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December 29, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Throwing Rice

by Jay Jaffe

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In evaluating the Hall of Fame candidacies of Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines recently, I made a point of avoiding any discussion of Jim Rice for a simple reason: his candidacy doesn't merit being mentioned in the same breath. That's not to say that Rice wasn't an excellent ballplayer, but his relatively short career and the context surrounding it simply leave his case wanting. The BBWAA clearly feels otherwise, as Rice polled 72.2 percent of the vote last year, the ninth straight year he's received above 50 percent. Still, he fell 16 votes shy in his second-to-last year on the ballot. With his candidacy in its final year and surrounded by such controversy, we'll take a closer look at his case.

If you're joining us late, please read this year's introduction to the JAWS system and the changes in the underlying WARP metric since last year's evaluation.


                     H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP GG  HOFS   HOFM  Bal  2008%
Jim Rice           2452  382  1451  .298  .352  .502   7   1   0  42.9  147.0  14   72.20
Rickey Henderson   3055  297  1115  .279  .401  .419  10   1   1  52.6  183.5   0   ---
Tim Raines         2605  170   980  .294  .385  .425   7   0   0  46.8   90.0   1   24.30

             EqA   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Rice        .293    627   359   -41   55.1   39.6   47.4
Henderson   .316   1285   906   194  155.7   74.9  115.3
Raines      .309    905   608     8   94.3   54.9   74.6
AVG HOF LF  .303    743   473     2   76.8   48.2   62.5

HOFS & HOFM: Bill James' Hall of Fame Shares and Monitor.
Bal: How many years the player has appeared on the ballot.
2008%: The player's share of the vote in 2008.

Jim Rice was Boston's first pick in the 1971 draft, the 15th pick overall, passed over in favor of such luminaries as Danny Goodwin, Jay Franklin, Condredge Holloway, and Tom Veryzer. Not that the first round was entirely a bust, as Frank Tanana was taken just two picks ahead of Rice by the Angels, and Rick Rhoden was chosen five picks behind him by the Dodgers. Though he hit just .256/.311/.408 as an 18-year-old in the New York-Penn League, Rice climbed quickly through the Red Sox system, reaching Triple-A Pawtucket in late 1973 and Boston in late 1974 after a season at Pawtucket in which he won the International League Triple Crown and would earn The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors. He made his major league debut on August 19, and hit .269/.307/.373 in 24 games, mainly as a DH and pinch-hitter.

Just over two weeks later, fellow rookie Fred Lynn would debut as well. The following year the two players would help Boston win their first pennant since 1967, with Lynn winning both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, a then-unprecedented feat; for the year, Lynn hit .331/.401/.566 with 21 homers, a season worth 8.3 WARP, using Clay Davenport's revised replacement level. Rice finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting and third in MVP on the strength of a .309/.350/.491 line with 22 homers, but his season was only worth 4.1 WARP due to his lesser defensive value and much lower OBP and SLG numbers. Already he was overrated.

In any event, Rice missed the final week of the season and the entirety of Boston's post-season run due to a wrist injury. The Sox made it all the way to Game Seven of one of the greatest World Series ever played before finally falling to the Big Red Machine. It doesn't take much imagination to think that had he been available, Sox fans might have been spared three decades of misery awaiting that elusive World Championship.

Rice soon emerged as one of the league's top sluggers; he would place either first or second in slugging percentage in each of the next four years while leading the league in home runs in 1977 (39) and 1978 (46). He earned MVP honors for his 1978 performance, in which he hit .315/.370/.600 and finished with 406 total bases, the only other player besides Hank Aaron to reach the 400 plateau between 1949 and 1997. Rice's performance that year was worth a career-high 8.4 WARP. Alas, it wasn't quite enough to put the Sox over the top in an AL East race that came down to a Game 163 play-in, where Mike Torrez served up a meatball to Bucky Dent. You may have heard about it at some point.

Rice enjoyed another strong season in 1979 (.325/.381/.596, 39 HR, 7.1 WARP) but another hand injury cost him a month in 1980 and sapped his performance (.294/.336/.504, 24 HR, 3.0 WARP). He wouldn't reach a .500 slugging percentage in either of the next two seasons, though his 1982 performance heralded a rebound the following year: .305/.361/.550, with a league-leading 39 homers. However, his minimal defensive value kept his WARP at just 4.3.

That was the last time Rice's slugging percentage topped .500, but after two more down seasons, he had one more big year in 1986, hitting .324/.384/.490 with exactly 200 hits but "only" 20 homers, a season worth 5.5 WARP. At 33 years old, Rice's power may have been waning, but he was growing more disciplined as a hitter, setting career bests with 62 walks and that OBP. He finally made it to the postseason, hitting just .161, but homering twice in the ALCS against the Angels, then hitting .333/.455/.444 in Boston's traumatic seven-game World Series loss to the Mets.

Rice would never again come close to even his 1986 level. Over his final three seasons, he slugged a feeble .395, never topping 15 home runs. Knee problems were a factor, but surgery after the 1987 season failed to solve the problem. New manager Walpole Joe Morgan, who took over from John McNamara in mid 1988, made a power play shortly after taking the job by sending Spike Owen up to pinch-hit for Rice in the eighth inning of a close game. A shoving match ensued in the dugout, and Rice was suspended for three games. The handwriting was on the wall, though he would linger on the roster for one more dismal year before finally drawing his release.

The proponents of Rice's Hall of Fame candidacy point to the way his power dominated his era, the respect he drew for his performances, and the fear he elicited. They have something of a point on the first two counts, which have their basis in fact. From 1976 to 1983, Rice finished either first or second in the league in slugging percentage five times, led the league in total bases four times and in home runs three times, and salted those accomplishments with several other top 10 finishes. He placed in the top five in MVP balloting six times, and made eight All-Star teams. Just about all of that is captured in his Hall of Fame Monitor Score, as noted above. According to that Bill James metric, Rice scores 147 points, where the average Hall of Famer-average at the time James was creating his system some 25 years ago, at least-scores 100. He did a ton of things that typical Hall of Famers do, basically.

As for the fear factor, there's a lot of hot air in circulation, and plenty of anger directed at those who would try to debunk the myths surrounding the truth. Rice may have intimidated the writers who covered him; Howard Bryant's Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston goes into great and painful detail on that front, unraveling Rice's tumultuous relationship with the media who covered him and the complex dynamics in play regarding his team and his city, and I strongly suspect at least some of the increased momentum his candidacy has received relates to some guilty consciences over the way things unfolded at the time.

Getting a raw deal from the beat reporters and columnists does not, however, change the facts surrounding his case, and any case one wishes to make about "fear" simply isn't reflected in the statistics. Opposing pitchers didn't pitch around Rice they way they pitch around Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols; Rice is tied for 179th in intentional walks, a stat that would seem to indicate some measure of fear. Among those tied with him at 77 intentionals are Fred Lynn, Geoff Jenkins, Claudell Washington, Terry Pendleton, Jerry Grote, and Clay Dalrymple. Hmmmm. In fact, Rice didn't walk much at all. Of the 118 players with at least 300 career home runs, he has the 14th-lowest walk rate per plate appearance:


Player              BB    PA    BB/PA    HR
Andre Dawson       589  10769   0.055   438
Vinny Castilla     423   7384   0.057   320
Joe Carter         527   9154   0.058   396
Lee May            487   8219   0.059   354
Matt Williams      469   7595   0.062   378
Juan Gonzalez      457   7155   0.064   434
Gary Gaetti        634   9817   0.065   360
Al Simmons         615   9515   0.065   307*
Andres Galarraga   583   8916   0.065   399
Dave Parker        683  10184   0.067   339
Orlando Cepeda     588   8695   0.068   379**
Ruben Sierra       610   8782   0.069   306
Ernie Banks        763  10395   0.073   512*
Jim Rice           670   9058   0.074   382
Willie Horton      620   8052   0.077   325

*: BBWAA-elected
**: VC-selected

That list contains some very good players, Hall of Famers as well as contemporaries of Rice who are currently on the BBWAA ballot, but none had to make their Cooperstown case on some intangible factor that wasn't represented in the stats. On the contrary, there are also free-swinging hackers like Joe Carter and Juan Gonzalez and Ruben Sierra on that list-players who had some pop, but also a very large hole in their game regarding plate discipline. Rice actually has the second-highest OBP of the above group behind Hall of Famer Al Simmons, but it's a distant second, 28 points. He may have been slightly more disciplined than Orlando Cepeda, and he was certainly faster than Ernie Lombardi and taller than Rabbit Maranville. This isn't a strong building block for a vote.

The real problem, beyond the fact that concepts like fear aren't well-captured in baseball statistics and are prone to distortions of memory among those passing on the legend, is that Rice's offensive accomplishments received a considerable boost from playing half of his games in Fenway Park. For his career, Rice hit .320/.374/.546 with 208 homers in Fenway, but just .277/.330/.459 with 174 homers on the road. Taking advantage of one's home park is no crime; quite the contrary, most great sluggers get such a boost. But once you adjust for his park and league scoring environments via the WARP system, a good amount of the air is let out of the tires.

Rice's .293 EQA is an impressive figure, but it's still 10 points shy of the average Hall of Fame left fielder. His monster 1978 showing was good for a .314 EQA, which ranked third behind Ken Singleton's .323 and Amos Otis' .316, neither considered a dominant hitter at that point or any other. Rice's 130.7 Equivalent Runs paced the circuit, but he also used up more outs than all but three hitters, because again, he didn't actually walk very often (just 58 times in 746 plate appearances, including seven intentionals), and because he also grounded into a ton of double plays (15). Indeed, on the latter score, Rice ranks sixth all time, and in some pretty fair company-Cal Ripken, Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, and Eddie Murray-until you consider that all had at least 35 to 55 percent more plate appearances in their career than Rice.

That short career is the other thing which dooms his candidacy. Rice's last productive season came at the age of 33, and he was done by 36. He thus falls more than 100 runs shy of the JAWS standards in Batting Runs Above Average and Batting Runs Above Replacement. Worse, he falls 21.7 WARP shy on the career front and 8.6 WARP shy on the peak front; as "dominant" as he was in his heyday, he was worth an average of 1.2 wins per year less than the typical Hall of Fame left fielder. Repeating the chart from the last time around, his JAWS score ranks only 35th among left fielders, and ahead of only four Hall of Fame ones:


Rk   Player            Career   Peak   JAWS
 1   Barry Bonds        192.6   88.7  140.7
 2   Rickey Henderson   155.7   74.9  115.3
 3   Stan Musial        152.7   75.7  114.2*
 4   Ted Williams       128.2   74.2  101.2
 5   Pete Rose          106.7   56.2   81.5
 6   Tim Raines          94.3   54.9   74.6
 7   Carl Yastrzemski    94.7   50.9   72.8*
 8   Ed Delahanty        84.7   59.6   72.2**
 9   Jim O'Rourke        94.3   46.5   70.4**
10   Willie Stargell     82.2   54.1   68.2*
11   Fred Clarke         81.1   43.9   62.5**
12   Jose Cruz           72.7   47.7   60.2
13   Jesse Burkett       72.1   47.5   59.8**
14   Al Simmons          71.6   47.0   59.3*
15   Tony Phillips       69.0   49.3   59.2
16   Albert Belle        61.9   53.2   57.6
17   Joe Medwick         67.1   46.5   56.8*
18   George Foster       62.7   50.8   56.8
19   Jimmy Sheckard      63.9   42.8   53.4
20   Bob Johnson         63.7   41.7   52.7
21   Goose Goslin        61.9   43.1   52.5**
22   Joe Kelley          59.9   44.9   52.4**
27   Zack Wheat          61.8   38.2   50.0**
29   Billy Williams      59.2   38.8   49.0*
35   Jim Rice            55.1   39.6   47.4
38   Ralph Kiner         47.9   43.4   45.7*
39   Lou Brock           54.6   36.0   45.3*
75   Chick Hafey         31.8   28.9   30.4**
81   Heinie Manush       31.3   27.1   29.2**

It's instructive to compare Rice's Hall of Fame case to that of another slugging left fielder who came along 15 years later, and who was similarly dominant in his era, thanks in part to his park and league environments, while offering a similarly intimidating persona that brought the word "fear" into play on multiple levels. Said slugger, whom we'll call Player X for the bare moment it takes to make this comparison, also saw an early end to his career (after his age-33 season) and accumulated similar credentials:


               H    HR   RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG  AS  MVP GG  HOFS   HOFM
Rice         2452  382  1451  .298  .352  .502   7   1   0  42.9  147.0
Player X     1726  381  1239  .295  .369  .564   5   0   0  36.1  134.5

             EqA   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Rice        .293    627   359   -41   55.1   39.6   47.4
Player X    .315    647   454   -50   61.9   53.2   57.6
AVG HOF LF  .303    743   473     2   76.8   48.2   62.5

Player X was in fact a better hitter of the pair after adjusting for context, and not by a little; his peak was worth two wins per year more than Rice. That player, who fell off the ballot after just two rounds of voting, was Albert Belle, and however feared he was as a hitter and a human being, the BBWAA voters have definitively decided that Albert Belle is not a Hall of Famer.

Neither is Rice, at least according to any comparison that rests on fact as opposed to legend. The BBWAA may well feel otherwise, however, and I strongly suspect he'll receive enough votes to get over the top. He won't be the worst mistake they've ever made, but he would be close, with the fifth-lowest JAWS score of any hitter ever voted in by that august body:


Player            Career   Peak   JAWS
Rabbit Maranville   49.8   32.2   41.0
Lou Brock           54.6   36.0   45.3
Ralph Kiner         47.9   43.4   45.7
Luis Aparicio       57.5   36.1   46.8
Jim Rice            55.1   39.6   47.4
Bill Terry          53.9   41.4   47.7

As good a player as he may have been, Rice's admission to Cooperstown would flatter neither the institution or the process. I suspect we'll have to learn to live with it nonetheless.

---

This is my final article of the calendar year for Baseball Prospectus. I had hoped to finish the JAWS series earlier, but as is all too often the case, deadlines and other real-life factors intruded; getting such a series done would be easier if I actually lived in my parents' basement, but having a lovely wife, friends, and other responsibilities is a fair trade for avoiding the ridiculous stereotype that will undoubtedly be invoked by critics of such a rational examination of Rice's candidacy. The ballot results won't be announced until January 12, so I'll pick up the series (and comments to this article) when I return from my vacation after the new year. In the meantime, I'd like to extend the warmest of thank yous to my readers and colleagues for a wonderful year at BP, and to wish you all a happy and safe holiday season, and all the best for a wonderful 2009.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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