Grumpy Old Men revisited

During my various tirades since the Hall of Fame vote (tirades … moi?) a number of folks took issue with my Albert Belle/Jim Rice comparison. The No. 1 complaint was that their respective eras were so different that I was short-changing Rice.

OPS+ tells us how far above his peer group a given player is, but it does have some shortfalls. The biggest among them is that the “peer group” differs from era to era. Put another way, an OPS+ of 150 is more impressive than an OPS+ of 170 if the man at 150 led the league while the hitter at 170 finished fourth in his circuit.

We’ll do this with a few measures to see if Rice was more impressive than Belle. We’ll use their 10 best seasons for the comparison because, first, a 10-year career is the minimum to be on the Hall of Fame ballot (yes, there have been exceptions), and second, these are the seasons that make or break a potential Hall of Famer. We’ll use Rice’s career from 1977-86 and Belle’s 1991-2000 seasons.

Albert Belle                                            Finished in the top 10 
Year  BA    OBP   SLG  OPS+ Runs HR RBI  BR   RCAA BA OBP SLG OPS+ Runs HR RBI BR RCAA
1991 .282  .323  .540  134   60  28   95 18.9  13          5             9
1992 .260  .320  .477  122   81  34  112 15.1   6                        4  4
1993 .290  .370  .552  145   93  38  129 39    42          7   8         4  1   9  T10
1994 .357  .438  .714  193   90  36  101 58.5  73   2  3   2   2     5   3  3   2    2
1995 .317  .401  .690  177  121  50  126 62.1  71   8      1   3     1   1  1   3    3
1996 .311  .410  .623  158  124  48  148 55.8  61          7   6     6   4  1   6    7
1997 .274  .332  .491  116   90  30  116 14.3   4                           8    
1998 .328  .399  .655  171  113  49  152 66.1  72   3  7   1   1     7   2  2   1    1
1999 .297  .400  .541 142   108  37  117 42.1  45             10        10 10  10
2000 .281  .342  .474  109   71  23  103 18.4   1
Jim Rice                                                 Finished in the top 10
Year  BA    OBP   SLG  OPS+ Runs HR RBI  BR   RCAA BA OBP SLG OPS+ Runs HR RBI BR RCAA  
1977 .320  .376  .593  147  104  39 114 40.8   41   6  9   1   6     4   4  3   3    6                                                                            
1978 .315  .370  .600  157  121  46 139 48.4   62   3      1   1     2   1  1   1    1                                                                               
1979 .325  .381  .596  154  117  39 130 46.1   54   4      2   4     3   1  2   3    3                                                                         
1980 .294  .336  .504  122   81  24  86 12.8   15          7             2                                                                        
1981 .284  .333  .441  116   51  17  62  8.7    7                	9 10                                                        
1982 .309  .375  .494  130   86  24  97 23.9   17   7                    7                                                                              
1983 .305  .361  .550  141   90  39 126 33.9   30          2   6         1  1   6                                                                               
1984 .280  .323  .467  112   98  28 122  8.0  -11                           2                                                
1985 .291  .349  .487  123   85  27 103 16.9    7                    9      9                                                                                                                                     
1986 .324  .384  .490  136   98  20 110 32.9   39   5 10  10   6    10   4  5        4                                                                                  

Now let’s see how many times they were among the top 10, five and three and led the league:

Top     10  5  3  1
Rice    47 30 21 10
Belle   41 29 24 10

I have to admit, they’re a lot closer than I thought. Belle enjoys a clear edge in career batting runs (372.5 to 294.7) and RCAA (379 to 270). But I can’t get past the fact that Rice has more black ink over the course of his career and the same in our 10-year sample.

In addition, Belle’s having never gone through a decline phase means that his batting runs and RCAA never were subject to erosion. Had Belle been healthy, perhaps his decline phase would have comparatively brief (a la Edgar Martinez) but there’s no way to know that. All we have is what we have (no, I haven’t turned into Yogi Berra).

The only edge Belle really has is in his top three finishes (over our 10-year space). Numbers like batting runs, OPS+ and RCAA don’t account for the quality of the league in a given year. This is where black ink comes in handy. If you lead the league, then you’re the best in the league. Belle has the more impressive numbers, but Rice’s numbers were among the top 10 more often.

The problem with black ink however is that Rice’s home park helped him more than Belle’s park did. What are we left with?

Belle created more runs above average than Rice. His adjusted numbers are superior, too. However, a lot of that can be explained by the fact that Belle’s era was far more conducive to offense and his lack of a decline phase. Yes, Rice had the better hitting environment at home, but Belle enjoyed a pretty good hitting environment across the entire league(s).

When I wrote the initial article, I felt that Belle had the better career. I based that not just on the numbers, but also from witnessing the entire careers of both men. After going over the numbers with a fine-tooth comb, I’m having a hard time justifying my earlier point of view. Both were major Jay-killers (Belle .309/.381/.593; 29 HR over 460 AB, Rice .292/.346/.533; 34 HR over 561 AB) so it can’t be the result of one of them pummeling the Blue Jays.

You tend to remember the players of your younger years as better than what we watch today. However, I felt certain that I was watching a much better hitter than Rice. My only guess is that, due to how the game was covered in the 1970s/80s as opposed to the 1990s and 2000s, I saw more of Belle. I saw Rice only when he was playing Toronto; with cable and satellite, I could watch Belle even when he wasn’t playing the Jays.

I saw Rice’s ugly decline phase. Belle really didn’t have a chance to experience one. My most recent memories of Rice were of the death throes of his career, whereas Belle hit 20+ HR with 100 RBI (the numbers flashed most often on the TV) in his final year.

All things considered, I’m going to recant on the “Belle better than Rice” article of Jan. 18 and bow to the readers who caused me to take a much closer look at the issue. I’m not going to say that Rice was obviously superior, but I will concede that he was somewhat better.

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