My co-author Giuseppe wrote a great piece the other day about how hard it will be for another pitcher to reach 300 wins which got me thinking about some other records that might never be eclipsed.
Baseball is very proud of its records. It is why the steroid crisis of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s brought so much shame to the sport. Mark McGwire was treated like a hero as he broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record – who was treated at the time like a villain because he was undoing the record of the immortal Babe Ruth. Then we found out (and really kind of knew) his 70 home runs in 1998 were tainted.
The opposite of power is speed, and stolen bases have been a part of baseball for a long time as well. Rickey Henderson sits atop that all-time stolen base list at an astounding 1,406. That is nearly 500 more than the next closest person, Lou Brock, at 938.
In fact, the list goes down quickly after the first four names on the list. 2017 Hall of Fame inductee Tim Raines is 5th at 808, but by 18th on the list, you have Juan Pierre at 614. By contrast, the 18th person on the home run list is MICKEY MANTLE.
Stolen bases have certainly fallen out of favor. As players get paid more and more money – often based much more on those home runs than stolen bases, it simply makes economic sense. Furthermore, as sabermetricians point out the most important part of baseball is getting on base – so why would you ever chance losing that privilege?(See also sacrifice bunts).
Billy Hamilton – the one playing for the Reds – not the late 1800’s Kansas City Blues speedster who said
“I’ll have you know sir that I was and will be the greatest stealer of all time. I did stole [sic] over 100 bases on many years and if they ever re-count the record I will get my just reward.” – Sliding Billy Hamilton in Sliding Billy Hamilton: The Life and Times of Baseball’s First Great Leadoff Hitter (Roy Kerr, McFarland Publishing, 12/04/2009, Page 140)
might be out next best bet. He has just 184 though through 3+ seasons. Even if he averaged 57 stolen bases every season for 10 more seasons (current average is 57, and that is with only playing an average of 128 games a season) he would only be at 6th on the list at 754, nestled between The Rock and Vince Coleman. More telling of the insurmountable record that Henderson accumulated is noting that Hamilton would still be just over HALFWAY to Henderson’s mark!
Mike Trout amazed us all his 2011 Rookie of the Year season when he hit 30 home runs and stole 49 bases, but he bulked up and has seen his steals drop since then. Last year he got them back up to 30 after a lead leaguing and career best 116 walks, but it appears he is no current threat to undo the record.
The last time an MLB player stole over 100 bases in a season was 1987 when Vince Coleman did it, and that is what is really necessary to gain significant ground on this record. Will that one ever be done again either? Doubtful.
The game of baseball goes in waves, and as home runs dominated for a couple of decades, the pendulum is shifting more towards defense, speed, and smart base running on the offensive side of things. Last year 36-year-old Rajai Davis led the American League with 42 stolen bases before a memorable post-season home run that went for naught in Game 7 of the World Series.
The numbers certainly seem against ever getting back to Rickey Henderson level, as advanced scouting is better than ever before, defensive shifts can keep runners close, etc., but the fast ones still find a way to get it done. One fact that was encouraging about Hamilton is that after 23 caught stealing’s his first full season in 2014, he was only caught 8 times each of the past two seasons. His OBP crept up over .300 last year and he managed 36 walks. Remember – Mike Trout walked 116 times last season.
Hamilton seems to be the best bet to crack the top 10 of the all-time stolen base leaders, but even that with his injury history and inability to show patience at the plate. Perhaps the next leader we just don’t know about yet? Tampa Bay’s Mallex Smith stole 92 bases in the minors in 2014 for the Padres but has yet to show he can hit Major League pitching and already traded for the second time in his young career. The race is on.