Monday, December 29, 2008

Through the Years: Jim Rice

Was Jim Rice truly "feared" in his time?

In recent years, it has become very much in vogue to discuss the merits of Jim Rice's candidacy for the Hall of Fame. Similar to Jack Morris, proponents of Rice's candidacy cite two key areas as their basis for support: his traditional batting statistics, specifically average, home runs, and runs batted in; and his "aura", or legacy. With Morris, the aura-argument is that he was the "Pitcher of the 1980s" or that he was a "clutch pitcher who finished his own games." With Rice, it is that he was the "most feared hitter of his time" and that opposing managers would "consider walking him with the bases loaded rather than pitch to him."

Opponents of Rice's (and Morris's) candidacy, on the other hand, focus solely on the statistics and generally come to the conclusion that the stats just don't quite cut it - that they are marginal candidates who can't beat those margins.

The problem with this discussion, though, is that the sides aren't exactly speaking the same language. In Rice's case, it is the "feared hitter" argument that seems to cause the communication problem. Proponents know this to be true, and they see the traditional statistics as evidence of it. Opponents, however, see it as a subjective argument that has little to no place in the Hall of Fame discussion and, when they try to show that there's no quantifiable basis for the argument - that there are no numbers to back up the claim - it gains no traction with the proponents.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that one of the key arguments of Jim Rice supporters, that he was the "most feared hitter of his generation," has never really been addressed in the right language. Throwing statistics around, no matter how traditional, just doesn't seem to do it because the phrase "most feared" can be interpreted in so many different ways that the stats end up being meaningless. There is a way to address this argument in the right language, though, and I hope to do so in this post.

In much the same way as my post about the "Pitcher of the '80s", it should be possible to determine if Jim Rice truly was the "most feared hitter of his time" by looking at what people were writing about him as he was playing. If he was truly as feared as it's claimed, then it shouldn't be too difficult to find contemporary writers saying as much (just think about how much people wrote about McGwire and Bonds as they were going on their tears). Of course, finding the truth of the argument and discussing the merit of the argument are two different things, and I'm not here to judge its merit.

In past "Through the Years" posts, I looked through my collection of annual preview magazines to find what they were saying about my subject as he climbed into the top-tier of ballplayers. In those, I tried to see if the writers of the time were able to tell that certain players - Greg Maddux, Rickey Henderson, etc - were truly special, or if it was something that couldn't be noticed until it was undeniable. In this post, I will try to do the same for Jim Rice, but I'll be looking especially for any evidence that he was rated as the "feared" hitter of the era. Hopefully, it will be clear one way or the other. (Be warned, it is rather long.)

Jim Rice first appeared in the Street & Smith's preview guides in 1974, in the minor league preview section. His talent was easily recognizable at the time, though it was impossible to know if he was a sure-fire star or just another prospect ready to fizzle out:
"A year away are infielder Frank Vazquez ... and outfielder Jim Rice. [Rice]'ll be in Triple A after a spectacular Double A campaign at Bristol (.317, 27 HRs, 93 RBIs). He also mashed AAA pitching the last year [sic] of the season."
Of course, Rice didn't become a full-time member of the Red Sox until 1975, and, boy, what a season that was. Fred Lynn had probably the most phenomenal rookie season of all-time, winning both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, and the Red Sox went on to play one of the most memorable World Series ever. Jim Rice's emergence that year as a rookie was just as important to the Sox's season as Lynn's, though. In any other year, in fact, he would have won ROY himself. Instead, he finished second in the voting and third in MVP voting. Baseball Digest was very succinct in their 1976 preview:
"No one needs to add plaudits those already bestowed on the Red Sox outfield of Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, and Dwight Evans. Lynn was MVP and Rookie of the Year in the AL and his closest challenger for the debut honors was Rice."
That season's baseball preview issue of Sports Illustrated was less succinct, devoting an entire article to the Boston two-some. Their praise was not only reserved for the MVP-winner:
"Rice's year could also be described as prodigious. Henry Aaron watched him swing and pronounced all home-run records in jeopardy. Rice hit a 500-foot shot to the right of the flagpole in Fenway Park, a feat matched by only five others, including Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx. In a 56-game streak he had 45 RBIs and five four-hit games."
Despite all of this early praise, it's still too soon to expect any talk about him being the "feared" hitter of his era. Rookie performances are just too unpredictable for anyone to be confident that one's career would continue at that high level. He did perform well in 1976 for a sophomore, but the season was nowhere near as good as his rookie campaign. It was the next year, 1977, where Rice really started getting into the mainstream. That year began a three-year string of performances that solidified him as a superstar hitter, and became the genesis of his Hall of Fame candidacy.

It was a brilliant stretch of baseball where Rice hit at least 39 home runs, had at least 114 RBIs, 104 runs, 201 hits and batted at least .315/.370/.593 each year. His lowest OPS+ of the three years was 147. He placed fifth or better in the MVP voting each year, and won the award with his 46/139/.315/.370/.600 line in 1978. If there ever was a stretch where someone could be considered the most feared hitter of his time, this stretch could easily be it.

Following his MVP season of 1978, there was a lot written about Rice. SI featured him, along with fellow MVP Dave Parker, on the cover of their annual baseball preview. The article on Rice is the first I've found to mention Rice as "feared":
"At 6'2", 205 pounds, Rice is not as imposing physically as those Brobdingnagians, [Frank] Howard and [Dave] Parker, but he has powerful arms and feline reflexes. His swing is swift and compact. He is among the most fearless as well as feared hitters in the game, because he will stand his ground against the fiercest brushback artist. For that matter, he may be at his most dangerous after being hit or threatened by a pitch. And, as his four-year major league batting average of .306 attests, he is not exclusively a power hitter."
That same article also pointed out that, though he was a feared hitter, he was not considered the best player in baseball:
"In fact, when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED recently polled baseball experts, asking them to choose between Pirate Dave Parker and Rice as the game's best player, a majority selected Parker, mainly because of his expertise as a fielder and his speed. Among those who picked Rice, his strength—his ability to drive the ball high and long—was usually the deciding factor in his favor."
The Baseball Digest preview magazine from the same year also held Rice in great regard. In their list of "Best of Everything in the Majors in 1978", he was given the title of "Most Dangerous Hitter, American League". The magazine had this to say by way of commentary (the emphasis is from the original):
"It came as no surprise that American League voters were unanimous in picking Boston's Jim Rice as the most dangerous hitter. In other years, they may have leaned toward Rod Carew, but in 1978, Carew didn't have Lyman Bostock hitting ahead of him and Larry Hisle hitting behind him. Pitchers could work around Carew last year, if they chose.

But, in 1978, Rice was an awesome figure to confront, particularly in Fenway Park. As former Texas manager Billy Hunter put it, 'Carew can single you to death. He might even beat you with a bunt. But Rice can win games with one swipe of his bat.'"
But this was only a few months after his 1978 season, a season in which he very deservedly won the MVP award and earned himself a 7-year, $5.4 million contract. He was at his peak, and it's only sensible that he would get accolades for it. The question is, would these accolades hold up for the rest of his career?

Following another great year in 1979, Baseball Digest named Jim Rice to their "Super All-Star Team of the 1980s," a gimmick in which they tried to foresee the best players among the next ten years, keeping in mind "quality and potential." Clearly, Rice's first five years in baseball made people believe in his ability.
"Designated Hitter: Jim Rice in a no-contest. Rice, 27, would be the clean-up batter on this super-team and should be a slugger for at least 10 more years. Barring injury, he'll approach 600 homers before his career ends, with a current total of 173."
The next couple of years were tough on Rice, though he did put up some solid, if unspectacular, numbers. His 1980 season was shortened by about 40 games due to a wrist injury, and the strike-shortened 1981 season was his first without all-star Fred Lynn hitting in front of him.

Rice raised his average for the 1982 season, hitting .309/.375/.494 with a 130 OPS+. The season earned him a few points in the MVP voting, finishing 19th in the voting that year. For 1983, the Sox upgraded their line-up, trading for slugger Tony Armas to hit behind Rice. Everyone seemed to agree that this move would only help Rice, and it did. He hit 39 home runs for the fourth time in his career, and his 141 OPS+ helped him finish 4th in the MVP voting.

The Street & Smith's preview magazine the following year didn't miss a chance to praise Rice.
"With Yaz departed, Rice steps into the fans' spotlight. He led the league in total bases (344) for the fourth time and in homers for the third time, and was second in RBI. 'Jim can do in 18 years what it took me 23 to do,' Yastrzemski said of the nine-year left fielder. Armas in center played through incredible good-bad streaks, striking out 131 times, then had elbow chips removed. Dwight Evans in right slipped 54 points in average (.238, 22 HR, 58 RBI)."
Rice's 1984 season was his tenth in the big leagues and he entered it on the verge of an impressive achievement. Baseball Digest marked it thusly:
"However, one current player still in the prime of his career - 31-year-old Jim Rice of the Red Sox - is on the verge of attaining a milestone so significant it will virtually guarantee him a spot in Cooperstown.

Rice's 'gimmick' is his combination of two distinct and important offensive talents: hitting for power and hitting for high average. In 1983, the Boston slugger collected his third American League home run title and his sixth .300 season, giving him ten-year totals of 276 homers and a .306 average. Another 24 four-baggers will earn Rice membership in the exclusive '300-.300 Club', for players with at least 300 homers and a lifetime .300 average. Rice should make it around August of this year.

Only 14 players in the history of baseball have finished their careers as members of this elite club, and all 14 are enshrined in the Hall of Fame."
Though the season ended as a down year for Rice, he did end the season with 304 career home runs and a .303 career average. The off-season saw him get into a "piping-hot winter argument with club owner Haywood Sullivan over salary negotiations."

But writer's didn't seem to begrudge Rice his off-season arguments, and the 1985 Street & Smith's preview guide even featured a long article called "Jim Rice: Baseball's Best Hitter the Last 10 Years." In it, the author talks about Rice's curmudgeonly attitude towards sports-writers but mentions that "no one denies that Jim Rice can hit like few men who ever lived."

The author, Columbia, SC, reporter Bob Spear never mentions the word "feared," but he does spend paragraph after paragraph comparing Rice's numbers to inner-circle players like Ruth and Gehrig. He does write that "members of the pitching fraternity recognize that facing him is hazardous to the earned-run average."

An interesting part of the article is the discussion of the effects of playing at Fenway Park:
"And the friendly-looking left-field fence isn't so friendly. For one thing, the right-handed-hitting Rice sees few left-handed pitchers at home. For another, the wall stands 37 feet high. 'I expect I've lost 100 home runs, line drives that hit high on the wall rather than going out,' he estimated after only four years in the majors. Obviously, that total has sky-rocketed.

'That park has hurt him,' agreed Twins' superscout Ellis Clary. 'I remember Charlie Dressen talking about how Joe DiMaggio would hit 75 homers a year in Ebbets Field (in Brooklyn). Along the same lines, put Rice in a park like Atlanta, and he'd hit 95 a year...'"
Still, this article makes it obvious that Rice was highly regarded as a hitter ten years into his career, even accounting for the biases of the publishers and of the home-town author.

In the 1986 Sporting News preview guide, following another injury-plagued year from Rice, Peter Gammons wrote, in a "who to watch in 1986" article:
"Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox. You look at his 103-RBI 1985 season and presume he had a good year. But AL batting champion Wade Boggs hit in front of Rice and set a record for reaching base without scoring. Rice's left knee bothered him most of the season, and he finally had it operated on in October, surgery that might keep him out of left field until May. Another interesting note is that Rice will be trying a contact lens in his left to correct an astigmatism that has bothered him for years."
Also, the 1986 preview issue of Baseball Digest featured an article titled "Eddie Murray: The American League's Most Feared Hitter." Rice's 1986 campaign proved to be a quality one, as he hit .324/.384/.490 with 98 runs scored and 110 runs batted in for the AL champion Red Sox, finishing fifth in the AL in batting average and third in MVP voting. But it would prove to be his final full season, playing in only 108 games, 135 games, and 56 games over the next three seasons and undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees before the 1988 season.

In Jim Rice's 14 full seasons in the majors, he had six where he finished in the top-5 in MVP voting, winning once, and his first five years had very little precedent. During this time, it was clear that contemporary writers held Rice and his power in high esteem. Retrospective articles ten years into his career couldn't help but be amazed at his body of work, and there were multiple mentions of Rice as the most "feared" or "dangerous" player in the American League, though these seem to have come solely during his three-year streak of sustained excellence early in his career. In fact, doing a search in Baseball Digest for "feared" or "dangerous" hitter during the years of Rice's career will give you more hits for people like Dave Parker, Eddie Murray or Reggie Jackson.

But Rice did have a great career, as short as it was. Advanced statistics will show that he benefited much more from Fenway Park than some would like to believe, but it's hard to argue that with some people when looking at the sheer numbers he put up in his big years. However, as great as Rice was for his relatively short career, the argument his supporters make today - that he was the "most feared hitter" of his time - is hard to substantiate when you look at the press clippings from the day. There were plenty of accolades written about him during those years, and there was a short time-frame where people did call him the "most feared hitter," but it did not persist throughout his career. As questionable as the argument may be, there is some truth in it, but not nearly enough to make it such a cornerstone of Rice's candidacy.

3 comments:

Ink Stained Wretch said...

very nicely done. Nice research. Interesting approach to the is he?/isn't he? argument.
Rice was my favorite player as a kid, but I've been in the isn't worthy camp for some time.
Part of the problem with Rice is that his final numbers are no where near where many of his supporters (Yaz, Aaron, etc.) said he would finish.
another reason Rice was rarely called 'the most feared' hitter back then may have more to do with the Red Sox than him. From the one-game playoff with the Yankees in '78 to the pennant team in 86, the Red Sox trotted out some pretty crappy teams.

Paul said...

It seems that, whether or not Rice was thought of as "the most feared" at the time, he was definitely seen as a future Hall of Famer. That perception has carried over now and those writers and fans who thought of him that way while he played aren't budging from that position.

Anonymous said...

WTF?!? Wrong camp....How crappy his teams were has absolutely nothing to do with his HOF qualifications. I would argue tyhe opposite: to produce those types of numbers DESPITE being on a "crappy" team, bears his talents out even more. I agree, he's borderline, but if Kaline, Murray and Rizzuto are going to be in there, Rice certainly belongs. One of the last clean, great, NATURAL power hitters. I, for one, hope it's this year.