Friday, March 16, 2012

Best Offensive Baseball Season of the 1970s

This was an extremely close call because of Joe Morgan's huge 1976 season.  I probably should have just flipped a coin, because they both have their merits.  Sabermetric fans will probably prefer Morgan's season because of his superior OBP, OPS and OPS+, but in the end he just didn't have the counting numbers to compete.

1978 Jim Rice (7.0 bWAR)

'78 marked the middle of Jim Rice's three year peak (he led the league in total bases each season) at the end of the decade, a time when he was unquestionably the best righthanded hitter in baseball as well as the most intimidating slugger in the game.  He'd come up as one of the hyped Gold Dust Twins along with Fred Lynn in 1974, and the following season they finished 1-2 in the Rookie of the Year balloting while leading Boston back to its first World Series since the Impossible Dream team.  Unfortunately, Rice injured his wrist when he was hit by a pitch during the last week of the regular season and missed the playoffs entirely.  Since five of the games against the Big Red Machine during the Fall Classic were decided by just one run, it's fair to say that a player of Rice's caliber probably could have swung the outcome in at least one of them with a timely hit (or home run) and therefore could have ended Boston's World Series drought three decades sooner.  But alas, we will never know how a healthy Rice could have impacted the series.

Fast forward three years, and Rice had established himself as an elite slugger and MVP candidate.  Coming off a monster season the year before, he celebrated his 25th birthday before the season began and was just coming into his prime.  He burst out of the gate and never looked back, helping carry the offensive load for the potent Red Sox lineup hampered by down seasons from Butch Hobson, George Scott and Carl Yastrzemski.  They needed every  little bit that Rice could give them, and he didn't disappoint.  Like Jacoby Ellsbury last year, he did all he could to salvage his team's September collapse but in the end it just wasn't enough; the star-crossed Sox won 99 games but fell to their archrivals during the 163rd game of the season, during which Rice contributed an RBI single.  Although the Bombers got the best of Boston in the standings, the Red Sox slugger edged Yankee ace Ron Guidry (25-3, 8.5 bWAR and a tidy 1.74 ERA) in the American League Most Valuable Player race.  When it was all said and done, Rice ranked first among all major league hitters with 213 hits, 15 triples, 46 longballs, 139 ribbies, a gaudy .600 slugging percentage, and 406 total bases.  His .970 OPS and 157 OPS+ were also tops in the Junior Circuit.

Rice made the cover of Sporting News,
back when that actually meant something
Rice is lucky the voters selected him over Guidry for the MVP award, because I'm not so sure he'd be in the Hall of Fame without it.  Granted, he did finish in the top five on five other occassions, but I feel like he needed the hardware to validate his dominance.  Because he didn't quite have the longevity to hit major milestones (he fell short of 400 homers, 1,500 RBI and a .300 average), the main argument of his case was that for a brief while, he was probably the best hitter in baseball.  That claim would have been tough to back up without an MVP award to reflect his greatness.  Even so, I think he did enough otherwise to merit his enshrinement in Cooperstown;  for a dozen seasons from '75 to '86 he batted .304/.356/.520 and averaged 29 home runs and 106 RBI per season.  Those are some damn good numbers, especially given their context.

Here are some more stats from his masterpiece

-Jim Ed played in all 163 games that season, an achievement that allowed him to compile some truly extraordinary counting numbers.  For example, he topped the majors in plate appearances, with 746, and at-bats, with 677.
-Whiffed a career high 126 times
-Few took advantage of Fenway's friendly confines better than Rice, who slugged 28 home runs and triple slashed .361/.416/.690 there, good for a 1.105 OPS. 
-His 406 total bases were the most by an American Leaguer since Joe DiMaggio accumulated 418 all the way back in 1937.  No American Leaguer has eclipsed 400 total bases since (Albert Belle missed by a measly single in 1998), but Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Luis Gonzalez, Larry Walker, and Todd Helton have all done it in the Senior Circuit.
-Belted 23 homers in each half of the season, but don't let that fool you.  He was a streaky hitter who did the majority of his damage in May and August, and managed to clear the fences just once in July!
-Interestingly enough, he had 13 triples at the All-Star break, but recorded only two afterwards.  While we're talking three-baggers, he recorded 15 the year before, too.  Those are a lot of triples for a slugger, considering Alex Rodriguez (fast enough to steal 46 bases one time) has just 29 for his career, and Albert Pujols has only 15.
-Was a veritable bargain with a $125,000 salary (equivalent to 434 grand and some change in 2012) according to the Bill James Historical Abstract.  The following year, he made more than four times as much
-He was no Yaz in left, but '78 ranks as one of his best seasons with the leather.  He was worth one dWAR and played all three outfield positions.  He also spent 49 games as the Designated Hitter, which undoubtedly kept him fresh enough to play every game

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