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Daily Box Score 7/26: The Rickey/Rice HOF Special

Today, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice will officially enter the Hall of Fame. It's noteworthy that today marks the induction of one of the players stat-heads have admired most (Rickey) and one of the players whose candidacy stat-heads have spent the most time arguing against (Rice--Rich Lederer, I'm looking at you). With that in mind, let's take a look at these two players, their legacies, and the opinions of the baseball commentariat. 

We'll lead off with Rickey Henderson, because I know he wouldn't have it any other way. It's too bad he couldn't enter the Hall by himself, because he's the one guy with a personality big enough to fill any stage. Guys like Rickey leave (often apocryphal) stories in their wakes like a twelve-stepper drops bad habits. It is About the Money, Stupid links to a selection of these stories. Here's my favorite:

In June 1999, when Henderson was playing with the Mets, he saw reporters running around the clubhouse before a game. He asked a teammate what was going on and he was told that Tom Robson, the team’s hitting coach, had just been fired. Henderson said, "Who’s he?"

This one, at least, is true. Many of these are certainly untrue, but like Satchel Paige (whom we discussed yesterday), the mix of truth and falsehood combine to create a personality that remains legendary.

In the interest of fairness, I owe Jim Rice an anecdote. This one is courtesy of The Seattle Times' Larry Stone:

Anyway, here's what I saw that night: Fainaru typing away madly on his computer, wearing the tattered remains of what had once been a button-up shirt. After we had finished our stories, I asked Steve what had happened. Turned out he had gotten in a heated argument in the clubhouse with Rice, who didn't like something Fainaru had written. At one point, Rice reached down, grabbed Fainaru's shirt by the collar, and ripped it off, buttons flying. Fainaru had no choice but to go back to the press box and write his story, practically bare-chested.

Rice eventually bought the guy a new shirt and apologized. If you're more interested in the Jim-Rice-saves-the-life-of-a-child kind of thing, well, there's that too.

So what of their legacies as players? Wezen-ball looks back at the careers of Rice and Henderson through the lens of a large collection of season preview magazines. From Rickey's:

But 1980 was a doozy, and it would be a long time before any preview guide would feel able to leave out Rickey again. In his first full season, Rickey was named to the All-Star team and finished 10th in the MVP voting that year. Batting .303 with a .420 on-base percentage, he stole 100 bases (setting an AL record), scored 111 runs and helped the A's improve their record by 29 games over the year before.

And Rice's:

Retrospective articles ten years into his career couldn't help but be amazed at his body of work, and there were multiple mentions of Rice as the most "feared" or "dangerous" player in the American League, though these seem to have come solely during his three-year streak of sustained excellence early in his career. In fact, doing a search in Baseball Digest for "feared" or "dangerous" hitter during the years of Rice's career will give you more hits for people like Dave Parker, Eddie Murray or Reggie Jackson.

It's an interesting exercise in verifying how these two players were viewed by their peers at the time. I recommend them both.

Will there ever be a player quite like Rickey? One look at this graph will show you that Rickey was a remarkable player, but who comes closest to replicating what Rickey did? BPro's Hall of Fame maven Jay Jaffe has a list. For those of you without subscriptions, the top active comps by his methodology are:

Brian Roberts, B.J. Upton, Johnny Damon, Jose Reyes, and Carl Crawford.

The methodology includes not just BA/OBP/SLG but also EqA, EqBRR, BB/PA, Power/Speed, run scoring and stolen bases. None of the players quite match Rickey, especially in the walk department. His career mark of 16.0% BB/PA is unparalleled by any leadoff hitter. 

Rice, on the other hand, had many similar contemporaries. Big League Stew tackles the question of whether Rice's induction will ease the way for some of his peers, particularly Dale Murphy:

So, while Rice's induction will almost surely lead to a victory for Dawson, it's hard to know whether it will raise Murphy from the morass. His candidacy certainly deserves a boost. Will voters take another look at the best center fielder of the 1980's?

I'm not sure Murphy belongs in the Hall. What do you think?

Perpetual Rice-bashers Baseball Analysts link back to one piece arguing that Rice was not only not the best among his contemporaries, he wasn't even the best outfielder on his own team. That honor, Patrick Sullivan argued, belongs to Dwight Evans:

So why the perception gap? I have a few theories. For one, Rice had his best seasons early in his career and leveled off some thereafter while Evans started relatively slowly and became a superstar during the middle part of his career. It seems that each had their reputations solidified during their early years - Rice as the superstar and Evans as the good defender with an OK bat.

First impressions are so important. For his part, Rice downplayed his low on-base percentage:

"Hey, I was the third- or fourth-place hitter. You want me to walk batting third or fourth? I don't think so. Yes, some say my on-base percentage should be better. But if I walked, who was going to drive me in? Yaz (Carl Yastrsemski) was batting third and I was batting fourth, or vice-versa. I couldn't run, he couldn't run, so we would have clogged up the bases for a better on-base percentage.

One aspect of the Jim Rice/Dwight Evans comparison that is overlooked, argues Lincoln Mitchell, is their role in the strike of 1981:

For Evans the strike had a far more serious effect because it came in the middle of what may have been his best year.  Evans finished third in slugging percentage, first in OBP and first in OPS while winning a Gold Glove and finishing third in the MVP voting in 1981.  His home run and RBI totals were only 22 and 71 due to the strike, so as the years went by Evans’ 1981 looked less impressive.  While Evans’ 1981, even had the strike not occurred, probably would not have struck Hall of Fame voters as being as good as Rice’s 1978 season, if he had kept those numbers up over a full season, it would have, given Evans’ other strengths, been a very comparable season.

I think it has a lot to do with the inability of voters accurately to value defensive contributions. Dwight Evans was worth 53 runs with his outfield arm alone in his career. Rice was worth only 13 in the same department, and trails in Total Zone as well.

Finally, the New York Times an interesting look at how the exhibits are curated at Cooperstown. Rickey lent the Hall some items from his personal collection (what, you doubted he had one?):

Henderson had a lot, Strohl said, and lent the bat he used for his 3,000th hit, an Oakland A’s jersey from the end of his career and a small bronze trophy the A’s gave him to commemorate his 939th stolen base. Securing the bat for Henderson’s case was critical because the hall had nothing from that moment.

Congratulations to Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice.