Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 29, 2000
BASEBALL: Hall of Fame, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Kirby Puckett
My 12/29/00 Column on Dale Murphy and Jim Rice, along with Kirby Puckett. This originally ran on the BSG site. I've rethought the Rice comment - I think I'd put him on the outside now - and the part about being proud of what an upstanding guy Kirby was is now cringe-inducing. But here we go:
PUCKETT, MURPHY AND RICE
Kirby Puckett is probably headed in to the Hall on a wave of sentiment and his .318 lifetime batting average. Dale Murphy (23.25 % of vote) appears headed to join Roger Maris as the only back-to-back MVPs never to make it. LF/DH Jim Rice (51.50% of vote) is at a critical point: with bigger candidates headed to the ballot soon, he needs to sustain the momentum of having received votes from more than half the voters last time around. The fairest way to look at these three is to lump them together, as I did with the first basemen.
(Another running theme: all these guys played in the era of free agency, but look at how many on this year’s ballot spent their whole career, or at least all the good years, with one team).
1. THE NUMBERS
OPS= On Base + Slugging.
“Context” is a very big number for these three guys: what I did was to look at league runs scored/season and adjust by the park factor, as I will discuss more below.
Clearly, Murphy was the best of the three in his prime, getting on base more and scoring more runs in a lower-scoring environment, while running nearly even as an RBI man and a slugger. He was a better baserunner, created fewer outs, played a more important defensive position than Rice and played it well, winning five Gold Gloves. He won back-to-back MVP awards; Rice won the award once, and Puckett never won it. On the other hand, the sample of his prime years here runs only two-thirds the length of the other two’s, and that’s including his lousy 1981 and good-not-great 1986. Like Don Mattingly, Murphy stood on the mountaintop for only a brief moment.
Rice and Puckett were actually fairly comparable as hitters, with Puckett’s doubles and higher averages evening the score a bit with Rice’s home run power. Puckett was a far superior defensive player and baserunner.
2. PARK EFFECTS
Then we get to Rice and Murphy. Rice didn’t play in Coors Field, but in the late 70s, Fenway was the next best thing. In 1977, scoring was up 37 percent in Sox home games vs. Sox road games; for the 1975-86 period as a whole, it was up 14.8%.
Did Rice benefit? Here are his home/road splits, 1977-79, averaged out to a full season: .350 with 55 homers, 153 RBI and 130 runs scored at home ... .290 with 28 HR and 102 RBI on the road ... SLG/OBP .701/.406 at home, .498/.342 on the road ... 1.107 OPS at Fenway, .840 away.
How about Murphy? 1980-87 saw scoring increase 12.9% in Atlanta, almost as big an effect as the Fens. In 1982-84, his absolute peak, Murphy hit .318 with 39 HR and 112 RBI, 117 runs at the Launching Pad, .265 with 33 HR and 108 RBI, 109 Runs on the road (but more than twice as many steals in the more spacious NL road parks). .580 slugging at home, .482 on the road; I don’t have the walk totals but if the walk rate was the same that would put his OBP at .406 at home, .358 on the road and an OPS split of 986 at home, 840 on the road.
You have to remember, though: most players will hit a bit better at home, all other influences being equal. And, if a player is a 30% better hitter in a park that increases scoring by 15%, that’s a learned skill that translates into a competitive advantage, just like Kirby Puckett learning to catch fly balls in the Metrodome. That’s why I generally look at overall park effects rather than individual home/road splits as the better indicator of what a player’s contributions were worth.
3. MY VOTE
Yeah, the Sox of the 70s woulda coulda shoulda been a dynasty, but moan all you want; the fact remains that Jim Rice’s teams won a lot of baseball games, and he was a very big reason for that. For the twelve seasons of Rice’s peak, the Sox played .550 ball – 89 wins a year – winning 95 games in a season four times. So to lump him in with losers or guys who just put up big RBI numbers in bandboxes far removed from the pennant race would be terribly unfair.
I laid out the Rice case in more detail in August when I compared him to Tony Perez. I’m more certain that he belongs ahead of Perez in the Hall of Fame balloting than I am that Rice is an ideally qualified candidate – Perez was an easy comparison because he was also useless on the bases and in the field – but anybody who saw Rice in his prime thought of him as a great player, and he stayed near the top of his game for more than a decade, driving in runs like it was his job. It was, and he did it as well as anyone. Rice should go IN.
Dale Murphy was a great player. Of that there can be no doubt; for a brief moment of about 3 years, he was at least arguably as good as anyone in the game (personally I would have taken Ripken or Yount and maybe some others ahead of him, but it was a fair claim). When Bill James devised his questionnaire for Hall of Fame candidates, he described players like Murphy, Schmidt, Mays and Mantle as the type of players who would yield “yes” answers all over the place. Two years in a row the voters named him the league’s best.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Murphy was never quite as dominant as those credentials, never the kind of overpowering force that Ralph Kiner was, nor head and shoulders over the contemporaries at his position like Frank Baker. The MVP races were neck and neck every year in the NL between 1979 and 1988; at no time was Murphy ahead of the pack by any serious margin, and it was a big pack, including Hernandez, Carter, Schmidt, Sandberg, Raines, Guerrero, and Dawson for most of those years. You can make a case for any one of those guys winning it more than once, and if Murphy had switched parks with any one of those guys except Sandberg, they would have finished ahead of him in the MVP voting every year. I never doubted that he was a Gold Glover, but his defensive statistics also don’t suggest a really superior glove man rather than just a good one. His teams were awful more often than they succeeded, and never won a postseason game.
Murphy needs all the greatness he can get, because outside of his six great years and one good year, he’s really got nothing to sell; I don’t hold his crummy years too much against him (although the Braves were certainly harmed by his failure to do anything productive when they quite reasonably counted on him in 1981, 1988, and 1989), but if you discount them he’s a guy with a very short career. Unlike a lot of the (deserving) Hall of Famers with short careers, he wasn’t a pitcher or catcher, never managed, and didn’t have his productive years unfairly cut short by war or the color line. Maybe he really was as good as Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler and Earl Averill, but that’s an argument against them, not for him. There’s just not enough there. Murphy’s OUT.
I have a tough time with Puckett, because he really doesn’t rise measurably above the Keith Hernandez line – he was never really a dominating player and he only had ten really good years, not quite enough to qualify as truly sustained excellence in the place of concentrated greatness. Unlike Dave Parker, Puckett’s career was cut short through no fault of his own, but it was cut short nonetheless.
Puckett was a legitimately major star, though, for ten seasons, always in the lineup (except for the strike-shortened seasons his career low in at bats was 551), driving in runs like clockwork, and getting on base. In the other two (before his power surge made him a factor on offense) he posted otherworldly defensive stats, including the third-highest range factor of all time. In fact, his career range factors are comparable to most of history’s greatest centerfielders. Granted, outfield range factors can be influenced by parks, pitching staffs (the Twins had lots of extreme fly ball pitchers, like Viola, Morris, Blyleven, Mike Smithson and Ron Davis) and most clearly by the era one plays in, but nonetheless the fact that his numbers are so good suggests that criticisms of his six Gold Glove awards has been overblown. At least until his last few seasons, Puckett was a very good centerfielder.
Obviously a major factor favoring Puckett over Rice and Murphy, particularly in the minds of the BBWAA, is his success in the postseason. Murphy was in the postseason only once, and despite being the NL MVP that year he was a complete non-factor as his team was swept 3 straight despite being favored by some observers at the time. Rice, of course, went the way of all Red Sox and did so without contributing anything near his usual output. He was injured for one of his teams’ two World Series runs. By contrast, who can forget Puckett’s heroics in 1987 and 1991, helping lead his team to upset championships?
If you’re acquiring a player for next season, you may not count his World Series stats for much – 28 at bats don’t equal a season. But in looking back to award honors, well, the Series is what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s why Catfish Hunter – who would never have won twenty for Tom Seaver’s teams – is in there. I particularly credit Puckett for winning titles not once but twice without really stellar supporting casts. Talk all you want about Tony Perez’ leadership of teams chock full of supertars, or about the grit of Don Mattingly or upstanding character of Dale Murphy on teams that never won, but with Puckett we have evidence: his team won when it wasn’t expected to, and then four years later it did it again. That matters.
Puckett has all the sympathy factors you could imagine pulling for him, which is why his election won’t be close. He rose up from a hard-knocks background. His enthusiasm for the game was unmatched. He overcame a physique that reminded nobody of a professional athlete. Before sudden power explosions became common, he mashed his way to 31 homers after seasons of 0 and 4, a feat so improbable that Bob Costas was forced to stick to a late-May promise to name one of his children after him. He won the World Series twice, with teams nobody expected to win, and was a hero in the postseason. He stayed out of trouble, and almost never missed a game. They loved him in Minnesota; his whole career there was like Fred Lynn’s 1975. He helped draw 3 million fans a year to a franchise that people say, just ten years later, can’t draw enough to survive. His career ended suddenly, after a season where he drove in 99 runs and hit .314; Bill James was projecting him at the time as having a 27% chance at 3000 hits; when he said goodbye to his playing days, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Kirby Puckett was and is about all the things that made us love baseball in the first place– not just the happy things like grown men playing a child’s game with a child’s joy and millionaires taking time out for autographs and smiles for the kiddies, but the hard things like gritting your teeth through the long season, putting in the extra BP and the adjustments to stay constant from year to year, and shutting out the world long enough to hit a game-winning home run in the World Series. He did enough of those things to plant two championship flags in the rafters of the Metrodome, flags which seem less likely today to be revisited than the one Neil Armstrong put on the moon.
At the end of the day, the writers all want to take their children to Cooperstown and say, “that’s Kirby Puckett, and he is one of baseball’s all-time greats.” After running the numbers and finding him, at the least, very close to the line, I have to confess: so do I. I’d vote him IN.