One Birthday, Two Paths: Comparing Jim Rice and Dick Allen

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If you pick any date on the calendar at the random, chances are there are several well known major leaguers that were born on that date. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll find out there is a Cooperstown resident that shares a birthday with you (I personally share a birthday with three Hall residents: Ned Hanlon, Paul Molitor, and Carl Yastrzemski).

The date of March 8 is no exception. Baseball fans will recognize the names of Jim Bouton, Juan Encarnacion, Ryan Freel, Carl Furillo, Al Gionfriddo, and Lance McCullers Sr. and Tommy Pham on this list of current and former big leaguers born on the eighth day of the third month.

There are two more names on this list that deserve special attention, however. One is a resident of Cooperstown who collected nearly 2,500 hits, drove in over 1,400 runs, and was one of the most fearsome bats in the American League for 15 seasons. The other spent the majority of his career in the Senior Circuit and outpaced the aforementioned Cooperstown resident in several offensive categories despite playing in 340 fewer career contests.

The two players I’m talking about are 2009 Hall of Fame inductee Jim Rice (who turned 65) and Dick Allen (now 76). This connection seems like a great opportunity to look at how similar the two players really were. To start, let’s do a quick comparison with the aid of Baseball-Reference’s Player Comparison tool:

Rice bests Allen in many of the so-called counting categories such as hits, RBIs, runs scored, and home runs. This partially stems from the fact that Rice played 340 more games than Allen in his 16-year career. That’s over two full seasons worth of games Rice played. However, advanced statistics tell us that this isn’t the full story.

While Rice was known as a fearsome slugger who played half his games every year in hitter-friendly Fenway Park, Allen – who played nine of his 15 big league seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies – has better career OBP, OPS, slugging percentage, and OPS+ rates than Rice. In terms of wins above replacement, Allen edges Rice there, too (58.7 to 47.4).

What makes Allen’s numbers even more impressive is the fact that Allen spent the prime of his career in an era dominated by pitching. There is a stat that calculates this called AIR, which “measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 slugging percentage.” An AIR score over 100 means the environment was more favorable to hitters. Under 100 means pitching was more dominant. Allen’s AIR score comes out to a 92 thanks to the pitching dominant era of the mid-late 1960s and early 1970s. For comparison’s sake, Rice’s AIR score comes in at 102, meaning he spent his career in a environment that was slightly more favorable to hitters.

If you are more of an awards and honors person, Rice was an eight-time All-Star while Allen was selected to seven such teams. Both won MVP honors once (Rice in 1978, Allen in 1972). Rice was a two-time Silver Slugger award winner, though this is not a good comparison since this award was created in 1980, three years after Allen played his final season. Allen did win the 1964 National League Rookie of the Year while Rice finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in 1975 (lost to teammate Fred Lynn).

So why did Rice eventually get the call from Cooperstown and Allen never did? Politics may also have played a factor as baseball writers who covered Allen often described him as a bad influence on clubhouses because of his willingness to speak out about racial issues, creating a reputation that Allen was an agitator. However, many former teammates and managers of Allen dispute the notion that Allen was a negative force. In a 2002 Sabr Magazine article, Gene Mauch, Allen’s former manager during his first tour of duty with the Phillies, had this to say about Allen:

“He had a great feel for the game, and he was one of the finest base runners—which is different than base stealing— that I ever saw. If I was managing today and Allen was in his prime, I’d take him in a minute…He wasn’t doing anything to hurt [his teammates’] play of the game, and he didn’t involve his teammates in his problems. When he was personally rebellious, he didn’t try to bring other players into it.”

On the field, however, the difference may come down to games played. While Rice appeared in 140 or more games in a season ten times in his 16 seasons, Allen only did so six times in 15 seasons as he dealt with several injuries over the course of his career. Allen was extremely productive on the field yet did not have enough of these elite seasons to garner enough Hall of Fame support (i.e. Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson, Tony Oliva, etc).

Baseball-Reference.com’s similarity score, which matches a player’s career with similar careers of other players throughout history, seems to confirm this view considering none of the players with careers similar to Allen (shown in the box below) are enshrined in Cooperstown. On the other hand, the site’s similarity score system finds that Rice’s career is similar to three Hall of Fame residents: Orlando Cepeda, Duke Snider, and Billy Williams.

Despite all of the positive stats that give the edge to Allen, the one thing no advanced statistic can change is the fact that Rice sustained his high level of play for a longer period of time than Allen. That does count for something. However, that doesn’t mean that Allen does not belong. Consider this: Allen posted a 156 OPS+ for his career. That places him in a tie for 20th in baseball history with Willie Mays and Frank Thomas. Of the 19 players ahead of him, 12 are Hall residents and two are active players (Mike Trout and Joey Votto). The others are Barry Bonds, Pete Browning, Joe Jackson, Mark McGwire, and Dave Orr. That is truly elite level production.

Perhaps someday Allen will take his rightful place with Rice and those other Hall residents. Happy birthday to them both.

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