To Catch A Thief

Christmas is not the only cause for celebration on December 25th. One of the most unique players in baseball history celebrates his birthday around the Christmas tree, Rickey Henderson. The career leader in Runs, Stolen Bases, Caught Stealing, and Self-Confidence turns 58 today.

The legendary speedster terrorized opposing pitchers and catchers for 25 seasons. Rickey Henderson’s game was built upon speed, confidence, and skill. Henderson had a career .279 BA and .401 OBP. Simply put, he got on base and then used his speed to help his team win.

Getting on base by a walk or a hit did not matter to Henderson, his job was to just get on base any way he could. The ability to know the strike zone means not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Avoiding bad pitches forces the pitcher to throw strikes if they are serious about getting the batter out. However, his speed on the bases meant pitchers did not want to give Henderson a free pass which led to 3,055 hits and 297 career home runs. Force is mass times acceleration and Rickey Henderson had enough speed to spare for some added power. Pitchers were forced to decide if they wanted to play with speed or power, neither was a good option.

Ricky Henderson
Ricky Henderson never needed any extra advantage on the base paths. (www.90feetofperfection.com)

Rickey Henderson is second all time with 2,190 walks. He led the American League four times in walks and had seven seasons of 100 or more walks. A walk for a player with the speed and skill of Henderson was just as good as a hit. Henderson averaged 0.456 steals per game in his 25 season career. A walk meant a high probability of a man on second in the near future, so there was not much difference between a walk and a double.

The speed that made Henderson a Hall of Famer was never in short supply. Henderson stole 50 or more bases in 14 seasons and for three of those seasons he stole more than 100. He led the league in steals 12 times, and holds the all time record for most career steals with 1,406. Hall of Famer Lou Brock has the second most career steals with 938; Brock’s career total is about two-thirds of Henderson’s career total. It took Lou Brock 19 seasons to collect his 938 steals, whereas it only took Henderson 13 seasons to catch and pass Brock. Henderson played 12 more seasons after surpassing Brock’s record. The longevity of Henderson’s career has made the task of breaking the steals record among the most difficult records to break in all of baseball. Henderson first led the American League in steals in 1980 with 100 steals at 21 years old. He led the American League for the 12th and final time in 1998 with 66 steals at 39 years old. Even as he approached the twilight of his career, Henderson continued to run, he stole 109 bases after turning 40 years old.

Getting on base and stealing bases is exciting, but scoring runs is what matters most to the team. Henderson led the American League five times in runs scored, scored 100 or more runs in 13 seasons, and holds the all time career record with 2,295 runs scored. Getting on base means opportunities to score runs. Stealing a base or taking the extra base only increases the chance to score and puts pressure on the pitching and fielding.

rickey-henderson-getty3
The self-proclaimed Greatest of All Time. (www.SI.com)

Examining the career or single season numbers for Rickey Henderson from now until eternity can only do so much to convince a person of his greatness. The true test of greatness is continued success despite the opponent knowing what you are trying to do. Much like Mariano Rivera throwing the cutter, the opposition knew when Henderson was going to steal and were mostly powerless to stop him. Henderson was successfully in 80.75% of his stolen base attempts; a success rate above 65% is considered good. Everyone in the ball park knew Henderson was going to steal when he got on, yet opposing pitchers and catchers could do little to prevent him from running wild. Henderson’s speed on the bases meant pitchers had to pay attention to him otherwise a walk could result with a man on second or third.

Rickey Henderson was elected to 10 All Star games, won the 1990 American League Most Valuable Player award, and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in an era that placed the emphasis on power not speed. He was not a return to the dead ball era of baseball where speed carried the day; rather Rickey Henderson was something baseball had never seen, and most likely never will again. Many players arrive in the Majors with the ability to steal bases and develop their home run power later. Only a select few have the ability to maintain their speed while developing that power. It’s a rare sight to see them causing havoc on the bases for 10 seasons, much less 25.

Happy Birthday to the Greatest of All Time

DJ

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