Another Helping of Rice
How do you like your Rice? I'll take mine fried, thank you. Buster Olney, on the other hand, has a completely different recipe for his Rice.
With the above in mind, Olney responded today to my two-part retort to his posts about Jim Rice's Hall of Fame worthiness last Friday and Saturday.
• Rich Lederer strongly disagrees with what was written here in the Jim Rice HOF debate last week, in a couple of pieces you can locate through this link. It's interesting that he says he played APBA and counted the "on base numbers" on the card, an acknowledgement which, as a baseball board game nerd, I fully appreciate. In playing thousands of games of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, and drafting dozens of teams, the system I have always used to evaluate players before any draft (until this moment a closely guarded secret from my Strat-O rivals) was to add up the number of points based on the possible rolls of the dice. In other words, in the '80s, if Wade Boggs had hits against right-handers in Column 1 in slots 5 through 10 (I'm sorry, but anybody who hasn't played Strat-O is going to get lost in this part of the conversation), a walk or hit in Column 2-6, and hits or walks on Column 3-5 through 3-10, he scored 59 on that side of his playing card -- six points for every roll on a No. 7, five points for any roll of Nos. 6 or 8, four points for any roll of Nos. 5 or 9, three points for any roll of Nos. 4 or 10, two points for any roll of Nos. 3 or 11, and a point for a roll of Nos. 2 or 12.
I'd go through all the cards and calculate these ratings of all pitchers and hitters versus right-handers and left-handers. This, of course, was a Strat-O-Matic version of calculating on-base percentage. I loaded up on guys who scored the highest in this system, including platoon monsters like Jeff Leonard and Al Newman (who killed lefties) and Dwayne Murphy (who drew tons of walks against right-handers on his '87 card), and I'd trade to get Boggs and Tim Raines; my teams always fared very well. In the early '80s, I drafted Gene Tenace as a backup catcher to pinch hit, because he drew walks, and I would effectively pair him with Ron LeFlore, who I'd keep as a fourth outfielder and as a pinch-runner because of LeFlore's high Triple-A stolen-base percentage. In a close game in the late innings, Tenace could come off the bench to draw a walk and LeFlore would swipe second, and I'd be in business.
But regardless of how Rich or I preferred to play our board games, the reality is that in the '70s and early '80s, many of the executives who ran teams and the managers who managed and the players who played did not value walks the way walks are valued these days. This is partly a function of how the game was played -- the strike zone was larger, there were fewer pitches per plate appearance, and there was more pressure on the hitter to swing the bat. The conventional wisdom was that a middle-of-the-order hitter who took a lot of walks was actually hurting his club (especially if he was a cleanup hitter on a team in a lineup without a lot of depth). Now, was that philosophy flawed, in part? Sure. Folks in baseball should've absorbed Bill James' Baseball Abstracts from the outset (I got my first as a high school graduation present in the spring of '82). But the bottom line is this: Rice's approach to hitting was engrained in the game; guys in the middle of the lineup focused on generating RBIs.
During Eddie Murray's batting practice sessions, he would take a round in which he focused on practiced emergency swings -- awkward hacks at pitches off the plate, or pitches on which he was fooled -- in order to put the ball in play. Why? Because he considered himself an RBI guy, and if there was a runner at third, his focus was to do everything he could to drive the run in. Despite breaking into the big leagues under a progressive manager like Earl Weaver, Murray wasn't thinking about on-base percentage; he defined himself by RBIs. He didn't say at the end of the year, Hey, I had an OBP of .380 and I feel damn good about that.
His first responsibility to the team, he felt (and according to colleague Peter Gammons, Rice had an approach similar to that of Murray), was being in the lineup every day as a reliable teammate, and in this role, he measured himself by RBIs -- more than 80 in 17 of the first 19 seasons of Murray's career. As Peter remembers, Rice felt enormous pressure to drive in runs, and this was not merely self-inflicted. With runners on first and second base and one out and the Red Sox down a run and the count 2-1, he was going to swing at a fastball on the outside corner with the intent of driving in the run.
Rich might not like it, and it might not make a lot of sense in today's OBP world, but that is the way sluggers were taught and expected to think. Ted Williams was one of the sluggers who took walks, refusing to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. Look at the year-to-year leaders and you can see that the elite players tend to walk and strike out more than they used to.
Football has some parallels. Johnny Unitas is regarded, in football history, as one of the greatest quarterbacks in history. And if you look at his completion percentages and quarterback ratings and interception rates, you could, at first glance, ask: What's the big deal? There were four quarterbacks who had higher ratings this year than Unitas did in his best season. His completion percentage would be pedestrian in the modern game, a skill that you might think would translate in a conversation about eras, in the same way that you might think that Rice should've drawn more walks.
But if you talk to anyone affiliated with the NFL in Unitas' era and what they will tell you, without hesitation, is that Unitas was The Man. The game was just different.
There was one thing that Rich wrote that really caught my eye, about past MVP Award results: "At the risk of speaking on behalf of serious fans and students of the game, I believe we would all like for the MVP voting to be a 'barometer' of Rice's [and everyone's] play. We're not 'ignoring the MVP voting entirely.' Instead, we're just discounting it."
I'm sorry, but I guess I'll never be such a serious fan or student of the game that I would discount the information generated in hundreds of MVP votes cast in 14 AL cities during Rice's time as a player. I'll never be such a serious student of the game that I would presume that the past voters like Peter Gammons, Ross Newhan, Tim Kurkjian, Tracy Ringolsby, Ken Rosenthal, Richard Justice, Gerry Fraley, Moss Klein, Bob Nightengale, Bob Elliott and others who spent 10-12 hours a day in ballparks eight months a year didn't know what they were watching. I'd never presume they were simply ignorant in giving Rice all those MVP votes he collected through the years.
And I've always assumed there is plenty of room for opinion and interpretation in the game. Rich's point of view is not wrong; it's his opinion. And I have my own.
Olney and I clearly disagree on Rice's value and place in baseball history. Even though we both own the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract, we also don't agree on how an offense functions.
As it relates to APBA and Strat-O-Matic, I never drafted or traded for Jim Rice in my ten-year stint in the Greater Los Angeles APBA Association. I just was never attracted to the fact that he was a below-average ("OF-1") or average ("OF-2") fielder, a below-average ("S") or average baserunner (neither "S" or "F"), rarely walked (averaged 2 "14"s on his card), didn't steal bases (never had an "11" and rarely had a "10"), and grounded into lots of double plays ("24"s). His strengths were limited to the fact that he had three or four "power numbers" ("0-6") on his card and normally had a couple of "7"s (which generally resulted in singles against most pitchers).
Just like in "real" baseball, Rice was a low on-base, high-slugging type hitter. Yes, he could drive in runs but wasn't adept at creating as many runs as the best players. I was much more attracted to players who could hit for power and get on base. Walks were valuable back then. It didn't matter if one was managing an APBA or major league team.
In Rice's rookie year, the Cincinnati Reds led the major leagues in walks and won the World Series (ironically beating the Red Sox in seven games). The Reds also led the majors in BB the following year while winning the World Series once again. Throughout baseball history, teams that have ranked at or near the top in drawing or preventing walks have won much more often than they have lost. For offenses, getting on base is of paramount importance – it always has been and always will. For defenses, keeping runners off base is basically what it has been, is, and will always be about. It's just a simple truism.
As it relates to my APBA playing days, I traded for two of Rice's fellow outfielders – Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn – yet never even thought about acquiring him. Like in "real" baseball, he was a good hitter but was limited in all other phases of the game. Evans and Lynn also hit well but got on-base more often via walks and were significantly better defensive players. In my mind, Rice was basically the equal of George Foster – and I never traded for him either. However, I owned Dave Parker during his peak years because he was a better hitter, better baserunner, and a better fielder than Rice.
Following the 1981 season, I made sure to trade for the number one draft pick and took Tim Raines even though many other league members were partial toward Fernando Valenzuela. Raines was one of the very best players in the game. He got on base frequently, stole bases often and at a record clip, and was as valuable at scoring runs as the Rices and Fosters were in driving them in. I knew what was important back then, and I know what is important today.
With respect to the Johnny Unitas example offered by Olney, I think he is missing the point. Johnny U. was outstanding in his day and remains one of the top QBs in the history of football despite the fact that present-day passers have surpassed his records. Relative to his era, Unitas was fantastic. Nothing will ever change that. The fact that his "completion percentage would be pedestrian in the modern game" has zero impact on his status as one of the all-time greats of the game.
I respect many of the writers Olney mentioned, and I value their opinions. It's not a matter of whose viewpoints carry more weight as much as it is about understanding and appreciating what wins and loses games. Just as no one stat is says it all, no one person or groups of persons knows it all. Beat writers, baseball columnists, statisticians, analysts, scouts, players, managers, coaches, umpires, general managers, owners, fans . . . all of us have a perspective that is neither better nor worse than the others based on our employment alone.
My Dad was a sportswriter who covered the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1958-1968. He never missed a game in 11 years. As such, he probably saw more games than any other beat writer during those years. A member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, he voted for MVP and Cy Young Awards in his day. He also voted for the Hall of Fame up until his death in 1978. Dad was also the statistician for the Dodgers, maintaining game logs, home and road, left- and right-handed splits, etc. well before doing so became popular.
A little bit of my Dad rubbed off on me. I grew up going to games at the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium, and playing Little League, Pony League, Colt League, Connie Mack, American Legion, and high school baseball. I played fast-pitch softball for 10 years. I played APBA during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. I have been a participant in one of the longest-running fantasy leagues for more than 25 years. I coached my son's Little League team. I have attended dozens of games every year of my adulthood and have subscribed to MLB Extra Innings since 2001. Heck, I've even dabbled as a writer and analyst for the past five years.
I own all 12 of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts, and have read every book from cover to cover. I'm not an expert, but I pride myself on having an open mind when it comes to learning more about this great game. I can only hope that those who have been given the privilege of voting for MVPs, Cy Youngs, and Hall of Famers will be equally open minded when it comes time to fill out their ballots.
[Additional reader comments at Baseball Primer Newsblog.]