Like every Hall of Famer before him except the posthumously picked Lou Gehrig, Rickey Henderson wasn’t voted into the Hall unanimously. But if the point of playing offense in baseball is to get on base and score, then Henderson, who did get 95% of the vote this month, in his first year of eligibility, is the game’s poster boy. Henderson stole more bases and scored more runs than any player in history, and only Barry Bonds got more walks.
Sabermetricians have made a credible argument against base stealing: an unsuccessful steal does more to discourage scoring than a successful swipe does to promote it. Specific to Henderson, the analysts at Baseball Prospectus posit in a chapter of Baseball Between the Numbers that Henderson’s steals did not significantly contribute to more wins for his teams since he was also caught stealing more times, 335, than any player in history. (Here Henderson echoes Cy Young, the all-time leader in wins, 511, and losses, 316). A Hall of Fame voter who focuses only on Henderson’s seemingly insurmountable steals record of 1,406 and not his total contribution–including his runs and walks marks and his 3,055 hits (practically a Hall of Fame lock, itself)–may not be so impressed.
Still, no sabermetrician–or fan or player or coach–doubts the value of moving into scoring position. Dave Roberts defined the value of a well-timed swipe when he stole second for the Red Sox against the Yankees in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and sparked the greatest comeback in the history of baseball.
Moreover, a player can’t steal if he isn’t on base. Henderson benefited from a consistently excellent on-base percentage–.401 for his career (56th all-time). That’s what comes of a solid .279 career batting average and the most unintentional walks, 2,129, in the history of baseball. And sabermetricians love walks and high on-base percentages, even if they eye steals with suspicion.
But here’s what I find especially fascinating about Henderson’s career steals mark: Henderson’s margin over runner-up Lou Brock. Brock stole 938 bases in his career and Henderson stole 49.9 percent more than that (one more steal, and it would have been an even 50.0 percent). That looks like the biggest difference between first and second in the major league record book.
The difference between Henderson’s 1,406 steals in 25 seasons and Brock’s 938 steals in 19 seasons is 468–a raw difference higher than the career steals marks of all but 40 other players. At Brock’s rate of steals per game, he’d have had to play about 8 more seasons to reach Henderson’s total.
How does that 49.9% difference compare to the margins of other major baseball career records? Consider these numbers–first, second, and what first would have to be to equal Henderson’s percentage margin over Brock:
49.9% Steals (1406 / 938 / 1406)
22.5% Wins (511 / 417 / 625)
22.2% Shutouts (110 / 90 / 135)
19.3% Strikeouts by a Pitcher (5714 / 4789 / 7178)
16.8% Walks (2558 / 2190 / 3283)
15.9% Complete Games (749 / 646 / 968)
14.9% Saves (554 / 482 / 722)
12.6% Strikeouts by a Batter (2597 / 2306 / 3456)
11.8% Total Bases (6856 / 6134 / 9194)
11.0% Win/Loss % (.796 / .717 / 1.075)
10.3% Slugging % (.699 / .634 / .950)
6.2% Doubles (792 / 746 / 1,118)
5.3% Singles (3215 / 3053 / 4576)
4.7% Triples (309 / 295 / 442)
4.3% OPS (On-Base % Plus Slugging %) (1.164 / 1.116 / 1.672)
3.7% ERA (1.82 / 1.89 / 0.943)
3.6% RBI (2297 / 2217 / 3323)
3.5% Hits/9 Inn. (6.56 / 6.79 / 3.39)
3.2% WHIP (Walks + Hits Per Inning Pitched) (0.97 / 1.00 / 0.499)
2.7% Strikeouts/9 Inn. (10.67 / 10.39 / 15.57)
2.6% Extra-Base Hits (1477 / 1440 / 2158)
2.2% Batting Average (.366 / .359 /.537)
2.2% Runs (2295 / 2246 / 3367)
1.9% Losses (316 / 310 / 465)
1.6% On-Base % (.482 / .474 / .710)
1.6% Hits (4256 / 4189 / 6279)
0.9% Home Runs (762 / 755 / 1132)
0.8% Walks/9 Inn. (0.49 / 0.49/ 0.24)
This list includes many of the greatest of the greats–Babe Ruth (Slugging %, OPS), Hank Aaron (RBI, Total Bases), Ty Cobb (Batting Average), Ted Williams (On-Base %), Walter Johnson (Shutouts), Nolan Ryan (Strikeouts, Hits/9 Inn.)–but no margin comes close to Henderson’s.
Stephen Jay Gould called Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941 the “greatest factual achievement in the history of baseball.” And how much more do we appreciate Dimaggio’s streak because he surpassed the previous record holder, Willie Keeler, by such a wide margin (11 games) and because that margin hasn’t been diminished since? But it doesn’t compare to Henderson’s.
Are there any career records in non-major (a debatable term, of course) categories that approach Henderson’s steals margin? One comes to mind. Barry Bonds’s intentional-walk milestone, 688, is a stunning 134.8% better than the 293 of runner-up Hank Aaron. Bonds owns six of the top eight single-season marks in that category, and the 120 of his top season, 2004, is 167.7% better than the highest total by someone other than Bonds–Willie McCovey’s 45 in 1969.
What to make of that? If Bonds’s power numbers are tainted by his alleged steroid use, are his IW totals tainted too?