Ben Rice’s blending proves pivotal for Yankees to outwit Red Sox in 2021 and 2024

Yankees rookie first baseman Ben Rice
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The name of Yankees rookie Ben Rice will forever remain a thorn in the side of the Red Sox. Just three weeks into his MLB debut, the 25-year-old added a new dimension to the high-octane Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. However, Ben Rice’s historic three-homer game for the Yankees against the Red Sox on July 5, 2024, wasn’t his first brush with baseball’s most storied rivalry.

It began in 2021 when the Yankees beat the Red Sox to draft Ben Rice in the 12th round. But those who know the rookie well trace it even before. His journey from a defiant young Yankees fan in Red Sox territory to a record-setting rookie in pinstripes adds a compelling chapter to the ongoing saga between these age-old rivals.

Growing up in Cohasset, Massachusetts, Ben Rice was an island of Yankees fandom in a sea of Red Sox devotion. He often sported a vintage Yankees dugout jacket, standing out among his Red Sox-clad peers.

Ben Rice’s loyalty to the Bronx Bombers ran deep. In a bold move, he once scrawled “Yankees Rule!” on Fenway Park’s iconic Pesky Pole in right field. As his baseball skills blossomed at Dartmouth College, the kid found himself at a crossroads. Both the Yankees and Red Sox expressed interest in the promising player, putting his childhood allegiance to the ultimate test.

“I had a chance to get drafted by them,” Ben Rice admitted. “This is actually true: It was either going to be the Red Sox or the Yankees, probably, that picked me. Those were the teams that I knew liked me the most.”

Ben Rice’s journey from Yankees fan to Yankees hero reached its pinnacle when the team drafted him in the 12th round of the 2021 MLB Draft, outpacing the Red Sox’s interest. Just three years later, he etched his name in the franchise’s storied history. His three-homer, seven-RBI performance against the Red Sox on Saturday matched Lou Gehrig‘s 1925 rookie record, cementing his place in Yankees lore.

Yankees' Ben Rice during a game against the Red Sox on June 6, 2024.
Yankees

The call-up of Ben Rice on June 18, replacing the injured Anthony Rizzo, came earlier than expected. The 25-year-old has since proven his worth, seamlessly transitioning from catcher to first base. His impact extends beyond defense. When Anthony Volpe’s struggles necessitated a lineup change, Ben Rice stepped into the leadoff role with aplomb. His versatility and production have quickly made him a valuable asset, suggesting his stay in the Bronx may be a long one.

“You see the calm at-bats he takes,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone declared. “He understands the strike zone. He doesn’t flinch a bunch. Easy takes; you see the pull-side power that he has, too. He combines controlling the strike zone with some barrel awareness and the ability to hit the ball in the air from both sides.”

Ben Rice emerges a potent asset for Yankees

Despite his rising profile, Ben Rice maintains a cheerful demeanor, often seen with a broad smile. Standing at 6-foot-1, he feels that his stature allows him to blend in more easily compared to more imposing teammates like Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton.

“I think I just blend in for the most part,” the rookie proudly said. “I think just adjusting to the speed of the game.”

The Massachusetts native, who grew up as a catcher and played that position at Dartmouth and during his first pro season, has adapted well to first base. Ben Rice began getting reps at the position in 2022, despite limited experience. In his four minor league seasons, he started 114 games as a catcher and only 52 at first base.

Yankees' Ben Rice during a game against the Red Sox on June 6, 2024.
NY POST

Ben Rice’s transition to the Yankees first base in the majors was expedited by Anthony Rizzo’s mid-June injury. His strong performance both at bat and in the field has solidified his place in the lineup, marking an impressive start to his major league career.

Boone acknowledged his inexperience at the position but praised his promising attributes that have impressed the coaching staff. Infield coach Travis Chapman highlighted Ben Rice’s athleticism and mobility, emphasizing their work on various aspects of his game beyond basic receiving and throwing.

The focus has been on enhancing Ben Rice’s footwork around the base to improve his defensive capabilities.

“He moves well. He’s a good athlete,” the coach said. “Just working on different moves other than just receiving and throwing and … moving his feet around the base to be able to make more plays.”

Ben Rice’s agility gives him an edge over more traditional first basemen, but he is still learning to gauge the limits of his range while maintaining the ability to return to the base quickly. Although there have been some growing pains, such as a mishandled throw from Anthony Volpe on Saturday, Ben Rice has generally been reliable in making necessary plays.

“It’s just trusting my approach,” the rookie said. “I have a lot of confidence in my approach, and up here is no different. The game hasn’t changed. The bases are all in the same spots. That’s allowed me to hit the ground running a little bit here.”

Giancarlo Stanton (left) celebrates with Ben Rice after the Yankees’ win.
Jason Szenes/ NYP

While advanced metrics are still developing a comprehensive assessment, initial data is encouraging. Surprisingly, Ben Rice ranked 10th among all MLB first basemen in Outs Above Average, despite only being called up last month.

His dedication to improvement is evident, as Ben Rice was seen working with Chapman on his defensive skills an hour before the rest of the team’s infielders began their pregame routines on Sunday. Chapman admires Ben Rice’s commitment to getting as many practice repetitions as possible, recognizing the need for continued experience to refine his skills at first base.

“Everybody thinks first base is easy — ‘Just go over there and go catch the ball,’ ” he said. “The reality is you’re trying to get as many balls as you can, while getting to the base, using as much wingspan or creating as much wingspan as you can at first and helping your guys make as many plays as possible.”

Chapman commended Ben Rice’s performance, noting that despite being new to the position, the rookie has met the demands adequately. This is particularly impressive given the team’s offensive struggles and Rice’s strong batting performance.

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