned (thus my use of range factor, above), but I think you also have to strike a balance and evaluate players in the context of their era. Murphy’s not a bad candidate. I just think Rice has a slight edge over him, based in part on having a higher batting average. Rice also gets additional points for finishing higher in the MVP voting than Murphy in more years (six top-five finishes, compared with two for Murphy). Rice has a higher career SLG (.502 to Murphy’s .469) and a higher average of total bases per 162 games (320 to 277). Murphy had one season of 180 hits or more. Rice had six such seasons, including those three seasons in which he topped 200 hits. Yes, Murphy may have had more walks, but he also had more strikeouts. To me, when you look at their numbers, Jim Rice is just a more complete, more dominating, more dangerous hitter. That puts him over the hump, in my opinion. Dale Murphy doesn’t quite have enough to make it.

  8. True, Rice was a better all around hitter, but Murph was the MVP twice, and had a handful of Gold Glove years in centerfield. He would have ranked higher on some MVP votes had he not played for a perennial cellar-dweller. (Look at 87. Dawson deserved it, but no way Murph is behind all nine of the other guys on that list.) I think Murph deserves a Hall nod because of his dominance during the 80’s.

  9. Coley Ward says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s the list of batters that Baseball Reference says are similar to Jim Rice:

    # Orlando Cepeda (911) *
    # Andres Galarraga (893)
    # Ellis Burks (882)
    # Duke Snider (882) *
    # Joe Carter (866)
    # Dave Parker (856)
    # Billy Williams (854) *
    # Moises Alou (850)
    # Willie Stargell (842) *
    # Luis Gonzalez (841)

    Four hall of famers in the bunch. Six that don’t quite cut it. So, that settles nothing.

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