Buster’s Olney problem

By | January 11, 2008

Buster Olney wrote today about Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame credentials. The title of the blog entry is “Rice was extraordinary in his time.” I read a lot of Fire Joe Morgan, ShysterBall, Vegas Watch, and other sites that have spent some time over the past few weeks discussing the Hall of Fame arguments made my some members of the media, and Jim Rice has been a fairly popular topic. His candidacy has inspired a lot of passion, at least in part because he played for the Red Sox, whose fans are known for being a bit passionate. (Yankee fans are passionate, too; the difference is that Red Sox fans appear to, you know, LIKE their players.)

So anyway, Buster Olney became the 1,483,671st journalist to write about Jim Rice in the past month, and I am going to become the 2,567,320th blogger to write about the journalists’ writings.

During Jim Rice’s incredible 1978 season, a total of two American League players had on-base percentages over .400: Rod Carew, with .411, and Ken Singleton, at .409. In 2007, eight AL players achieved an OBP of .400 or higher.

I knew we were in for it here, when Buster drew the line at .400. Jim Rice was never close enough to a .400 OBP to even know what it looks like. Rice’s career high OBP was .384, and his career OBP was .352. It reminds me of a few months ago, when Jayson Addcox of MLB.com complained that Juan Pierre “gets knocked for not having his [OBP] higher than .350,” when Pierre’s OBP was actually .324. I could take it to the next extreme and say something like, “It’s been forty years since a pitcher won 30 games in a season, so people really need to get off Chris Capuano’s back for only winning five last year.”

In fact, in the seven seasons played since the start of 2001, there already have been 42 AL players who have posted OBPs of .400 or better; in the entire decade, of 1970-79, there were only 36 AL players who achieved OBPs of .400 or better. It was a time of less offense and fewer runs, a time when teams didn’t value walks the way they do now, a time when the strike zone was larger, a time when hitting 20 homers and driving in 80 runs was an excellent year.

Really? Twenty homers and 80 RBI was an “excellent year”? I’ll give you “solid.” I’ve give you “acceptable for a corner outfielder.” And it’s true that neither of those would apply today. But the 1970s weren’t the freaking Dead Ball Era — guys like Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Eddie Murray, and Willie McCovey did some major mashing in that decade, all on their way to 500 homers. And more to the point, the fact that there were fewer home runs only makes it MORE valuable and important for a player to get on base often, so the slap hitters around him in the lineup can muster up all their strength to drive him in with three more singles.

So it’s almost laughable to hear and read about how Rice was nothing more than a very good player in his time. Look, if you stick his statistics into offensive formulas tailored for the way the game was played in the ’90s, he’s not going to look as good. Giving him demerits because he failed to draw walks is like diminishing what Pedro Martinez has accomplished because he has only two 20-win seasons.

Either Buster doesn’t know about modern statistics, or he is deliberately ignoring them. “Offensive formulas tailored for the was the game was played in the ’90s”? Come on, now. The whole point of statistical analysis, as far as I can tell, is to AVOID those generational biases. Did you know there are stats that actually … wait for it, wait for it … compare players to their peers?!?

But if you look at him within the context of his time, he was exceptional, as statistics generated by Steve Hirdt and Rob Tracy of the Elias Sports Bureau bear out:

* From 1975 to 1986, Mike Schmidt accumulated 12 seasons of at least 20 homers. Rice ranks second in that time frame, with 11.

* Only two players, in that time frame, accumulated 11 seasons of 85 or more RBI: Schmidt and Rice.

Again, I think this is setting the bar pretty low, even for the 1970s. It’s like looking at quality starts as a qualification for the Cy Young award — it’s the minimum expectation. You know why Jim Rice had at least 20 homers and 85 RBI every season? Because if he didn’t, he would have lost his job to someone who could hit well enough to play a power position like left field.

* The top four in OPS from 1975-1986: Schmidt at .932, George Brett .901, Eddie Murray .876, and Rice .842.

* He’s one of 11 guys to have led his league in total bases at least four times since 1900 (nine Hall of Famers, including eight top-tier Hall of Famers, A-Rod and Rice). Most seasons leading league in total bases (since 1900): Hank Aaron, 8; Rogers Hornsby, 7; Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial, 6; Honus Wagner, 5; Chuck Klein, Lou Gehrig, Rice and A-Rod, 4.

* Rice batted .309 in more than 2,000 at-bats with runners in scoring position over his career, 11 points higher than his overall career batting average. Among players with 2,000 RISP at-bats over that span, it was second-highest to Brett’s .316.

* Rice was consistently regarded as one of the best players in the American League: He not only won the MVP Award in 1978 (beating out a pitcher who finished 25-3 and won the pennant-clinching tie-breaker game), but Rice had six top-five finishes in the MVP Award (3rd in 1975, 4th in 1977, 1st in 1978, 5th in 1979, 4th in 1983, 3rd in 1986).

Yes, Jim Rice was a very good hitter for most of the 12 seasons he was good. Olney has always put a lot of stock in the end-of-season awards, which I have always thought was at least a little silly. Back in the 70s, these awards were voted on by reporters who saw only the home team’s games, meaning they saw each visiting player maybe 15 times a year. There wasn’t the TV exposure there is today, either. So the people voting on the awards had only a couple things to go on: newspaper coverage and stats. Did you know that in the entire decade of the 1970s, Boog Powell (1970) was the only hitter to win an American League MVP award without leading the league in batting average, home runs, or RBIs? Those stats were the most important back then, and they were all the voters had to go on. So the fact that Jim Rice got lots of MVP votes doesn’t augment the argument; it’s just another way of saying he was a good power hitter.

But now that we’re on the MVP Train, Buster is determined to derail it and drive it off a bridge into the icy river below…

If you add up the total points accumulated in MVP voting from 1937, add up the annual points each player earned (and convert each year’s points total to its equivalent under the current voting format to account for differences in the number of teams and voters over the years), Rice fares well.

Not surprisingly, Barry Bonds has the most cumulative MVP points, followed by Musial, Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Aaron, A-Rod, Frank Thomas, Schmidt and Joe DiMaggio. But here’s the point on Rice: Only two HOF-eligible players who stand in the top 40 on that list of cumulative MVP points have not been elected to the Hall: Rice (who stands 22nd) and Dave Parker (23rd).

Rice had more adjusted MVP points than HOFers Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Al Kaline, Johnny Bench, Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Cal Ripken, Kirby Puckett, Lou Boudreau, Roberto Clemente, Roy Campanella, Nellie Fox, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn, Duke Snider, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, Phil Rizzuto, Rod Carew, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Paul Molitor, Red Schoendienst, Ralph Kiner, Carlton Fisk, Wade Boggs, Charlie Gehringer, Luis Aparicio, Larry Doby, Bobby Doerr, Tony Perez, Richie Ashburn, Enos Slaughter, Bill Mazeroski and Ozzie Smith.

This argument means nothing. Literally, a completely meaningless argument. Does Buster want us to believe that while the style of play has changed dramatically over the decades, the MVP voting has remained the same? I don’t see how an article that starts with a thesis that you can’t compare players from different eras ends up in this territory, comparing MVP votes of players from different eras. Wow.

Rice was a significantly better hitter at home than on the road, hitting .320, with a slugging percentage of .546 and 208 career homers in Fenway, compared with an average of .277 and 174 homers on the road. But again, consider the era, and how much less offense there was. If you were a team, you would like to have the guy considered to be most dominant home-field hitter in the game? Of course you would. Rice was taking advantage of the conditions in the games he played, much as Sandy Koufax did. From 1962-1966, Koufax had a home ERA of .1.37, in the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, and a road ERA of 2.57. Does anyone say that this diminishes what Koufax accomplished, the way it is said about Rice?

No, no one says Koufax was less great because his road ERA was only 2.57. The difference here is that Koufax used his home field advantage to go from being great (2.57 when the league ERA was 3.27) to being immortal; Rice used his home field advantage to go from being good to being really good.

And now, to tie it all together, let’s go back to Buster’s initial thesis, that Jim Rice is judged unfairly because his stats from the Weak 1970s don’t hold up well to the stats tailored to the Strong 1990s. Guess what? Did you know that there are actually stats that tell you how a guy did compared to his peers? And that we have those stats available for everyone who has every played?!?

Jim Rice’s career OPS+ (OPS measured against the league average, and adjusted for ballpark factors) was 128 (remember, 100 is average). So over the course of his career, Jim Rice was 28% better than the average hitter.

I looked at all the hitters in the Hall of Fame, and I found 24 whose primary claim to Fame was as a power hitter. (This includes people like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and others who did other things extremely well in addition to power hitting.) I chose these guys because Jim Rice’s Hall of Fame credentials essentially boil down to his power. He was nothing special in the field, his .298 career batting average is good but not great, and he didn’t have any speed to speak of. If he ever gets elected to the Hall of Fame, it will be based mostly on his power.

The average OPS+ of these 24 power hitting Hall of Famers was 151, a full 23 points higher than Rice’s career number. The only one of the 24 with a lower OPS+ was Ernie Banks (122), and you may remember that he hit 512 home runs and played about half his career as a shortstop. Heck, the average OPS+ for the other 116 hitters, the ones who weren’t known mostly for their power — including defensive geniuses like Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski and guys who shouldn’t even be in the Hall — was 123, just five points behind Rice.

Jim Rice was a one-trick pony who tried a few other tricks for a few seasons. He was a really good player for several years. He is not an all-time great, and he does not belong in the Hall of Fame.

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