Who was better? Brian Downing vs. Jim Rice

Jim Rice had his last good season at age 33, and retired three years later. Though he initially was not a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame, a legion of fans and writers have retroactively elevated him past Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Murray and Dave Parker into the most feared hitter of his generation.
Brian Downing, if he’s remembered at all among fans of teams other than the Angels, is remembered for his funny stance, and maybe for being thrown out at the plate by Dave Parker in the 1979 All-Star game. In 1998, his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Downing received just two votes.

I’m not here to argue that Downing should be in the Hall. He was, however, my favorite player. He was the best player in the history of my favorite team, at least until Tim Salmon came along. I used his open stance with great success in softball (though I didn’t have the bat speed to make it work in baseball.) In addition, I named my cat after him.
I’m no fan of the Red Sox, but I have nothing personal against Rice. I just feel that there are many better players worthy of Cooperstown’s honor ahead of him. One example is his teammate Dwight Evans. If Rice had long ago fallen off the ballot and Evans was entering his final year of eligibility, I would fully support the induction of a Red Sock.
A more relevant example is Tim Raines, a far superior player who has received little support in the voting so far.

In the 1987 Baseball Abstract, Bill James wrote “can’t understand how anybody could watch the playoffs and still think Jim Rice was a better player than Brian Downing,” though James himself ranked Rice third and Downing fifth among American League left fielders. Despite my biases, I will try to answer the question of who was better as objectively as I can.

Let’s start with hitting:

For this measure, I’m using Base Runs to generate custom linear weight values for each team. The weights are applied to singles, doubles, walks, homers and the rest of a player’s stat line. The totals for a team will exactly match that team’s runs scored total. I normally remove pitcher hitting before generating the team data, but since both players played in the DH-era American League, this is not an issue. I also back out baserunning runs above average, which can range from +30 to –30 runs per team, so they are not double counted. I will consider individual baserunning later. Batting runs above and below average are adjusted for ballpark.

The results, over their careers, are Downing +288 and Rice +279. Although Rice is well ahead for his best years, 1977 to 1979, Downing was more consistent and lasted longer. These numbers are slightly different than the batting runs shown on baseball-reference.com, which has Rice at +294 and Downing +284, but they are close.

Base running:

Neither player was known for his speed, although they weren’t especially slow either. Although both players are in their 50s today, they could still probably outrun Bengie Molina. My baserunning numbers look at stolen bases, going from first to third, second to home, advancing on ground and flyballs, and avoiding outs on the bases. I won’t go too deep into the methodology; to complete that would be to write a chapter in a book. As to the results, Downing is +4 runs, Rice +2. Over such long careers, these are essentially average figures.

In addition, player speed can help or hurt when it comes to the groundball double play. Rice was notorious for his, hitting into 315 for his career, including 36 in the 1984 season. Downing hit into 197. Rice, however, batted behind Wade Boggs in his highest DP seasons, so it’s safe to assume he had more opportunities to hit into DPs than most players. Downing, on the other hand, hit leadoff quite a bit, batting without anyone on base.

With the help of Retrosheet we can look at double plays per DP opportunity. I define a DP opportunity as a groundball hit, fielded by an infielder, with less than two out and a runner on first. Compared to an average player given his opportunities, Rice’s double plays cost his team 46 runs. Downing was below average here as well, a total of 15 runs.

Defense:

For defensive range, I’m using TotalZone, which was used to look at history’s greatest fielders in the 2009 Hardball Times Annual, and also featured in previous articles on this site. TotalZone uses what play-by-play data are available to measure defensive runs above average, and is park adjusted, an important feature since Rice played in front of the most unique outfield challenge in the game. As outfielders, neither player was especially great or terrible, but Rice comes out ahead with a +9 career rating compared to a –18 for Downing.

In outfield throwing (consider this the same as my baserunning ratings mentioned above, but from a different point of view) Rice leads Downing as well, +13 to +2.

Downing, however, also caught for the beginning of his career. I evaluate catchers on stolen base prevention, preventing wild pitches and passed balls, errors and runners picked off. Downing for his career was an average defender at catcher. He was very good early in his career, before he learned to hit, throwing out 66 runners against 89 steals in 1975. The same year he broke out as a hitter, 1979, his defense declined. He later got hurt and moved to the outfield.

Runs vs. Average

So far, here are the results:

Stat Jim Ed Brian Jay
Batting 279 288
BSR 2 4
GIDP -46 -15
Range 9 -18
Arm 13 2
Catcher n/a 0
Total 257 261

Very close, but we aren’t done yet. There’s still position difference and runs vs. replacement.

I consider a replacement level player to be about 20 runs below average per season. To convert runs over average to runs over replacement, Downing gets another 302 runs, and Rice, with a slightly shorter career, gets 292. In this case, the career lengths are close to equal, so the difference is not great if you compare them by runs above average instead of runs above replacement.

For position adjustment, I use –7.5 runs per year for a left fielder and –15 runs for a designated hitter. Downing played most of his career at these two spots, while Rice played those two spots almost exclusively. Downing also caught 675 games, and I give catchers a +10 per season adjustment, as it is a premium defensive position. Prorating these adjustments by each player’s games/innings played, Downing receives a –75 run positional adjustment while Rice gets a –130.

Downing’s total is now 488 runs, giving him a comfortable edge on Rice, at 419. Converting these to wins, based on the runs per win value for each season, Downing’s career was worth 49.7 wins and Rices’s 43.2

In the clutch:

Let’s not stop here though. Let’s look at each player’s situational performance. Two standard places to look for this are batting with runners in scoring position and batting in late innings of close games. On baseball-reference.com’s player splits, I found a split showing batting performance by high, low and medium leverage. High leverage tells you what a player did when the game, relatively speaking, was on the line. It seems that this is a good combination the two “clutch” stats, in that batting with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of a tie game will show as a high leverage situation.

In high leverage situations, Downing hit .266/.365/.434, which is slightly better than his overall numbers. Rice hit .301/.353/.479 in such situations, which is slightly worse than his overall numbers. Rice was below his career averages in the late innings of close games and when hitting with two out and runners in scoring position.

For what it’s worth, Downing deserves a slight edge for situational hitting. He was essentially the same hitter in these situations, while Rice was a bit worse than usual.

Playoffs:

In the playoffs, Downing played 16 games and hit a disappointing .197 with sub-.300 on-base and slugging percentages. His greatest moment came in Game 4 of the 1986 ALCS. In the ninth inning, the Angels had battled back from a 3-0 deficit against Roger Clemens. Downing came up with two out and the bases loaded against Calvin Schiraldi, Angels still down by a run. He got the run home by taking one for the team, an RBI hit-by-pitch. The Angels went on to win in extra innings.

He had his share of terrible playoff moments as well. The next day his failure to show a 20-foot vertical jump allowed Dave Henderson to homer and Downing made the last out of that game with a popup to first. Four years earlier, his groundout to third was the second out of the ninth inning in the last game against Milwaukee.

Rice had a better time in the playoffs, but not by much. He hit .225/.313/.366 in 18 games of three playoff series. In that fateful Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, Rice struck out in the ninth inning for the first out. Had he reached, he might have scored and kept the Angels from taking the fight into extra innings. In the 10th inning, Rice came up with runners on first and third, one out, and hit into a double play. At the time, I was not fearing Jim Rice; I was glad he was helping give the Angels a chance to avoid the collapse.

Rice did hit .333 in the 1986 World Series. He scored the only run of Game 1, and was an important part of the 4-2 Red Sox win in Game 5, with two hits and a walk. In Game 6, however, Rice went 0 for 5. In the 10th inning he left two runners on base, and the 5-3 lead the Red Sox held at the time would prove not to be enough.

Another situation was not technically a playoff game, but might as well have been. That is the Bucky Dent game 163 from 1978. After the Yankees took a 5-2 lead, the Red Sox mounted a mini-rally against Goose Gossage in the eighth. Jerry Remy doubled leading off, followed by a Rice flyout. The next three batters singled, scoring two runs, but that’s all the Red Sox got. In the ninth inning, Rice again flied out against Gossage with the tying run in scoring position. Had Rice come through in either situation, he could have been the one to make the Cooperstown cut last year, instead of Gossage, who would have his legend dimmed by failures in both 1978 and 1980.

I’m sure both players would like a do-over of their playoff careers, but Rice gets an edge over Downing here.

Peak value:

While Downing has an edge in career value, Rice does have an edge in peak value. His seasons from 1977 to 1979 are clearly better than Downing’s peak. Rice was worth 17.5 wins for those three years. Downing’s best three consecutive years are 1986 to 1988 (11.4 wins). Downing is hurt by the consecutive-season requirement, as his best years, 1982 and 1979, were surrounded by injury-plagued lost years. Even if we drop that and look at Downing’s best three, whenever they occurred, his 1979, 1982 and 1986 seasons combine for 15.5 wins, still short of Rice. Looking at best five consecutive years, Rice leads 22.2 to 17.5, and by best seven seasons Rice leads 29.8 (1977 to 1983) to 24.1 (1982 to 1988).

Is Rice’s peak great enough to overcome a somewhat short career and career value that does not rise above the level of Hall of the Very Good? Looking back at his 17.5 and 22.2 three- and five-year win values, here’s how they compare to a few other players:

  • Dwight Evans, 16.2 and 22.3. His peak was close to Rice’s, and he has much more career value, more than 60 wins above replacement. With Dewey passing the 400-homer level (Rice did not) and winning eight Gold Gloves (to Rice’s zero) I find it sad and surprising that Evans was so quickly rejected.

  • Albert Belle, 18.0 and 27.2. Joey was a much better hitter than Rice at his peak, even accounting for the greater offense of the mid-1990s. He also had a shorter career. He is not a player I would support for Hall of Fame.

  • Albert Pujols, 26.6 and 43.7. This is what a truly unique and great peak looks like. If Pujols gets hurt and plays only 10 seasons, his peak is so great that he’d earn that “Koufax bonus” and go in anyway. Rice was never close to the greatness of Pujols.

Conclusion:

So to answer the question of which player was better, it really depends on whether you put more emphasis on peak or career value. I will choose the career value in this case, but I’m a bit biased and your opinion may differ. Looking at Dan Rosenheck’s pennants added, which is one way to balance the career vs. peak argument, it’s once again too close to call. Downing is ever so slightly ahead at 0.57 to Rice’s 0.56. If you prefer Rice to Downing, that is fine, but the numbers show that comparing Rice to Downing, as I’ve done, or Roy White, as Bill James has done, makes a lot more sense than comparing him to Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Tim Raines or Dwight Evans.

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