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.
• 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.
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.]