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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Saturday, January 04, 2003
Does the ‘78 MVP have what it takes?
Once upon a time, the Red Sox had three young outfielders - Jim Rice, Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn. Already being compared to some of the great outfields in Major League history, not many people questioned that this trio would carry the Sox up until the last decade of the millennium and perhaps even help finally bring an end to the World Series drought in Beantown. While Carlton Fisk will always be remembered for the big moment, nothing so identified the Red Sox as the Red Sox the same way Dewey, Jim and Freddie did.
Unfortunately, things did not quite work out that way. Lynn was gone in a few years and the Red Sox didn?t return to the playoffs until 1986 despite seasons of 99 and 97 wins and by that point, it was the new era of Roger and the Chicken Man.
Fast forward another decade and a half and Evans and Lynn have already been thrown out of Hall of Fame consideration with barely enough time for the writers to give them a cursory look, especially egregious in the case of the former.
Now, it’s up to Rice.
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
Rice was certainly considered to be one of the best players in baseball with even more expected of him after winning the MVP Award and two other top 5 finishes by the time he was closer to 30 than 20. Even when his reputation had dropped faster than his performance, he still went on to place in the top 5 on 3 more occasions, including his last-hurrah season in ‘86.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
In the late 70s, he almost certainly was but generally not a slam-dunk due to the players surrounding him.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
In his best seasons (77-79, 83, 86) he was among the best leftfielders in baseball. A case for the absolute best in an individual season is much harder to make.
- In 1977, George Foster (320/382/631, 165 OPS+) was clearly superior and Greg Luzinski (309/394/594, 157 OPS+) probably gets enough offensive edge over thanks to park effects over Rice (320/376/593, 148 OPS+).
- In 1978, Rice hit 315/370/600, 158 OPS+ and with the edge in playing time and defense, beats out Luzinski (265/388/526, 153 OPS+), Foster (281/360/546, 151 OPS+) and Larry Hisle (290/374/533, 153 OPS+). This was Rice’s MVP season.
- In 1979, Rice had much the same season, but to less acclaim (325/381/596, 154 OPS+) with Foster continuing his peak years (302/386/561, 155 OPS+). Attendance counts, though and Rice’s nearly 200 plate appearance edge tips the scales in his favor. There’s also Steve Kemp’s big year (318/398/543, 149 OPS+), but I think Rice is the best for ‘79.
- In 1982 and 1983, Rice rebounded after a couple of disappointing (the strike and a broken wrist) seasons and in 1983, he came back with 305/361/550, 141 OPS+ season to return to the offensive leaderboards. Rickey had arrived and 108 stolen bases easily make up for the slight hitting difference (292/414/421, 138 OPS+). Raines was coming to the forefront also and I’d take his 298/393/429 with 90 stolen bases over Rice, too.
- In his last good year, 1986, Rice hit 324/384/490, 137 OPS+, but it’s clearly not at the level of his late 70s seasons despite his 3rd place finish in the MVP voting. Raines was the best leftfielder that year (334/413/476, 70 stolen bases, 146 OPS+) but Rice was solidly in the next tier along with George Bell.
For the late 70s as a whole, I’d take Rice first, but that was the limit of him being the best at his position.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Rice was one of the key Red Sox on those teams that came up short in the Carter years, but the Red Sox never got the best of their competitors.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
No, the end came quickly for Rice. Knee problems and eventual issues with the manager, Joe Morgan, put a damper on his twilight years.
6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, I don’t believe he is. Ron Santo comes first and a lot of the snubbed such as Dick Allen or Bobby Grich and even his teammate, Dwight Evans, would be put in the Hall before him if I were Dictator.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
4 of his top 10 are in the Hall (Cepeda, Snider, Billy Williams, Stargell). I believe that Dale Murphy and Dave Parker will sneak in some day and I hope that none of the remaining (Joe Carter, Burks, Galarraga, Chili Davis) do.
8. Do the player?s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Close (42.9 and the average HOFer is 50) due to the quick end. A few more stock seasons added on and he goes up quite a bit.
By black ink test, Rice gets a 33 with the average HOFer a 27 while he outscores the average HOFer in the gray ink test, 176-144.
The Hall of Fame Monitor gives Rice a 147 where anything over 100 suggests a likely Hall of Fame inductee.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Rice played in Fenway, which is accounted for in his sabermetric stats. He probably deserves more credit for his defense as leftfield in Fenway is one of the true defensive challenges and has shown a tendency to make leftfield defensive stats rather goofy.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
I’d be inclined to give the edge to Frank Howard here. Hondo just has too many monster offensive seasons for Rice to match, in my opinion.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
I’d credit Rice for 4 MVP-type seasons as outlined above. He won once and came close a total of 6 times.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
Rice played in 8 All-Star games, a normal but not astounding number for a Hall of Famer.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Yes, when Rice was at his peak, his team could be a pennant winner if he were the best player.
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Other than teaching Joe Morgan that Spike Owen is not someone you want pinch-hitting, no.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
Despite the unhappy conclusion of his career, Rice was, by all accounts, highly respected within baseball and continues to be so today. So, yes.
All-in-all, Rice’s case amounts to that of a borderline Hall of Famer; he’s qualified by the Hall of Fame’s standards but it’s not the crime of the century if he has to remain on the outside looking in for awhile.
I believe, in the long run, Rice will get into the Hall of Fame either by the BBWAA vote (maybe 30/70 chance) or by whatever format the Veterans Committee uses 20 years from now.
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