Rice production and OPS+
posted: Saturday, January 12, 2008
A lot of e-mail landed here about Friday's Jim Rice column, most of which suggests: First, that I cherry-picked statistics to make Rice look good; second, MVP voting is irrelevant; and third, I'm an idiot. There's no point in trying to defend my own idiocy, but the cherry-picking and MVP observations are interesting.
So if I understand the argument from some e-mailers: If you criticize Rice's candidacy by relying on Adjusted OPS+, through which Rice fares badly, that's analysis. But if you support Rice's candidacy citing home runs and RBI, then it's cherry-picking.
Adjusted OPS+ is a useful number. And if this your be-all, end-all statistic, keep in mind that:
Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas rank higher than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Joe DiMaggio.
Jim Thome ranks higher than A-Rod and Gary Sheffield.
Lance Berkman ranks higher than Ken Griffey Jr.
Brian Giles ranks higher than George Brett, Al Kaline, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew and Roberto Clemente.
Adam Dunn ranks higher than Eddie Murray.
And if you think that Adjusted OPS+ is a set of numbers that generally creates a level statistical playing field for all of the eras of baseball, then you'd have to ignore the following. Of the top 63 players all time in OPS+, there are:
Nineteen players who performed the bulk of their careers in the years leading up to 1920.
Eight players who performed the bulk of their careers in the years from 1920-1939.
Seventeen players who have performed the bulk of their careers from 1990-2007.
And a total of 17 players from the 50-year period of 1940-89.
To repeat: According to Adjusted OPS+, there are an equal number of players, among the top 63 of all time in the statistic, in the 50-year period of 1940 to 1989 as there have been in the 18-year period from 1990 through 2007.
Part of the reason, of course, is there are more teams now. But part of the reason is that in years in which there is less offense, generally, it is more difficult to create a plus/minus disparity in this statistic. From 1940-1989, there were a total of 11 league leaders with Adjusted OPS+ numbers of 200 or higher; there wasn't a single Adjusted OPS+ leader of 200 or higher from 1981-1991. Since 1992, there have been eight leaders of Adjusted OPS+ of 200 or more in the NL alone, and nine overall.
Let's go one step further. In the 16 seasons since the start of the 1992 season, there have been only three instances in which an Adjusted OPS+ league leader registered less than 171. But in the 50 years prior to that, there were 42 instances in which a league leader was at 170 or lower. If you don't think that Adjusted OPS+ is a statistic that skews toward the elite players of the Steroid Era, well, then that's your story and you're sticking to it.
It's not a perfect statistic. There aren't any perfect statistics.
A lot of the Rice critics say the focus on his best years -- 1975-1986 -- is arbitrary. Well, not really. Those are the years in which he was at his best, when he built his Hall of Fame candidacy, and considering that a player must have 10 years in the big leagues to qualify for HOF consideration, focusing on a 12-year span is hardly a cherry-pick. And in that time, in some power statistics -- maybe not Adjusted OPS+ -- Rice was the best in his league.
While I'd generally agree that to focus on building a Hall of Famer's credentials around a single year of MVP voting might be dubious, the numbers cited in Friday's column accounts for hundreds of votes from every AL city over more than a decade. A lot of writers who watched Rice play daily, at the time he was on the field -- rather than through the time-machine prism of Adjusted OPS+ -- thought he was pretty damn good. (Keep in mind, most writers will talk to players, managers and coaches throughout the season as they formulate their ballots.)
If you want to quibble with the fact that he won the award in 1978, or with his placement in some particular year, OK, I get that. But to ignore the MVP voting entirely, as if it isn't at least some kind of barometer of his play over the course of his career, is embarrassing. This is like saying, "Hey, forget the Oscar voting of the 1950s. Marlon Brando was clearly overrated."
Look, I've never met Jim Rice, didn't grow up a Red Sox fan, don't think he is one of the very elite players of all time. I understand why someone wouldn't vote for him (but don't agree). But to portray his career as entirely unworthy of Hall of Fame consideration is silly.