During our 2009 election, which features the Man of Steal himself, I’ve been thinking a lot about Rickey Henderson’s amazing career. Bill James famously said that we could split Rickey in two and get two Hall of Fame careers out of it. That’s because one thing the marvelous features of his career is how many things he was really good at.
Most famously, Rickey could run the bases like crazy, and he leads all comers in BBREF’s base running runs (144). But did you know he racked up as much hitting value in his career (555 batting runs above average, per BBREF) as Chipper Jones (558) or Mark McGwire (546)? Rickey could also really run the ball down in the outfield. My own fielding soup (DRA with a little BBREF rfield thrown in plus a few special modifications I made myself) yields about 150 runs in total fielding, too. About the only thing Rickey didn’t do well was throw, and BBREF has him at only -19 for his career in that department. I say only because that’s less than a run a year over his lengthy career.
For the Hall of Miller and Eric, I’ve created a dataset of the really important hitters in history. I used it to see how unusual Rickey’s balance of skills was. I took only players whose careers started after 1945 since that’s roughly the cutoff for the play-by-play data that informs the base running values. That left about 350 position players, current or retired. It’s not everyone, but it’s pretty much everyone we might care about.
First off, I took the batting (BBREF’s rbat + its rDP values), base running (BBREF’s rbaser), and fielding (my own mixture) for all these guys. Then Excel nicely calculated the variance among those figures for each of our players (aka: standard deviation). Your top five here are not exactly the most exciting bunch:
NAME BAT RUN FLD STDEV ====================================== Don Hoak 2 -3 5 4.2 Al Dark 13 13 4 5.0 Ed Charles 23 8 21 8.3 Travis Fryman 26 6 27 11.8 Wally Moses -15 -3 9 11.9
Yeah, about that…. Turns out that the nearer you are to an average player, the easier it is to have a narrower range of run values for each part of the game. Rickey is #321 on this list near thumpers like Kiner, McGriff, and Vlad Guerrero. The most balanced players with a Hall-level career on the list are guys like Willie Davis (29th), Willie Randolph (57th), and Ichiro (81st).
You’re least balanced players by this method? Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Frank Thomas, and Manny Ramirez.
Thing is, though, it’s hard to claim balance for a player when one part of his game contributes negative value or when two parts of his game dwarf the third. And also, I wanted guys who were standouts in every phase of the game. So I took another tactic. First I looked for players who had only positive values in each of our three categories. That brought it down to 106 players. Next I looked to see how many players had earned 50 runs in every category. Now this is an exclusive group:
NAME BAT RUN FLD RAA %BAT %RUN %FLD ========================================================= Willie Mays 800 77 227 1104 72% 7% 21% Rickey Henderson 559 144 152 856 65% 17% 18% Barry Larkin 204 80 82 366 56% 22% 22% Ichiro Suzuki 166 61 98 326 51% 19% 30% Kenny Lofton 163 78 61 303 54% 26% 20% Willie Davis 77 62 121 261 30% 24% 46%
I think we’d have to call Willie Davis the most balanced player by looking at the percentages. But the percentages don’t tell the story the right way. I want to know who was great all-around. Of all these guys, only one scores a triple-triple—only Rickey Henderson manages 100 plus runs in each facet of the game. In fact, he reached 14 wins’ worth of value above average in each phase of baseball. That’s downright amazing. How amazing? These guys all finished with about 140 runs above average in their entire careers:
- Don Baylor
- Eric Chavez
- Ron Fairly
- Curt Flood
- Ken Griffey, Sr.
- Davey Lopes
- Vada Pinson
- Tino Martinez
- Vic Wertz
These players—All-Stars, Gold Glove winners, and up-ballot MVP candidates—had entire careers that added up to as much value as Rickey’s legs. His glove is worth a Paul Blair or a Jim Fregosi. And his bat by itself equals Eddie Mathews’ total value.
Now if you want to pick Willie Mays to be your guy in this little nerd out, I won’t blame you at all. That’s a lot of fielding sitting there, no doubt about it. And while Mays is twelfth in base running since 1946, he still trails Rickey by 67 runs on the bags. That’s why, when it comes to being Mr. Everything, the Man of Steal is hard to catch.