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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

16 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Bill N

Since they probably can't match him in talent, those 10 players could attempt to work on their eccentricity. Maybe someday soon we'll hear, "No Grady don't like that call", or Curtis Granderson shake hands with people in his dugout on his home run trot.

Jul 24, 2009 10:15 AM
rating: 2
 
strupp

Second the eccentricity part... Manny might be the only one who comes close, and he's more crazy than eccentric.

Jay... let's be honest... this has the potential to be the greatest HoF speech ever, right?

Jul 24, 2009 11:34 AM
rating: 2
 
Dr. Dave

So, is Tim Raines the all-time Rickeyest player? Or is it some Tris Speaker type from the days of yore? (Cobb and Wagner probably gain too much power when you translate them forward...)

Jul 24, 2009 11:43 AM
rating: 1
 
Dr. Dave

D'oh, should have guessed Slidin' Billy Hamilton...

Jul 24, 2009 11:44 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Good answer. Follow-up article on Tuesday...

Jul 27, 2009 19:33 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

I got my money on Tony Phillips...

Jul 27, 2009 23:35 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I didn't run the numbers on him until your suggestion. Luckily for my sanity and our editors (the article is in the pipeline), he didn't even make the top 10 due to the infrequency with which he ran and the low success rate (~60 percent) when he did.

Jul 28, 2009 08:02 AM
 
SC

Perhaps an eleventh category: Third person references per media interview. Rickey always knew that Rickey could talk about Rickey in a way that only Rickey would really understand and appreciate, said Rickey.

Jul 24, 2009 11:47 AM
rating: 1
 
Calkid
(502)

I loved watching Rickey play when I was growing up. I hope that people when people think of Rickey in the future, they focus more on his amazing career and athleticism rather than his quotes. Yogi Berra was a fantastic player, but it seems like that people have forgotten this over time and instead remember the "Yogi-isms."

Rickey was just a phenomenal player. It still boggles my mind that Mark McGwire appeared in more All Star games than Rickey.

Jul 24, 2009 11:55 AM
rating: 1
 
Evan
(47)

I would suggest that this could be improved by looking only at unintentional walks.

Jul 24, 2009 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

The Davenport translations don't even consider intentional walks, so there's no need to worry, they're aldready out of the equation.

Jul 24, 2009 13:39 PM
 
frqtflyr

Terrific analysis as ever. But I wonder if the Moneyball de-emphasis on stealing bases alters the dynamic in any way. Metrics have found ways to adjust for park effect, dead balls, etc, but not necessarily managerial philosophy

Jul 24, 2009 12:51 PM
rating: 0
 
bennoj

If you could split Rickey in two, then only 48% of players would have been on steroids...

Jul 24, 2009 13:01 PM
rating: -1
 
SoxOsPhils

Does anyone have any thoughts on the ridiculously high SB% for Werth and Beltran? Do you think it is because they pick their spots (only steal on pitchers slow to the plate) or is there something else?

Jul 24, 2009 15:08 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

Dunno about Beltran, but there's something to be said about the recent Phillies in general. IIRC, their last two teams are the top two in SB% since 1954, which may owe to the fact that their first base coach is Davey Lopes, one of the greatest percentage base stealers of all time - 83.0 percent career, with three years of 40+ steals and just 4 CS, and at one point the MLB record with 38 straight steals. Dude knows how to read a pitcher's move, to say the least.

Jul 24, 2009 17:59 PM
 
tylernu

Finally, the moment I've been waiting for--I can now safely call B.J. Upton a poor man's Rickey Henderson.

Jul 24, 2009 23:58 PM
rating: 0
 
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