CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

Happy Thanksgiving! Regularly Scheduled Articles Will Resume Monday, December 1

No Previous Article
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Breaking Balls: Revenu... (12/24)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Breaking Balls: Rickey... (01/15)
No Next Article

January 8, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Man of Steal

by Derek Zumsteg

the archives are now free.

All Baseball Prospectus Premium and Fantasy articles more than a year old are now free as a thank you to the entire Internet for making our work possible.

Not a subscriber? Get exclusive content like this delivered hot to your inbox every weekday. Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get instant access to the best baseball content on the web.

Subscribe for $4.95 per month
Recurring subscription - cancel anytime.


a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Purchase a $39.95 gift subscription
a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Already a subscriber? Click here and use the blue login bar to log in.

We don't realize how good some players are, especially when they're changing the game. Babe Ruth is denigrated by some for playing when baseball was segregated. But Ruth in some ways remade the game.

There were eight teams in the American League in 1918. On each team, there were about twelve to fourteen guys who got significant playing time (over 100 plate appearances). So figure about sixty regulars, and around hundred total non-pitcher batters who got playing time.


Year	Ruth HR		League HR	% of league HRs by Ruth
1918	11		96		11%
1919	29		240		12%
1920	54		369		15%
1921	59		477		12%
1922	35		525		7%
1923	41		442		9%
1924	46		397		12%
1925	25		533		5%
1926	47		424		11%
1927	60		439		14%
1928	54		483		11%
1929	46		595		8%
1930	49		673		7%
1931	46		576		8%
1932	41		707		6%
1933	34		607		6%
1934	22		688		3%

Or, in another way:

Year	Avg HR for		Ruth HR
	non-Ruth regular
1918	1			11
1919	4			29
1920	5			54
1921	7			59
1922	8			35
1923	7			41
1924	6			46
1925	9			25
1926	6			47
1927	6			60
1928	7			54
1929	9			46
1930	11			49
1931	9			46
1932	11			41
1933	10			34
1934	11			22

That's utter dominance. If you cloned Babe Ruth today and managed to get him through adolescence (and I would wish you good luck), there should be no doubt he'd be a star.

This got me thinking, though--who else have I been missing? And the first thought was Rickey.

I'm a little ashamed to admit this now, but I used to hate Rickey Henderson. I grew up following the Giants and the Mariners, and Rickey beat the hell out of the Mariners on his way to making the Giants look stupid. And growing up in a rival city, you hear all the bad and not much of the good: Rickey's arrogant, but not that he's got a sense of humor.

Rickey changed baseball, too. Not for the better, unless you enjoy the motions of throwing back to first 20 times to make sure Edgar Martinez doesn't steal second late to ignite a come-from-behind rally in an 8-1 game the M's are losing.

We haven't seen much base-stealing lately, for reasons that manage to hurt the understanding of how great both players were. Ruth's marks don't seem so impressive when even the bat boy hits 10 out a year. And power has eclipsed speed. While some (Luis Castillo,Juan Pierre) have gotten into the 60s, it's largely forgotten that there were players like Henderson and Vince Coleman who reeled off a series of years where they swiped over 100 bases a year. We can do the same thing with Henderson we did with Ruth and see:


Year	SB	League SB	Rickey's share
1979	33	1497		2%
1980	100	1455		7%
1981	56	913		6%
1982	130	1394		9%
1983	108	1539		7%
1984	66	1304		5%
1985	80	1461		5%
1986	87	1470		6%
1987	41	1734		2%
1988	93	1512		6%
1989	77	1587		5%
1990	65	1503		4%
1991	58	1469		4%
1992	48	1704		3%
1993	53	1549		3%

Not quite as shockingly impressive. But where Ruth had eight teams in his league, Henderson had 14 and the DH on each of them, increasing the number of non-pitchers coming to the plate that could run. So compare Rickey to what an average regular would have picked up

Year	Average SB for		Rickey's SB
	non-Rickey regulars
1979	12			33
1980	11			100
1981	7			56
1982	10			130
1983	11			108
1984	10			66
1985	11			80
1986	11			87
1987	14			41
1988	11			93
1989	12			77
1990	12			65
1991	11			58
1992	13			48
1993	12			53

Um, so yeah, there you go. Rickey was just as good a base-stealer in his time as Ruth was a power hitter. It's cool to read box scores from 1982, when he was unstoppable. He didn't steal a base in his first couple of games and then on April 8th, Henderson went 2-3 with a double, drew five walks, and stole his first base of the season. And then he was off: he stole 12 more, at least a base for every day he went to a ballpark until the 19th (one day he didn't swipe one in both halves of a double header).

Reading game accounts from that season makes me imagine the frustration of facing Henderson that year. Henderson went 0-2 against the Brewers one day, so they managed to not give him a double (or one of his 10 home runs). Rickey did walk three times though, stealing second base twice and third base once.

If you're catcher Ned Yost, wouldn't you be tempted to bean him to save three pitches and then wave him on to second to save yourself the throw?

What's funny about this is that my turn-around on Henderson came from the rivalries that blinded me to his achievements when they happened. When Vince Coleman was briefly a Mariner, I looked him up and was shocked to see some of his totals when he was rocket-powered and stealing for the Cardinals. And as I saw more of Barry Bonds after he became a Giant, I started to think past Rickey's differently-flavored rep as a jerk.

Rickey got a bad rap early for being a showboat, and once a suitable hat rack had been constructed for him, everyone kept tossing their caps at it. Rickey's much-mocked "now I am the greatest" line is only arrogant when you take it as a couple words from a speech, and don't listen to or read the whole thing--or even much more than that snippet.

I've also heard that he was dumb, but since then I've also heard great things about how he's an intense observer of the game. Other players he's talked to about stealing bases talk about it with glazed eyes, as if Henderson had laid bare the secrets of the world and they'd only had time to grasp a couple of answers before their time was up. And you can read the Q&A we did with him--Rickey's no dummy. Who cares if he's up at the plate telling himself "Oh, Rickey shouldn't have swung at that, Rickey waits on that pitch" after a bad cut? I certainly wouldn't like any of my many quirks to be turned into something everyone believes defines me entirely.

Rickey Henderson changed the game like few players have. Twenty years after his 130-steal season, teams still employ tactics developed and refined to try and contain a 23-year old who ran like no one before him or since.

Related Content:  Rickey Henderson

0 comments have been left for this article.

No Previous Article
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Breaking Balls: Revenu... (12/24)
Next Column >>
Premium Article Breaking Balls: Rickey... (01/15)
No Next Article

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Fantasy Article Fantasy Team Preview: Baltimore Orioles
Premium Article Rumor Roundup: The Ace Chase, the Rays' Face...
Premium Article Daisy Cutter: Jon Lester's New Peers
Premium Article Prospect Mechanics
Moonshot: A New View of Plate Discipline, Pa...
The Lineup Card: Nine of the Worst Baseball ...
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: Yasmany Tomas is a Dia...


MORE BY DEREK ZUMSTEG
2004-01-27 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Bye, Bye Boonie
2004-01-22 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Skinny
2004-01-15 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Rickey Redux
2004-01-08 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Man of Steal
2003-12-24 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Revenue Sharing's Consequenc...
2003-12-18 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Shine the Light
2003-12-12 - Breaking Balls: A Real LeechCo
More...

MORE BREAKING BALLS
2004-01-27 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Bye, Bye Boonie
2004-01-22 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Skinny
2004-01-15 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Rickey Redux
2004-01-08 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: The Man of Steal
2003-12-24 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Revenue Sharing's Consequenc...
2003-12-18 - Premium Article Breaking Balls: Shine the Light
2003-12-12 - Breaking Balls: A Real LeechCo
More...