Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jim Rice again, and Dwight Evans

This "most feared" moniker that's been attached to Rice is just a story, little more than propaganda by the writers who helped get him elected. There's no empirical evidence that he was ever "feared," and certainly none that he was feared more than his contemporary bashers like Parker and Schmidt.

I don't know if you can quantify fear, but intentional walks seems like a good place to start. Rice never led the league in IBBs; in fact, he only ever finished in the top 10 three times: 1977, 1978, and 1983, with 10, 7 and 10. Career, he ranks tied for 179th, with guys like Terry Pendleton, Geoff Jenkins, Claudell Washington, and Fred Lynn. Even in 1978, when he led the league in pretty much every offensive category, the other manager only gave him a free pass 7 times (and never, as the legend has it, with the bases loaded). Later in his career, as his skills eroded, there was no fear at all, as the opposing managers realized he was far more likely to GIDP than smash a home run.

And if Rice was feared, you'd think that would be fresh in the minds of the wroters who watched him play. But in his first year of eligibility, 1995, Rice only got 137 votes, less then 30% of the total needed for enshrinement. His vote totals crept up after that, until 1999, when he dropped to 146 votes, again less than 30% support. So the BBWAA voters first forgot how feared he was, then slowly recalled, then forgot again?

Yes, that's kind of cheap -- 1999 was a big year for the HOF, with Brett, Ryan and Yount all getting in; so it's no wonder Rice's vote total dropped like a stone -- but it's a serious question. If Rice was good enough to be elected in 2009, why wasn't he good enough to be elected in 1995? I think it's because the legend of his fearsomeness -- and legend is all it is -- needed time to sink in. The story was repeated often enough, and the voters finally began to believe it.

Dwight Evans: .272/.370/.470, 127 OPS+
Jim Rice: .298/.352/.502, 128 OPS+

Rice's power advantage is matched by Evans' superior discipline at the plate; and they were both essentially the same against the rest of the league: about 27/28% better with a bat in their hands. Evans was top 10 in walks ten times, led the league three times, and is #27 on the career list with 1391; Rice was never top 10 in the league in any year, and is #362 on the career list with 670. Rice hit 382 HR; Dewey hit 385. Evans was a superior fielder year in and year out, winning 8 Gold Gloves; Rice, to be kind, cost his team runs in the field.

Rice's support is understandable, even if I disagree with it. Evans' lack of support is mystifying. His first year on the ballot, 1997, Evans got 27 votes, 5.9% of the total needed. He rose to 49 votes and over 10% in 1998. Then in 1999, competing with the 3 who were elected that year, he dropped to 18 votes and 3.6%, and that was that. I think that is a disgrace. Don't mistake me for a fanatic: Evans is no slam dunk. But his credentials are at least as solid as Rice's -- better, in many areas -- and he was done in 3 years.

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