Jim Rice? Really?

I was kind of hoping against hope that Jim Rice wouldn’t get into the Hall of Fame. But he has, along with Rickey Henderson. Henderson is a totally deserving Hall of Famer who rightly got in on the first ballot (don’t you always wonder who those people are who don’t vote for a player of that stature on the first ballot?).

Bill James’ revised version of his Historical Baseball Abstract has a good detailed explanation of why Rice was not only the most overrated player of his time, but a lesser player than his less-famous contemporary, Yankees left fielder Roy White. Now, Jim Rice was a very good player, but that’s true of almost every Hall of Famer. But he was one of those players who seemed to sum up all the ways in which a player could be less good than his flashy statistics. He didn’t walk much, he grounded into tons of double plays, and his stats were heavily inflated by being a right-handed hitter in Fenway Park back when Fenway was the best hitters’ park in the American league. Rice had three really great years, 1977 to 1979 (he deserved his MVP award in 1978), and a fine comeback season in 1986 when the Red Sox won the pennant. But in many other years, he was merely a good player, and other years, he wasn’t even good. In 1984, for example, his triple crown stats were decent — .280, 28 homers, 122 RBIs — but his on-base percentage was terrible (.323) and when you factor in that, the Fenway inflation, and the fact that his high RBI count came mostly from having Wade Boggs getting on base all the time in front of him, he really wasn’t a very good player at all that year. And he had quite a few years like that in what should have been his prime. His only good stat in many of those years was his RBI count, but as Branch Rickey wrote:

As a statistic, RBIs were not only misleading but dishonest. They depended on managerial control, a hitter’s position in the batting order, park dimensions and the success of his teammates in getting on base ahead of him. That left two measurable factors—on base average and power—by which to gauge the over-all offensive worth of an individual.

I’d feel less annoyed about this if it weren’t for the HOF’s neglect of Rice’s fellow left fielder Tim Raines, who never even comes close to getting in. Of course I say that partly as an Expos fan, but mostly because Raines’s career was so much better than Rice’s. Raines was not only somewhere near the best player in the National League from 1983 through 1987, but even after that, when he lost some of his speed and therefore some points off his batting average, his high on-base percentages and baserunning skills made him a very valuable player even in an off year. But he doesn’t have huge RBI counts, and HOF voters are still hypnotized by the magic powers of RBI.