By NICK LECO
August 27, 2008
2009 will mark the final year that the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) will have the option of voting former Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice into the Hall of Fame. It will be Rice’s 15th and final time on the ballot and if he were to come up short once again his only chance for induction would rest with the Veterans Committee. Since 1995 - his first year of eligibility - Rice has received as low as 29.4 percent of the vote (1999) and as high as 72.2 percent (2008). With an unchanged resume and such a large disparity in voting percentage, it’s clear that Rice’s case for induction is one of the more interesting and complex to be examined thus far by National Pastime.
JIM RICE -
At Bats: 8,225
Home Runs: 382
Team: Red Sox: 1974-1989
From the mid-1970s to the mid-80s, Rice was one of the most productive and feared right-handed hitters in the big leagues. In fact, it can be argued that Rice was the best hitter in the American League - if not all of the majors - during the 12-year span from 1975 to 1986. During that span, Rice led all major leaguers in hits, RBI and total bases and ranked second in runs, extra-base hits and slugging percentage and third in home runs. He averaged .304 with 29 home runs and 106 RBI per season during that time period, which included one of the most dominant three-year stretches for any player in the game’s history. From 1977 to 1979, Rice hit 39, 46 and 39 homers respectively, and had more than 200 hits in each season; he remains the only player ever to have three straight seasons with more than 35 home runs and 200 hits. Not known for his defense, Rice also ranked second in outfield assists during that time, trailing only Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
Rice burst onto the scene in his rookie year in 1975 with fellow “Gold Dust Twin” Fred Lynn and finished second in A.L. Rookie of the Year voting and third in MVP voting (Lynn won both awards). For his career, Rice was selected to eight All-Star teams (1977-1980, 1983-1986), won two Silver Slugger awards (1983 and 1984) and received MVP votes in eight different seasons, finishing in the top five six times and winning it in 1978. Rice’s 1978 MVP season was among the most dominating seasons a hitter has ever had, as he led the league in home runs (46), RBI (139), hits (213), triples (15) and slugging percentage (.600). His 406 total bases that season were the most since Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio had 418 in 1937, and he became the first big leaguer to lead his league outright in home runs, triples, and RBI.
Throughout his career, Rice displayed an uncanny ability to hit for both average and power. There are only nine retired players who finished with both a higher average and more home runs than Rice. This hallowed group includes Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams - all Hall of Famers. Also, of the 17 players with 350 or more home runs and at least a .290 average whose names have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot, all but Rice are in the Hall of Fame. While his overall numbers and especially his power numbers may pale in comparison with some of today’s sluggers, Rice posted them without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs - a major factor when considering his place among the game’s top sluggers.
Rice enjoyed a great 12-year run, but essentially all of his production came during that time span. After an excellent 1986 campaign in which he hit .324 with 20 home runs and 110 RBI, Rice fell of the map. He dealt with chronic injuries and was eventually supplanted by in Fenway’s left field by Mike Greenwell. In his final three seasons, Rice hit no more than 15 home runs and batted no higher than .277. In 1989, at the relatively young age of 34, he was released by the Red Sox and found no other takers for his services. This abrupt end to Rice’s career left his career numbers short of the traditional Hall of Fame standards for a power hitter. He ranks only 55th all-time in home runs and 56th in RBI.
Rice’s numbers are also boosted by the fact that he hit in the middle of outstanding lineups in a hitter-friendly park for most of his career. Rice hit .320 with a .374 on-base percentage and a .546 slugging percentage at Fenway, as opposed to a rather pedestrian .277/.330/.459 on the road. The slow-footed Rice also led the league in double plays grounded into four straight years (1982-1985) and ranks sixth all-time in that unflattering category. His 58 career stolen bases are also quite low for an outfielder.
Rice also failed to distinguish himself in the postseason. A wrist injury kept him off the 1975 postseason roster and it wasn’t until 1986 that he got a second chance. Rice batted only .161 in the American League Championship Series against the Angels, with eight strikeouts in 31 at bats. Rice did bat .333 in the World Series that year, but failed to knock in a single run as the Red Sox memorably lost in seven games to the Mets. For his career, Rice batted a meager .225 with 2 homers and seven RBI in 18 postseason games.
Rice was also known for being unfriendly with members of the media - some of whom are still voters with the BBWAA. While the perception may or may not be fair, the fact remains that there are some writers who personally do not like Rice. This should not be a factor in determining his Hall of Fame worthiness but it certainly does not help, especially when the members of the media hold all the cards.
Rice is all but a lock for the Hall of Fame in 2009, especially after receiving 72.2 percent of the vote this year and missing by only 16 votes. Since this is the final year he can be elected by the BBWAA, many voters will be inclined to vote for him to ensure he is not unfairly excluded because of media bias. So Rice will get in, but does he deserve to get in? There’s no question Rice is a borderline Hall of Famer, and he didn’t help his cause with his defense or postseason performance - categories that sometimes push a borderline player over the hump. However, Rice’s offensive numbers were better than anyone else’s over a period that lasted more than a decade. He led the league in many major offensive categories in several different seasons, had his one epic MVP year and truly dominated the sport for a three-year stretch. Rice makes a strong case for induction and though he’s had to be patient, he will finally get his due in 2009 - and deservedly so.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
Photo by Getty Images
Be sure to check out our previous Cooperstown Bound? columns: Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, Omar Vizquel, Don Mattingly, Curt Schilling, Andre Dawson, Kenny Lofton, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, Mike Mussina.