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December 15, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Oh Rickey, You're So Fine

by Jay Jaffe

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Last week, I discussed the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee ballot results, and previewed Clay Davenport's revisions of the Wins Above Replacement Player system, the underlying currency of my JAWS Hall of Fame analysis system. Today, I begin tackling the 2009 Baseball Writers Association of America ballot.

For those tuning in for the first time, this marks the sixth year in which I've used the very self-consciously named Jaffe WARP Score system (JAWS) to examine the ballot. The goal of JAWS is to identify candidates who are as good or better than the average Hall of Famer at their position, a bar set so as to avoid further diluting the quality of the institution's membership. WARP totals are the coin of the realm for this endeavor because they normalize all performance records in major league history to the same scoring environment, adjusting for park effects, quality of competition, and length of schedule. Pitchers, hitters, and fielders are thus rated above or below one consistent replacement level, simplifying cross-era comparisons. JAWS does not incorporate non-statistical considerations—awards, championships, post-season performance, rap sheet, urine test results—but that's not to say they should be left by the wayside. They're just not the focus here, though they'll be discussed in the context of the various candidacies.

Election to the Hall of Fame requires a player to perform at both a very high level and for a long time, so JAWS identifies a player's peak using his seven best WARP scores (for this exercise, WARP refers exclusively to the adjusted-for-all-time version, WARP3). Effectively, a player's best seasons get double-counted, an appropriate strategy given what we know about pennants added and the premium value of star talent: individual greatness can have a non-linear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line.

The career and peak WARP totals for each Hall of Famer and candidate on the ballot are tabulated and then averaged [(Career WARP + Peak WARP) / 2] to come up with a candidate's JAWS score. JAWS averages for the enshrined are calculated at each position to provide a baseline for comparison, but the lowest-ranked player at each position (and four pitchers) are omitted before that calculation. Invariably these are Veterans Committee selections who lag far behind the pack, lowering the bar with scores that might be one-third of the position leader.

As noted last week, Clay is in the process of implementing two major changes to the WARP system. First, he's raised the replacement-level floor by about 20 runs per player, lifting it significantly beyond the level of the bottom-of-the-barrel 1899 Cleveland Spiders or a current Double-A player to conform to a more modern definition of the major league replacement level. Second, he's adding a play-by-play based fielding component for the years where it is available, the "Retrosheet Era" which—for the purposes of our database at least—goes back to 1954.

Alas, the tail end of Clay's R&D effort is taking place during the chaotic and often stressful period known around these parts as "book season," where our authors and editors are slaving away on player comments and essays for our 2009 annual. The vanguard of Clay's fielding changes are geared towards the book, and as such, the fielding side of things for earlier years is not ready for prime time yet. Despite this awkward situation, I've decided that the new replacement level itself is an important enough step forward to merit incorporation into this year's JAWS evaluation. The downside is that the data used here is not yet on the DT player cards available on our site, making it impossible for readers to play along at home. Furthermore, it's still using a derivative of the older version of the fielding system that will soon be replaced for the years in which we have enough play-by-play data. As acknowledged with regards to the VC ballot, we're on the bleeding edge of a new ballgame here. When necessary, we'll refer back to past years' results for perspective and guidance.

We'll cut through further minutiae to save space; additional details on the nuts and bolts can be found here. Below are the JAWS benchmarks, the adjusted positional averages once the low man on the totem pole is removed, to which I'll refer throughout the series:


Pos       #    EqA  BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
 C       13   .286   420   210    77   78.3   50.9   64.6
1B       18   .306   742   487   -10   75.8   48.4   62.1
2B       18   .288   569   299    86   84.9   54.6   69.8
3B       11   .294   653   374   108   89.4   56.1   72.8
SS       21   .275   435   159   117   79.5   52.2   65.9
LF       18   .303   743   473     2   76.8   48.2   62.5
CF       17   .307   733   484    10   84.2   52.5   68.4
RF       23   .306   804   526    35   87.9   52.2   70.1

CI       29   .301   709   445    34   80.8   51.3   66.1
MI       39   .281   494   221   103   81.9   53.2   67.6
IF       68   .290   586   317    74   81.5   52.4   66.9
OF       58   .305   764   498    17   83.4   51.0   67.2

Middle   69   .288   540   285    75   81.8   52.6   67.2
Corners  70   .303   749   479    26   82.2   50.8   66.5
Hitter  139   .296   646   383    50   82.0   51.7   66.8

Other abbreviations: EqA is Equivalent Average. Batting Runs Above Replacement (BRAR) and Batting Runs Above Average (BRAA) are both included because they make good secondary measures of career and peak value. Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) is a bit more comprehensible to the average reader than measuring fielding from replacement level.

Not every position is represented on this year's ballot, and many candidates have been addressed at length in prior years. In the interest of leading with the good stuff, I'm starting with the 2009 ballot's marquee addition, a man who is in a class by himself:


                   H    HR   RBI   AVG  OBP  SLG ASG  MVP GG   HoFS   HoFM  Bal  2008%
Rickey Henderson 3055  297  1115  .279 .401 .419  10   1   1   52.6  183.5   0   ---

             EqA   BRAR  BRAA  FRAA  Career  Peak   JAWS
Henderson   .316   1285   906   194  155.7   74.9  115.3
AVG HoF LF  .303    743   473     2   76.8   48.2   62.5

Henderson's Hall of Fame-ready credentials would dwarf the rest of the BBWAA field on the ballot in nearly any year. Widely acknowledged as the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, he's the all-time leader in both stolen bases and runs scored as well as being a member of the 3,000 Hit Club. "If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers," wrote Bill James in his New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract before anointing him "the greatest power/speed combination of all time (except maybe Barry Bonds)." Indeed, Henderson's dazzling speed and derring-do on the basepaths obscured the other facets of his game. He certainly had pop, setting a record with 81 career leadoff home runs, and barely missing out on the 300 Home Run Club. He had range afield, if not a great arm. He was a complete ballplayer, something of a sabermetric ideal; while he may have led the league in OBP only once, he finished in the top three nine times, and 16 times in the top 10. When the gold-plated Baseball Prospectus skyscraper is eventually built in a major metropolis to be named later, a 20-foot-tall bronze statue of Henderson will undoubtedly adorn its entrance.

Chosen in the fourth round of the 1976 amateur draft out of Oakland Technical High School by the hometown Athletics, Henderson was just 20 when he was called up to the majors by the A's, debuting on June 24, 1979. He led off the bottom of the first inning with a double off of John Henry Johnson, but was thrown out at home plate before he could score his first run. Later in the game he would single and steal second base. From that day forward, he was off to the races. Despite Henderson's arrival, the 1979 A's were a wretched ballclub, finishing 54-108. Their fortunes turned the next year, when former Yankees manager Billy Martin brought to town an aggressive style of play that gave Henderson the green light on the basepaths. In 1980, as the A's climbed to second in the AL West with an 83-79 record, Henderson hit .303/.420/.399 and drew 117 walks (second in the AL), thanks in part to the exaggerated crouch of his batting stance. "Rickey Henderson's strike zone is smaller than Hitler's heart," wrote the great sportswriter Jim Murray. Henderson explained his stance to Sports Illustrated's Ron Fimrite a few years later:

Anyway, I found that if I squatted down real low at the plate, the way I do now, I could see the ball better. I also knew it threw the pitcher off. I found that I could put my weight on my back foot and still turn my hips on the swing. I'm down so low I don't have much of a strike zone. Sometimes, walking so much even gets me mad. Last year Ed Ott of the Angels got so frustrated because the umpire was calling balls that would've been strikes on anybody else, that he stood up and shouted at me, "Stand up and hit like a man." I guess I do that to people.

Once Henderson got on base, it was showtime. In 1980, he became just the third player of the 20th century to steal 100 bases, though he was caught 26 times, for a 79.4 percent success rate. Urged on by Martin, he reached the century milestone by swiping an astounding 34 bags from September 1 onward. It was the first of seven straight years in which he'd lead the AL in stolen bases; he did so 12 times in all. It was also the first of five times Henderson would top 10.0 WARP, according to the new baseline; he finished with 10.8.

In 1981, the A's reached the playoffs for the first time since their mid-'70s dynasty by dint of being in the AL West lead when the strike hit. Henderson swiped 56 bags during the shortened season and hit .319/.408/.437, good enough to help him place second to Rollie Fingers in the league's MVP voting. The team slumped to 68-94 the following year, as the pitchers that Martin had pushed to finish what they started in 1980 and 1981 began to break down. Henderson kept things interesting, setting a modern single-season record that year by swiping 130 bases, breaking Lou Brock's 1974 mark of 118. He was also caught a record 42 times, for a success rate of 75.6 percent. He would become more efficient in the years to come; in 1983 he was successful on 108 out of 127 attempts, an 85.0 percent clip.

Henderson was traded by the A's to the Yankees as part of a seven-player deal at the Winter Meetings in December 1984, in part because the A's felt they couldn't afford him, and in part because his contract status was perceived as having affected his availability. "Henderson had filed for arbitration three straight years, and when he lost last season and had to struggle along with a $950,000 salary, he let the decision affect his play," wrote Sports Illustrated's Henry Hecht. "Quite simply, he dogged it at times, and of the 20 games he missed, probably half were for no apparent reason." More than two decades before Manny Being Manny, Rickey was accused of being Rickey.

Henderson signed a five-year, $8.6 million deal with the Yankees upon being acquired. Shifting to center field on a full-time basis as a Yankee in 1985, he put up a monster season, hitting .314/.419/.516, stealing 80 bases in 90 attempts, and setting new career highs with 24 homers and 146 runs—a performance good for 10.8 WARP3. Alas, he finished just third in the MVP balloting behind teammate Don Mattingly (who drove in 145 runs while hitting .324/.371/.567) and George Brett. Where did the BBWAA voters think Mattingly's high RBI total came from? Rickey topped his '85 totals for home runs and stolen bases the following year, but his .263/.358/.469 was a major step down. By 1989 the Yankees felt his skills had begun to fade. Unable to complete a new three-year deal, they sent him back to Oakland for three players on June 21 of that year. As with any escape from the orbit of Dallas Green, the move rejuvenated Henderson, who joined Tony La Russa's defending AL champions, a club that needed an offensive infusion due to the injuries and subpar performances of the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. Henderson hit .294/.425/.438 and stole 52 bases in 85 games after being traded, helping the A's to their second straight division title, and then winning MVP honors in the ALCS, hitting .400/.609/1.000 with two homers and eight stolen bases. He hit .474/.524/.895 in Oakland's four-game sweep of the Giants in the "Bay Bridge Series," but the victory was overshadowed by the Loma Prieta earthquake, which forced a 10-day suspension of play mid-Series.

Henderson helped the A's to their third straight pennant in 1990 with a season worth a career-best 13.8 WARP. He hit .325/.439/.577 with a career-high 28 homers and 65 steals and earned the MVP award (his first and last), but despite his playing well in the World Series, the A's were swept by the Reds. The following year, he stepped into the all-time record books for the first time: on May 1, 1991, at the age of 32, he broke Brock's carer record of 918 stolen bases. In celebrating the record during a stoppage of play, he raised the hackles of some observers by declaring, "Lou Brock was a great base stealer, but today I am the greatest of all time," as Brock stood by. While he would add another 487 when all was said and done, putting the record out of reach for a long, long time, the comment provided ammunition to critics only too ready to accuse him of cockiness.

Henderson would earn another World Series ring with the Blue Jays in 1993, when he was acquired via a deadline-day trade from the A's. That deal began the peripatetic phase of his career. He would serve two more stints in Oakland while making stops in San Diego, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and New York. His greatest success during those years came with the 1999 Mets; at the age of 40, he hit .315/.423/.466 for a club that advanced to the NLCS. Alas, Henderson's year was overshadowed by a report that he had joined teammate Bobby Bonilla to play cards in the clubhouse after being removed from the game in the eighth inning of the decisive Game Six.

Indeed, stories about Rickey Henderson often tend to obscure his greatness as a player, much as they did with Yogi Berra. Everybody's got their list of favorite Rickeyisms, starting with his tendency to talk about himself in the third person. ("Illeism? Rickey's not sick...") It didn't even matter if the stories were true, like the John Olerud helmet tale, or even demonstrably false. My own favorite example of the mainstream media being content to print the legend instead of the fact came when none other than Peter Gammons tried to explain away then-Padre Henderson's role in inciting a 2001 blowup with Brewers manager Davey Lopes when he stole a base in the seventh inning with a 12-5 lead:

What precipitated the Davey Lopes-Rickey Henderson blowup was that Rickey was sick and had been sleeping in the clubhouse when he was told he had to pinch-run for Tony Gwynn. Henderson, who is trying to get the career runs record, went to first base not knowing the score, looked around and saw second base empty and asked first-base coach Alan Trammell how many outs there were.

"Two," replied Trammell.

"Rickey can't score from first base," said Henderson, who proceeded to take off for second base and thus incurred the wrath of his former mentor.

It's a bit funny, at least until you spend two seconds looking at the box score to see that Henderson didn't enter the game as a pinch-runner—he was the starting left fielder. Furthermore, the "stolen base" was ruled defensive indifference. But skip the facts, we need a colorful anecdote!

(Not that we at Baseball Prospectus were immune to a little fun at Rickey's expense; take Derek Jacques' tongue-in-cheek classic "Send in the Clones", but follow it with Nate Silver and Will Carroll's brief Prospectus Q&A with a cerebral and candid Henderson, conducted in 2003. Not a single third-person reference there.)

Back to Henderson's playing, his 2001 season with the Padres was rich in milestones, as he broke Babe Ruth's all-time record for walks, Ty Cobb's record for runs, and, on the final day of the season, collected his 3,000th hit. His final big-league appearance was with the Dodgers in 2003, but he spent the 2004 and 2005 seasons playing in independent leagues in the hope that he might get one last shot at the majors.

As if his greatness needed any further proof. Via the revised replacement level, Henderson's career WARP total and JAWS score both rank ninth all-time, and his peak score ranks 12th. With the caveat that the new defensive system could bump that ranking up or down, the important point is that Rickey Henderson is in the class photo of the greatest ballplayers of all time:


Player           Career   Peak    JAWS
Babe Ruth         195.8   93.4   144.6
Barry Bonds       192.6   88.7   140.7
Willie Mays       177.5   80.4   129.0
Walter Johnson    169.2   87.7   128.5
Roger Clemens     162.0   78.3   120.2
Honus Wagner      158.8   76.2   117.5
Ty Cobb           158.5   76.4   117.5
Hank Aaron        159.6   72.4   116.0
Rickey Henderson  155.7   74.9   115.3
Stan Musial       152.7   75.7   114.2
Greg Maddux       141.6   76.7   109.2
Mel Ott           141.4   72.2   106.8
Tris Speaker      143.8   68.8   106.3
Eddie Collins     137.9   72.7   105.3
Pete Alexander    132.3   76.6   104.5
Rogers Hornsby    128.6   76.6   102.6
Cy Young          139.4   63.1   101.3
Ted Williams      128.2   74.2   101.2
Joe Morgan        127.5   73.5   100.5
Mickey Mantle     124.9   73.1    99.0

Not only is Henderson overwhelmingly worthy of a vote for the Hall of Fame, but it's hardly hyperbole to suggest that a ballot sent back without his name on it constitutes mail fraud. Given the blank-ballot protests of the past few years, it's unlikely that he'll be the first player ever to be elected unanimously, but he could challenge for the highest vote percentage of all time. Rickey Henderson will slide into Cooperstown head first and without a throw.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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