"Listen, Buster" Redux
By Rich Lederer
Buster Olney provides an invaluable service by linking to numerous baseball articles on almost a daily basis. I enjoy skimming Olney's blog (ESPN Insider subscription required) for his notes and links to stay abreast of what others are writing and saying.
Unlike the Baseball Primer Newsblog, which tries to highlight the best (or most interesting) stories irrespective of their origin, Olney's links are nearly always to stories in the mainstream media. However, Buster linked to Baseball Analysts a year ago [editor's note: link is no longer available] when I challenged his rationale for excluding Bert Blyleven from his Hall of Fame ballot.
Olney and I differ not only on Blyleven but on Jim Rice as well. With respect to Rice, Buster wrote two entries in support of him on Friday and Saturday, and I believe there are several fundamental flaws that need to be addressed – especially in light of the fact that the candidate in question finished second in the balloting with 72.2% of the vote and is on the verge of being elected next year in his 15th and final opportunity.
I'm going to excerpt Olney's comments and respond to them on the small chance that Hall of Fame voters will take the time to read this and further evaluate their position on Rice. I'm hopeful that this exercise will also shed some light on a number of basic truths and falsehoods when it comes to analyzing stats so as to improve the process (and the quality of the inductees) in the future.
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.
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.
Rice's OBP in 1978 wasn't anywhere close to .400. It was .370. He ranked 12th in that category. Rice, in fact, never finished higher than ninth in OBP in any single season. As such, mentioning Rice and on-base percentage in the same sentence does more harm than good when it comes to discussing his Hall of Fame qualifications.
I don't believe anyone is disputing the fact that runs were more difficult to come by during the 1970s than in the current decade. By the same token, I don't know anyone who is comparing Rice's raw totals to today's sluggers. The case "for" or "against" Rice should be based on how he performed versus the competition over the course of his career. More on that later.
As far as teams not valuing walks the way they do now, I believe there is some truth to that. However, more than anything, I contend writers and voters (both HOF and MVP) have never given walks their proper due. I played APBA during a large portion of Rice's career and used to count how many "on base numbers" players had on their cards. Walks have always been important. If anything, walks were more valuable in Rice's day because bases and runs were scarcer than they are today.
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.
Speaking of "laughable," comparing Rice's failure to draw walks to Martinez's lack of 20-win seasons is mixing apples and oranges. Of course, Rice deserves "demerits" for not walking more often. It's not like Rice's lack of walks wasn't his own doing. He has nobody to blame but himself for not earning more bases on balls. As such, Rice's low walk rate detracted from his value as a hitter every time he went to the plate. It was one of the weaknesses in his game. The fact that Martinez only won 20 games twice over the course of his career had little, if anything, to do with his value as a pitcher every time he took the mound.
But, if you want to go down this alley, let's at least be fair about it. To Martinez's credit, he had a pair of 20-win seasons. Rice, on the other hand, never had even one season in which he walked 100 times. (Rice's career high was 62 in 1986.) For context, there have been 54 20-win seasons during Pedro's career. By the same token, there were 72 100-walk campaigns during Rice's career. In other words, winning 20 games has been an even bigger rarity in Martinez's time than walking 100 times in Rice's era.
Olney then spends time pointing out how highly Rice ranked in HR (3rd), RBI (1st), and OPS (4th) from 1975-1986. I generally find such arguments unconvincing because the time frames chosen almost always favor the player in question. To wit, Rice gets the benefit of all 12 years whereas his competition in many cases loses the early or latter portions of their careers in such studies. Nonetheless, I believe it is instructive to see where Rice ranks in outs during this period.
1 Steve Garvey 5402
2 Jim Rice 5298
3 Robin Yount 5099
4 Dave Winfield 5069
5 Buddy Bell 5040
6 Dave Concepcion 5025
7 Don Baylor 5006
8 Mike Schmidt 4890
9 Bill Buckner 4887
10 Cecil Cooper 4846
That's right, Rice made more outs than anyone other than Steve Garvey over the course of his 12 best seasons. I make this point not to put Rice down but to show that his counting totals and rankings were highly influenced by the fact that he had more plate appearances (7754) than any player in baseball during this period.
As for RBI, it's important to recognize that Rice benefited from hitting with runners on base much more frequently than most players. In fact, it is one of the reasons why he ranks first by a wide margin in grounding into double plays (GIDP) over this stretch.
1 Jim Rice 269
2 Steve Garvey 215
3 Buddy Bell 195
4 Dave Concepcion 194
5 Dave Winfield 186
6 Ted Simmons 185
T7 Bill Buckner 174
T7 Ken Singleton 174
9 Larry Parrish 168
10 Doug DeCinces 167
Put another way, Rice's GIDP and RBI totals are inflated for no other reason than he had so many opportunities to accumulate both. Hitting with runners on base will do that. Rice's backers will build their case around his RBI and ignore GIDP. Those who oppose Rice will mock how many times he hit into a double play and disregard RBI. You can't really view one without the other.
Thanks to Baseball Prospectus, we can check where Rice ranked in RBI Opportunities in each of those dozen years.
RBI Rank | ROB Rank | OBI OBI% Rank
1975 102 5 458 3 80 17.5 9
1976 85 15 391 27 60 15.3 21
1977 114 3 426 17 75 17.6 15
1978 139 1 461 7 93 20.2 4
1979 130 2 474 4 91 19.2 8
1980 86 16 370 33 62 16.8 17
1981 62 10 367 1 45 12.3 53
1982 97 14 466 7 73 15.7 31
1983 126 1 504 2 87 17.3 14
1984 122 2 545 1 94 17.2 10
1985 103 9 496 2 76 15.3 33
1986 110 4 514 3 90 17.5 10
ROB = Runners On Base: the number of runners on base during a batter's plate appearances.
OBI = Others Batted In: runs batted in, except for the batter driving himself in via a home run. Equals RBI-HR.
OBI% = Others Batted In Percentage: the fraction of runners on base who were driven in during a batter's plate appearances.
Although Rice led the AL in RBI in 1978 and 1983 and ranked in the top ten nine times, he was among the top three in terms of coming to bat with runners on base in six of those 12 seasons. More telling is the fact that Rice never ranked in the top three in OBI%.
In 1981, Rice had 47 more ROB than any other batter in the AL, yet ranked 10th in RBI because he was 53rd (out of 73 qualifiers) in OBI%. In 1984, Rice had 57 more ROB than anyone else so it should not be surprising that he finished second in RBI that season. Rice had the second most ROB (behind teammate Bill Buckner) in 1985 and the third most ROB in 1986 (behind teammates Buckner and Don Baylor). Hmmm. I wonder if Wade Boggs had anything to do with that?
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.
Let me display Rice's home/road splits a bit more visually. I'm mean, there's no reason to gloss over something that is so fundamental to Rice's "for" or "against" case than his home and road performance.
AVG OBP SLG OPS
Home .320 .374 .546 .920
Road .277 .330 .459 .789
Rice hit like a Hall of Famer at home and closer to Ben Oglivie (.273/.336/.450) or George Hendrick (.278/.329/.446) on the road.
Let's drill down deeper and see just how Rice fared away from Fenway Park year-by-year. His MLB and AL rankings are nothing more than where his road OPS would have placed among all qualifiers (both at home and on the road).
Road OPS MLB Rank AL Rank
1975 .807 41 18
1976 .746 55 30
1977 .886 19 11
1978 .837 24 15
1979 .809 49 27
1980 .810 40 27
1981 .703 92 50
1982 .859 22 15
1983 .903 7 4
1984 .741 71 42
1985 .743 73 47
1986 .835 28 19
Rice's performance on the road would have ranked him in the top ten in the AL in OPS one time in his entire career. ONCE. Now I recognize that this exercise unfairly penalizes Rice in the theoretical rankings because his Boston teammates get the full benefit and visiting players the partial benefit of playing games at Fenway Park. Bump Rice's rankings up a bit if you would like to compensate for the simplicity in my methodology.
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.
Look, Rice wasn't the "most dominant home-field hitter in the game." Olney makes that statement as if Rice would have hit well at any home park. There is no evidence to suggest that at all. Simply put, Rice hit well at home because he played his home games at Fenway Park. From 1975-1986, Fenway's park factor averaged 107.5, meaning it favored hitters by 7.5% over the league average. In 1977, Boston's home park played like Coors Field in 2002.
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?
I don't know anybody who would dispute the fact that Koufax benefited by pitching his home games at Dodger Stadium during the last five years of his career. But to try and compare Jim Rice to Sandy Koufax? Oh my! Koufax's 1.37 ERA at home is much, much more impressive than Rice's .920 OPS at home. But, more to the point, Sandy's 2.57 ERA outside of Dodger Stadium is also much, much more impressive than Rice's .789 OPS away from Fenway.
Like Rice's OPS rankings in the illustration above, Koufax's MLB and NL rankings are nothing more than where his road ERA would have placed among all qualifiers (both at home and on the road). As in the case of Rice, feel free to adjust Sandy's rankings upward due to the simplicity in methodology as well.
Road ERA MLB Rank NL Rank
1962 3.53 26 14
1963 2.31 2 2
1964 2.93 19 10
1965 2.72 16 6
1966 1.96 1 1
Koufax was also much better than generally believed in 1960 and 1961 when his season totals were negatively affected by pitching home games at the Coliseum. His 3.00 ERA on the road in 1960 would have ranked fourth in the National League and sixth in MLB. His 2.77 ERA on the road in 1961 would have topped the senior circuit and placed third overall. It's all a distant memory now but Koufax's 269 strikeouts in '61 broke Christy Mathewson's NL record that had stood for 58 years.
In any event, Sandy's road ERA was good enough to theoretically lead the league two times and finish in the top ten six times in a span of seven seasons! Koufax was not only one of the greatest pitchers ever inside the confines of Dodger Stadium, but he was a terrific pitcher on the road as well. Too bad the same can't be said about Rice's hitting.
I will cover Olney's second article tomorrow, which focuses on Adjusted OPS (or OPS+) and how the adoption of this statistic has unfairly hurt Rice.