Jim Rice is the center of probably the biggest current Hall of Fame controversy involving a hitter. He’s also probably going to get in in two years. Interestingly, a lot of Rice’s backers claim that he’s being kept out of the Hall because writers don’t like him, even though he’s ahead of Andre Dawson, a very well liked player, who has more than 300 more career hits and more than 50 more career homers and was a far better baserunner and defensive player. He’s far ahead of Murphy as well, even though Dale, too, was and is well-liked and had more career homers and similar defensive and baserunning advantages.
Rice’s argument is not entirely for his peak value. His career stats are pretty good, on the low end of Hall of Fame standards for a corner outfielder. However, what is driving Rice’s candidacy is his performance at his peak, especially from the years 1977-79 when he put up an aggregate line of .320/.376/.596. (An uncannily consistent one, as well, with just five points of variance either way in any of the percentages.) Mind you, this wasn’t in today’s game — the league average in that period was .266/.330/.399. Rice won the MVP in 1978, finished fourth in 1977, and fifth in 1979.
Despite all of this, Dale Murphy was a superior player at his peak. The reasons why this is so, even though Rice’s statistics seem to be better, are fivefold:
1. Fenway Park was a better hitters’ park than Fulton County was.
Fenway Park, for most of its existence, has been one of baseball’s best hitters’ parks. It’s less so today, probably because the newer parks tend to be more hitter-friendly, but in the seventies Fenway completely distorted player stats in favor of offense more than any park between the Baker Bowl and expansion into Denver. While Fulton County was the Launching Pad, it did not inflate overall offense to the degree that Fenway did. Therefore, though Rice’s raw percentages are better, his OPS+ (which is park adjusted) is just about the same as Murphy’s. In his three best years, it was 158, 154, and 148. In Murphy’s three best seasons (not in this instance consecutive) his OPS+ was 156, 151, and 150. And Murphy’s fourth-best year, a 149, was better than Rice’s third-best, his fifth-best better than Rice’s fourth best.
2. The National League was the superior league to the AL during their careers.
Without interleague play, that’s largely a matter of opinion. But what evidence exists strongly suggests that the NL was the better league almost from integration to the mid-eighties. The NL won eleven All-Star games in a row from 1972 to 1982. A casual survey indicates that there were more Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame-type players in the NL in this period than in the AL. It’s probably more dramatic with the pitchers:
1 Steve Carlton 267
2 Tom Seaver 247
3 Phil Niekro 246
4 Don Sutton 244
T5 Nolan Ryan 229
T5 Jim Palmer 229
7 Gaylord Perry 219
8 Ferguson Jenkins 215
9 Bert Blyleven 212
10 Tommy John 200
Carlton, Seaver, Niekro, and Sutton were primarily NL pitchers; only Palmer and Blyleven were primarily AL pitchers.
3. Rice hit into a ton of double plays.
I know I talk about double plays too much, but they get ignored too much both in the mainstream media and by the “soft sabermetric” people. It’s a hidden cost that doesn’t show up in OPS or any other stat that’s primarily percentage-based. And they kill you.
Jim Rice in 1984 set an all-time record for GIDP in a season with 36. The next year, he challenged the record and wound up with 35. In 1983, he grounded into 31, sixth-all time. His three year count is, I think, more than anyone else has done in four years. He grounded into 29 in 1982, tied for fifteenth all-time. Of the top ten in career GIDP, Rice had by far the highest rate per plate appearance:
GIDP GIDP PA
1 Cal Ripken 350 12883
2 Hank Aaron 328 13940
3 Carl Yastrzemski 323 13991
4 Dave Winfield 319 12358
5 Eddie Murray 316 12817
6 Jim Rice 315 9058
7 Julio Franco 299 9446
8 Harold Baines 298 11092
T9 Brooks Robinson 297 11782
T9 Rusty Staub 297 11229
Only Franco is close, and nobody’s pushing Julio for the Hall of Fame. (Of course, you have to be retired for five years first, and he’s never going to retire.)
Admittedly, Rice’s big GIDP years mostly came after his peak, but they’re a major drag on his career value, and it’s actually his career, not his peak, that makes people think he’s a better candidate than Murphy.
4. Murph walked a lot more, at least in his best seasons.
Not as much of a hidden benefit now, but at the time not many people realized how important walks could be. The difference is not as great as between Murph and Dawson, but it’s there. Rice in his prime seasons walked 53-58 times a year. Murphy in his walked 90-93, with a big spike to 115 in 1987. A lot of that is intentional walks, though; the real difference in walks in their primes is probably more like 20 a year, not 35-40.
5. Murphy was a Gold Glove centerfielder, Rice an average-at-best left fielder.
This is the big one. If you have two guys who are pretty much equal as hitters (as they are once you adjust for the parks) and one plays left field indifferently and the other plays center really well, who’s more valuable? It’s pretty obvious. While Murph was not, in retrospect, a great centerfielder, he was a good one. Rice was pretty good in Fenway but lacked the speed to play left well in most other parks. When they slowed down, Murph became a good right fielder. Rice became a moody sometimes-DH.
There is one other factor to consider. Murphy was, as I keep saying, a gentleman and well liked, winner of the Clemente and Gehrig awards. Rice was, as mentioned above, moody and disliked by the press. I don’t know how much of a factor that should be. Rice probably shouldn’t lose anything for not liking reporters (who does?) but his complaining in the mid-eighties probably did have some impact on the Red Sox.
Jim Rice was named on 64.8 percent in the most recent Hall of Fame election, most of any player not to get in. He has three more years on the ballot, but I expect him to make it in in 2007-08 in his next-to-last election. Dale Murphy, on the other hand, is not close to election, and will likely be dependent upon the kindness of whatever the Veterans’ Committee is in a few years.
This is an injustice. Murphy is a superior candidate. Rice’s career value is higher, but not as dramatically higher as Andre Dawson’s. His peak value, meanwhile, is not as high as Murphy’s; it isn’t close. The perception that it is higher is entirely a creation of Fenway Park and of a refusal to adjust for fielding position.
I think Rice should be in the Hall. I’m a big-Hall guy. But he should be behind Dawson, Murphy, Albert Belle (who has many of the same characteristics as Rice but was a better player at his peak), probably Dave Parker, not to mention his teammate Dwight Evans, who has fallen off the ballot.