A Public Letter to Buster Olney
Thank you for taking the time to engage me in a lively debate about Jim Rice and his Hall of Fame qualifications. I don't know about you, but I believe this discussion is actually about much more than whether Rice should or shouldn't be elected to Cooperstown. I maintain that what we are really at odds over isn't Rice as much as the way we go about evaluating players when it comes time to vote for MVPs, Cy Young Awards, and the Hall of Fame. Rice just happens to serve as an excellent example of the differences in the thought processes that go (or should go) into these decisions.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out that you mischaracterized my comments on Rice and Bert Blyleven in the opening paragraph of your latest response. Rather than incorrectly interpreting what I wrote, perhaps you should have quoted me or linked to my articles so your readers could see for themselves what it is I said or didn't say.
In any event, in the spirit of Bob Rittner's guest column last week, I want to acknowledge our common ground as it relates to Rice. There is no question that Jim was a very good hitter for the vast majority of his career with the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s and 1980s. I would even go so far as to say that he was an outstanding hitter from 1977-1979 and in 1983 as well. Rice led the American League in total bases in all four of those seasons. That is a terrific accomplishment.
As you have pointed out on at least one occasion, Rice also topped the majors in RBI and hits from 1975-1986 and placed third in HR and fourth in OPS during that 12-year period. All of these rankings speak well of Rice's hitting prowess.
However, in order to fully understand and appreciate Rice's value and place in baseball history, I believe it is important to put his stats into their proper perspective. I would like to do that by focusing on context, consistency (in the application of the stats), and comparability (to other players). Allow me to refer to them as the three Cs.
All players need to be viewed within the context of their era, league, team, place in the lineup, ballpark, and position. In the case of Rice, he played during a period that neither favored pitchers nor hitters. The second half of the 1970s and the decade of the 1980s were a fairly neutral time with respect to scoring runs. However, Rice benfited to a significant degree by playing his entire career in Boston. The team's home games were played at Fenway Park, which ranked as the AL's #1 or #2 most friendly ballpark to hitters in 13 of Rice's 14 full seasons (including nine years in which it was #1). As such, it follows that Rice's raw stats need to be adjusted.
Based on your skepticism of Adjusted OPS (or OPS+) as a measurement tool, I believe it is instructive to look at Rice's home (.320/.374/.546) and road (.277/.330/.459) splits to see how he performed in a more neutral environment. To the extent that Rice tailored his swing or game for Fenway Park, he should definitely get credit for his home performance above and beyond the park factor. This nuance is actually accounted for in Rice's career OPS+ mark because it only dings him about 3.5% or one-half of the average park factor of 107 and not for his total outperformance at home.
Sure, Carl Yastrzemski and Wade Boggs took advantage of Fenway, too. But Yaz and Boggs both had higher peaks and better career totals than Rice. Yastrzemski was a better left fielder and Boggs played a more vital defensive position to boot.
Context is also an important consideration with respect to counting stats such as runs batted in and hits. Opportunities play a big role in both. I covered these matters in detail two weeks ago and believe many of Rice's counting stats were largely a function of his opportunities. His career totals were definitely solid but not overly special. Combining counting stats with rate stats allows us to judge quantity and quality. A player's longevity, efficiency, and peak value are all part of the puzzle.
A player's position is another contextual item. The fact that Rice played LF for about 75% of his career and DH for the other 25% – and was generally viewed as a slightly below-average fielder – means he was basically a hitter and little else. I'm not arguing that he didn't hit; instead, I'm just trying to put his offensive contributions in their proper light. All else being equal, players on the left side of the Defensive Spectrum (DH | 1B | LF | RF | 3B | CF | 2B | SS) are less valuable than those on the right side.
In order to have meaning, statistics and statistical profiles need to be applied consistently from one player to the next. If using a 12-year period to measure Rice's worth is fair as you suggest, should we not apply this same window to all time frames and players?
Joe Carter, for example, led the majors in RBI for four consecutive 12-year periods (1984-1995, 1985-1996, 1986-1997, and 1987-1998). He also led the majors in HR for those first two 12-year periods. Carter was a better baserunner than Rice, played on two World Series championship teams, and slugged one of the most famous home runs in the history of the game. The point of this exercise isn't to suggest that Carter is a HOFer; rather, it is to downplay the significance of Rice's rankings during his best dozen years.
You have also made a big deal out of Rice's standing in so-called MVP Shares. Along the lines of your disdain for OPS+, "if this [is] your be-all, end-all statistic, keep in mind that" . . . Dave Parker had more MVP Shares than Jim Rice, Juan Gonzalez had more MVP Shares than Rickey Henderson, and George Bell had more MVP Shares than Robin Yount even though the latter won two MVPs and was a first-ballot HOF selection.
Is Rice the best player not in the Hall of Fame? Is he even the best outfielder not in the Hall of Fame? Seriously, is Rice really better than Andre Dawson, Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy, and Dave Parker? I don't see it myself. I will concede that a proponent of Rice could make a case that he is as good as these four outfielders (none of whom are in the HOF), but I can't for the life of me understand how somebody could claim that he was sufficiently better and deserved enshrinement over the others. By my way of thinking, if Rice is a Hall of Famer, then so are Dawson, Evans, Murphy, and Parker.
POS PA TOB TB AVG OBP SLG OPS+ WS WARP3
Dawson CF-RF 10769 3474 4787 .279 .323 .482 119 340 105
Evans RF 10569 3890 4230 .272 .370 .470 127 347 120
Murphy CF-RF 9040 3125 3733 .265 .346 .469 121 294 86
Parker RF-DH 10184 3451 4405 .290 .339 .471 121 327 85
Rice LF-DH 9058 3186 4129 .298 .352 .502 128 282 83
If Win Shares (WS) and Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP3) are too esoteric, that's fine. But please note that both measures account for defense as well. Three Win Shares equal one win. As such, both Win Shares and WARP paint a similar picture. Notably, scores of 300 WS and 100 WARP generally equate to Hall of Fame-caliber careers. There are exceptions on both sides of these magic numbers, particularly in the case of players that had short careers but extraordinary peaks (like Sandy Koufax).
I will grant that Rice may have been the best hitter of the fivesome (by the narrowest of margins), but he played the least important position and was the least competent defensively. Dawson, Murphy, and Parker were certainly better baserunners at their peaks, giving each of them a modest plus in this department as well.
Mix in the MVPs and Gold Gloves if you will, shake it all up, and how can one justify Rice's Hall of Fame worthiness over his fellow outfielders? A rational analysis would suggest it is virtually impossible. If you're a big Hall guy, then go ahead and continue to vote for Rice. But you should be voting and pushing for Dawson, Evans, Murphy, and Parker, too.
Although I don't expect to sway your vote as it relates to Rice, I'm hopeful that our debate will give you (and others) pause when filling out your ballot in the future. All of us love stats in one form or fashion, but they are most relevant when viewed in their proper context and applied consistently so that player comparability can be truly evaluated.