The case against Jim Rice
To no one's surprise, it was announced yesterday that
Of course, the most interesting stories generally involve the players
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
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 --
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 10 in the AL in slugging exactly twice the rest of his career:
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. On Tuesday on ESPNews I made the point to
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
Jim Rice voters: Are you trying to elect Rice, or are you just voting
Rice has a stronger Hall of Fame case than does
Everything above is fact. Rice's slugging averages, Rice's plate appearances with runners on base, Rice's stat lines from 1981 to '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.
As far as Cooperstown goes, the facts of Rice's career are not going to carry the day, however, as his vote total has reached a point that will make his eventual election inevitable. This will open the door, as
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 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 that 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.