The case against Jim Rice
Nothing personal -- the man's just not a Hall of Famer
Posted: Wednesday January 9, 2008 2:41PM; Updated: Wednesday January 9, 2008 5:23PM
To no one's surprise, it was announced yesterday that Rich Gossage had been elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. One of the five best relief pitchers in history by any standard, Gossage picked up 85.8 percent of the vote (with "only" 75 percent required for election) in his ninth year on the ballot.
Of course, the most interesting stories generally involve the players below the cut line, and that remains the case this year. Eyes moving down the results list landed quickly on Jim Rice's name. Rice finished second with 392 votes, named on 72.2 percent of the ballots cast, only 16 tallies shy of induction. With significant forward momentum, a small gap to close and some evidence of a "15th year" effect, Rice is a virtual certainty to be elected a year from now.
This will please many and frustrate a few, for Rice's candidacy has become something of a battleground between analysts and the voting pool. For weeks now, the idea that Rice was "the most feared hitter in baseball for 12 years" has been pounded into our heads. The performance record shows that Rice would be a lower-echelon Hall of Famer and one of the weakest BBWAA electees ever, and in fact that he was, at best, the third-best outfielder on the ballot. However, that one phrase, and the single word feared, have become the club by which Rice's supporters are beating their hero's way into Cooperstown.
The thing is, they're half right.
I will stipulate that at the end of the 1980 season, Jim Rice was on track for a Hall of Fame career. Even conceding that the right-handed slugger took advantage of a friendly home park and excellent teammates to post high home-run, extra-base-hit and RBI totals, he was clearly among the very best hitters in baseball, and arguably the best in the American League. Through his age-27 season, Rice had four top-five finishes in MVP voting in his six years and a career line of .308/.357/.548 with 195 home runs. He wasn't the best player in the game -- as a slow left fielder, there's just too much ground to make up -- but he was among its best hitters. To project a player like that into the Hall of Fame wouldn't require much effort.
The next six years, however -- half of Rice's effective career -- he wasn't the same player. It is entirely possible that he was "feared." That fear, however, was based on performance that warranted it through 1980; it was based on nothing thereafter. Rice hit .299/.355/.490 from 1981 through '86. That's a completely unadjusted total, giving him full credit for the work he did at Fenway Park in that time. In the first six seasons of his career Rice out-hit his positional comps (left fielders except for 1977, when he DH'd 116 times) by 126 points of slugging and 17 points of OBP. In the next six those figures dropped to 72 and 16 points, respectively. Again, this is without adjusting for Fenway Park's effect on offense or making any note of Rice's exceptional home/road splits in this period.