Search for the Truth
In Rob Neyer's Friday Filberts, he made a keen observation that perhaps has been lost in the debate over Jim Rice's Hall of Fame worthiness.
• Rich Lederer and our own Buster Olney have devoted space this week in their respective venues to an entertaining back-and-forth that's ostensibly about Jim Rice but is really about something much deeper than one man's Hall of Fame candidacy. Highly recommended for the quality of the writing alone, and here's hoping it lasts the rest of the winter.
I totally agree with Rob's take on this matter. I'm not nearly as interested in whether Rice gets elected to the HOF as I am in shaping the thought process. If Rice gets in, he gets in. I'm not going to lose any sleep over the matter. I just don't want to be standing in the way of the cattle call when Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy, Dave Parker, Dwight Evans, and even George Foster storm the front door to Cooperstown.
Although Olney and I disagree on the bottom line (i.e., Rice's inclusion or exclusion), in some ways, it's neither here nor there. What is here and there is the way we go about evaluating players. Despite protestations to the contrary, those of us who oppose Rice's candidacy are not viewing him through a "time-machine prism" or "offensive formulas tailored for the way the game was played in the '90s."
For proof on this very subject, let's take a look at what Bill James had to say about Rice in the 1985 Baseball Abstract:
Virtually all sportswriters, I suppose, believe that Jim Rice is an outstanding player. If you ask them how they know this, they'll tell you that they just know; I've seen him play. That's the difference in a nutshell between knowledge and bullshit; knowledge is something that can be objectively demonstrated to be true, and bullshit is something that you just "know." If someone can actually demonstrate that Jim Rice is a great ballplayer, I'd be most interested to see the evidence.
How great is that? I mean, Bill's not saying that now. Instead, he made that statement 23 years ago while Rice was still playing!
And, again, it's not about Rice per se. It's about the search for the truth.
James opened up our eyes – and our minds – by challenging the conventional wisdom and proving it wrong in so many cases. More than anything, he taught us to ask questions. Thanks to Bill, we have learned the importance of dealing with questions rather than answers.
With the foregoing in mind, here are eight questions for Rice's supporters and undecided voters to ponder when filling out their ballots next year:
- To what extent were Rice's career totals positively affected by playing home games his entire career at Fenway Park, known as a hitter friendly ballpark?
- If Rice gets credit for leading the majors in RBI from 1975-1986, then shouldn't he be debited for topping all players by an even wider margin in GIDP during that same period?
- Was Rice as great as his RBI totals would indicate or were they heavily influenced by the fact that he ranked in the top seven in runners on base in nine of those 12 years?
- Can we ignore that Rice produced the second-most outs during these same dozen years?
- Did Rice play a difficult defensive position?
- Was Rice a Gold Glove-caliber fielder?
- Was Rice a "plus" baserunner?
- In other words, was Rice really as good as advertised?
The greatest change since Rice's playing days hasn't been the acceptance of OBP as a noteworthy stat as it has been in recognizing that many long-held beliefs based on traditional stats are as much a function of the era, league, team, lineup, and ballpark as anything else. Stats don't tell the entire story but the *right* stats tell us most of what we need to know.
Take, for instance, Bert Blyleven and Jim Palmer. One of the knocks against Blyleven is that he wasn't one of the most dominant pitchers of his era. The conventional wisdom says that Palmer was dominant and Blyleven wasn't. To that, I say, "Really?"
Can we accept a stat that measures the number of runs that a pitcher saved versus what an average pitcher would have allowed (adjusted for park differences) as a reasonable proxy to judge effectiveness?
Well, if we can, what would you say if I told you that Blyleven led all pitchers in Runs Saved Against Average from 1973-1977? Yes, all pitchers. Not just Palmer. But Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, and Don Sutton, too?
Furthermore, what would you say if I told you that Palmer won three Cy Young Awards during those five years and that Blyleven received one third-place vote during that same time? I mean, would you scratch your head and wonder if the Cy Young voting process was flawed? If nothing else, wouldn't you want to consider facts outside the simple tasks of counting CYA and All-Star games?
Moreover, what would you say if I told you that Blyleven led the majors in RSAA in not just one five-year period but in four consecutive five-year periods? Yes, it is a fact. Blyleven saved more runs than any pitcher from 1971-1975, 1972-1976, 1973-1977, and 1974-1978. It seems to me that he was probably the best pitcher during that time period, no? If Bert wasn't the greatest, he was certainly one of the most dominant, don't you think?
In the spirit of asking questions, is it possible that Palmer benefited by working his home games in a ballpark that was more friendly to pitchers than Blyleven? The answer is "yes." Palmer pitched in Memorial Stadium while Blyleven toiled in Metropolitan and Arlington Stadiums. The difference in park factors averaged a tad over 7% per year.
Is it also possible that Palmer benefited by having a superior defense playing behind him? During his Cy Young seasons, Palmer had Mark Belanger at shortstop, Bobby Grich at second base, and Paul Blair in center field. He also had Brooks Robinson at third base in two of those three years. Belanger, Grich, Blair, and Robinson are among the best defensive players at their position in the history of the game. Blyleven, on the other hand, had Danny Thompson and Rod Carew as his middle infielders.
You see, there are answers in these questions. Better yet, knowledge.
As for my *debate* with Olney, I'm proud that we behaved in a mature and civil manner while arguing the message and not the messenger. Writing opposing views in a public discourse like this is healthy and can go a long way in our search for the truth, which is what these exercises should be all about.