Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Rice Was Always Worthy

Jim Rice was the most feared hitter in the American League over a 12-year span. That says it all.

But for 14 years, Rice failed to garner enough votes for entrance into the Hall of Fame. This year, with a weak field of candidates, Rice had his best, and last, opportunity. And now, finally, he gets to join the other all-time greats in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

Why it took so long is difficult to figure.

Rice deserved an earlier entrance. In an era when power numbers are suspiciously viewed through the lens of steroids and other performance enhancers, Rice's production over the course of his 14 years merited additional consideration.

While it's often said that Rice played 16 seasons in the Majors, he didn't.

Rice was a September call up in 1974 and had only 67 at bats in 24 games. It wasn't enough to qualify him as a rookie, so it's not enough to be considered a season.

Furthermore, Rice played only 56 games in 1989, his final season. That year, Rice had just 209 at bats. To qualify for a batting title, a player must have at least 400 at bats. In a typical season, an everyday player might see as many as 600 at bats.

So, the reality is that Rice played just 14 seasons, and in that time he amassed absolutely phenomenal statistics.

If Rice had just sat out those 56 games in 1989 – when his eyesight had long since failed him – he would have finished his career with a .300 average. Many believe that if Rice had simply lifted his average a measly .002 points that he'd have been inducted to the Hall years ago.

An argument used against Rice was that he wasn't a great fielder. Dale Murphy, another player of Rice's era who has also been a borderline candidate, was a five time Gold Glove winner. Yet, his career fielding percentage is just .002 higher than Rice's. Either the criteria for a Gold Glove wasn't as strict in the National League or Rice was simply overlooked. Believe it or not, from 1975-1986 Rice led the American League in outfield assists. Simply put, he was always underated as a defensive player.

Rice's numbers are impressive -- 382 homers, 1,451 RBI -- and they aren't tainted. We lived through an era era when the 40-homer season became common and when the achievements of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds -- the three best power hitters of their generation -- are highly dubious.

Yet, there is no such suspicion of Rice.

Sure, Rice fell short of the 400 career homer mark, which used to almost assure election. But his accomplishments over a 12-year span were nothing short of spectacular, though clearly under-appreciated. Rice was the most dominant hitter of his time, outshining all of his contemporaries. That alone qualifies him for the Hall.

Longtime Red Sox public relations executive Dick Bresciani issued a highly-detailed, four-page report on Rice's achievements and the former left fielder owes Bresciani a debt of gratitude. That report surely had an influence on the Baseball Writers of America.

When it comes to stats, Rice's were considerable. Red Sox fans who witnessed his exploits have always had a bias toward his selection, but Rice's numbers speak loudly and convincingly for him.

Though some have argued that Rice wasn't great for a long enough period of time, for a period of 12 years -- 1975-86 -- Rice led all American League players in 12 different offensive categories, including home runs (350), RBI (1,276), total bases (3,670), slugging percentage (.520), runs (1,098) and hits (2,145). The other categories were games, at-bats, extra base hits, multiple hit games, go-ahead RBI, and the previously mentioned outfield assists.

What these statistics bear out is that over this remarkable period Rice was not only durable, but consistent and clutch as well.

During that span, Rice averaged 29 homers, 106 RBI, 91 runs scored and a .303 average. Though his career slugging percentage is .502, Rice wasn't just a power hitter – he was a hitter, plain and simple. In four of those seasons he collected over 200 hits. He hit .300 or better seven times and he hit .290 or better nine times.

Put Rice's accomplishments in context: he led every player in his league in virtually every significant offensive category for twelve consecutive years. Even if you add in all of the National League players from the same era, Rice still leads in five categories and finishes second in three others.

Finishing first or second in eight different categories for a dozen years means that Rice is certainly well qualified for the Hall. If Kirby Puckett was deserving, Rice is more deserving.

Some say that if Rice had just hit 18 more homers and lifted his .298 career batting average a mere two points, that his election would have be guaranteed a lot earlier. Perhaps, but that's splitting hairs.

Rice dominated his era, finishing in the top five in the MVP voting six times in an eight-year span, more than any other player between 1963 and 2005.

He won the MVP award in 1978, when he collected a staggering 406 total bases, becoming the first American League player to crack 400 since Joe Dimaggio. During that phenomenal year, Rice also hit .315, had 213 hits, 46 home runs, 139 RBI and amassed a .600 slugging percentage.

An eight-time All Star, Rice led the AL in homers three times, RBI twice, and total bases four times. He is the only player in Major League history with three consecutive seasons of 35 homers and 200 hits. He led the AL in total bases for three straight seasons, tying a record held by Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. Furthermore, Rice, Babe Ruth and Jimmy Foxx are the only players in AL history with three consecutive 39-homer, .315 average seasons. Enough said.

Lest anyone need more convincing, feel free to measure Rice against the all-time greats. Among all Major Leaguers, only nine players have compiled as high a career batting average and as many homers. They are: Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Stan Musial.

All of them are in the Hall of Fame and Rice has finally joined them -- where he rightfully belongs.

Copyright © 2009 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author’s consent.

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