So much of the discussion of Jim Rice’s career–at least over the past decade–has revolved around his induction to the Hall of Fame. For the rest of this article, we won’t discuss the Hall at all. The sabermetric community at large has made every argument about Rice’s performance in the context of the Hall, and I think that we can have a reasonable discussion about the man’s career without bringing up the Hall for once.
In 1974, Rice made his major-league debut, starting just a few games at the end of the season, but by 1975 he had supplanted Carl Yastrzemski as the team’s starting left fielder and sometime designated hitter just in time for the team to peak into a long playoff run culminating in a World Series appearance. From the jump, Rice demonstrated the skills that would be his calling-card for the entirety of his career: power, contact ability, and fair outfield defense predicated on a powerful throwing arm.
Rice never got the chance to play in the post-season during the Sox’s 1975 run–he injured his wrist after being hit by a pitch at the end of the regular season–and naturally the Sox went on to lose a very close World Series. Then, Rice really began to establish himself in 1976, following his return the following season. While his .315 OBP and 25 homers were nothing to write home about–dear Mom, I’m Matt Kemp–it was a good start. The next three years, however, would be his personal performance peak. In ‘77, he powered up, kicking in 83 extra-base hits, including 39 homers and an accelerated .310 True Average. When you hear about his reputation as a “feared hitter,” this is why. By this point, Rice was fast, strong, and able to hit for average and power.
Then there was 1978, Rice’s MVP season. He deserved every accolade he received that year, posting a .370 OBP and .600 slugging percentage, inarguably the best hitter in the American League even after accounting for his playing time in friendly Fenway. His 46 home runs led baseball, and it would set the tone for expectations throughout the rest of his career. Though this kind of electric output would never quite be repeated (for one thing, he hit an astonishing 15 triples for the second consecutive season in addition to the rest of his extra-base hits, becoming the second player in AL history to lead the league in both 3B and HR), he would carry on this production into another season.
In 1979, Rice put up his third consecutive All-Star performance, and posted his third season with a True Average above .300–.325 to be exact. From a high-level perspective, he was just as productive offensively as he was in 1978, but the big-ticket numbers (home runs, RBI) dipped a bit from 1978. Teammate Fred Lynn was a far better overall player–Lynn was a superior hitter that year and a great defensive outfielder–but Rice was again one of the best players in the game … and just heading into his age-27 season.
While most players used to peak at 27, Rice settled into a three-year performance lull. Still an effective hitter, Rice’s overall production faded as his power diminished. Still able to hit for a near-.300 batting average, his slugging percentage wavered much closer to .500 than his previous three seasons near .600. He averaged about 22 homers per year over the next few seasons, and performed at a good-but-not great level when factoring his position and defense. He earned an All-Star nod in 1980, but slipped from the rolls over the next two seasons.
1983 was a bit of a comeback year. Rice hit 39 dingers for the third season in his career, and his .304 True Average was his highest by a fair margin since 1979. By BP’s WARP metric, this was the second-greatest season of his career, behind only his MVP campaign.
The next year was a disappointment, with Rice’s overall offensive performance just a bit better than league-average despite a solid 28 homers. His walk rate, never enormous, dipped considerably to 6.8%, which helped to lower his on-base percentage to his lowest numbers since his 1976 season. Between that, his decreased power, and remarkable 36 instances in which he grounded into a double play, Rice was no longer the MVP candidate of previous seasons, but rather a league-average left fielder capable of bopping the occasional dinger. Nevertheless, Rice was entrenched as a celebrity and All-Star, and still was a regular fixture in the mid-summer classic.
Over the next two years, his home run totals would slide, but Rice gently raised his walk rate and lowered his strikeout rate, improving his overall offensive performance each year. Perhaps he was adapting his play style to stay relevant. While ‘85 was similar to his ‘84 (2.1 WARP versus the previous 3.4), in 1986 he burst back out thanks to career highs in doubles (39), batting average (.324), and OBP (.384). Best of all, he finally had a chance to play in a World Series after missing the opportunity during his first go-round. Rice wasn’t remarkably effective, as he struck out 26% of the time, but he hit two homers and scored an impressive 14 runs, despite all the Ks. He’d end up third in American League MVP voting, losing out to teammate Roger Clemens.
Rice remained effective through that 1986 run, but after his age-33 season, things went downhill in a righteous hurry. Over his last three seasons (1987-89), Rice put up replacement-level performance, with slight positive WARP gains (0.3 in two years) balanced by a -0.6 WARP performance in his final season, 1989. During those last three seasons, Rice’s signature power all but disappeared–he posted a .395 slugging–and without it, sluggish defense and baserunning didn’t help his overall case. At the same time, the team was flush with outfield talent, as part-timer Dewey Evans was still hitting while Mike Greenwell and Ellis Burks were rising.
He retired after the 1989 season, taking a host of positions with the Red Sox organization since then. Among Sox players, Rice retired with a .502 slugging percentage, good for eighth all time among players with more than 2000 PA, and his 382 home runs are fourth in the team’s history.
So which ballplayer of the modern era does Rice most resemble? Allow me to offer up a comparison to a recent former Sox player: Yoenis Cespedes. When we adjust for era, Rice handily surpasses Cespedes’ best offensive seasons during his 1977-79 peak, but overall his .292 True Average is actually behind Cespedes’s .297 mark. While Cespedes is likely to see his overall production decline when he reaches the twilight of his career, the two men are notable for similar reasons: loads of power–Rice’s career .502 slugging is not markedly different than Cespedes’s .486, especially accounting for era–lack of selectivity, and dynamite throwing arms. It’s very unlikely that Cespedes has either the longevity or the peak of Rice, though he appears to be a superior defender, but the two are similar enough.
Currently in the Sox’s system, there doesn’t seem to be an offensive-minded outfielder that fits the Rice mold, especially given the team’s focus on well-rounded offensive skillsets with a balanced approach. Then again, if Rafael Devers finds himself growing out of third base and moving to the outfield, he could certainly end up with a similar profile to Jim Ed … especially if his 4.6 percent walk rate in 2015 hangs around.
But even if Devers does eventually pull off a convincing Rice impersonation, it’s important to remember just how long, consistent, and stellar of a career that Rice had in Boston. Not only was he a Red Sox for life, he carried on a baseball tradition that–like playing center field for the Yankees–carries the weight of history. Before Rice, there was Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski manning the turf under the Green Monster. After him, there was Mike Greenwell (and a few years of Wil Cordero and Troy O’Leary, but whatever) and Manny Ramirez. Holding any man to the expectations of Red Sox left fielder can be terrifying and daunting, just ask Hanley Ramirez, but Rice shouldered the burden of expectations with grace and unbelievable skill. He did everything his team could have asked of him, and more, over his 16 seasons in uniform.
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