Walks and fumbles

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I was reading this fine Christopher D. Green article on Baseball Analysts about Jim Rice and the Hall of Fame, and it really clicked something for me, something I'd been thinking about for a while. So while it may seem this way, this really is not another Jim Rice Hall of Fame blog post. I'm sure it will read that way, but I really hope to have a larger point that tackles the same question that I think Green was tackling in his piece:

The question: Is it fair to judge an old player using new measures?

This question applies to everyone, of course, not just Rice, but unfortunately Jim Rice remains in the cross-hairs because he's just such a good example of someone who seems to shrink under modern scrutiny. In fact, I would say he's probably unique among Hall of Fame candidates in that the new trends in baseball analysis -- the increased regard for walks and on-base percentage, the deeper appreciation for ballpark effects, the more involved statistical study of how much a player really contributes to runs and wins -- have not been kind to him.*

*People sometimes throw Jack Morris into this hurt-by-the-new stats category too, but I don't think that's right. Morris was a horse, and he was legendary one day (Oct. 27, 1991), and I am not trying to denigrate him -- I want to be careful this year not to put down Hall of Fame candidates because, let's face it, they were all outstanding players. Morris was an excellent pitcher. But in my mind he doesn't stand up to the very high Hall of Fame standards ... and that's based on good old-fashioned statistics. His 3.90 ERA was utterly ordinary for his time -- and, more, he never once had a sub-3.00 ERA, not in his entire career (and I have to admit that I'm baffled by voters who are put off by pitchers who do not compile many 20-win seasons but have no issue at all with a pitcher who never once had a sub 3.00 ERA -- and in a good pitcher's era, too).

Morris' 2,478 strikeouts are quite a lot, but those more or less tie him with Mark Langston (who had a better career ERA+), and put him behind Jerry Koosman, David Cone, Frank Tanana and Mickey Lolich (all of whom have at least as good an ERA+; Koosman's and Cone's are significantly better). Morris never won a Cy Young Award and never really deserved one. His case is mainly built around his reputation as a big winner, and he won 20 three times -- but Dave Stewart, Wilbur Wood, Mike Cuellar, Luis Tiant, Dave McNally and Johnny Sain won 20 or more four times.

And others who won 20 three times include: Ron Guidry, Dennis Leonard, Tommy John (who has 34 more career wins than Morris, a better ERA, a better ERA+, some excellent postseason work and a surgery named for him), Vida Blue, Denny McLain, Jim Kaat (30 more career wins, a slightly better ERA+, 16 Gold Gloves and a sure Cy Young in '66 if they gave out one to each league back then), Mel Stottlemyre, Don Newcombe and Vic Raschi, not to mention a dozen others.

Here's the main point: Jim Rice hit .298 for his career, he led the league in homers, he drove in 100 or more runs eight times. He won an MVP award and finished in the top five in the voting five other times. He led the American League in a bunch of stats from 1975 through '86. These are solid core numbers, and they are why he was a star in the 1970s and '80s, why he was the highest-paid player in baseball in 1986 and '87.

BUT ... then you take a closer look, using new methods and looking at statistics that were not considered hip then:

-- He only finished in the Top 10 in the league in on-base percentage twice, and never better than ninth.

-- He put up 282 career Win Shares, which is certainly good but probably not Hall of Fame-caliber. Thirty Win Shares is generally regarded as an MVP-type year, and he only had one 30-plus win share season.

-- He hit into 315 double plays, more than any player with fewer than 12,000 plate appearances (Rice had about 9,000 PAs). As many point out, that's a reflection of numerous things, including the fact that he came up with a lot of people on first base. But I think if you want to tell the RBI story, you should mention the double plays.

-- And, of course, he spent half his games batting in a great-hitting Fenway Park.*

*I think we all know just how nice it was to play home games in a great-hitting park like Fenway in those days. But I'm not sure you FULLY appreciate it until you see the numbers some other players of that general era had at Fenway Park:

Jim Rice at Fenway: .320/.374/.546Fred Lynn: .346/.420/.601Hal McRae: .305/.374/.575Lou Whitaker: .322/.400/.453Lou Piniella: .359/.409/.535Paul Blair: .329/.370/.575 (!!)Tony Oliva: .376/.406/.596Boog Powell: .293/.387/.510Ken Singleton: .360/.430/.474Frank Howard: .291/.365/.549Andre Thornton: .318/.401/.579Pete O'Brien: .316/.380/.485Jim Northrup: .364/.441/.552Bill Melton: .345/.401/.594

Of course, not everybody in baseball hit great at Fenway. Most hit better there than normal, but these are some extremes. And, we're just playing around here; it would be utterly unfair to compare these players -- most of whom had only 150-500 at-bats at Fenway and were doing it as visitors** -- to Jim Rice, who played his whole career in Boston. Still, I think it's interesting and a little bit telling -- what would Lou Piniella's or Ken Singleton or Paul Blair or Andre Thornton's career been like if they had played for Boston? Would Bill Melton have been a superstar?

**Obviously, Fred Lynn is an exception. Lynn played his greatest years in Boston and so got more than 1,800 plate appearances there. I think it's a safe bet that if he had not been traded away, he's in the Hall of Fame right now.

ANYWAY, it all leads back to the question: When you dissect Rice's numbers by using formulas that were not around while he played -- and statistics emphasizing talents that were not highly regarded by many while he played -- is that fair to Rice (or anyone else)?

I have to admit -- I've had a hard time really getting my arms around that one. I mean, look, it's probably not fair to judge silent screen star Lillian Gish's beauty or Carlyle Blackwell's dashing-ness based on our current hotness values. It's probably not fair to judge Slingin' Sammy Baugh (RIP) based on today's passer ratings (then it's probably not fair judging, you know, Peyton Manning on passer rating either). I have been thinking some about the brilliant reader argument going on about Joe Morgan vs. Rogers Hornsby ... I was thinking about writing a post about it. How can you compare the two across such different eras? I cannot get one thought out of my mind -- I made some calculations to see what Morgan's numbers would look like compared to Hornsby's if Joe had played in the 1920s and '30s.

Here's what I came up with:

Hornsby: .348/.434/.577 with 2,930 hits, 301 homers, 1,584 RBIs, 175 OPS+Morgan: .000/.000.000 with 0 hits, 0 homers, 0 RBIs, 0 OPS+

Yeah, tough to compare against generations, if you REALLY think about it.

One thing I have never bought into is the notion that Jim Rice, had he appreciated the significance of walks and on-base percentage and all that, would have walked more. I've seen that argument in a few places, and I think it's kind of absurd. Players are who they are. There have always been players who walked a lot and there have always been hackers and I don't think perception would change that. In 1979, for instance, Darrell Porter led the American League with 121 walks. In 2008, Jack Cust led with 111 walks. Darrell Porter didn't read Moneyball, and he didn't play for Billy Beane, and probably was not an avid Bill James reader at that particularly crazy time in his life. He walked.

In fact, while playing around with this, I ran across a statistic, something that shocked the heck out of me. This might very well be common knowledge -- it probably is -- but I have never run across it, and I cannot even fathom it. You ready for it?

The walk rate in the American League in 2008 was 8.6%.The walk rate in the American League in 1979 was 8.7%.

I am absolutely stunned by that. Absolutely, utterly and completely stunned. It does not seem even remotely possible that with the famously high strike in the 1970s, with the batters supposedly swinging at everything back then, with our new and keen understanding of how important on-base percentage is, that batters are walking LESS now that they did then.

But it's simply a fact. I'm sticking with the American League for now -- here's a chart of walk percentages over the last six decades:

1950s walk rate: 9.7% (approximately ... the entirely awesome Baseball Reference does not have sac flies for some early years in the 1950s, so I had to guess on those, though I tried to guess high to keep the number fair).

1960s walk rate: 8.7%1970s walk rate: 8.7%1980s walk rate: 8.5%1990s walk rate: 9.2%2000s walk rate: 8.5%

You get that? Walks are DOWN since Moneyball came out. Walks are DOWN since all the supposed wacky-hacky 1970s. Walks are down since rotisserie teams have started incorporating on-base percentage in their games. Walks are down since these management types from Ivy League school started to crunch the numbers and realized the true significance of the free pass. Walks are down since high on-base percentage players could make money in the open market.

Here's another way to look at it, this time including the whole major leagues. Walks per game:

1950s: 3.61960s: 3.11970s: 3.31980s: 3.21990s: 3.42000s: 3.3

There's no way around it. Batters are not walking more now than they did in the 1970s. It's mind-blowing to me, but it's also comforting because it confirms what I have come to believe: The ability to walk is just that, an ability, a talent, like being able to run or hit with power. You can improve it somewhat, perhaps, and every once in a while a player will discover the walking talent late. But for the most part a player cannot simply DECIDE to walk more often, just like he cannot DECIDE to start throwing 98 mph because it's easier to get batters out that way. Walking takes too many distinct talents (including the ability to recognize balls and strikes, the ability to spoil good pitches, the ability to stay focused on each pitch, the respect to get that close call from the umpire and so on and so on).

So that argument has never been especially interesting to me -- I don't think Rice, given the time machine, would have walked any more often than he did. But I have thought a lot about the overall fairness of judging a player's career by something he simply did not know would be on the test. I've read quite a few things that fought against this argument, and some of them were quite good, but nothing ever really captured me. And then, while reading the Baseball Analysts piece, a thought hit me.

Derrick Thomas.

Derrick Thomas, as you know, was a great linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1990s. Football statistics are not nearly as precise as baseball statistics, of course, so what we had was that Derrick had a lot of sacks and he made a lot of Pro Bowls. There was nothing out there that I saw that really seemed to sum him up -- Thomas was an odd and singular player. He was out there to do one thing, only one thing, and that was disrupt the game.

For instance: It was sometimes brought up that he was not good against the run and he was not good at pass coverage (in fact, this has been brought up often in his Hall of Fame discussion), but stuffing the run and dropping in coverage was not Derrick's job any more than it was Willie Mays' job to sacrifice bunt (only 13 in his career -- six the last two years) or Shaq's job to make three-pointers (1 for 20). Derrick was paid to go get the quarterback and force turnovers and net safeties and rush people into bad decisions and turn games around. It's a hard thing to isolate. Football in general is a hard game to narrow down. That's why coaches always say they need to see the film.

So is there anything out there that, in a quick form, can give Hall of Fame votes and general fans an idea of what Derrick Thomas is all about? As it turns out, there is: Forced fumbles. In his career, Derrick Thomas forced 45 fumbles. He had this great move -- the Kansas City Chop -- and he would chop down on a quarterback's arm and knock the ball free. Everyone's doing it now, and maybe people were doing it before him, but he popularized the move. And his 45 forced fumbles are an unofficial NFL record. The reason it's unofficial (I believe it's still unofficial) is that they only have been counting forced fumbles for a few years. Even now, force fumbles are not listed on Derrick Thomas's NFL page.

So there's our connection: A new statistic. And believe me, it's a pain in the neck to try and track down anything in the years before the NFL started counting: I have spent way too long on the Internet trying to find out just how many forced fumbles Lawrence Taylor had in his career (Wikipedia says he forced 33 fumbles ... I have over the last three or four years seen other numbers ranging from 26 to 37). I have tried but not really found a reliable way to count the fumbles Dick Butkus forced, or Joe Schmidt or Mike Singletary or Reggie White or Deacon Jones or so many of the great players of the past.

So the question here is: Is it fair to use forced fumbles to judge a Hall of Fame case when the statistic is so new? My feeling is absolutely clear on that: OF COURSE it's fair. It's more than fair. Forcing a fumble is just about the most devastating thing a defensive player can do (It isn't fair, but I think of you, Ernest Byner). It can be more of a game-turner than an interception, or a touchdown pass or a punt return or anything else. Players have been trying to force fumbles since the beginning of football -- just because it hasn't been counted does not make it any less significant. A forced fumble meant plenty in 1958 and 1973 and 1987 and 1999 and 2008. And it's the same thing with walks and on-base percentage and the ability to create runs.

That's how it works as we make discoveries. We find new ways to look at the game. Some will look better in retrospect. And some players will not look as good. Some players will stand up to our memories and some will surpass our memories and some, like movies we may have liked 20 years ago, will not stand up at all. That's not being unfair. That's perspective.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of joeposnanski.com.