Hall of Fame: Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Gary Carter

Column on Tony Perez, with comments on Gary Carter and Jim Rice (Originally posted 8/11/00 on the Boston Sports Guy website):
Carlton Fisk is easy, although I plan to return later this year to the tougher question of who was better, Fisk or Gary Carter. For the moment it’s enough to say that both should have been obvious first-ballot Hall of Famers. Leaving aside the active guys (Piazza, Rodriguez) and the Negro Leaguers (Josh Gibson, who was almost certainly greater than anyone to play the position in the majors), you would be hard pressed to list the ten best catchers of all time without both Carter and Fisk (the rest of my list: Bench, Berra, Cochrane, Campanella, Dickey, Hartnett, Buck Ewing, and Bill Freehan).
Lots of commentators have taken apart Tony Perez’s credentials; let’s skip the heavy-duty number crunching here because anyone who takes that angle has to regard Perez as much less than immortal.
Look at the stats: Perez is near the bottom of all Hall of Fame first basemen in batting, on-base, and slugging; the only one lower in both slugging and on-base percentage is the inexplicable selection of George “Highpockets” Kelly, who was sort of a poor man’s Cecil Cooper. Three points here:

–1. Perez’s boosters kept insistently arguing that they would not discuss the statistics; Perez even included a self-serving line in his acceptance speech about how he didn’t play for statistics. Yet, every single column in his defense cited his 1,652 career RBI as a centerpiece of the argument. And to think, these guys get PAID to write this stuff.
–2. Perez played 21 major league seasons in which his team — sometimes with a tremendous supporting cast (i.e., players much better than Tony Perez) — did not win the World Series. Where was the famous leadership and clutch hitting of Perez when the Big Red Machine lost the 1973 NLCS to a team that won 82 games in the regular season? He hit .091 in that series. Perez�s best year in the regular season was 1970; he hit .056 in the World Series and the Reds lost. Two championships, yeah. Wilt Chamberlain took two NBA rings to his grave, and they called him a loser. Did Roger Clemens become a better pitcher in 1999?
–3. C’mon, anybody who watched Tony Perez, Jim Rice and Gary Carter in their prime and thought Perez was the best of the three should be reassigned to cover the XFL. Other than not breaking his hand in October 1975, what did Tony Perez ever do better than Jim Rice? Perez was just as slow as Rice, grounding into 268 career DP (Rice: 315), and an even worse defensive player.
Bill James once wrote that �giving Fenway Park to Jim Rice is like giving Superman brass knuckles.� Who ever wrote anything like that about Tony Perez? Lynn, Fisk, Yaz, Evans . . . when pitchers and managers stayed up at night worrying about the Red Sox, none of those guys (good as they were) were first on their mind. Who ever went into Cincinnati thinking the key thing was to stop Tony Perez? Whitey Herzog once put on a special shift to stop Rice, and complained that the shift he really wanted was to put two guys in the net and two on the Citgo sign. Nobody put infielders in orbit over Tony Perez.
Carter and Rice both played for championship teams when Perez wasn’t around, but the Perez magic did nothing for Carter�s Expos or Rice�s Red Sox. RBI, then? RBI is all that matters? Jim Rice had more 120-RBI seasons than Perez (4 to 2), more 100-RBI seasons (8 to 7), more 95-RBI seasons (9 to 7), and only one fewer 85-RBI season (11 to 12). Granted, Perez drove in between 90 and 92 runs five times, but half his 201-RBI edge over Rice was the seasons before their first 100-RBI year and after their last: for Perez, that meant nine seasons, 277 RBI; for Rice, four seasons, 175 RBI.
Did I mention that Perez played nearly 600 more games than Rice and scored 23 more runs?
Lest you think the difference is the leagues they played in, consider the leader boards: In the main offensive categories (Avg, Slg, Obp, R, RBI, and we will throw in OPS) Perez finished in the top five in the league 10 times, Rice 24 times; Perez was in the top ten 26 times, Rice 37 times. In the other categories (G, AB, 2B, 3B, HR, H, BB, TB, SB), Perez finished in the top five in the league 9 times, Rice 26 times; Perez was in the top ten 30 times, Rice 43 times. Fenway alone does not explain that away.
Carter? Taken in context, his numbers with the bat were just as good as Perez�s numbers. Carter once led the league in RBI, while Perez never led in anything but GIDP. But while Carter in his prime was a great defensive catcher (and later a catcher who threw poorly but did the rest of the job well), Perez was such a disaster at third base (leading the league in errors three straight years, although in his defense, Perez had decent range, and errors are overrated) that the Reds had to trade a good young player (Lee May, who averaged 37 homers a year from 1969 to 1971) to move Perez to first and play Dennis Menke at third. Menke hit .233 in 1972 and .191 in 1973. The move more than worked out because May brought back Joe Morgan and in 1975 the Reds finally plugged the third base hole with Rose, but the point is that nobody ever had to trade good players away because Gary Carter couldn’t field his position.
At the start of their respective careers, if you could have traded away the futures of Carter or Rice for Perez, would you have done it? In the middle of their careers, if you could take their best five or ten seasons for Perez�s best 5-10, would you do it? Hey, I�m a big fan of consistency and durability, but two or three extra years of solid production plus a better career as an aging benchwarmer do not add up to the kind of greatness that Carter and Rice reached. Some would say that at least Perez’s mammoth career RBI total means he won�t water down the standards for future inductees, but when greatness is the standard, only the great get in. When 1,652 RBI is the standard, the inflated offensive numbers of the 1990s put an awful lot of people on the doorstep to immortality. Don�t look back, Harold Baines (1,614 RBI) might be gaining on you.
I’m not totally sold on putting Jim Rice in Cooperstown, but making him wait behind Tony Perez? Because Perez had Morgan, Rose and Bench while Rice’s teams, with shaky bullpens and pitiful benches, came up just a little short of great teams three or four times? Or because Tony Perez is a good interview, and Jim Rice preferred to just do his job and keep his mouth shut?
Hall of Famers should meet standards of greatness in their time, and there is room in the Hall both for players who offered a relatively short period of transcendent greatness and for those who were very good players, consistently, over a very long time. Statistics are the main way that we measure those standards, but they are not the standards themselves and should not be confused with them.

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