Designated HitterDecember 18, 2008
Jim Rice, the Hall of Fame, and the Numbers
By Christopher D. Green

Of all the personal testimonials honoring Jim Rice, my favorite is that of the much-beloved late commissioner of baseball, Bart Giamatti, who once wrote that Rice was “the Hammer of God sent to scourge the Yankees.”[1] That alone, in the minds of many baseball fans (outside of New York), should be enough to let Rice through the gates of the game’s Valhalla, Cooperstown’s Hall of Fame.

But, alas, Jim has stuck out 14 times with the Baseball Writers Association of America, and a debate rages over whether this final time will be the charm. Of course, even if he fails – or, rather, if the writers who vote on such matters fail him – his case will be shuffled off to the Veteran’s Committee where he may yet attain immortality. However, opinion across the land seems to be that there is something slightly dodgy and even undignified about entering the Hall in this manner, as though one has come through an inadvertently unlatched back door.

A lot the debate over Rice’s fate has been carried on at the level of “I saw him hit a home run against the [fill in a team name here] when I was [fill in an age under 10 here] and it was the most awesome sight I ever witnessed. [Therefore he should go to the Hall.]” We also see fierce, dramatic but intensely subjective judgments of the stature Rice had when he played. Pitchers, it is said by some, feared him, perhaps more than any other batter in baseball at that time.

SABR members and their intellectual brethren have debated Rice’s qualifications at a somewhat more sophisticated level (mostly), examining Rice’s statistics and awards while comparing his record to those of others who have (and haven’t) had their images inscribed on Cooperstown plaques. Consider, for instance, the claim that Rice was feared by opposing pitchers. Perhaps so, but then what are we to make of the fact that he never received more than 10 intentional base on balls in any one season? By this measure of “feared hitter,” Rice falls behind not only contemporaries Dale Murphy, Garry Templeton, Dave Winfield, and Dave Parker, but also Ted Simmons and Warren Cromartie (each of whom had two or three seasons with 20 or more IBB. With 77 career IBB, Rice is tied for 179th all time, along with players such as Jerry Grote, Ken Henderson, Claudell Washington, and Rice’s one-time teammate Fred Lynn.

In 16 seasons, Rice had a batting average of .298 with 2452 hits and 382 HR – each just a little short of the lifetime statistics that (used to?) assure one a ticket to the Hall. Still, Rice was an All-Star eight times and an MVP once (and he finished 3rd in MVP voting two other times, once in his rookie year, in which he lost to fellow rookie teammate Lynn). If the basic statistics fail to provide a clear answer, one can bring in second-generation statistics to help elucidate matters. For instance, Rice’s OBP was.352 and his SLG was .502, for an OPS of .854. This is just ahead of Hall-of-Famers Eddie Collins and Billy Williams, but behind non-Hall-of-Famers such as Reggie Smith and Jack Clark. So there is nothing decisive here for Rice’s case either. He remains precariously balanced on the cusp of greatness, like a star that is visible in the night sky only if you look slightly to one side of it.

The real statheads among us indulge in even more exotic stuff, like Bill James’ quantitative estimates of similarity among players.[2] Perhaps not surprisingly, Rice scores most similar to another legendary “tough case” for the Hall: Orlando Cepeda. In 17 seasons, Cepeda had 2351 hits (101 fewer than Rice), 379 HR (3 fewer), a .297 career BA (.001 lower), and a .849 career OPS (.005 lower). He was an All-Star 7 times (one fewer), a Rookie of the Year (one more), and an MVP once (tied). Rice fans will note that their man was just slightly better in nearly every case, and that Cepeda ultimately made it into the Hall. But Cepeda hit in an era of tougher pitching (lgOPS of .724 vs. .744 in Rice’s era) and, as a result, Cepeda has a slightly higher park-adjusted league-normalized *OPS+ (133 vs. Rice 128). Again, nothing decisive here. Let us move on. James has also developed some estimates of the likelihood of players entering the Hall. Naturally, Rice is low on one (HoF Standard = 44, where the avg. HoFer scores about 50) and high on the other (HoF Monitor = 144.5, where 100 represents a likely HoFer).

And so, finally, we come to James’ most recent, most influential, and perhaps most complicated estimate of player value: win shares. I won’t go into the calculations here (you can find it on the internet if you are interested), but win shares is supposed to tell us how many additional wins a given player was responsible for with his bat, his fielding, and (if applicable) his pitching. It is well-tested and well-known. It has its quirks, to be sure, but it is generally accepted to do a good job at measuring player performance.

How many win shares did Jim Rice have over the course of his career? 282. How good is that? It is tied with Boog Powell, the one-time MVP, mostly-Oriole LF-1B of the 1960s and 1970s. Powell is not, it should be noted, in the Hall. Fred Lynn is two win shares below Rice. He is not in the Hall. Minnie Minoso and Sal Bando are one win share ahead of Rice. They are not in the Hall. Amos Otis and Toby Harrah are a little further ahead (+4 and +5, respectively). George Sisler is 10 ahead and Dale Murphy (another notoriously tough HoF case) is 12 ahead, tied with Shoeless Joe Jackson. Then Cesar Cedeno (+14), Frank Howard (+15), Home Run Baker (+19), Ken Singleton (+20), Bobby Bonds (+20), Harold Baines (+25), and finally Orlando Cepeda at 310 win shares, a full 28 ahead of Rice.[3] At last, we have some solid evidence that Rice’s career contribution was, in cold reality, just a little below that usually needed to make it into the Hall; that perhaps his presence in Boston made him more visible nationally than Cepeda, who labored mostly in San Francisco and Atlanta (where he worked in the shadows of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron), but not actually quite as good a player.

A number of people have made exactly this case in the debate currently swirling around the vote for the 2009 Hall of Fame induction class. Of course, the win shares numbers are just evidence. They do not constitute definitive “proof.” One can continue to debate, among other things, the relative weaknesses of the various measures used, the importance of “peak” years, and a variety of “intangibles” that are not captured by any of the numbers. Fair enough. But this is how this sort of debate productively proceeds – from impressions, to statistics, to comparative statistics, to better comparative statistics, and so on. For instance, on 14 December 2008, David Kaiser posted an analysis of this kind to the SABR-L list, using win shares (among various other measures) to answer a number of questions about whether Rice should be in the Hall of Fame. Kaiser concluded:

The answers to this quiz are interesting because they show Rice as an almost classic case of a player writers tend to overrate: coming up with the Red Sox in one of their glory eras, he put up some spectacular home run and RBI numbers in his first few years and had one truly fantastic season. As a result he did quite well in MVP voting and was picked for a lot of All-Star games but his actual value was only once (1978) as large as it seemed, his secondary numbers were very poor, and he faded out quickly.

But then comes along Gabriel Schechter, a Research Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, who wrote in a posting to the SABR-L list on 15 December 2008:

I simply want to register a strong protest over David [Kaiser]'s use of win shares as the primary tool of his analysis…. Rice played in the 1970s and 1980s, so how is it fitting to apply a sabermetrical measure that wasn't even created until 2001? Aren't those questions supposed to reflect how the player was regarded AT THE TIME he was playing? To say that Fred Lynn or Carlton Fisk had more win shares than Rice in a given season and equate that with considering Lynn or Fisk as more highly regarded than Rice is ridiculous.

And so we come to the real point of this column, which was not, it may surprise you to learn, to contribute to the Jim Rice HoF debate but, rather, to discuss the justice of using modern statistical tools (like win shares) to decide historical questions (like whether Jim Rice was so great a ballplayer that he belongs in the Hall of Fame).

I do not know Mr. Schechter’s views of statistical analysis generally. There are some fans (and players and managers) who believe they see plainly with their eyes (and with their memories), and that statistics, with all their fussy formulas, only confuse the issue. Without further ado, I commend to them the cognitive psychological work of people such as Paul Meehl, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman to disabuse them of their misapprehension. I will assume that Mr. Schechter, instead, is only objecting to the casting back of modern statistics into historical eras. I suspect, however, that he has confused two superficially similar, though, in point of fact, quite distinct complaints. The one, to which many object, has to do with creating leader boards and records for statistics that did not exist when a particular season was played. So, for instance, claiming that Three-Finger Brown led the NL in saves four years running, from 1908-1911 (5, 7, 7, 13), seems a little silly not just because there was no such statistic for Brown to lead the league in then, but also because the conception of the relief pitcher as a kind of “specialist” with a particular “function” (such as “saving”) was not yet in place in Brown’s time. It is a little like claiming that Hannibal had more “tanks” than the Romans on account of his use of elephants. I have some sympathy with this objection.

However, that is not what is going on when Mr. Kaiser (and others) use win shares to analyze the performance of players past. First of all, there is nothing that goes into computing win shares that would have been foreign to Rice or his cohort: hits, at bats, bases on balls, total bases, outs, etc. Mr. James has just stirred a little differently a pot of wholly familiar ingredients. Second, the point of doing this kind of analysis is not (only) to create a retrospective leader board, but rather to use quantitative methods to analyze Rice’s performance relative to his peers (and to others throughout the history of major league baseball). With a modicum of judiciousness, there is nothing in the least ridiculous about this process. Indeed, we do it all the time.

To wit, which of these historical questions are ridiculous? How many people lived in the city of Rome in 44 bc? What proportion of them were slaves? What was the average life expectancy? What were the leading causes of death? Among the land owners? Among slaves? Across genders? All of them require quantitative answers. All of them were questions that went unasked (and unanswered) by the Romans themselves. That does not make them historically illegitimate. Consider more questions of the same type: What proportion of the US population spoke English as a mother tongue in 1776? What proportion of the American population approved of Abraham’s Lincoln’s actions in 1863? Would Woodrow Wilson have won the 1912 presidential election if either William Howard Taft or Theodore Roosevelt had dropped out of the race?

The people of these eras did not have either the data or the methods (or both) to answer such questions definitively, but certainly there is nothing to prevent us from using the methods we have since developed on the data that we still have from those times to develop answers that are in some ways better than the ones people of the time in question could have generated (for instance, computers make it possible for us to manipulate huge masses of data that would have been impracticable, if not strictly impossible, prior to their invention).

Far from being illegitimate, a statistic like win shares is precisely the kind of evidence to which members of the BBWAA should attend more fully when deciding questions like whether Jim Rice was as good a player as the others who are now in the Hall. It allows us to separate dispassionate consideration of the merits of the case from contentious but ultimately irrelevant stories of who thrilled us when we were young. Isn’t that exactly why the BBWAA waits five years after a player retires before considering his case for entering the Hall – to let passions cool and allow the facts to rise to the surface?



[1] Giamatti, A. Bartlett (1998). "The Green Fields of the Mind." In A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. Algonquin. Available on-line at:

[2] The source I used was

[3] I have only picked a few familiar names between Rice and Cepeda. In fact there were 56 players separating the two on the all-time win shares list, as of 2002. (Players like Frank Thomas have since passed Cepeda. Others have, no doubt, crept between them from below Rice in the intervening years.)

Christopher D. Green teaches statistics in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto. His academic research is mostly concerned with the history of psychology.


Not being allowed to use modern statistical analysis to judge players of the past is like not being able to open up murder cases of 20+ years ago and use modern DNA testing to solve them. There is a problem in front of us. Why not use the best tools you have at hand?

SoCalTwinsfan -- precisely. Mr. Kaiser's whinge is every bit as rational as proclaiming that F = dmv/dt did not apply prior to the publication of Newton's Principia Mathematica. One may object to particulars; James' Win Shares have their legitimate detractors, but Kaiser's is an appeal to ignorance.

Ignorance is seldom bliss. It's usually just . . ignorance and a wide open door to much worse things.

Jim Rice was a very good player, one of the best for a few years. I saw almost all of his career. And after about 1981 or 1982 the notion of his being a hall of famer would have elicited a chuckle from me.

Great article.

It's tough because Rice was awesome for a few years, but it wasn't enough. A player has to be a HoFer for more than a few years.

what're the chances that schechter actually had the patience to read through the whole of your article? probably zero. what're the chances that people like schechter understands that statistical analysis is typically and fundamentally dependent on historical events? probably zero.

great article. if the general population were more educated in high school-level statistics - i'm sure what you've written would have more traction. but we're not in an education-driven society.

I disagree with Gabriel Schechter's view in this matter, but, being an intelligent man, he is certainly able to understand statistical analysis. You might want to read his book about the career of Charles "Victory" Faust. It is a fine work that sets the rather extraordinary story firmly within the context of early 19th century of baseball. The book is "Victory Faust: The Rube Who Saved McGraw's Giants".

In fact, while I agree he has misinterpreted the use of win shares and their application to earlier eras, his point arises from an understanding of the problem of hindsight and anachronism in the study of history and the application of its "lessons".

I disagree with Mr. Schechter' premise that the question of a player's qualifications for the HoF should be answered by reference to "how the player was regarded AT THE TIME he was playing." If that's the case, then why are we letting a group of writers in 2008 decide the eligibility of a player who made his mark in the mid- to late 70s? Clearly, the whole purpose behind the 5-year waiting period, the 15-year eligibility window, and the veteran's committee is to allow the player's importance to the game come into focus under the lens of history.

Mr. Schechter thinks it's unfair to use post-turn-of-the-century metrics like win shares to evaluate Mr. Rice's HoF credentials, as if any new method of evaluation one might devise would inevitably undermine the case for letting him in. I would simply point out that in every ballot prior to the invention of win shares, Mr. Rice failed to garner enough votes for induction. Clearly, Mr. Rice wasn't faring so great in the pre-win-shares era either.

I followed the discussion on the SABR-L and was hoping to find this kind of response in a prominent location. Thank you!

Here is a simple measure, not that any one simple measure is enough. Total bases plus walks plus steals divided by "outs" (see for definition of "outs"). And the totals for this year's left-fielders? Rice, .78. Greg Vaughn, .79. Gant, .80. Tim Raines, .89. Rickey, .96. Barry Bonds, 1.24. Babe Ruth, 1.39.

I wish there was a way that we could count up all the words that have been and will be on the internet regarding Rice's HOF ballot for this year.

If only BJ would finish and publish his Loss Shares, then would have the full picture of Rice and his comparables' positives and negatives.

Not all career win shares totals should be measured equal.

No full-career catcher with 300 or more is out: 300 is a good "presumption number" for a catcher.

However, the only career left fielders below 350 are the questionable ones like Ralph Kiner (242, WWII credit?), Joe Medwick (312), and Lou Brock (348). Actually, 375 is a better career number for a left fielder. Barry, Ted, Rickey, and Yaz are way over that. Other no-brainers are Tim Raines (390), Jesse Burkett (389), Zach Wheat (380). Then Billy Williams (374), Roger Connor (363), Ed Delahanty (355). Sherry Magee (354) just got passed over again by the Veterans' Committee. Manny has 388 so far. Of these names, Rice comes closest to Medwick (a debatable choice who waited 20 years), and he's one additional excellent season behind Medwick.

I think that some commenters are being a little too hard on Gabriel Schechter, possibly because of the way I edited his comment. As he understood the questions David Kaiser was answering, they were, at least in part, about how Rice was regarded at the time that he played. I understand why he objects to using win shares to answer this particular question. As Bob R. said, there is a possible issue of anachronism (or presentism) to be addressed here. It is possible (as in the example of saves) to hold a player to a modern standard that was irrelevant (or differently relevant) in his own era. But I also don't think it ridiculous, a priori, to use win shares even here. If one were to argue that the measure captures in a rigorous and explicit manner global characteristics of a player's performance that were only understood implicitly at the time (e.g., as personal "impressions") then it might well have a use even in this context. I think this remains an open question.

More to the point, however, I don't think that how a player was seen (by whom, exactly?) at the time he played is necessarily the final word on whether he should be admitted to the Hall. For instance, many people now believe that bases on balls, doubles, and OBP have much greater value than was recognized even a decade ago. And many people now recognize that RBI for hitters, as well as Wins, for pitchers are less-than-optimal measures of player performance because they are so inextricably confounded with the performances of other players on the team. If we can make the case that a player 20, 30 or even more years ago was undervalued by managers and fans in his time because they mistakenly undervalued aspects of his play that we now have good reason to reward, doesn't that constitute a case for upgrading our estimate of him? And if such a player were on the cusp of admittance to the Hall before, might that reassessment not tip the balance in favor of admittance? And vice versa as well. If a player is on the cusp of admittance to the Hall on the basis of his traditional statistics, but a more sophisticated form of analysis is able to articulate why many observers have reservations, might not that analysis tip the balance against admittance?

I think whenever the mention of statistical or numerical analysis of any kind comes into play, people get nervous (including myself), because there are so many ways to "disguise" the truth through slippery quantitative analyses, and people have learned to become skeptical of virtually anything that relates to "statistics." However, in this case, it sounds like Gabriel's concern is unfounded. His concern that win shares are "historically sensitive" would be legit IF the calculation of win shares were in part, sensitive to rule changes, or other conditions of the game that might have changed from the 80s to now (and no adjustments were made for these changes). In that sense, the issue would be more of a measurement issue (i.e., are we measuring the same "win share quantity" when we consider today's player vs. yesterday's player?). If win shares were "time sensitive" then I think Gabriel would have a point. To use Christopher's example however, the question "What proportion of Romans were slaves?" is definitely a fair question to address using quantitative methods, and the historical nature of the data is irrelevant. All data that we analyze is historical (unless anyone has found a way to analyze data-to-be), so it is clear that TIME is not the issue, as Gabriel seems to suggest it is. If I developed a formula today, what's to prevent me from applying it to yesterday's data? Rather, the issue that seems to concern Gabriel is MEASUREMENT, and whether the "ingredients" used in the calculation of "win shares" depend on whether the player played in 1980 or 2008. I just checked, and according to Wikipedia, win shares are indeed "adjusted for park, league, and era." Gabriel's true concern (though he wasn't able to successfully express it) was more about whether these adjustments were made correctly. If they were, Gabriel has no case, and the comparison of win shares from 1980 to 2008 is perfectly legit. Whether the formulas were established before or after the realization of the data is irrelevant. The history of statistics is filled with examples of statistical pioneers developing novel formulas to analyze "yesterday's" data, as well as "tomorrow's".

The fact that Jerry Grote was walked intentionally more times in his career than Jim Rice should help destroy the idea that a batter's fearsomeness is the main reason he gets intentionally walked. There are many resons. In Grote's case, it's because he was such a poor hitter that he spent much of his career batting eigth. He was intentionally walked so that the opposing pitcher could face whoever was pitching that day for the Mets. And the Mets had some pretty bad hitting pitchers in those days. I think that Jerry Koosman deserves some consideration as possibly the worst hitter of all time.


I agree with Nate on the IBB argument. This is one statistic that says different things in each league. Rice was also less likely to be walked intentionally due to the kinds of hitters around him. Lynn, Fisk, Scott, Yaz, Evans, even Armas presence meant many base runners coming out of the middle of those Sox lineups kept the number of IBB's down. Let's ditch this angle for dismissing Rice's candidacy.

Former players make this argument about more recent statistics, and sure, a lot of the time they are just nerd-bashing, but there is certainly a question of fairness involved.

The aspects of the game that are valued at the time are the aspects that a player will be asked to focus on. If a player is told, by his coaches, to hit for contact with men on base, this surely affects his approach at the plate, in turn affecting his RBI, OBP, etc.

Will this show up in the league averages? Sure. Is normalization enough to render it irrelevant? I don't think so, not entirely. In fact, in the worst case, the most talented players may have their statistics distorted the most, if they are the players most able to make adjustments to their game to comply with what's expected of them.

While win shares are only one (very useful) tool, they are clearly useful. They permit a generalized apportionment of who deserves the most credit, by their on-field performance, for players' baseball accomplishment, by means of a common standard. I suspect that over time the formulas used to compute them will be changed as we understand or can quantify more. Right now, however, the products of the formulas align, in general, with common sense.

Those who object to them act as if Bill James set out to denigrate Jim Rice and Jack Morris and was not satisfied with him system until they ranked as low as computations could place them. But James just followed the logic of baseball as far as he could go with it, mathematically.

Many of us knew long before win shares that Dewey Evans was more valuable over his career than Rice, and Blyleven more valuable than Morris. Giving us one metric that approximates the sum of the differences provides handy confirmation, in an easy-to-use form, but it is not a conspiracy.

Rice should have been in on the 1st is Kirby Puckett in?