James Edward Rice

By Walt Baranger

The biggest question about Jim Rice is: How is it possible that he is not in the Hall of Fame?

Jim Rice

In more than 14 full seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Rice dominated left field. He batted over .300 six times, including three seasons at .320 or better. In eight seasons he batted in more than 100 runs, and six times finished among the top ten batters in the American League. Rice led the league in home runs three times, and finished in the top ten another four times.

In all of major league history, only Rice has more than 200 hits and 38 home runs in three consecutive seasons (1977 to 1979). This feat remains unmatched even in today’s era of small stadiums and steroid-enhanced home run hitters. The only other players to accomplish more than 200 hits and 38 home runs at least three times are Lou Gehrig (5 times) and Rogers Hornsby (3). Even the great Jimmy Foxx, who also played in Fenway Park, could only do it twice, in 1932 and 1933. Only Rice did it in consecutive years.

Rice’s talent did not go unnoticed at the time.

He figured in Most Valuable Player voting eight times, including his first full year when he soundly lost Rookie of the Year honors to another Red Sox star, Fred Lynn. He was MVP in 1978, and was an eight-time All-Star. He ranks 29th in the all-time consolidated Most Valuable Player voting; virtually everyone above him is either a Hall of Famer or is still active.

Although statistics show that he was an average fielder, this must be tempered with the knowledge that he played half of his games at Fenway Park, where the Green Monster in left field wildly skews fielding statistics. Rice did play competently, but his defense is a legitimate argument against Hall of Fame membership.

Perhaps the biggest knock on Rice is that he came tantalizingly close to many Hall of Fame landmark statistics but didn’t quite reach any of them. He batted .298; he had 382 home runs; 4,129 total bases; 1,451 runs batted in; 834 extra-base hits; and 2,452 hits. His slugging percentage, .502, is in the all-time top 100 but not at the rarified .550 level.

He was a pioneer of the designated hitter position, and batted DH in more than 500 games. In his last season, 1989, he only played DH.

Rice’s power become obvious when we look more deeply into his statistics: When we add his on-base percentage and slugging percentage and then compare it to the league’s averages corrected for stadiums, Rice is nearly 13% more productive at the bat. Using this benchmark, Rice was more productive than Tony Gwynn, Orlando Cepeda or even Reggie Jackson.

Unfortunately, Rice’s post-season record is undistinguished. In the 1986 World Series he performed well and batted .333, but was overshadowed by the Red Sox’ spectacular meltdown against the New York Mets in Shea Stadium. In 1988, he had just two hits as the Sox lost to Oakland in the American League Championship Series. What could have been two Hall of Fame showcases for Rice were largely squandered.

Rice tended to hit into double plays at a shocking (and record-setting) rate, but this shortcoming was often exacerbated by slow-running batters at the top of the order. If Rice was slow, so were his teammates. Still, his reputation as a slugger and clutch hitter is widely cited by those who would like to see Rice in the Hall of Fame.

The arguments against Rice are three pronged: Competent but lackluster defense, an inability to bat .300 lifetime despite the inherent advantage of playing in Fenway Park, and a propensity for grounding into double plays. A red-herring side argument is Rice’s ego, which often alienated fans and the press. Bill James claims that Rice is the most overrated player of the last 30 years — whatever that means.

As for defense: Guilty as charged. Double plays: Guilty as charged. A needlessly big ego: Guilty as charged, if that matters.

However, applying corrective data based on ballparks is shaky for all but broad generalities. With so many diverse factors involved including strategy, quality of coaching, unusual weather, travel patterns, the ability of teammates to reach base, et cetera, such speculation can never attain a high level certainty. Rice played the cards that were dealt to him as a lifetime Red Sox player in the 1970s and ’80s. He only played half of his games at Fenway and he hit .298 with 382 home runs, and that’s what we know.

Anyone who closely approaches so many widely recognized Hall of Fame career landmarks simply must be a viable candidate. Surely it can’t be the case that reaching one benchmark is sufficient grounds for induction, but falling just short of half a dozen isn’t.

It’s time to recognize greatness when it is demonstrated. Jim Rice should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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