I feel like I’ve written about Jim Rice’s Hall-of-Fame qualifications many times before on UmpBump. But technically, this is the first time I’m compiling a post on the topic. And most likely, it will be the last one until next year.

ricephoto.jpgSo why am I doing it now? After all, the votes for Cooperstown enshrinement have been tallied and announced. I suppose I’m doing this as an exercise in catharsis. Basically, I’ve slowly come to realize that I’ve been a bit of a hypocrite regarding this issue. I often feel like many of my fellow baseball fans work off of too many assumptions. We let the writers of the local papers and major media outlets dictate our thoughts and opinions far too often and to far too large an extent. I found myself doing just that when it came to Jim Rice. I relied far too much on the data that the naysayers wanted me to look at instead of what I thought was important:

  1. His career home/road split. Would Rice have been a Hall-of-Fame caliber player if he didn’t play 1/2 his games at Fenway Park?
  2. Career intentional walks. Were managers and opposing pitchers/catchers really “fearful” of Rice?

Oddly enough, it was another baseball writer who indirectly convinced me to look at something else.

In his blog over at ESPN.com, Buster Olney wrote today:

During Jim Rice’s incredible 1978 season, a total of two American League players had on-base percentages over .400: Rod Carew, with .411, and Ken Singleton, at .409. In 2007, eight AL players achieved an OBP of .400 or higher.

In fact, in the seven seasons played since the start of 2001, there already have been 42 AL players who have posted OBPs of .400 or better; in the entire decade, of 1970-79, there were only 36 AL players who achieved OBPs of .400 or better. It was a time of less offense and fewer runs, a time when teams didn’t value walks the way they do now, a time when the strike zone was larger, a time when hitting 20 homers and driving in 80 runs was an excellent year.

So it’s almost laughable to hear and read about how Rice was nothing more than a very good player in his time. Look, if you stick his statistics into offensive formulas tailored for the way the game was played in the ’90s, he’s not going to look as good… But if you look at him within the context of his time, he was exceptional…

Olney goes on to add up the points that each player had received throughout their careers in the MVP voting process to make the case for Rice in comparison with his peers. I for one am not a big fan of this particular methodology since all it does is rehash all the poor choices that the MVP voters had made in the past.

But I do think Olney has a point (and I don’t agree with him all that often) worth investigating. Chances are, you’ve recently seen the severe home/road splits that Rice maintained throughout his career, but I wanted to see how every other hitter during his 16-year career collectively fared at and away from Fenway Park. So I spent some time looking at the statistics from Rice’s playing days (1974-1989) and tried to figure out if this could possibly give me a better perspective. Thanks to the magic of the day-by-day database over at Baseball Musings, I took the data of everyone who even walked to the plate during those 16 years and crunched the numbers.

ricephoto2.jpgBefore I continue, I want to explain where I’m coming from. I really don’t think it’s very disputable that Jim Rice benefited a great deal from playing in Fenway Park. Fellow UmpBump writer Sarah once suggested the possibility that Rice simply tailored his game to take full advantage of what Fenway had to offer. Well, this is a hypothetical that I can’t completely disprove (though I’ll talk about this a bit later) without talking to Rice himself. But if it is true, then let me just say it takes some serious skills, as well some serious cajones (for altering his swing and thus potentially hurting his performance in away games) to pull this off. In my mind, this is very unlikely.

So with that said, what I needed to do so as not to feel like a hypocrite, was to try to put Rice’s career in a context that’s easier for the average fan to understand. As a result, I decided to stay away from OPS+, which is a stat that I particularly like but do see how it can seem esoteric and perhaps even untrustworthy. But I do think that most of us can at rice1.JPGleast swallow things like batting average, on-base-percentage, and slugging percentage. So using those stats from 1974-1989, I saw how Rice stacked up with his direct competition, starting with this chart (right):

So far so good for Jim, right? More than a solid batting average, a not-too-shabby OBP and excellent slugging (at least in this context). In fact, if I limit the data to just the guys who had at least 4000 ABs over this 16- year span, Rice’s slugging is good enough for fifth place, which, considering the fact that this includes the final 3 years of his career (where his power was just gone), isn’t too shabby at all.

rice2.JPGBut what about the home/away split? How much of a hitter’s park was Fenway during Rice’s playing career? This next chart (right) splits up the data and focuses solely on the numbers compiled in Fenway Park during Rice’s career. Keep in mind, this information has a flaw in that the “ALL MLB” stats rely far too heavily on the quality of Red Sox pitching during this time. They were slightly below average (Sox – 4.04 ERA vs. MLB – 3.83 ERA) overall, but for one reason or other performed very well compared to the rest of the league at Fenway (Sox – 4.13 ERA vs. MLB – 4.55 ERA) so let’s keep that in mind moving forward.

Anyhow, as the data shows, Fenway really did boost Rice’s numbers tremendously, as he picked up .066 points in OPS. Nothing revolutionary there, of course.rice4.JPG Also, even considering that Red Sox pitchers over this span were a bit below average, the hitters not named Rice also saw a very nice up-tick of .70 in OPS. In fact, the level at which their numbers increase is very similar to what Rice had (right). Which again runs counter to the idea that Rice had figured out a way to use Fenway Park to his advantage. According to this information, pretty much everyone had figured it out.

Now let’s look at Jim’s numbers AWAY from Fenway Park, as well as those for all hitters.

rice3.JPGSo here it is (left). The chart that may be the reason why Rice isn’t joining Gossage this year. As you would expect, there is only a negligible difference between what the rest of MLB did away from Fenway and how they performed overall (I mean, we’re talking about 16 years worth of at-bats for 2454 hitters) but I put it in there anyway so we’re comparing a similar data set. Looking at all of this information, we need to pose the question – Would Jim Rice have been a Hall of Fame caliber player if he were not drafted by the Boston Red Sox?

You might think that it’s unfair to look at it this way – that it wasn’t Rice’s fault that he played in Boston. Well, the latter part of that statement is true. It wasn’t his fault. But how he performed there and away from Fenway certainly was up to him and his skills. If we cannot penalize him for being a Red Sox (which I have no interest in doing), then we can’t credit him for it either. Of course, this “what if?” is yet another hypothetical, but it’s one vanslyke.jpgthat the data may actually support. During the games where he didn’t have the pleasure of hitting in Fenway, an argument could be made that Andy Van Slyke was a better player (since Andy played a more demanding position). Now that’s nothing to scoff at ordinarily since Van Slyke was a very good player – but he’s no Hall of Famer.

However, I will say this. In all honesty, this is the first time that I had ever looked at Rice’s numbers this closely. And based upon the arguments I’ve read against his induction, I had imagined that his numbers away from Fenway were actually worse than they were. Basically, Jim Rice was a better player than I had been giving him credit for. It really doesn’t matter to me if Rice ever gets into the Hall (most likely will next year) because I don’t think of the Hall of Fame as something I personally have to protect or uphold. But when he’s up on that podium when his name is called, I’d like to think that after this exercise, I won’t be muttering anything offensive under my breath.

18 Responses to “Giving Jim Rice a Second Chance”

  1. Well, I hear the Vet was also a bit of a hitter’s park back in the day.

    Anyhow, yes, it makes total sense that a homerun-prone park diminishes the likelihood of the x-base hit. the fences are closer, leaving less room for balls to fall in play. if it does, the OFer doesn’t have to go very far to retrieve it.

    103 still makes it a hitter’s park though. It may not be as much as Colorado, Cincinnati, Arizona, Wrigley, etc., but it’s still a hitter’s park.

    And as for the singles thing, again, the fence has something to do with that too. But in a one-year span, things like defense have to be taken into account, as does the length of the infield grass.

  2. Big Papi hits roughly 1 triple a year, therefore he is not as good a hitter as you thought.

    Paul makes other good suggestions.

  3. But the point is that the fences aren’t that close at the Bank. They’re closer than the fences in San Diego and at Shea, but they’re not freakishly close. They’re the same as the fences at the Vet. And while it can be argued that the Vet was a hitters park, you never heard anyone bitch about it the way pichers bitch about the Bank (unless they were complaining about the artificial turf).

  4. Oh, and in other Phillies news, the Phils are one of the teams who is watching Kris Benson pitch today. I think Kris would be an excellent fit for Philly. And when I say Kris, I obviously mean Anna.

  5. Sarah Green says:

    Paul, I don’t get it. You seem to think your last little graph there proves something so self-evident that it doesn’t need to be stated explicitly. But I am notoriously bad at math. What am I missing?

    You didn’t provide the difference between Rice’s not-Fenway numbers and MLB’s not-Fenway numbers, so I will:

    BA – 19 points
    OBP – 6 points
    SLG – 76 points
    OPS – 72 points

    All those splits favor Rice. To me, this just shows that Rice was still a better hitter than the rest of baseball even outside of Fenway, his supposed haven of hitting. And aside from OBP (which you and Olney both agree was undervalued at the time) those are pretty big differences. Wouldn’t that support his HOF candidacy, not undermine it?

  6. Nick Kapur says:

    Sarah, I think Paul’s post is pretty clearly supporting Rice’s candidacy more than undermining it.

    He is just writing from the perspective of somebody who used to be solidly against Rice but is now saying, well maybe he wasn’t as bad as I thought.

    Maybe you were just so used to having Paul disagree with you, that it was confusing to have him write a post actually lending credence to Rice’s candidacy!

  7. Well, first consider that that the stats for all MLB hitters includes pitchers. While clearly Rice was a better hitter than the average big leaguer, I’m still not sold that he was a GREAT hitter away from Fenway. He was definitely better, but the question is, was he better ENOUGH to be a valid Hall of Famer. I’m still not entirely convinced that he was. But like Nick points out, he’s closer than I initially gave him credit for.

  8. And I’m not sure that the mediocre OBP has been cited in too many cases against Rice. For Andre Dawson, absolutely. But for Rice, it has more to do with the Fenway boost. But of course, if the away numbers were the true indicators of Rice’s talent, then yes, his .330 OBP is low, even for his era. I mean, even during this time, guys like Rod Carew, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan and Wade Boggs knew the importance of the walk (although to be fair, those guys were more leadoff hitters).

  9. Sarah Green says:

    Okay, this is the bit that confused me about that last chart (Nick, I’m clear on the overall purpose of the post—just not the last bit).

    “So here it is (left). The chart that may be the reason why Rice isn’t joining Gossage this year. ”

    But to my mind, that chart just shows that Rice WAS a better hitter even away from the friendly confines! That’s why I was confused. But Paul’s comment (#3) has mostly alleviated my confusion.

    I know Fenway is small and a “hitter’s park,” but the vast majority of players home-road splits seem to favor their home ballpark. So this whole “would he have been a Hall of Famer if he didn’t play where he did play” is a little silly to me; THAT’s the reason anti-Rice folks give for keeping him out of the Hall? THAT’S the best they got??

    To wit, Paul, this bit from your post: “They [the Sox pitchers] were slightly below average (Sox – 4.04 ERA vs. MLB – 3.83 ERA) overall, but for one reason or other performed very well compared to the rest of the league at Fenway (Sox – 4.13 ERA vs. MLB – 4.55 ERA) so let’s keep that in mind moving forward.”

    Even the Sox pitchers performed better at Fenway! At Fenway, the supposed hitters’ haven! I don’t think it takes a genius to know why: it was their home ballpark. Everyone likes to play at home. Plus, gotta say it, best fans in the game. Word.

  10. Sarah Green says:

    Oh, and yeah, about comment #4, I believe the standard cleanup hitter’s line at the time was, “They aren’t paying me to take the walk.”

  11. Nick Kapur says:

    “Even the Sox pitchers performed better at Fenway! At Fenway, the supposed hitters’ haven!”

    No Sarah, the Sox pitchers did not perform better at Fenway, “the supposed” hitters haven. Look at the numbers you just quoted. The Sox pitchers had a 4.04 ERA on the road and a 4.13 ERA at Fenway. So they actually performed worse at Fenway. Paul is just saying they performed better at Fenway relative to the rest of the league, so stat this doesn’t disprove the notion that Fenway was a strong hitter’s park.

    But this is a minor nitpick, because your main point about teams performing better at home is still somewhat supported by that stat. But adding the “supposed” in front of “hitters park” is clearly not warranted. Fenway was CLEARLY a hitter’s park during Rice’s era.

    As for the “chart to the left” which confused you, I think the reason it shows why Rice might not have joined Gossage this year is that, EVEN THOUGH it shows that Rice was better than the average player outside of Fenway, are those really Hall of Fame worthy numbers? .277 avg? .330 OBP? Paul’s point is that maybe they are not, which is why later at the end of the graf he asks the question, “Would Jim Rice have been a Hall of Fame caliber player if he were not drafted by the Boston Red Sox?” I think that is an interesting question.

  12. Nick Kapur says:

    Also, and this is a general comment, I’m not sure if I buy the whole argument a lot of people are making saying that in Rice’s time OBP was not valued, so therefore we shouldn’t hold a low OBP against him.

    Even if walks were not valued, truly great hitter’s clearly understood the value of walks in some sense, if only that laying off bad pitches let them hit good pitches harder. Babe Ruth once walked 170 times in a season. Ted Williams averaged 143 walks per 162 games. And even Ty Cobb, who we might think of as the epitome of a slap-hitter, had a season in which he walked 118 times.

    So regardless of whether sportswriters, or Hall Voters, mangers, or even players thought walks were great or not, I think its perfectly fair to consider a player’s OBP when evaluating their hall candidacy, because all of the truly great hitters had monstrous OBPs, for whatever the reason. So it’s a fair comparison to make.

  13. Paul, one thought off the top of my head.

    Yes, pitchers are included, but they should only have a small effect on the overall stats. Upper limit of 1/18 (1/9 ABs, divided by 2, due to the different leagues) and likely smaller even than that due to substitutions and fewer atbats in the 9hole.

    more thoughts later, but interesting post.

  14. Sarah Green says:

    One random question: when did intentional walks start being recorded as intentional?

  15. Sarah Green says:

    Did you guys know that Mel Ott hit 135 more homers at home than on the road?

    Should Mel Ott not be in the Hall of Fame?

  16. Nick Kapur says:

    Well, Mel Ott is a *slightly* different case from Jim Rice. Slightly.

    Mel Ott has an astonishingly good career line of .304/.414/.533, hit 511 home runs, and has a ridiculous career OPS of 155 (which is adjusted for park effects). Mel Ott was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and rightly so.

    Nobody would care about Jim Rice’s home-road splits if he were a clear and obvious choice for the Hall of Fame. But since his overall numbers are already borderline, and his road splits are truly mediocre (only .789 OPS!), then it becomes an issue.

  17. Sarah, I actually did not know that about Ott. Where’d you get that info? But I suppose now that I do know this, it makes sense because the Polo Grounds were notoriously shallow in both right and left field (something like 275 ft) while ridiculously huge in center. Hell, I may be able to clear the wall there. Maybe.

    But to answer your question, the intentional walk wasn’t tracked for each player until 1955.

  18. Sarah Green says:

    Thanks, Paul. I was curious (yet oddly too lazy to look it up) because of this comment by Nick:

    “Babe Ruth once walked 170 times in a season. Ted Williams averaged 143 walks per 162 games. And even Ty Cobb, who we might think of as the epitome of a slap-hitter, had a season in which he walked 118 times.”

    And I thought to myself, “But I thought that was before intentional walks were recorded as intentional.” And indeed, this is true. So perhaps the Babe and the Kid and Ty were intentionally walked? Perhaps they weren’t drawing those walks after 13-pitch at-bats a la Kevin Youkilis? Perhaps they didn’t “clearly understand the value of walks in some sense.” Perhaps they had no choice.

    Anyway, I forget where I found that Mel Ott thing. I think I googled something like “first ballot hall of famers home road splits.”

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