Rock Or Rice?

December 14

The Best Man at my wedding ( I call him Ol’ BM ) provided some welcome relief from my football overdose Sunday evening, although the Giants-Eagles game was absolutely terrific.

Ol’ BM sent an email with an intriguing question. It came from a friend of his who is just beginning to gain a deeper appreciation of baseball, and I’m guessing he’s playing in a computer-simulated tournament. The question: would it be better to have Jim Rice or Tim Raines?

Well, I’m never one to back away from a trip down the rabbit-hole of baseball minutae when I should be doing something constructive. I took the bait. As David Spade said in “Tommy Boy,” ” I’ll just retire to the Nerdery now with my fellow Nerds.”

To start with, Jim Ed or Rock were both pretty damn good ballplayers. They bring two wholly different skill-sets to the table, part of the reason the question is so intriguing. They played in completely different ballparks and in different leagues, before there was interleague play ( except the last few years of Raines’ career ).

Rice was obviously a better power hitter while Raines had more speed, but right away I found a pretty interesting statistic: although Rice’s combined on-base and slugging percentage (OPS) was .854 and Raines’ was .810, Rice’s career OPS was .128 better than league average when you account for the ballpark, while Raines’ was .123. That’s hardly any difference at all.

While Rice played in cozy Fenway Park, Raines played most of his career in a much tougher hitters’ park; that monument to cost overruns, Olympic Stadium. In fact, Olympic was a much tougher park, period.

Cavernous Olympic had a playing surface that I’m pretty sure could withstand bullets fired at close range, not to mention chunks of concrete that might fall from the ceiling. Olympic managed to do the impossible: make people pine for Jarry Park, famous for its swimming pool behind the right field fence. Thank goodness nobody revived that stupid idea.

Jim Ed upheld a tradition of great LF’ers in Boston and for a decade was one of the most feared hitters in the American League, but he was not quite as fearsome away from Fenway. In fact, his batting average dropped from .320 to .277 on the road, his on-base percentage fell 44 points, and his slugging percentage plummeted 87 points.

He was merely an OK player without the Green Monster, something along the lines of a Hank Blalock. Despite his supposed fearsomeness, Rice never walked more than 62 times a season. He struck out more than twice as many times as he walked in his career.

Tim Raines was the “poor man’s Rickey,” a player of somewhat comparable skills to the great Rickey Henderson. Raines didn’t walk as often, didn’t hit as many home runs, and didn’t steal as many bases as Rickey, but he was the next best thing. Raines had the misfortune of playing in the same era.

Raines was a far better runner and a better fielder than Rice. He led the National League in outfield assists with 21 in 1983 and could play left or center field. Raines averaged 75 stolen bases in one six-season stretch and one year stole 90.

Rice was a big-time power hitter who hit .300 or better six times, although his abilities dropped precipitously after age 33. He was also a double-play machine. In one four-year stretch, he grounded into a ghastly 131 double plays. Raines grounded into 142 DP’s for his CAREER. Rice had more runners on base when he stepped to the plate, but that is still a staggering disparity.

Both players carry a legend with them, for better or worse.

Rice supposedly broke his bat on a check swing. That’s a testament to his incredibly strong hands. Some apologists say his strength is one reason he grounded into 315 double plays, sixth all-time, because he hit the ball so sharply. It’s also true he was no speed-burner.

As for Raines, you’ve gotta love a guy who can steal a base with a vial of blow in his hip pocket. I don’t think that counted as a performance-enhancer. ( By the way, the nickname “Rock” didn’t come from his cocaine use, he got the moniker in the minors because he was so solidly built. ) Raines fortunately shook that habit and played clean for most of his career but that stigma might have kept him out of the Hall of Fame so far.

Jim Rice is in the Hall, and although he was a premier power hitter for a decade you can still debate whether is worthy of enshrinement. Raines hopefully will be in someday. Guys who have 2600 hits, 1500 runs, a .294 career average and 800 stolen bases should be hard to keep out.

It’s a tough decision between two very good players, which is why it’s such a great debate, but I gotta go with the Rock. A slightly better all-around player whose game translated to all ballparks, not far below one of the all-time greats in Rickey Henderson, who was elected to the Hall on 98 percent of ballots.

Hope that helps, Ol’ BM’s friend.

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