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Another Overrated Lummox is Voted into Baseball's Hall of Fame

13 January 2009

Gawd, the Rice HOF debate. I guess at least now that he’s in I won’t have to read many more stat-ignorant columnists ranting about “the most-feared hitter” crap.

Ironically, it was probably the SABR guys denigrating Rice’s candidacy that pushed the older writers into voting for him. The only thing they hate worse than an uppity black star (can you believe some guys didn’t vote for Rickey Henderson?!?) is some kid on the internet knowing a hundred times more about baseball than they do. Or as Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe puts it, “new-age, basement-dwelling number crunchers.”

The case against Rice was very simple: facts vs. perception. Now, I’m not saying Rice wasn’t a good player. But “good” shouldn’t be enough for the HOF. And Rice had serious flaws. He grounded into more double plays than anybody else in the history of baseball. Between that and his low on-base average, he was an out-making machine. His fielding was mediocre at best, because his range was limited. He was the epitome of the one-dimensional slugger, the kind of player the writers used to rant against.

Most feared? Hey, I most fear dying in a plane crash. I’ll probably die of a heart attack, considering my diet, but that’s not what I fear the most. Pitchers most fear giving up home runs, because it’s embarrassing, but runs are runs no matter how they’re scored.

Nick Cafardo, also of the Globe, quotes Rice: “If you’re talking about on-base percentage when I played at the time, we did not worry about on-base percentage. We were about W’s and L’s.”

Well, Jim, on-base has the highest correlation to scoring runs of any batting statistic. And scoring runs is how you win. It’s how you get W’s instead of L’s.

Rice continues to blather: “Give me 3 for 10, .300. That’s all I want. If you’re power, you’ve got to give me 3 for 10 and give me some jacks behind it. That’s my on-base percentage right there.”

No, it’s not. That’s your batting average. Or, “if you’re power,” and you’re factoring in how many bases the hits are, it’s your slugging percentage.

Returning to Shaughnessy: “The stat geeks sniffed at Rice’s pedestrian on-base percentage (.352) and charged that his numbers were skewed because half his games were in hitter-friendly Fenway Park.”

So, he doesn’t refute this argument, he just insults the people making it. Why? Because they’re right and he can’t refute it.

Look, in the ‘70s we didn’t know how much difference your home park could make in your stats. We couldn’t go on the internet yet and see home/road splits. So when Rice put up impressive season totals, of course he seemed fearsome. But now we know. Knowledge increases, we can make smarter choices, onward and upward. Except, weirdly, for old people who hate change, who hate having to think about new concepts, who rigidly cling to the old perceptions and insist that they must have been right because so many people had those perceptions. As though reality is decided democratically.

Now, though, we can all see Rice’s splits at At home he put up all-star numbers: .320 BA, .374 OBA (though it’s still not all that impressive), .546 slugging. On the road, though, he was just an average hitter: .277, .330, .459. In fact, a left fielder with those numbers is hurting his team compared to the average stats at his position. Bill James presented a convincing case for Roy White being a more valuable player at his peak than Rice was at his.

By the way, check out Rice’s intentional bases on balls: 50 at home, 27 on the road. Pitchers, the guys who were supposed to fear him, seemed to know that he wasn’t that hard to get out, especially on the road. That’s less than twice a year he was intentionally walked on the road. That’s not much fear if you ask me.