Rickey Said He Was the Greatest…And He Isn’t Too Far Off

Oakland Athletics

                 “My impact on the game was going out there and making things happen”
Rickey Henderson is a lot of things. Rickey is entertaining. Rickey is a Hall of Famer. Rickey is baseball’s all-time stolen base leader. But is Rickey the greatest of all time? After breaking Lou Brock’s career stolen base record, he declared just that:
Sure, in May of 1991, this seemed like a ludicrous statement. We all knew Rickey was a great base stealer and a future Hall of Famer, but declaring yourself the greatest back then just seemed cocky(which it was). Normally when you think of the greatest in baseball history, names like Ruth, Aaron, Williams, Mays and Mantle all come to mind, but the more you think about, putting Henderson in that list isn’t as far fetched as it seemed back in 1991. When it comes to a complete player, Rickey is on that short list of players who can make that argument.
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To really dive into this, we need to define our parameters. This isn’t the player who meant the most to the game or dominated his era; that would go to Babe Ruth, who while being one of the greatest ever, was not a five tool player. It isn’t who was the best fielder or best hitter either; those are singular sections of the game that don’t encompass a complete player. A complete player is one who does a bit of everything and does them really well. Running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, and fielding are the five tools and very few players are able to show greatness at all of them. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey, Jr. would join Henderson on this short list of players who were able to be a complete package. Obviously most on this list might have one tool they were maybe average at, but greatness at the other four made it easier to look past it. So let’s break down these players numbers…
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Let’s start with the obvious, which is running speed. If we just went by stolen bases Rickey would run away(deliberate and expected pun) with the category. I decided to dig a bit deeper into this category though, so lets look at ‘Runs from Baserunning'(Rbaser). Comparing the six players mentioned above,Henderson is the easy winner with 144 over his career. In fact this race isn’t even close, as the next closest in this category is Willie Mays at 77. The surprising player in this department is Ken Griffey Jr. who only compiled a 16 over his 22 year career. In fact Griffey had numerous seasons in the negative, mostly later in his career once his injuries started piling up. We could check a few more numbers relating to base running, but I’m pretty sure we end up at the same spot, with Rickey at the top of the mountain. No big surprise there.
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Arm strength wasn’t one of Rickey’s strong points, as he probably had an average throwing arm at best. Maybe the best way to decipher this is to look at assists in a season. Hank Aaron sits atop this leader board with 201 assists over his career while Rickey is next to last on this list. Mantle sits lower than Henderson, but Mickey also played 8 less years then Henderson which plays into his 117 assists compared to Rickey’s 131. Since we are already on fielding, lets compare these players using dWAR first. Henderson has a -3.4 career dWAR, but he is not alone on the negative side of the board. Both Aaron and Mantle also reside there, -4.8 and -10.1 respectively. Willie May’s blows away the competition here, as he has a career dWAR of 18.1! Bonds is next at 6.7 and Griffey at 1.3. I should also mention here that how you feel about this is probably predetermined on how you feel about defensive metrics. In my mind defensive metrics help show a player’s value, but I also think they are a work in progress. We can all probably agree that Mays was probably the defensive superior out of this bunch; that’s probably not even really up for argument. But do you feel as if Griffey was just a barely better than average defender? Or that Mantle was a horrendous defender? Probably not, although both players were slowed down by injuries late in their career. I decided to go a bit deeper defensively so I decided to check each player’s UZR rating(Ultimate Zone Rating, putting a run value to defense, attempting to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up through their fielding prowess, or lack thereof). Using UZR(TZ before 2002) showed us basically the same thing that dWAR showed us; Mays and Bonds are the superior defenders, while Mantle and Griffey were the bottom of this list. Both Bonds and Mays were in the 180’s with their UZR while Griffey and Mantle were in the negatives. Henderson floated in between, sitting at 63.4, lower than Aaron but better than Griffey. What I take from all of this is that Henderson was probably an average defender, maybe even slightly above average who was aided by his speed early in his career, especially when it came to range. I think this also points out that our perspective on Ken Griffey Jr. was from early in his career when he was a defensive daredevil. His later years(mainly once he was traded to the Reds) showed a defender who was a shadow of his former self. Injuries can do that to even the greatest of players.
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Now lets look at hitting for average.The easiest way to do this is by batting average, with most of this group hitting between .298 and .305. The only two with career batting averages below that is Griffey at .284 and Henderson at .279. You have to think that Rickey hanging on and playing those last 4 years didn’t help him, as he posted his lowest hitting averages those years. But I don’t think average really covers this whole section, so lets dig deeper. A big part of a consistently quality hitter is someone who can get on base, so I figured I would check these players career On-Base Percentage(OBP). No surprise that Barry Bonds would lead here with a .444 career OBP, with Mantle second at .421 and Rickey coming in third at .401. Henderson did lead the league 4 times in walks and 7 times had seasons where he accumulated over 100 walks. Obviously Rickey knew how to get on base and was a master at it.
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Time to move on to hitting with power, and I don’t think I am going on a ledge by saying that Rickey probably won’t match up as well with the other players in this category. Considering the other 5 players in this comparison all have at least 500 home runs and 4 of those have over 600, it’s safe to say Rickey will lack a bit here, since his career total is at 297 career home runs. Now Rickey does hold the career record for home runs leading off a game with 81, which is a nice consolation prize. But I think we can go a step further since power alone isn’t defined by home runs. Lets check these players career slugging percentage and see where Henderson stands. Not a shock here but Henderson lags far behind, as his percentage sits at .419 while the next closest is Ken Griffey Jr. at .538. Barry Bonds career slugging percentage is sick, an insane .607! One last test; since OPS is widely used anymore(on-base percentage + slugging percentage) I figured we could check these players’ career OPS+, which will factor in the league averages during these players era’s while also factoring in the ballparks. With 100 equaling average, every player is above that with Henderson the lowest at 127. But he isn’t too far off from Griffey at 136, Aaron at 155 and Mays at 156. So what these numbers tell us is that Henderson, who had good power for a leadoff hitter, was not at the elite level power-wise as most of the greats of the game. This isn’t much of a surprise but shows that Henderson obviously affected the game from a different perspective than the bigger hitters in baseball history.
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So it comes down to this, one last comparison, one that will digest every part of a players contribution to his team(s), WAR. Lets preface this by saying that the WAR stat is not perfect and not the end all be all of statistics. But it is a stat that can quantify just how much of a complete player he is, and until another statistic pops up that breaks it down even more, it is the best assessment of what we are looking for here.  What WAR tells us is that Barry Bonds and Willie Mays are in a league of their own, with 162.4 and 156.2 respectively, followed by Hank Aaron at 142.6, then Henderson at 110.8, Mantle at 109.7 and Griffey down at 83.6. Rickey isn’t the elite here, but he is right in the middle of the pack and holds his own with the greats of the game.
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So what did we learn from this little exercise? For one, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays are quite possible the two most complete players in baseball history, as they did everything above average when they played. Maybe the most surprising item from this is that Ken Griffey Jr., soon to be a member of the Hall of Fame in 2016, was really hurt late in his career by all the injuries. And Rickey Henderson? He is the greatest basestealer of all-time, taking what Lou Brock did to another level. He is the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, a man who redefined what that even means. While he might not be the greatest player we have ever seen, he holds his own with the other 5 tool players I compared him to. Rickey isn’t the greatest like he said he was, but he was pretty damn close and that means almost as much. At some point a player will break his stolen base record or a leadoff hitter will hit more home runs to lead off a game; records are made to be broken. But there will only ever be one Rickey Henderson, just the way Rickey likes it.

No Baseball Makes Me Crazy!

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This happens every year. Some time in January, I start to get “baseball antsy”. What that means(since I just coined the term) is I get to a point where not even Hot Stove talk keeps me satisfied. I get to a point where the only thing that can keep me from going completely out of my mind(or crazy insane, got no brain) is for Spring Training to get here…or for me to create baseball stories to keep me occupied. Now, I’m not saying this is healthy. In fact, I can feel them sizing me up for a straightjacket. But it keeps me even keeled and able to function like a normal human being, not as a baseball junkie who is frothing at the mouth and needs his fix. Hey, just because I daydream of Tim Kurkjian being my best friend doesn’t mean I have a problem!

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Okay, I have a problem. Anyway, here is my delusional baseball dreams that have kept my mind occupied the last couple of weeks. I promise none have Tim Kurkjian playing doctor. That even disturbs me.

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Puig is My Surfing Buddy

Yasiel Puig is misunderstood. Sure, he seems cocky and one of the few people in the world to pull off pink jorts. The jorts make me think that he is probably a great surfer. I’ve never surfed, but I have a feeling Puig can do everything at least fairly good(once again, pink jorts). I picture him teaching me the way of the ocean, where I learn to listen to her and connect with my inner chi. Not only would I learn how to surf, but we would have long discussions about the true meaning of life and why Jack Johnson is just misunderstood as a musician. I would probably ruin it by saying that Bo Jackson was a better athlete than him, but before that we would start a Beach Boys cover band with less Brian Wilson substance(you can take that either way; they both fit in this scenario). All in all, it would be a great five days on the beach. I’m going to go practice saying ‘Puig’ like Vin Scully now…

Alex Rodriguez

A-Rod Was Framed 

Most of us are pretty sure that Alex Rodriguez wasn’t framed and that he probably had this coming at some point, karma and all. But what if this was all an elaborate setup like we see on the fifty gajillion crime shows on television? Here we go: baseball Commissioner Allan Huber Selig is fed up with Rodriguez’s great play and his ability to serenade a mirror. The last straw is Rodriguez stealing Selig’s supermodel wife away from him because she isn’t fond of Wisconsin as a whole. Selig plots to get A-Rod banned from the game that he loves. He starts by getting the media to believe that Rodriguez is fake and the least genuine person you have ever met. After that seed is placed, he uses water torture to get A-Rod to admit to steroid use during his time with the Texas Rangers. When that doesn’t get him to retire, Selig hatches his grand finale. He hires a comedic actor to play Tony Bosch. I’m picturing someone with range like Dom DeLuise. At first no one believes this Bosch character, but then Selig schedules a 60 Minutes interview for Bosch and himself the day after having Rodriguez suspended for the 2014 season. In the interview, “Bosch” pulls off a great performance and have people actually believing that A-Rod was a big time substance abuser.  Selig  makes an appearance as well and makes it sound like Rodriguez is the worst person he has ever meet, just because the supermodel doesn’t find six different kinds of cheese fascinating. Selig even pays off A-Rod’s lawyer to be even shadier than he usually is, so now everyone thinks Alex is worse than Hitler. Of course this means a sleuth detective needs to get on the case and try to clear A-Rod’s good name. What is Monk up to these days?

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Baseball Celebrates First Cyborg Player

It was easy to wonder why Chris Davis had such a breakout season in 2013. For years Davis was a mild mannered, free-swinging giant of a man that could crush the ball whenever he wasn’t helping out the breeze around the ballpark. What looked to be hard work and better plate discipline turns out to be that the ‘Real’ Chris Davis died a few years ago and Cyborg Davis took his place. Half-man, half-machine, Davis is now a power hitting threat with no real emotion at the plate. Machines aren’t perfect, which explains the 199 strikeouts, and he sometimes needs oiled when out on defense. Since baseball rules say nothing about Cyborg’s being against the rules, Davis will be allowed to play again in 2014 with opposing pitchers now knowing his weakness against the knuckle-ball and bad accents. He’s also playing for the perfect manager, Buck Showalter, who is also part robot. Expect the Orioles expenses to go up this year, as they have to add WD-40 to their team rider.  Time will only tell is Davis ends up taking his real name, F630Z.

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Wilson Gets Off-Season Job 

Years and years ago, most baseball players had to get a job in the off-season. Back then players didn’t get paid as much so they needed some extra scratch to get them through the entire year. Lou Brock operated a flower shop. Paul Splittorff used to work in a dairy. Davey Lopes was a teacher. Nowadays this doesn’t happen as much, but it didn’t stop Brian Wilson from working kid’s birthday parties as a clown. It really isn’t hard to picture Wilson putting on a rubber red nose and the big floppy shoes. Actually, he’s been close before-

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Granted, that’s a bit more “selling men’s aftershave” than “clown for kid’s birthday party”, but you can tell he loves dressing up. I’m sure the kids would love the crazy baseball player who can tell them not only about pitching in the World Series but taking Big Foot to an awards show as well-

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Kids will love him, dammit! If anything, this gives Brian something to fall back on once his arm finally falls off and the beard just doesn’t amuse us anymore. Now, he needs to see just how many people he can get into his car at once…

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Hunting With Neddy 

It really wouldn’t be a successful off-season unless you get to go hunting with Royals manager Ned Yost. Neddaniel normally goes with pal Jeff Foxworthy, but I tend to think I would run him off. I can only imagine that Yost is a better hunter than baseball manager, so I could learn a thing or two while out in the rough with Yosty. For one, he only has focus on one main thing instead of a bunch of small things. You also wouldn’t need to bunt while in the wilderness. I also wouldn’t have to talk baseball with him, which will save me from losing my mind. Just focus on the hunting and we can be simpatico. Even better, Neddy wouldn’t have to deal with the media.  Nope, the only issue would be him naming the deer as they frolic by. I will have a hard time keeping my trap shut when he refers to a deer as ‘Wil Myers’. On the plus side of that, I would look forward to shooting the deer named ‘Frenchy’. Good to see Yost spends his off-season not thinking about baseball. It’s not like there is any pressure on this upcoming season or anything. On second thought, the best part of this trip might be if I just pull a ‘Dick Cheney’. It wouldn’t be the first time Dale Sveum was asked to step in for ‘The Man They Call Yost’.

Streaker  Photo by Rick Giase

Okay baseball, time to come back. I’m already having dreams of doing bad things to Ned Yost. That’s a sign that I need a distraction. How about you come back here in a few weeks and we can discuss how everyone is in ‘The best shape of his life’. Or how Carl Pavano will get hurt this year. Or how Luke Hochevar is ‘just about to turn the corner’. Baseball, you are my sanity…

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