Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Parker vs Rice Redux

When people argue for a player's Hall of Fame candidacy, a common tactic they use is to compare said player to lesser players already enshrined in Cooperstown. For example, if Bill Mazeroski and Joe Gordon are in, then Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker should be no-brainers. If Ron Santo is in, then really Dick Allen should be, too. Gotta put Jeff Bagwell and Fred McGriff in if you're going to have a Hall of Fame with Jim Bottomley and Ray Schalk, right?

Since making it into the Hall of Fame by the skin of his teeth in 2009--his last chance on the writer's ballot--Jim Rice has frequently been used in such arguments. It's no secret that he's generally thought of as one of the weaker players to be inducted in recent memory. JAWS rates Rice as the 27th best left fielder of all-time and below 14 of the 18 that have attained Hall of Fame status. He falls short of decidedly non-HOFers like Jose Cruz, Roy White and Luis Gonzalez, who was just booted off the ballot after tallying a mere five votes in his debut.

For a long time, Rice was a borderline candidate who typically polled in the 50-60 percent range. But once the issues of the steroid era came to light in the mid-2000s, people suddenly had more appreciation for what Rice had done as a natural slugger during the offensively depressed 1970s and 80s. Writers who stuck it to Rice for being such a jerk to the media during his playing days eventually came around, and that was just enough to sneak him into the Hall.

So where am I going with this? Well, now that Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame, shouldn't Dave Parker? Look how close their numbers are:

Rice: 1,249 R, 79 3B, 382 HR, 1,451 RBI, 670 BB .298/.352/.502, 128 OPS+, 47.2 bWAR
Parker 1,272 R, 75 3B, 339 HR, 1,493 RBI, 683 BB .290/.339/.471, 121 OPS+, 40 bWAR

You'd be hard-pressed to find two players with careers that overlapped so perfectly. Parker broke in one year before Rice did but they both became stars in 1975, when they finished third in their leagues' respective MVP voting (Rice also finished second in the Rookie of the Year to teammate/fellow outfielder Fred Lynn, who took home MVP honors). They fell off a bit in 1976 but were both very good, then embarked upon a three-year stretch of dominance as they came into their primes.

Both were arguably the best players in baseball in the last three years of the 1970s, followed by substantial drop-offs in the early 80s. They bounced back to produce several more good years in the mid-80s, but by the end of the decade they were old and washed-up. Rice retired in 1989, Parker two years later. Neither one was able to match the brilliance of the men they replaced: Yaz in Boston and Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh.

The similarities don't end there. They each led the league in games played once, hits once, slugging percentage twice, OPS once. Both were named MVP in 1978 and finished near the top on several other occasions (four other top-five finishes for Parker, five for Rice). Parker racked up 3.19 MVP shares, just a hair more than Rice's 3.15.   Rice made eight All-Star teams, Parker made seven. Parker won three Silver Sluggers, Rice received two. It's no wonder Parker rates as the tenth most similar player to Rice on Baseball-Reference.

One key difference is that Parker actually played a bit more than Rice, appearing in nearly 400 more games (about two and a half seasons worth) and logged an additional 1,100 plate appearances. Parker played past his 40th birthday, whereas Rice had his last good season at 33 and retired at 36. Parker's longevity helped him accumulate 2,712 hits, of which 940 went for extra bases. But seeing as how Parker was worth -0.4 bWAR over his last six seasons, he could certainly be accused of hanging on too long a la Craig Biggio.

One point in Parker's favor is that he won two World Series rings, which is two more than Rice ever won. And while Parker's postseason resume is pretty poor (.647 OPS in October), he did bat .345 in the 1979 Fall Classic to help Pittsburgh prevail over the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. In his early years, Parker could run a bit (154 career steals) and earned a good defensive reputation, winning three straight Gold Gloves from 1977-'79 while flashing a powerful arm. Rice learned to play the Green Monster over time, but never mastered it like his predecessor Carl Yastrzemski. He was never a threat on the basepaths either. Rice was the better hitter, but Parker was the more complete player. He was baseball's fourth-most valuable player from 1975-1979, behind only Mike Schmidt, George Brett and George Foster.

So why is one in the Hall of Fame while the other never even got 25 percent of the vote? Rice made enemies in the press, but so did Ted Williams. Writers never gave Mickey Mantle much love in the first half of his career. Time heals most wounds, and Rice's talent was undeniable. Parker's problem was that a combination of injuries, weight problems, and cocaine use sabotaged his career in the first half of the 1980s, when his performance drastically declined (.281/.319/.431 from 1980-84). He got a reputation for not caring about the game, and for squandering his immense potential.

Nothing in life is sadder than wasted potential. The feeling is that Parker needed a few more good years to solidify his case, but that his off-field issues prevented him from doing so. Parker was very much a black mark on the game, and the writers shunned him for it.

My other thought is that Rice has more impressive power numbers, which always catch the eye and confirm the belief that he was one of the strongest and most feared hitters of his era. He also spent his entire career with one team, whereas Parker bounced around during the second half of his career. Rice had continuity in the nation's most baseball-crazed city. Parker played in depressed smaller markets known as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Rice also hit traditional benchmarks more often. He reached 100 RBI eight times, 20 homers 11 times and 200 hits four times. He also batted better than .300 seven times and was a .300 career hitter up until his final season. Parker had just four 100 RBI campaigns, one 200-hit season and topped out at 34 home runs, when Rice reached 39 on four separate occasions. Parker did win two batting titles, but batted just .264 over his last six years and ended up with a lower career average than Rice.

I'm not saying I think Parker should be in the Hall of Fame. Despite what he says, he shouldn't be. JAWS puts Parker 36th among rightfielders, behind the likes of Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Brian Giles, Tony Oliva, and Rocky Colavito. He falls short in the position's established standards for peak and career value. He was just up for election on last fall's Expansion Era ballot and failed to get in, and there aren't many people championing his case.

But now that Rice (and Andre Dawson) is in, it's very hard to justify Parker's absence. Rice is a more qualified candidate for the Hall of Fame, but only slightly. Rice's Hall of Fame score is 43 (the average Hall of Famer's is 50), and Parker's is 42. More than any other statistic, that one shows just how close they really were.

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