Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Not Dale Murphy?

Less than an hour ago I received the news I've sort of been hoping for now for 15 years. Jim Rice, who spent his entire career with the Boston Red Sox, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Congratulations, Mr. Rice. Now let's address a travesty, namely, how in the world is Jim Rice a Hall of Famer but Dale Murphy isn't?

Rice made it in his fifteenth and final year of eligibility. He has not appeared in a big league game since August 3, 1989. In that game, Rice played where he spent more than 1/3 of his career as a DESIGNATED HITTER, so washed up by then that a forgettable journeyman named Scott Kutcher - who played in all of 244 games in a forgettable five-year career - pinch-hit for him. Kutcher himself was out of baseball 13 months later. (If you want a calendar reference, Rice appeared in his last game THREE WEEKS before Pete Rose was banned for life from baseball for gambling). In the intervening period of 19 years, Rice has not had a single at bat, homered once, or stole a base. Yet he somehow managed to go from about half of the vote to just enough votes to get him into the prestigious shrine.

Again - not to knock Jim Rice, who will not be anywhere close to the worst player in Cooperstown (that title is held eternally by Joe Tinker), but how in the world does Rice get elected when Dale Murphy only gets 62 votes?

You had to see Dale Murphy to believe it. Brought up in the Braves organization as a catcher, Murphy was THE premiere outfielder in baseball for an eight-year stretch from 1980 to 1987. His sudden mental block at throwing runners out at second led Braves manager Bobby Cox to put him in center field because, he said later, "It was the farthest place from home plate on the diamond." It is that wisdom that has Cox ready for a plaque in Cooperstown after he leaves Atlanta.

How does Murphy compare to Rice? Let's take a look.

Rice's career numbers show he had 382 home runs, 1,451 RBIs, and a .298 batting average. He attained those Hall of Fame numbers by playing an unusually high number of games as a DH, playing his entire career in a field where a 300-foot fly ball to left was a home run (and Rice was a right-handed hitter), and his first six years had not one but TWO Hall of Famers hitting right behind him, Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk.

Murph, as he was known, hit 398 home runs, had 1,266 RBIs, and a .265 career average. So Rice hit about 30 points higher and had a little less than 200 more RBIs in nine more career games. But the argument isn't that simple.

For starters, let's compare how many Gold Gloves they won. Murphy - who never had a single at bat in his career as a DH - won FIVE of them. Rice, who as noted earlier spent more than 1/3 of his career as a DH, never even came close to winning one. What about Silver Slugger awards? Murphy won four while Rice won two. What about Most Valuable Player Awards? Murphy won two and Rice one. Rice got votes for MVP in eight different years while Murphy got votes in seven. And while we tend to think of Murphy as a tall, loping antelope towards fly balls, check this one out: Murphy stole 161 bases in his career while Rice stole only 58. That's nearly THREE TIMES as many steals by a guy who played every day. Murphy literally played every day, accumulating a streak of 740 consecutive games before he was benched by injury in 1986. (That's right - Murphy at that time had a longer streak than the guy who eventually broke the record, Cal Ripken).

And then let's consider how good the teams were that each man played for. Rice's Red Sox made the post-season four times during his career, including two unforgettable World Series (although Rice did not play in 1975 due to a broken wrist). Murphy's team made one three-game post-season appearance in 1982, and they got swept by the Cardinals. In Rice's first six seasons, the Red Sox finished first twice, second twice, and third once. By contrast, the Braves in Murphy's first six seasons finished last or next-to-last five out of six times (and finished fourth the other year, 1980). For a brief span (1982-1984), Murphy's teams outdid Rice's (the 1982 Braves finished first with the exact same record as the third-place Red Sox in a different division; the Braves finished 2nd in both 1983 and 1984). Then, from 1985-1989, Murphy's teams finished last every year but one (and that year they were next-to-last) while Rice was playing for two pennant winners.

Or why not look at the supporting cast around them. Rice had at least three Hall of Famers as teammates during his career (assuming Roger Clemens is admitted) while Murphy was often the only reason to go watch the Braves play. Not only did Rice get to hit in front of Yaz and Fisk, but he also hit in front of Fred Lynn, who won the 1979 batting title and led the AL in homers that same year. Most folks who are not Atlanta fans cannot even name the one slugger who hit behind Murphy, and who missed the equivalent of two full seasons across four because he kept getting injured. (For those who don't know, I'm referring to Bob Horner). The rest of Murphy's career was spent surrounded by such legends-in-waiting as Claudell Washington, Biff Pocoroba, and Paul Runge.

Let's put it another way: put Murphy as a DH on the Boston teams that Rice played for and put Rice on the Braves of the 1980s. Murphy, who was as good a clutch hitter as there was, would have about 450 career homers, and Rice wouldn't even be in the discussion. In fact, given his sulky reputation, Rice would probably have quit.

Back in the 1980s in the National League there were two guys you did not want to see coming up in a must-win situation. The first one was Mike Schmidt, who is in the Hall. The second was Dale Murphy.

Again - I wish no ill will towards Jim Rice. But there's something wrong when a guy who has many more Gold Gloves, twice as many MVPs, and no Hall of Fame teammates doesn't even get consideration.

Why did Rice get in? Simple. Rice played for the Boston Red Sox, one of the two 'must see' teams in modern media (the Yankees being the other one). This is the same bias that got the 1991 World Series that everyone generally agrees is the best of all-time a FIFTH place finish in 'Who's #1.' Who beat out that classic where five games were won in the home team's last at-bat? Notice the trend:

#4 NY Yankees vs. Arizona
#3 Cincinnati vs. Boston
#2 NY Yankees vs. Pittsburgh (1960)
#1 NY Mets vs. Boston

Note that all four games that beat out the Atlanta-Minnesota classic were played by teams in either New York, Boston, or both. And then you know why Rice is getting a plaque while Murphy is still smiling like he enjoys it.

ADDENDUM (January 15, 2009)

While doing further research on the stats, I need to correct a comment. Rice did NOT play with three Hall of Famers if Clemens gets in but with four. I forgot that Wade Boggs hit in front of Rice in the late 1980s.