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July 24, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Today, Who is the Rickey-est?

by Jay Jaffe

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Rickey Henderson will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, an honor that feels long overdue for the player who holds the all-time records for both stolen bases and runs, is a member of the 3,000 Hit Club, and is widely acknowledged as the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. "If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers," wrote Bill James of Henderson nearly a decade ago. The bearded bard of sabermetrics was onto something, and not only with regards to Henderson's Cooperstown credentials. Scanning the horizon in search of a truly similar active player, one comes up with only fractional Rickeys, players who possess elements of Henderson's game-his speed-power combo, his keen batting eye, his basepath derring-do-but nowhere near to the exact same blend.

In honor of Rickey's impending induction, I set out to search for the most Rickey-like player among the current crop of actives, devising a series of similarity scores in categories that typify the unique shape of Henderson's performance. Rather than use raw statistics to compare a player whose major league career began 30 years ago, I called upon Clay Davenport's translated statistics, which normalize all players to the same run-scoring environment. Instead of relying upon a single year's performance, I used a 3/4/5 weighted average of 2007, 2008, and 2009 stats for all players with at least 900 actual plate appearances over that span, then boiled those down to a per-650 plate appearance format for comparison to a similar encapsulation of Henderson's career. This sells the superstar short by including his decline phase, but with nobody even remotely close to Rickey Henderson at his peak out there today, the bar needs a bit of lowering.

The players were then scored in ten categories, with Henderson's performance defined as 1000 points, the least Henderson-like as zero, and all performances in between scaled accordingly. Occasionally, small-sample outliers had to be removed for this to work; crediting a player who's 4-for-5 in stolen bases with similarity to Henderson's 80.4 percent success rate on the basepaths isn't appropriate. It's important to note that players who exceeded Henderson in these categories-with higher slugging percentages or stolen-base success rates, say-were penalized, too; this process isn't designed to tell us the best player, just the "Rickeyest." The ten categories:

  • Batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage: All three were maintained for this exercise, because they preserve the shape of a player's performance in a way that a single indicator such as EqA, OPS, or OPS+ doesn't. Average and slugging percentage are the only two categories here in which Henderson doesn't rank in the top 30 among this crop; without including them, we wind up with Alex Rodriguez and his translated rate of 55 homers per 650 PA among the top five comps, which is nonsensical.

  • Equivalent Average: Fundamentally, this is runs produced per plate appearance, adjusted for park and league scoring levels, and placed on a batting average scale.

  • Equivalent Baserunning Runs (EqBRR): This measures how many additional runs a player adds on the bases, via steals as well as advancing on ground balls, fly balls, hits, wild pitches, passed balls, and balks.

  • Walks per plate appearance: While walks obviously make up part of OBP, the category deserves special emphasis in any comparison with the man who's second all time in drawing them.

  • Power/Speed Number (P/S): This Jamesian creation was designed to credit players who hit home runs and steal bases via the formula (2 * HR * SB)/(HR + SB). As with the walks, Henderson ranks second all-time in this category, and his per-650 PA translated rate scores third here, his highest ranking.

  • Runs scored per time on base (R%/TOB): While this is a context-sensitive measurement that depends upon a player's teammates, normalizing the players to the same scoring environment removes some (but not all) of the inequity. I've chosen to include this to emphasize top-of-the-lineup types who have the skill to put themselves in scoring position in one way or another.

  • Stolen-base percentage (SB%) and stolen base attempts per times on base (TOB/SBA).

With those preliminaries out of the way, here are the 10 "Rickeyest" players active according to the translated stats:


Player              AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA  EqBRR   BB/PA    P/S  R%/TOB    SB%   SBA/TOB
Rickey Henderson   .287/.406/.476  .316   5.15   16.0%   31.2   43.7%   80.4%   33.2%
Brian Roberts      .288/.366/.458  .298   3.20   11.2%   22.0   43.6%   78.0%   25.1%
B.J. Upton         .271/.366/.451  .296   2.36   12.8%   28.0   41.1%   69.5%   34.4%
Johnny Damon       .281/.362/.482  .297   3.20   11.1%   24.6   43.9%   83.3%   14.7%
Jose Reyes         .299/.365/.485  .291   6.36    9.5%   24.4   42.9%   74.4%   43.4%
Carl Crawford      .307/.358/.475  .295   5.36    6.8%   26.0   44.6%   79.5%   43.4%
Jayson Werth       .273/.373/.530  .304   3.09   13.1%   28.8   42.4%   89.1%   13.2%
Carlos Beltran     .312/.396/.562  .316   3.65   12.3%   29.1   41.6%   89.3%   13.7%
Matt Holliday      .304/.389/.543  .317   3.24   10.9%   24.7   40.5%   80.5%   11.9%
Grady Sizemore     .255/.359/.506  .302   2.92   12.8%   30.3   40.1%   68.8%   21.9%
Curtis Granderson  .269/.348/.510  .301   3.63   10.3%   25.4   44.9%   79.1%   15.7%

All of these players combine speed, power, and the ability to get on base to some degree, but none of them profile quite like Henderson does; each punts at least one category in this particular decathalon. Roberts is fairly solid across the board, scoring a low of 641 points for his walk rate, topping 940 points three times, and finishing with 8,291 total points. Upton's tally of 8,143 points includes just one category above 900, but none lower than 700; whatever regrets there are to be had about what a healthy shoulder and stronger start to this season would mean to this ranking should be tempered by the fact that he's still four weeks shy of his 25th birthday. Damon misses the 8,000 mark by just five points, topping 900 four times but scoring just 443 for his (in)frequency of stolen-base attempts. The remaining seven above are bunched between his tally and Granderson's 7,637 points, with Ian Kinsler topping the list of players who missed the cut.

The differences between these players and Henderson are still rather fundamental. None of the overall leaders walks with anywhere near Rickey's frequency; the active players with the most similar translated walk rates are slow-footed sluggers like Jim Thome, Adam Dunn, and Pat Burrell, players who rarely attempt to steal. Of the top 30 in walk rate, Upton is the only one who attempts a stolen base even half as often as Henderson did. Similarly, those with the closest OBP to Henderson's tend to be sluggers, only a couple of whom-Hanley Ramirez and David Wright-run with much frequency. Meanwhile, of the top 30 players in terms of frequency of stolen-base attempts, none walks more often than Upton, and only six even draw passes in 10 percent of their plate appearances.

Also notable among this group is a cluster of players with at least a bit more power than Henderson who don't steal particularly often, but do so with a great deal of success. Damon, Werth, Beltran, Holliday, and Granderson all fit that bill to varying degrees, serving a reminder that baserunning smarts were as important to Henderson's game as blazing speed.

Alas, as talented as they are, none of these ten players is the genuine item, likely to embellish their dazzling on-field style by referring to themselves in the third person, declaring their own greatness, or providing fodder for yet another urban legend. There's only one Rickey Henderson, and there's never been a better time to celebrate that fact.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Rickey Henderson,  The Who,  Stolen Base

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