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July 28, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Return of the Rickeys

by Jay Jaffe

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Rickey Henderson's much-anticipated Hall of Fame induction speech may have disappointed those who yearned for a proclamation of all-time greatness, perhaps accompanied by a bronze plaque hoisted high overhead. Instead, Henderson took his place among the game's greats with a performance on Sunday that balanced humor and humility, with nary a third-person reference to be heard.

In honor of Henderson's enshrinement, I've got a few Rickey-related items to share, starting with a pair of follow-ups to last Friday's piece, which endeavored to find the active players whose statistical signature bore the most resemblance to Henderson. Among the questions asked by readers and colleagues was one posed by managing editor Christina Kahrl (among others), who asked for the identity of the anti-Rickey. In other words, the active player whose translated stats in 10 key categories-the triple-slash hitting categories, Equivalent Average, Equivalent Baserunning Runs, walks per plate appearance, Power-Speed Number, runs per time on base, stolen-base percentage, and stolen bases per time on base, all expressed in terms of a 650 PA season-bore the least resemblance to Henderson.

As you'd expect, the answer is a catcher, and in fact seven of the 10 players most antipodal to Henderson are backstops:


Player            AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   EqBRR  BB/PA   P/S  R%/TOB    SB%  SBA/TOB Points
Rickey Henderson .287/.406/.476  .316    5.1   16.0%  31.2   43.7%   80.4%  33.2%  10000
Jason Kendall    .243/.320/.314  .232   -0.4    8.2%   3.1   26.4%   57.3%   4.4%   2774
John Buck        .214/.298/.408  .253   -2.9    9.6%   0.0   35.0%    0.0%   1.6%   2813
Dioner Navarro   .247/.295/.368  .247   -3.7    5.6%   4.8   33.4%   45.3%   3.7%   2878
Bengie Molina    .278/.299/.453  .257   -5.3    2.5%   0.0   30.0%    n/a    0.0%   2922
Rich Aurilia     .257/.306/.373  .244   -1.7    6.5%   1.3   29.3%   50.0%   0.7%   2937
Brian Schneider  .246/.336/.375  .252   -1.8   11.7%   0.0   22.4%    n/a    0.0%   2966
Ramon Hernandez  .253/.322/.392  .257   -4.1    8.5%   2.1   27.6%   45.5%   1.3%   2931
Bill Hall        .227/.288/.395  .240   -0.4    7.7%   7.0   38.0%   37.6%   6.7%   3263
Pedro Feliz      .271/.317/.422  .252   -3.1    6.4%   0.6   32.3%   25.0%   0.6%   3335
Jason Varitek    .225/.333/.421  .267   -3.0   12.9%   0.0   30.1%    0.0%   0.6%   3345

In a very close race-one that could have been timed with a sundial, no doubt-the Brewers' Jason Kendall finishes as the anti-Rickey, a rather ironic result given his status as the only catcher ever to steal 20 bases three years in a row. Kendall was once an above-average baserunner and a high-percentage basestealer (48-for-56 in 1998-1999) with a moderate amount of sock, but after a severe broken ankle and years of heavy usage behind the plate, he's got exactly none of those things going for him anymore; his bat is basically replacement level at this point. Though he doesn't zero out in any category, he scores less than 100 points (out of 1,000) in four of them, and more than 500 points only for Equivalent Baserunning Runs. The runner-up-and I use that term loosely-is the Royals' John Buck. While all of the catchers here are below-average baserunners who rarely (if ever) steal, Buck's low batting average gives him a critical leg up on the competition; he scores just 70 points in that category, where Hall and Varitek are the only others below 300 points.

Still, it's tempting to give Bengie Molina the title of the real anti-Rickey despite the fact that he ranks fourth here. Whereas many of the slow-footed backstops here can actually take ball four, thereby following the Ventures' advice, Molina ranks dead last in walks per plate appearance while also zeroing out in the three stolen base-related categories, where he ties for last in all of them. Alas, his batting average and slugging percentages are relatively good matches for Henderson, both worth nearly 900 points, costing him the title.

The more commonly asked question was which player in history most resembles Henderson, a trickier matter to answer. For one thing, our Equivalent Baserunning data only covers the Retrosheet era, which in our database goes back to 1954 (the addition of earlier seasons is pending). For another, data for times caught stealing is only sporadically available before 1950. Clay Davenport does have translated caught-stealing totals for players throughout baseball history, but-and I may be missing something here in the details-it appears he's based those totals on the questionable assumption of a success rate around 66 percent across the board. For example, for the years that we have caught-stealing data for Max Carey (1915-1916 and 1920-1925), his translated stolen base rate is a stellar 80.8 percent; he actually went 51-for-53 in 1922. For the rest of his career (1910-1929 minus the aforementioned stretches), his rate is just 66.2 percent.

Thus it's necessary to split the players into two groups to answer the historical question, one for whom we have data for all 10 categories, the other for whom we must dispense with EqBRR and stolen base percentage, and modify the stolen-base attempts per time on base category to simply steals per time on base. In the end, I only ran the numbers for a select handful of players culled from the all-time hit, stolen base, and Power-Speed Number leaderboards, plus a few others who came to mind, and I can't swear that I haven't missed somebody. For the pre-Retrosheet era:


Player              AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA   BB/PA   P/S  R%/TOB   SB/TOB  Points
Rickey Henderson   .287/.406/.476  .316   16.0%   31.2   43.7%   33.2%   8000
Kiki Cuyler        .293/.370/.500  .291    9.5%   26.5   41.9%   18.0%   6432
Billy Hamilton     .309/.428/.456  .305   16.2%   19.1   36.1%   17.8%   6057
Max Carey          .265/.352/.420  .272   11.2%   20.0   41.6%   22.9%   5840
Eddie Collins      .331/.421/.509  .311   12.8%   22.9   37.4%   16.2%   5588
Honus Wagner       .320/.390/.579  .311    9.2%   32.1   41.0%   15.4%   5471
Sam Rice           .298/.351/.448  .275    6.8%   16.5   40.0%   12.4%   5258
Richie Ashburn     .314/.401/.413  .288   12.1%    5.7   36.9%    9.2%   5102
Sam Crawford       .304/.364/.554  .301    8.4%   18.7   39.8%    6.5%   4926
Tris Speaker       .325/.409/.574  .320   11.6%   22.3   38.9%    7.6%   4919
Paul Waner         .313/.394/.513  .305   11.4%    9.9   37.4%    2.8%   4862
Ty Cobb            .356/.424/.618  .330    9.8%   33.8   42.6%   17.2%   4680

To the extent that we can determine without a fuller accounting of baserunning data, Cuyler gets the nod for the player most statistically similar to Henderson, though his walk rate wasn't quite up to snuff. A Hall of Fame outfielder who spent most of his 18 seasons (1921-1939) with the Pirates and Cubs, he led the NL in stolen bases four times while finishing second twice, led the league in scoring twice, and cracked the league's top 10 in OBP five times. Sliding Billy Hamilton, a 19th-century star who held the all-time stolen-base lead (912) from 1897 until 1978 (when Lou Brock broke his record), finishes a distant second; a tip of the cap to reader Dr. Dave, who offered his name as a guess in the comments to the original piece while correctly noting that Cobb and Wagner gain too much power via the translations to be ideal matches.

Turning to the Retrosheet era, while Tim Raines was a common guess for the most Rickey-like, it's surprising that nobody identified the runaway leader:


Player            AVG/ OBP/ SLG   EqA  EqBRR  BB/PA   P/S  R%/TOB    SB%  SBA/TOB Points
Rickey Henderson .287/.406/.476  .316   5.1   16.0%  31.2   43.7%   80.4%  33.2%  10000
Joe Morgan       .287/.409/.511  .314   3.0   16.6%  30.4   40.2%   81.3%  19.7%   8621
Davey Lopes      .271/.357/.444  .284   6.8   11.2%  27.6   42.1%   82.7%  26.1%   8287
Tim Raines       .305/.397/.488  .309   6.5   12.7%  24.8   40.9%   83.8%  22.4%   8264
Kenny Lofton     .294/.367/.426  .286   4.1    9.8%  16.1   43.5%   78.5%  28.3%   8132
Eric Davis       .270/.362/.531  .301   4.6   12.0%  34.4   44.8%   82.5%  19.6%   8013
Lou Brock        .300/.353/.459  .281   1.8    6.9%  22.1   43.9%   77.1%  33.8%   8004
Craig Biggio     .282/.364/.472  .285   2.1    9.2%  21.4   43.1%   75.1%  13.5%   7833
Bobby Bonds      .269/.357/.532  .299   1.8   11.1%  35.7   47.3%   74.8%  24.6%   7634
Roberto Alomar   .300/.372/.456  .294   2.0    9.7%  20.1   39.0%   80.1%  17.2%   7618
Paul Molitor     .305/.370/.473  .299   4.3    8.8%  19.7   39.6%   79.5%  14.3%   7576

Via the translations, Morgan winds up as an excellent match for Henderson, scoring well above 900 points in five different categories, and below 800 only in stolen-base attempt frequency. Lopes is a surprising second, edging out Raines. One of the great high-percentage basestealers of all time, he once set major league record with 38 consecutive steals, and it's no coincidence that the 2007 and 2008 Phillies, two teams for whom he was the first-base coach, rank first and fourth in our database in Equivalent Stolen Base Runs, and ninth and 10th in EqBRR. The man could read a pitcher's move, to say the least. As for Raines, who didn't walk or steal quite as often as Henderson but who was a better baserunner (more on that momentarily), with Henderson's admission to Cooperstown now a done deal, it's worth a reminder that he's eminently worthy of election to the Hall.

The point totals of Lopes and Raines are slightly less than those of active leader Brian Roberts (8,291), but that's not really an apples-to-apples comparison, as the old-timers' numbers incorporate their lengthy decline phases. Still, with a half-dozen retired players topping the 8,000 mark, compared to just two active (Roberts and B.J. Upton), it's fair to say that previous eras saw players more similar to Henderson than the current one. He is indeed a throwback.

Moving beyond the translated stats to actual stuff that happened, it's worth sharing a few Henderson-related leaderboards that are otherwise hard to come by. That Henderson holds the all-time stolen-base record with 1,406 is common knowledge, but where his 80.8 percent success rate ranks among the stolen-base percentage leaders isn't. The lack of consistent data before 1950 excludes from consideration the players from the era when the stolen base was at its most common; six of the all-time top 10 thieves are thus disqualified. With that caveat, here's the top 30 among players with at least 300 attempts whose careers began after 1950:


Player              SB   CS     %
Carlos Beltran     286   38   88.3%
Tim Raines         808  146   84.7%
Eric Davis         349   66   84.1%
Willie Wilson      668  134   83.3%
Barry Larkin       379   77   83.1%
Tony Womack        363   74   83.1%
Davey Lopes        557  114   83.0%
Carl Crawford      349   72   82.9%
Jimmy Rollins      312   69   81.9%
Ichiro Suzuki      336   76   81.6%
Julio Cruz         343   78   81.5%
Brian Hunter       260   61   81.0%
Joe Morgan         689  162   81.0%
Alex Rodriguez     289   68   81.0%
Vince Coleman      752  177   80.9%
Rickey Henderson  1406  335   80.8%
Dave Roberts       243   58   80.7%
Roberto Alomar     474  114   80.6%
Jose Reyes         301   75   80.1%
Brian Roberts      246   62   79.9%
Lenny Dykstra      285   72   79.8%
Ozzie Smith        580  148   79.7%
Kenny Lofton       622  160   79.5%
Gary Redus         322   83   79.5%
Johnny Damon       370   96   79.4%
Paul Molitor       504  131   79.4%
Luis Aparicio      506  136   78.8%
Derek Jeter        293   79   78.8%
Marquis Grissom    429  116   78.7%
Amos Otis          341   93   78.6%

Henderson ranks 16th among those with at least 300 attempts, but the crowd thins out quickly if the bar is raised; he's sixth among those with at least 500 attempts behind Raines, Wilson, Lopes, Morgan and Coleman, one of just seven such players with a success rate above 80 percent.

What's interesting is that for all of Henderson's success in swiping bags, he only ranks third among Retrosheet-era players in terms of Equivalent Stolen Base Runs, the net value of those steals based upon the methodology developed by Dan Fox:


Player            EqSBR
Tim Raines         66.7
Willie Wilson      57.3
Rickey Henderson   41.2
Davey Lopes        39.1
Vince Coleman      38.6
Joe Morgan         33.9
Paul Molitor       32.2
Carl Crawford      23.5
Eric Davis         22.8
Johnny Damon       20.7

Raines' success in stealing was worth about an extra two and a half wins relative to Henderson, though that boils down to just 1.3 runs per 650 plate appearances. Henderson, still by far the more valuable of the two, makes up ground elsewhere on the basepaths according EqBRR, which measures the additional runs a player adds via advancing on ground balls, fly balls, hits, wild pitches, passed balls, and balks as well as stolen bases. With the data again limited to the Retrosheet era, Henderson just misses topping this category by a hair:


Player             EQBRR
Willie Wilson      107.8
Rickey Henderson   106.8
Tim Raines         104.4
Paul Molitor        79.5
Davey Lopes         77.0
Johnny Damon        66.9
Vince Coleman       66.5
Luis Aparicio       66.2
Willie Davis        61.1
Kenny Lofton        58.5
Ozzie Smith         58.1
Barry Larkin        56.7
Robin Yount         55.5
Mookie Wilson       54.0
Joe Morgan          52.3
Otis Nixon          49.2
Ron LeFlore         46.7
Len Dykstra         45.5
Juan Pierre         44.8
Marquis Grissom     44.3
Willie Mays         44.1*
*: data for 1951-1952 unavailable

Exactly one run separates Henderson and Willie Wilson, a contemporary who led the league in stolen bases in Henderson's rookie year (1979) with 83. A burner who was virtually impossible to catch on the bases (off the field was another matter), Wilson topped 30 steals for 11 straight years (1978-1988) and was never caught more than 12 times in a year. He went 162-for-184 in steals in 1979-1980, setting an AL record with 28 straight in the latter year.

Wilson wasn't as well-rounded a player as Henderson, however; he finishes 13th in the similarity test with 6,710 points mainly due to a lack of power and a low walk rate. Indeed, the take-home lesson of Henderson's career is that speedsters come and speedsters go, but nobody offered quite the well-rounded package of that Henderson did-speed, baserunning ability, power, and plate discipline. Rickey doesn't have to refer to himself in the third person to assure that we'll be celebrating his accomplishments for a long, long time.

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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