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January 9, 2008

Prospectus Today

Goose, Rice, and Confetti

by Joe Sheehan

To no one's surprise, it was announced yesterday that Rich Gossage had been elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. One of the five best relief pitchers in history by any standard, Gossage picked up 85.8 percent of the vote (with "only" 75 percent required for election) in his ninth year on the ballot. Goose's omission from the Hall has stuck in his craw for some time, and he had been perhaps the player most vocal about his own status. With Bruce Sutter's induction in '06, however, Gossage's eventual ascension to immortality was assured. There's no better way to become a Hall of Famer than to have an inferior peer let into the room ahead of you.

Of course, the most interesting stories generally involve the players below the cut line, and that remains the case this year. Without an angry Rich Gossage to steal attention, eyes moving down the results list landed quickly on Jim Rice's name. Rice finished second with 392 votes, named on 72.2 percent of the ballots cast, only 16 tallies shy of induction. With significant forward momentum, a small gap to close and some evidence of a "15th year" effect, Rice is a virtual certainty to be elected a year from now.

This will please many and frustrate a few, for Rice's candidacy has become something of a battleground between analysts and the voting pool. For weeks now, the idea that Rice was "the most feared hitter in baseball for 12 years" has been pounded into our heads. The performance record shows that Rice would be a lower-echelon Hall of Famer and one of the weakest BBWAA electees ever, and in fact that he was, at best, the third-best outfielder on the ballot. However, that one phrase, and the single word "feared," have become the club by which Rice's supporters are beating their hero's way into Cooperstown.

The thing is, they're half right.

I will stipulate that at the end of the 1980 season, Jim Rice was on track for a Hall of Fame career. Even conceding that the right-handed slugger took advantage of a friendly home park and excellent teammates to post high home-run, extra-base-hit, and RBI totals, he was clearly among the very best hitters in baseball, and arguably the best in the American League. Through his age-27 season, Rice had four top-five finishes in MVP voting in his six years and a career line of .308/.357/.548 with 195 home runs. He wasn't the best player in the game-as a slow left fielder, there's just too much ground to make up-but he was among its best hitters. To project a player like that into the Hall of Fame wouldn't require much effort.

The next six years, however-half of Rice's effective career-he wasn't the same player. It is entirely possible that he was "feared." That fear, however, was based on performance that warranted it through 1980; it was based on nothing thereafter. Rice hit .299/.355/.490 from 1981 through 1986. That's a completely unadjusted total, giving him full credit for the work he did at Fenway Park in that time. In the first six seasons of his career, Rice outhit his positional comps (left fielders except for 1977, when he DH'd 116 times) by 126 points of slugging and 17 points of OBP. In the next six, those figures dropped to 72 and 16 points, respectively. (Source: the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia.) Again, this is without adjusting for Fenway Park's effect on offense or making any note of Rice's exceptional home/road splits in this period.

Let's look at it a different way. Rice was, categorically, a high-average, high-SLG hitter. His calling card was power, which is how the whole "feared" thing came into play. After the age of 27, despite playing home games in Fenway Park, Rice appeared in the top ten in the AL in slugging exactly twice the rest of his career:


Year   SLG   Rank
1981  .441   15th (350 PA min.)
1982  .494   14th
1983  .550    2nd
1984  .467   21st
1985  .487   11th
1986  .490   10th
1987  .408   didn't qualify
1988  .406   39th
1999  .344   didn't qualify

Understand, this is supposed to be Rice's sweet spot: raw slugging. Other than 1983, however, he was little more than ordinary even without looking any deeper into the park effect. This is not the record of a dominant, Hall of Fame-caliber hitter from 28 through 33. It's the record of a slightly-above-average corner outfielder who is getting a huge boost from his home park.

Rice's reputation comes from six good years, and then the inflated RBI counts that he still managed to post with these unimpressive slugging numbers. Yesterday on ESPNews, I made the point to Tim Kurkjian-who I don't mean to single out by any means; he's one of the good guys-that while Rice advocates will talk about the "feared" angle and that he "feels" like a Hall of Famer and that this is a "gut" decision, the truth is that they're using numbers, too: just the wrong ones. Rice's age-28 through -33 seasons, collectively, weren't up to the standard he set prior to that. His Hall of Fame case is about RBI.

Jim Rice didn't have a dominant 12-year stretch in which he was one of the best hitters in the game. He had a dominant six-year stretch, then dropped off noticeably while at the same time playing with a reputation and racking up huge RBI counts thanks to his teammates. Here's a parallel chart to the one above, listing the number of men on base (ROB) that Rice saw when he came to the plate in those six seasons (I've truncated 1987-89, years that are irrelevant to his case):


Year   ROB   Rank
1981   367    1st
1982   466    7th
1983   504    2nd
1984   545    1st
1985   496    2nd
1986   514    3rd

Jim Rice voters: are you trying to elect Rice, or are you just putting Wade Boggs in a second time?

Rice has a stronger Hall of Fame case than does Don Mattingly, but the two resumes have similar characteristics. Both were among the best players in baseball for a six-year period. Both then had six-year stretches that were less than their peak, Mattingly's moreso than Rice's to be sure. Rice didn't suffer the back problems that Mattingly did; on the other hand, he didn't have a fraction of Mattingly's defensive value.

Everything above is fact. Rice's slugging averages, Rice's plate appearances with runners on base, Rice's stat lines from 1981-86. Elsewhere on the internet you can delve into the data on Rice's so-so defense, his high double-play rates, and most notably, his performance outside of Boston. Maybe pitchers did fear him because of who he was, but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that they were constantly pitching to him from the stretch in a bandbox. That would scare me, too.

The facts of Jim Rice's career are not going to carry the day, as Rice's vote total has reached a point that will make his eventual election inevitable. This will open the door, as Sutter did for Gossage, to a host of Rice's superiors. Andre Dawson and Tim Raines and Dale Murphy and a whole hell of a lot of guys to come are going to be compared to Jim Rice-a BBWAA choice, not a Veterans Committee pick that can be hand-waved away-and find themselves cast in bronze.

Recently, Rob Neyer took it on the chin publically from a colleague, a member of the BBWAA. Neyer was accused of leading a charge against Rice's candidacy. Frankly, I think the notion that this is personal is a disturbing one. When Neyer, or Keith Law, or Joe Sheehan, or Rich Lederer builds a case for or against a particular player, they're trying to serve the discussion, and beyond that, uphold the standards of the Hall of Fame. These people have advocated as strongly for the induction of players such as Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Bert Blyleven, and Ron Santo as against the candidacies of Rice, Sutter, Jack Morris, and others. The arguments made by thoughtful analysts rise above the mythology of the day, and put context to notions such as "feared," or "couldn't win close games," or "pitched to the score." They should be regarded not with as much respect as the opinions of contemporaries, but with much more, because they don't come with an emotional attachment to a player, a team, or an era.

The central theme running through the case for Rice is voters of a certain age attempting to validate their misbegotten impressions. In 1983, not very many people knew or cared that Jim Rice was an ordinary player outside of Fenway Park, or that his RBI totals had less to do with his talent and more to do with that of his teammates. He was "feared," and that's what mattered. The facts are, Jim Rice had a Hall of Fame peak, and not enough performance outside of his peak to raise his career to a Hall of Famer standard. That he'll be elected in spite of that-and in contradiction to the facts in play-will serve neither the electorate nor the Hall of Fame well.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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