March 21, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Walk, Rickey, Walk!
With his options nearly exhausted and the chance that he would forever remain three walks shy of the all-time record growing larger by the day, Rickey Henderson accepted an offer from the Padres for $300,000, payable if he makes the team. What's unusual is that the deal contains none of the playing-time-driven incentives you typically find in deals of this nature; Henderson gets the same pay whether he bats 500 times or 100 (although he can get bonuses for winning awards).
Now, as long as he can find his way onto the roster, Henderson would seem to be a lock for the all-time walks record. He's at 2,060, just eight balls behind Babe Ruth's mark of 2,062. He could pass that in less than a week, and while it would be a significant milestone in some circles, it wouldn't have the punch of some other record-breaking moments.
Next up on Henderson's to-do list is the all-time runs record of 2,245, held by Ty Cobb. This has been a stated goal of his for some time now, and he's currently within 68 runs of the Georgia Peach. It's worth noting that Henderson has scored more than that number of runs in every non-strike-shortened year of his career since his partial 1979 campaign, which would indicate a strong likelihood of success. Similarly, Henderson needs just 86 hits for 3,000, which is the record I'm sure the Padres would most like to see him approach.
However, Henderson has never faced the possibility of being a part-time player, and his performance has reached a point where it is hard to give him the at-bats he'll need to chase Cobb. He has slugged above .350 in just one of the last five seasons, and batted above .250 just once in that time (both occurred in his 1999 season with the Mets). While Rickey has kept himself in fine shape, his bat looked terribly slow last summer and fall, akin to Charlotte Church swinging a redwood. Even a team like the Padres, unlikely to harbor delusions of grandeur in 2001, is going to find it hard to play an aging corner outfielder with no power. OK, another one.
Henderson comes in behind Eric Owens, Mike Darr, and Tony Gwynn on the Padres' depth chart, and you'd like to believe he's behind Bubba Trammell as well. That's an unimpressive group, to be sure, but Owens is a huge fan favorite and virtually guaranteed playing time, Gwynn will play as long as he's healthy, while Darr and Trammell should be part of, at the least, a platoon between left and center field. Henderson is fighting for a fifth-outfielder job right now.
How much playing time will Henderson need to get his marks? Over the last three years, he's averaged about one run for every 6.3 at-bats-plus-walks, which would leave him needing 433 PAs. It's fair to say that Henderson might be pinch-running more this year, so he may pick up some runs scored that way. Still, it seems clear that Henderson is going to need about 400 PAs, and that's more playing time than appears to be available to him.
The numbers work out about the same for 3,000 hits. Based on Henderson's three-year BA of .260, he'd need about 330 ABs to get the 85 hits he needs for 3,000. Unless Gwynn and someone else get hurt, or Henderson finds his lost bat speed and forces his way into more playing time, that's going to be a tough row to hoe.
Now, all of this is based on projecting Henderson's average performance forward, and that's not without its problems. Henderson's 1999 looks nothing like the two seasons surrounding it, and I think it's fair to say that his 2001 will have more in common with those other two. That said, we're talking about one of the top players of all time, and I'm reluctant to dismiss his chances of surprising us again.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.