Cooperstown, N.Y. – 2018
A father and son walk through The Plaque Gallery. Yankees fans, here for Derek Jeter’s induction ceremony. Dad’s a little frustrated; he was hoping to impress the kid with his vast knowledge of the National Pastime. But the truth? Pops is about a 22 handicap when it comes to baseball history, and they can’t get near the plaques of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, Reggie and Joe D. So he has spent the last hour and a half hours pretending to be an expert on Zach Wheat and Harry Heilmann. The two are about to head into the Women in Baseball Room (and what teenager can’t get enough of that) when Dad’s eyes light up.
“Jim Rice. That’s Jim Rice’s plaque.”
“Who’s Jim Rice?”
“He played with the Red Sox. He was 30 homers and 100 RBI every year, like 20 times. Did it before steroids, too. Probably the best hitter of his era, the most feared for sure.”
“Did he play with Clemens?”
“Yup. Yaz, too. Boggs.”
“Think Clemens will ever get in, Dad?”
“On the plaque it says that he was part of an All-Star outfield. Who are the other guys?”
“Lemme think. Uh….Freddie Lynn was one. I can see the other guy. Good player, had a goofy batting stance. Good arm, too. His name is right on the tip of my –“
“Hey, Dad we should get going. That Pete Rose/Jose Canseco re-enactment of “Who’s on First” starts at the Main Street Deli in 10 minutes.”
“Right, right. I’m glad they both got furloughed for the weekend. Could be the best 50 bucks we’ve ever spent.”
Look, I’m happy for Jim Rice. He was a very, very good ballplayer for a short period of time and a pretty good hitter for another eight years or so. It is by no means an embarrassment that he goes into the Hall of Fame on Sunday. But there are players with better careers that are still waiting.
And Dwight Evans is one of them.
Dewey over Rice? Really? Doesn’t seem possible, does it? Clearly Rice was viewed as the superior player when the two were active.
All-Star Games – Rice: Eight; Evans: Three.
Career MVP Award Shares: Rice: 3.15 career shares (29th all-time); Evans: 1.05 career shares (224th all-time)
And, of course, the Hall of Fame. Though it took Rice 15 years to get in, he was always a viable candidate. The very worst vote total he received in his decade and a half on the ballot was in 1995, with 137. From 2000 until 2009 he was never below 257 votes. Evans was on the ballot for three years. He peaked in 1998 with 49 votes before falling below the five percent needed to stay on the ballot with just 18 votes in 1999. The media has clearly looked at the two players and declared an easy winner.
So what did they miss?
Until Bill James started pounding on his keyboard in Lawrence, Kansas nobody cared about on-base percentage. It was just another number, wasn’t even good enough to make the back of a baseball card. And it took about 30 years of James plus Moneyball, plus Theo Epstein, to get the public (and the media, though some still aren’t buying) to understand that OBP is the single most important offensive statistic. And Dwight Evans buries Jim Rice in this category.
Career OBP: Rice, .352, Evans .370
Seasons with an OBP of at least .375: Rice: Four, Evans: Nine
Rice’s best OBP season was .384 in 1986. Evans bettered that seven times.
What made for the huge difference? Walks. Rice never walked more than 62 times in a season (1986). Evans had 13 seasons with more than 62 walks. He led the AL in free passes three times and finished in the top five six times (Rice never finished in the top 10).
OK, I know what you are thinking. Great, Evans walked more. But Rice put up numbers. Big numbers. Numbers that don’t lie kind of numbers. And Dewey didn’t. Just look at Rice’s baseball-reference page, right? Seven seasons with 100 RBI (Evans had four). Four 30-homer seasons, when 30 homers meant something (Evans had three, but with an explanation we’ll get to later). Four 200-hit seasons (none for Evans. Of course, tough to get 200 hits when you are walking 90 times a year. Ted Williams never did it.) And what about the peak value? Did Evans ever have three seasons to match Rice’s 1977-79?
I will concede that Rice’s 1978 season was the best full season either player ever produced. But if I’m ranking the 38 combined seasons by the two guys from best to worst the second pick is Evans’ 1987 season (34 homers, 123 RBI, 109 runs, 106 walks and a .415 OBP). I’m willing to give you Rice in 1977 and then in 1979 as three and four, but after that I’ll take Evans in 1982 (122 runs, 112 walks. That is 234 combined runs-walks. Rice’s best combo in that department was 179) and Evans again in 1984 (led the league in runs and OPS). After that it gets pretty blurry, you’d probably wind up with an even spilt in the top 20 (in fact, both Evans and Rice both had 10 seasons with an OPS+ of 120 or better. Career OPS+? Rice 128, Evans 127) seasons between the two. So I’m not sure why I read that Rice was the most feared hitter in the baseball from 1975-1986. Maybe he was the most productive hitter on his own team until 1982, but just barely (and after that Wade Boggs was miles ahead of both Evans and Rice). And Rice wasn’t in the same universe as Mike Schmidt and George Brett. But you have to remember RBI ruled the thought process. Why did Rice knock in more runs than Evans?
He was a terrific hitter, which helped. But how about where he hit in the order? In his career Rice hit either third or fourth in the lineup a total of 1,559 times, Evans 363. Evans was also stuck hitting eighth or ninth 444 times, Rice just 12. Not exactly even ground. 1984 is a perfect example. If you just look at the number of RBI it would seem that Rice (122) had the more productive season (Evans had 104). But the opposite is actually true. Rice hit third or fourth in the lineup 159 times. Hitting in front of him were Boggs (159 games, .407 OPB, second in the league) and Evans (153 games batting second, .388 OBP, sixth in the league). True, Evans had Boggs hitting in front of him as well, but the hitter most often preceding Wade was Jackie Gutierrez (.284 OBP). Give Evans a pair of .400 OBP guys in front of him in 1984 and he knocks in 135 runs.
Oh, and what did I mean earlier by a full season?
Well, in 1981 Evans was the best player in the American League. He led the league in homers, walks, OPS, total bases and runs created. Finished third in MVP voting (Rollie Fingers and Rickey Henderson) and won his fourth straight Gold Glove. His OPS+ for the season, 162, is higher than Rice’s best. But I can’t give a 108-game strike-season full marks. And that hurt Evans, I think. He was on his way to a 30-100 season, maybe an MVP. 1981 was still early enough in his career to change the way he was perceived by the media. Didn’t happen.
Decade of dominance argument for Rice? Well, Evans led all American League players in home runs and extra-base hits during the 1980s. And only Rickey Henderson walked more.
Are you still in the Rice camp? Slight edge? Okay, did I mention defense? Evans has eight Gold Gloves. Rice, as I was told over and over by Ned and Monty, eventually learned how to play The Wall. Any list of the, what, 20 best OF arms in baseball history has to have Evans on there. Rice was always a DH doing an okay impression of a left fielder (credit baseball-fever.com for this fact – Rice played 34.4 percent of his games at DH). If Rice over Evans as an offensive player is Bush-Gore than Evans over Rice on defense is Reagan-Mondale. And this huge edge pretty much ends the debate.
Evans had lousy luck. Rice and Lynn took off before Evans could get going, and he spent the rest of his career trying to catch up. The media and the fans could never quite figure him out, and in fairness he was a tough case. No big career numbers (no on 400 homers, 2,500 hits or a .300 average). Great defensive OF, but who votes for those guys? And who knew what OPS was in 1984?
Again, a Hall of Fame with Jim Rice in it loses no luster. I’d guess at first glance that maybe 20-25 percent of the players in Cooperstown were not the equals of Jim Ed (take a look at Ray Schalk’s career numbers. A .316 slugging percentage?) Jim Rice looks the part, I get it. No heavy lifting. A quick glance at the career numbers and you feel safe voting him in. But if Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer than I want Dick Allen in (57th all-time in career OPS, Rice is 148th). And what about Ron Santo? Albert Belle was a better hitter than Jim Rice. Tim Raines. Dale Murphy. Tommy Henrich. And my two favorites, Charlie Keller and Ted Simmons. All those guys should’ve had their day before Jim Rice had his turn.
Maybe Dwight Evans will be in Cooperstown on Sunday to celebrate the induction of Jim Rice. Wonder if he knows that it should be the other way around?