Jim Rice and Those Damn Double Plays
I really don’t want to write this.
Back before he was elected to the Hall of Fame, I was one of the more vocal proponents of Jim Rice’s case for election. At one point, Rice himself linked to one of my articles on his now-defunct blog.
Over the years, I’ve had more online arguments about Rice’s place in the Hall of Fame than anything else, and it got pretty exhausting after a while. I finally just stopped engaging about him. After all, he’s been in the Hall since 2009. Rice and his supporters, myself included, won. We got the last laugh.
Still, there are moments when something just needs to be said. Last week, Joe Posnanski noted that Keibert Ruiz of the Nationals is currently on pace to set the record for grounding into the most double plays (GIDPs) in a single season. The current record of 36 has been held by Jim Rice for nearly 40 years. Posnanski noted that fact, and also noted that Rice nearly matched that total one year later (“in only 140 games!”).
Now, this is all true, and Posnanski wasn’t writing an in-depth piece about double plays. It was a throwaway blurb in his Friday wrap-up column. It’s not the forum for deep analytics.
That said, the lack of detail is pretty unfair to Jim Rice. For instance, it omits the facts that:
Ruiz’s double play rate of 27% is substantially higher than even the worst year of Rice’s career (20.5% in 1985).
If Ruiz keeps that rate and faces the same number of DP situations this year that Rice faced in his record year of 1984 (202 to be exact), he will ground into the astronomical total of 55 double plays.
Ruiz will do this while being on pace to hit 14 homers and drive in 55 runs instead of the 28 homers and 122 RBI Rice produced in 1984.
Rice never led the league in double play rate, or even came particularly close to leading.
The four years from 1982-1985 when Rice’s GIDP totals spiked are a complete aberration from the rest of his career. (1 GIDP per 20.1 plate appearances in 82-85, compared to 1 per 34.9 PAs the rest of his career.)
There is a pretty straightforward explanation for the four-year jump in Rice’s GIDP totals. A few obvious factors, mostly beyond his control, combined to create a perfect double play storm.
First, Rice was moved to the third spot in the batting order. For those four seasons, Rice batted in the 3-hole for nearly 87% of his plate appearances. For the rest of his career combined, Rice batted third in just 25% of his plate appearances. This matters because the third hitter in the lineup is the prime candidate to face a double play situation in the first inning if either or both of the two hitters in front of him reach base.
Second, the two batters in front of him in those seasons were generally Wade Boggs and Dwight Evans, two of the better hitters of the 1980s in terms of getting on base. Prior to 1982, Rice faced a double play situation once every 4.7 plate appearances, and after 1985, when he dropped down in the batting order, he faced one every 4.9 PAs. In between, during the four years he led the American League in double plays, Rice was suddenly facing a double play situation once every 3.6 PAs.
Third, the Red Sox rarely put Boggs or Evans in motion, making it far less likely that they’d be in a position to break up a double play. From 1982 to 1985, Boggs and Evans reached base a combined 2,130 times, and had just 36 steal attempts between them. Compare that to 1978, another season when Rice batted third in the lineup. That year, one of the players batting in front of him in most games was Jerry Remy, who had 43 steal attempts by himself that year. He was running quite a bit, which had the effect of both reducing Rice’s double play situations (159, compared to an average of 184 in the ‘82-‘85 window), and also improving Rice’s double play rate (a career low 9.4%) because Remy was either beating the throw to second, or was in a better position to interfere with the throw to first.
Finally, of course, Rice was aging and was likely easier to double up than in previous years. His 12.8% career DP rate through 1981 was almost certain to increase as he aged. It did, shooting up to 17.8% from ‘82 to ‘85. But if declining speed was the only factor, how do we explain the fact that Rice’s DP rate dropped back down to 16% when he was even older and slower in his final four seasons, 1986-89? We can’t, because Rice’s declining speed was just one factor of many, most of which were completely beyond his control.
Combine all of those factors - a hard-hitting, right-handed, three-hole batter with diminishing speed, hitting behind two of the most prolific on-base men in the league, playing for a team that rarely placed runners in motion - and you pretty much have a factory for double plays. None of this is problematic in the grand scheme of things, but they aren’t usually included when Rice’s GIFP totals are mentioned. A full picture isn’t painted.
Aside from Rice in particular, there are a couple of remaining unfair components where double plays are concerned. First, RBI are often downplayed in modern baseball analytics because they are dependent upon the skill of a player’s teammates in getting on base. That’s fair, but only if all other teammate-dependent statistics - like GIDPs - are equally downgraded. It’s neither fair nor accurate to blame a player for a bad teammate-dependent outcome while simultaneously withholding credit for a good teammate-dependent outcome. We have to be consistent.
The other unfair component involves the math of modern stats. When outs are allocated to hitters, a player who grounds into a double play is “credited” with two outs in a single plate appearance. That’s not only unfair, it’s also illogical. A player can’t be both the runner on first and the batter at the same time. It’s physically impossible for him to be out twice on the same play. He was out once, and the runner was out once. It may not be fair to assign that out to the runner, who was likely powerless to do much on the play, but it’s equally unfair to assign that out to the hitter, whose routine ground ball would have produced just one out if his teammate hadn’t reached base before him. Call it a team out on the base paths if you must, but attaching two outs to one player for a single play is, well, dumb.
As I said at the outset, Jim Rice’s plaque has been hanging in the Hall of Fame for 14 years now, so he likely doesn’t care how people view his double play totals. But, despite those years having passed, his name is still invoked from time to time when the subject comes up. That’s natural.
It would just be nice if the full story was told for a change.
Thanks for reading Lost in Left Field! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.