13 January 2009

Cooperstown Comes Calling for Rickey, Rice

What in the wide, wide world of sports is a'goin' on around here?

I'm out of the country on business for one week, and I come back to find that instead of being a member of the Atlanta Braves, as he almost always has been, John Smoltz is now a Red Sock. Pat Burrell is a Ray, Trevor Hoffman is a Brewer, and Twins owner Carl Pohlad is an Angel (if you believe his son, anyway). Can't I leave you people alone for one minute?!!?

All of that would normally be news if it weren't for the fact that the Hall of Fame vote was announced yesterday. Rickey Henderson got in on Rickey's first attempt, just as Rickey figured Rickey would. Rickey never doubted that Rickey would get in, only how much of the vote Rickey would get. Rickey's credentials speak for themselves, whether you like the traditional or the sabermetric numbers, though Rickey sometimes does the favor for them.

He's the all-time career leader in Runs and Stolen Bases, leadoff home runs (along with a bunch of other records for leadoff men, I'm sure), second in walks and 4th in times on base and plate appearances. He's 9th in career Runs Created, behind Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig and Pete Rose. Yeah, he was that good.

Alas, Rickey didn't come particularly close to getting 100% of the vote, something nobody's ever done. (Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan each got 98.8% in their first years of eligibility, and nobody's ever gotten closer.) Rickey received 94.8% of the vote, 28 votes shy of perfection.

Jim Rice also got the call, in his 15th and final chance on the BBWAA ballot, with 76.4% of the vote, an increase of 20 votes from last year. This was expected, as no hitter had ever gotten so close as Rice did in the 2008 vote (72.2%) without getting elected soon after. If the BBWAA allowed only 14 years of eligibility, Jim Rice and his alleged "fear-inspiring" attributes might still be on the outside, looking in. Rice became the third player to be elected in his last opportunity, along with Ralph Kiner and Red Ruffing.

By the numbers, Jim Rice is the 7th "Jim" in the Hall but only the 3rd "Rice", along with Sam and Del. He's the 9th hall of fame player to have played primarily with the Red Sox, thoough several others have spent significant time in a Red Sox uniform as well. He's the 20th(!) player listed primarily as a left fielder, including two other Red Sox, Yaz and the Spendid Splinter. Someday, I'm sure, Manny Ramirez will join them, but that's it.

Seriously, BBWAA folks, I think we have enough left fielders, and definitely enough Red Sox left fielders. We have to draw the line somewhere before Troy O'Leary.

Anyway, I'm among the many who don't happen to think that Rice belongs there, but I won't rehash all of that. (I've got some new stuff to hash.) You can read my thoughts on Rice here and here. Mostly I think his impressive numbers at Fenway Park skew the appearance of his value upward, making him look like a much better hitter than he really was. Neutralizing his stats gives him a .290/.343/.489 career line instead of .298/.352/.502, but that doesn't really matter, as the folks who vote for him are going more on gut instinct and anecdotal evidence than they are on, you know, facts.

My problem with Jim Rice's election is not that it opens the door for Andre Dawson and Dale Murphy and Harold Baines. Someday I'll do a study to see how well we can predict Hall of Fame voting trends, but it looks to me right now like Dawson's train is all but unstoppable, and that he'll be in by 2011 or 2012. The other two are clearly going nowhere.

My problem is that Rice's selection opens the door for Andres Galarraga and Larry Walker, two players who also got a lot of help from their home parks. The former has (superficially) very similar career numbers to Rice, as Bill James' Similarity Index rates the Big Cat as Rice's 2nd closest comp, with an 893 score. His closest comp, Orlando Cepeda, is already in Cooperstown, though I never thought he deserved election either. Rice's 282 Win Shares are a few more than the 252 than Galarraga had, and Baseball Prospectus' WARP, tells a similar story, 73 to 66.

Galarraga won a couple of Gold Gloves and also stole 10+ bases six times, while Rice stole 10 only once, and never even got into a discussion about the Gold Gloves unless someone thought he should try his hand at amatuer boxing. Each won two Silver Sliggers. Rice was in the top 10 in MVP voting six times, with one win, while Galarraga was in the top 10 seven times topping out at 6th in 1996 and 1998. The similarities are almost eerie.

I'm not saying that Galarraga will receive or even deserves enshrinement in Cooperstown, but a case can be made for him, in light of Rice's presence there. Indeed, the Hall of Fame's own story about next year's class mentions Roberto Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Barry Larkin and Fred McGriff, but not Galarraga, and rightly so. Galaragga is NOT a Hall of Famer, nor will he be.

But here's the rub: Larry Walker had 308 Win Shares and almost 93 WARP in his career, far outclassing them both. Walker's career line of .313/.400/.565 is vastly better than Rice's, and even after adjusting it for league and park, it comes out to .299/.384/.539, which is a heckuva lot better than Rice's unadjusted line. Rice had about 1,000 more plate appearances for his career than Walker because, despite the abrupt end of Rice's career, Walker could never resist a leg injury he hadn't already tried, but even with that, he had 440 Adjusted Batting Runs, 61st all-time, while Rice doesn't even crack the top 100.

Add to this the fact that Larry Walker was a 7-time Gold Glove right fielder who also stole 230 bases at a high success rate, and I don't see how you leave Larry Walker out, and yet I suspect that he will get little support when he enters the balloting in 2011. During his own 17-year career, Walker had only the 14th most Win Shares, and everybody in front of him on the list amassed several more either before 1989 or after 2005. John Olerud had almost exactly the same number of Win Shares during the same 17 years.

Larry Walker, despite his obvious talents, was rarely considered among the best players of his generation because everyone knew how much help he got from Coors Field. Like Rice, Walker won one MVP Award (albeit one that should have gone to Mike Piazza), but he only finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting two other times, and only once in Colorado (1995, when he was 7th).

Walker's MVP finishes while in Colorado:

Year   MVP    BA/HR/RBI  Other Qualifications
1995 7th .306/36/101 96 Runs, 16 Stolen Bases, 13 OF assists
1997 1st .366/49/130 143 Runs, 46 Doubles, Gold Glove, 33 SB
1998 17th .363/23/ 67 113 Runs, 46 2B, GG, 14 SB
1999 10th .379/37/115 108 Runs, GG, 11 SB
2001 24th .350/38/123 107 Runs, 35 2B, GG, 14 SB
2002 20th .338/26/104 95 Runs, 40 2B, GG

To be fair, he also had a 5th and an 11th place showing in Montreal before going to Colorado, but if a man can hit like that and not even crack the top 15 or 20 in the MVP vote, I don't think the baseball writers take him too seriously.

And yet Walker was demonstrably a much better player than Jim Rice. Oh, excuse me: Hall of Famer Jim Rice. But Rice played for winning teams, in an era when nobody thought about park effects, so the baseball writers eventually convinced themselves that he belonged in Cooperstown, while Walker probably never will.

Some contend that the election of Rice won't lower the standards of the hall, but I think that's exactly what will happen. Perhaps Dave Parker and Albert Belle won't get in, but others might. Electing Dennis Eckersly, primarily for his prowess as a reliever, led to Bruce Sutter, which made it easier for Goose Gossage to get in.

The Veterans' Committee's selection of Bill Mazeroski made them give Joe Gordon a second look, even though he never got more than 30% of the vote from the writers. Same thing happened when Phil Rizzuto was brought into the fold: Suddenly George Davis belonged in there, too. Putting Jim Bunning and Hal Newhauser in meant that Don Sutton and Phil Niekro had to be elected.

The writers' election of Tony Perez and the Veterans' selection of Orlando Cepeda and Larry Doby made it easier for Rice (and soon Dawson) to get in, and they speculate that Henderson's election might help Tim Raines, which would actually be a good thing. This a very slippery slope here, people, and while the writers may not simply choose to elect anyone who ever played a few seasons in Colorado just because Jim Rice is in there, we have to at least wonder how his election will effect the candidacies of other marginally qualified players.

A few other notes about this year's ballot:

* Each of the top five players on the ballot after Rickey and Rice picked up between two and five votes since last year, even though the entry of a sure-fire hall of famer onto the ballot usually signals a drop in votes for the marginal candidates. Tommy John got 32% in his last shot.

* Tim Raines lost 10 votes since last year, though admittedly, some of those might have been due to the four fewer voters this year. Apparently the presence of the Greatest Leadoff Man in History diminished Raines' case a little bit.

* Mark McGwire lost 10 votes as well, after having gotten exactly 128 in his first two years of voting. Apparently people have their minds made up about him, and nothing has much happened to sway them in his favor.

* Dave, Donnie, and Dale have all hit a plateau around 12-15% after losing much of their initial support, which hovered around 25% of the voters. Hitters who came onto the ballot in the mid to late 1990's suddenly didn't look so great during the Steroid Era, and nobody's really changed their minds about them much.
* Harold Baines is hanging on for dear life, with just 5.9% of the vote.

* Mark Grace, who had the most hits in the 1990's (and a dozen more Win Shares than Jim Rice, by the way), got only 4.1% of the vote and will not be on the ballot next year. You hear that, Jack Morris?

* David Cone, who was about as good a pitcher as hall of famers Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, and Whitey Ford, got only 3.9% of the votes and won't be back next year.

* The Great LOOGy Hope for the Hall of Fame, Jesse Orosco, got one vote, and that was from his mom, who's probably senile anyway. I guess we have to wait for Mike Myers now.

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Anonymous said...

A case can be made that if not for the strike in '94, that Walker would have easily been in the top ten in mvp maybe even top five given his team would have probably finished tops in the NL and that sways voters more for a playoff contender. To vote for MVP after 110 games is an unfair assesment and playing in Montreal probably cost him votes.

BTW, I just looked at the voting nubers. Matt Williams had 43 HR in 112 games. That extrapolates to 62 homeruns which could have made him the HR king before McGwire. Neat.

Anonymous said...

But, it's Jim Rice. Just hearing the name speaks of greatness. That says it all as to any question whether he should or should not be in the HOF.