Jim Rice Is Not a Baseball Legend
The month was January 2009. It was a simpler time, when unemployment was only in the single digits, Michael Jackson was still alive, and baseball awards were still predicated on RBI totals and Wins.
We can thank the latter of all that for the mistake that occurred: Jim Rice, in his last Hall of Fame ballot, was elected into the Hall of Fame.
He of magical, feared 128 OPS+ glory, like other feared players Ryan Klesko and Jimmy Wynn.
The fear he created allowed him to post an eye-popping 132 adjusted weighted Runs Created (wRC+). It takes a real legend to fear his way to the same production as Bob Watson and Tim Salmon.
Other men have already talked about the absurdity of Jim Rice's selection. For all intents and purposes, Rice is not the worst player in the Hall of Fame, as highlighted on Sean Smith's WAR database .
There's Lou Brock, one of the most horrifyingly bad picks in Hall of Fame history, not for his ability, but that better players of a similar mold (Tim Raines, as a perfect example), cannot seem to garner any support.
There's Ernie Lombardi, or as I call him, the George Sisler of catchers, who made it in the Hall with a .306 batting average, despite a very mediocre secondary average (.229) and legendarily bad defense (-118 FRAA, albeit as a catcher).
Then you have men like George Kelly, elected to the Hall when old teammate/friend Frankie Frisch became the Veterans' Committee kingpin, whose 109 OPS+ in 6,565 PAs was not even enough to break into the top 500 on Sean Smith's page for positional players. By all means, Rice is nowhere close to the worst player in the Hall.
There are other issues surrounding Rice, though, that make his inclusion in the Hall all the more terrible.
For one, he was very clearly a product of Fenway Park. Not only is Fenway notoriously hitter-friendly, it becomes a downright parade for right handed hitters who like swinging for the fence.
While it is not fair to discount his home games entirely, his career .277/.330/.458 mark away from Fenway is fairly eye-popping (The .330 OBP is hopelessly average, given the .328 average set in MLB during his career). A quick analysis of the 1978 AL season saw batting averages go up 8 percent from the road to home, OBP go up 7.3 percent, and slugging increase by 10.4 percent.
So, if Rice is a .300/.354/.505 hitter at a more neutral home park, and about a .289/.342/.482 hitter overall, not known for any other particular skills (defense, base running), does that look like the profile of a Hall of Famer?
Rice is also a perfect case study for why evaluating solely on a peak is unfair. Below I will compare Rice's era-adjusted statistics to an anonymous player, one Red Sox fans should know well.
9,058 PA, 128 OPS+. 132 wRC+, +9 Total Zone (TZ)/+24.2 Total fielding runs above average (Rtot) in 13,536 2/3 innings, 41.5 Wins Above Replacement.
10,569 PA, 127 OPS+, 132 wRC+, +13 TZ / +81.6 Rtot in 18,119 2/3 innings, 61.7 WAR.
That anonymous player? Dwight Evans. Rice was not even the best corner OF the Red Sox had. The overwhelming regional support for Rice, and lack thereof for Evans, is almost sad to a younger Red Sox fan.
The Rice I have known for my life, however, is the one many older Red Sox fans claimed is the "only" reason Rice was not elected for years, his personality. From his constant haughtiness in the NESN Studio, to borderline insane remarks against Derek Jeter, Rice has put a full effort in to make his case for replacing Joe Morgan once he leaves ESPN. Leave it to the book "Moneyball" though to really highlight the issue I take with Rice.
From 1992 on, Jim Rice has been employed in some capacity as a batting coach for the Red Sox. With good reason, he was a very good hitter in his day. Unfortunately, Rice also did not understand the fundamentals to hitting, and very much became the mouthpiece for all that was wrong with the Red Sox in the '90s.
Pages 177 and 178 highlight Scott Hatteberg, former C/1B for the Boston Red Sox, struggles within the organization. On top of bringing in motivational speakers to teach players to hit "like men" and other ridiculous, testosterone-fueled alpha male approaches to a cerebral game, was their treatment of Wade Boggs:
"Boggs's refusal to exhibit the necessary aggression led to his ostracism by the Red Sox. 'They would get on him for taking a walk when there was a guy on second,' recalled Hatteberg. 'They called him selfish for that."
Allow that statement to sink in, the act of not swinging at a bad pitch for the sake of putting a ball in play with a man on second and electing to not make an out being called selfish. Also allow the fact that we let Boggs get away to NY, where he would OBP .396 and average 520 PAs a season during his five year stay. What does this have to do with Jim Rice? Fortunately, he comes up just a few paragraphs later:
"The hitting coach, Jim Rice, rode Hatty long and hard. Rice called him out in the clubhouse, in front of his teammates , and ridiculed him for having a batting average in the .270s when he hit .500 when he swung at the first pitch".
Now other than the fact that it is lunacy to analyze based on a small sample (Hatteberg went 6 for 13 when swinging at the first pitch in 2000, but .319 during his time in Boston in 138 ABs), it was a reflection of the organization as a whole.
While the Red Sox were busy pounding their chest and toughening up, the Yankees were busy acquiring future Hall of Famers, and other assorted good players like older Tim Raines and David Justice, and winning World Series. It took a total franchise-exorcism to finally bring success to the Red Sox.
So, what we have here is a man who had a three-year peak, threw in a few good years in the wake of averageness during the '80s, whose inability to defer flash from value, along with his organization, crippled a franchise for the better part of a decade and a half.
But at least he was humble about his inclusion among the greats, correct? What did he have to say to the writers who elected him again, and the process?
"When you're talking about a Hall of Famer, let's base his numbers on what he accomplished during that time."
Oh...yeah. Someone go polish off Dwight Evans' plaque, quickly.
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