Shaughnessy At It Again
Every year as the Hall-of-Fame vote nears, the debates over certain players intensify. As part of this tradition over the last few years, you can set your watch to a Dan Shaughnessy mail-in supporting the candidacy of Jim Rice. Shaughnessy's case for Rice and, in fairness, almost any writer's case for Rice, invariably contains the same three components.
One, there is a baseless assertion that Rice was "feared."
Shaughnessy, from yesterday's Boston Globe:
Rice was dominant. Rice was feared.
From The Boston Globe, January 9, 2008
He was more feared than Tony Perez, who is in the Hall of Fame.
I doubt Dan took the time to actually look into it but Perez was intentionally walked almost twice as many times as Rice was in his career.
In fact, when I look at this article from Shaughnessy from December of 2007, I know he didn't look into it.
People who played and watched major league baseball from 1975-86 know that Rice was the most feared hitter of his day. Managers thought about intentionally walking him when he came to the plate with the bases loaded.
What an insult to the managers of Rice's day. He was far too enticing of a double-play candidate to intentionally walk with the bases loaded. Even If there are no outs, the bases are full and you feel you have to give up a run, don't walk Rice. Just let him give you the two outs he probably will anyway. Rice ranks tied for 179th on the all-time intentional walk list. Included among the others with 77 career intentional walks are the likes of Geoff Jenkins and Clay Dalrymple (among others). On the other hand, Rice ranks sixth all-time in GIDP's, an exceptionally astounding tidbit when you consider that Rice had 9,058 plate appearances in his career. The five players ahead of him on the all-time list all had north of 12,300 plate appearances. Rice was an absolute out machine and if he had the longevity of most Hall of Famers, he would have been the Sadaharu Oh of double plays - so far in the clear of the next closest guy that his record would have been as safe as can be.
The second major component of a Shaughnessy Jim Rice Hall of Fame case contains statistical cherry picking that even the most hard headed flat-earthers would have to admire. Park factors don't matter, great on-base men that inflate your RBI totals don't matter. You just regurgitate numbers as though they have any meaning at all without context.
Also from yesterday...
...when Rice retired in 1989, he was one of only 13 players with eight or more seasons of 20 homers and 100 RBIs. The others were Ruth, Foxx, Gehrig, Aaron, Mays, DiMaggio, Killebrew, Musial, Ott, Schmidt, (Ted) Williams, and Banks.
Shaughnessy from 12/6/05
Of the 17 players (who've been on the ballot) boasting at least 350 homers and a .290 average, all are in Cooperstown -- except for Rice and Dick Allen. He is the only player in major league history with three consecutive seasons of 35 homers and 200 hits. In the 12 seasons spanning 1975-86, Rice led the American League in games, at-bats, runs, hits, homers, RBIs, slugging, total bases, extra-base hits, multi-hit games, and outfield assists.
The case against Rice is simple.
1) Playing home games in Fenway drastically inflates the value of his production. Hitting in the same lineup as players like Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans (a much, much better Hall candidate btw) inflates his RBI total. Context matters.
2) He did not play for a very long time by Hall standards; did not play at a HOF level for enough seasons.
3) His defense or base running were not such that they make up for his batting statistics, which fall well short of HOF caliber.
The stats Shaughnessy reels off amount to noise in the presence of these items.
Finally, the Shaughnessy Rice defense will in all likelihood contain a jab at the rational among us who choose to devote some time to analyzing where players stack up against one another. Here is Shaughnessy yesterday:
On the other hand, we have members of Bill James Youth who've never been out of the house who believe Rice has no business being in the Hall.
For one, the "Bill James Youth" comment is a thinly veiled Adolf Hitler reference...in a sports column...about the Hall-of-Fame candidacy of Jim Rice. Stay classy, Dan.
Second, I mean, are we still doing the "blogger/stat geek lives in his or her parents' basement" thing? In 2008? Really? The web is here to stay, Dan. How's that NYT stock you've amassed over the years holding up?
Shaughnessy ends his piece yesterday with this:
Guess you had to be there. Or maybe talk to some of the players and managers who were there.
Now, it's possible that Shaughnessy means that you actually had to be physically "there". Let's say he doesn't, however. First, he was in Baltimore while Rice put up his best seasons so Shaughnessy himself wasn't really "there" but for fifteen or so nights a season. Second, such a stringent qualifier would discount the opinions of too many of his BBWAA brethren (I'm looking at you, Jenkins) who were not "there" to see Rice all that often.
So let's assume he means "you had to be paying close attention to baseball at the time when Jim Rice was playing." That's fair enough. Contemporary opinion should matter for something I suppose. I happen to believe that stats tell most, if not all, of the story if you know which numbers to look at and don't cut corners. But I don't think it's unreasonable to contend that contemporary opinion matters.
Well guess who started writing about baseball in earnest in 1977, Rice's first great season? None other than Bill James. And if you have read over Rich Lederer's Abstracts on the Abstracts series, you find that James devoted a lot of effort, smack in the middle of Rice's career, to analyzing what kind of player Rice was. Let's take a look.
Here is James from the 1978 Baseball Abstract:
"A number of numerical attacks on Reggie Jackson's status as a superstar have attempted to downgrade him by making statistical inferences which I think are misleading...He is described as a ballplayer who has never hit .300--but that is lilke describing Roberto Clemente as a guy who never hit 30 home runs, or Ty Cobb as a player who never hit 20. The fact remains, Jackson does an awful lot of things well, and most often does them well when his team needs them. His On-Base percentage last year was .378, better than most .300 hitters, and it's a more important statistic. His excellent SB% (.850), GIDP/AB ratio (1/175), and slugging percentage (.550) add up to a hell of a lot more than the eight singles by which he missed .300. But more to the point, Jackson has never played a season in a good hitting ballpark. His three home parks, in Oakland, Baltimore, and New York, are, except for Anaheim, the 3 toughest places to hit in the league. To compare his stats in Yankee (sic) to those of, say, Jim Rice in Fenway, is just ridiculous."
"It is difficult to say anything intelligent about the Red Sox without discussing the park they play in. The public perception of this team is that of a heavy hitting outfit with a suspect pitching staff. But the fact is that the heavy-hitting Boston offense, in 81 road games, scored only 365 runs, essentially an average total, while the 'mediocre' Boston pitching and defense limited their opponents to 305 runs on the road, the lowest total in the league. You might want to read that sentence again, because it is surely the most shocking contention in this book."
Here is James during Rice's awesome three-year peak, real-time offering up the goods on the extent to which Fenway Park would inflate any hitter's batting numbers. On the Orioles beat, think Shaughnessy was digging in with this level of analysis?
In the 1979 Baseball Abstract, James goes into great detail to run through the respective MVP cases of Rice and Ron Guidry. It's a fascinating read, well worth going back and checking out.
This is from Rich's piece on the 1979 Baseball Abstract:
Later, in "Guidry/Rice: A Post Script," James volunteers that "the purpose of this essay, of course, was not to put to rest the MVP debate as much as to introduce a variety of analytical theories and techniques that you might not be familiar with."
30 years later, there is at least one columnist who is all set with his own "analytical theories and techniques" thank you very much.
Oftentimes the mainstream will accuse the SABR-inclined of having it out for Rice. I can see why that may be the case - hell, here I am writing about Rice for what seems like the fiftieth time - but the reason he garners so much attention is that Rice provides the prototypical case for the need to consider context when statistically evaluating baseball players. In the 1980 Baseball Abstract, James dispels any notion that he personally has it out for Rice by claiming he "has virtually qualified for the Hall of Fame already." This was a reasonable assumption coming off his 1977-1979, three season Hall-worthy peak.
Just in case you thought that James was not getting it right when it comes to Rice, he unveiled in the 1986 Baseball Abstract a projection system that foresaw Rice retiring "in just a few more years with totals of 399 home runs, 1434 RBI and a .298 average, 2419 hits." James then concedes that his own methodology, in Rice's case, "probably is much too conservative." As Rich points out in his note, it wasn't conservative at all. Rice ended up with 382, 1451, .298, 2452. Bill's gut told him the projection was conservative but the projection, the data, ended up being right. Funny, that.
Here is the most amazing part about all of this. In Wednesday's column, Shaughnessy mentions James, acknowledging his now famous contention that Roy White was better than Rice. Shaughnessy also takes an excerpt from Rob Neyer, who himself responded to Shaughnessy's column yesterday. And yet, sticking to his guns in the face of well reasoned dissent, Shaughnessy simply asserts "Guess you had to be there", a statement so bankrupt, so lacking in creativity or thought that James was able to respond to it 23 years earlier.
I will end with Bill James, from his 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."