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.
So 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:
- 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?
- 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.
Before 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 least 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.
But 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. 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.
So 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 that 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.