The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Sunday, September 30, 2001

 

Oh Rickey, What A Pity They Don't Understand

Against the backdrop of Barry Bonds' quest to break Mark McGwire's single-season Home Run record, Rickey Henderson's own pursuit of a record hasn't received much attention. But it should. Henderson, already the all-time leader in Stolen Bases (a mark he's held for a decade) and Bases on Balls (a record he broke early this season), is poised to break Ty Cobb's record for the most Runs Scored in a career, at 2245 (or 2246, depending upon who's counting).

Think about that one for a moment. What's the object of baseball? It's not to accumulate more hits than your opponent, or more home runs. It's to score more runs than the other team. And Rickey is about to become the man who's done that more than anybody else. So why, outside of the stathead circles, is the record flying so far under the radar? I believe it's a combination of several factors, and I wanted to examine some of them in detail.

First, the Runs Scored record hasn't been threatened in quite a long time. Cobb, who last played in 1928, has held it since sometime in 1925, when he passed Cap Anson. Anson last played in 1897. It looks to me as if Anson broke Jim O'Rourke's record, in 1894. The record has changed hands only twice in the past 107 years, and the trail takes us back to players who were playing baseball at inception of the sport's professional era. Wow. Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth are--get this--tied for third on the list, at 2174. Pete Rose is fifth at 2165, then Willie Mays at 2062, then Anson, who finished with 1996. Aaron, Ruth, and Rose at least got within shouting distance of the record--one solid season could have broken it, but of course all of them were well beyond putting together solid seasons at that point and thus never really threats.

Second, there's the somewhat passive nature of the runs record--when we watch a ballgame, our attention is generally focused on the batter-pitcher confrontation and the connection of bat with ball. When a hit drives in a runner, it's only rarely--a throw to the plate or the opportunity to score the winning run--that we focus on the physical act of a player crossing the plate. With the exception of home runs (of which Rickey's hit 289, including 78 to lead off a ballgame), Rickey's runs took place with help from the rest of the team's offense, something Henderson has pointed out:

"It's more of a team record than an individual record, and I could never score as many runs as I have without my teammates," Henderson said. "If you play as a team and win as a team and lose as a team, you score the runs as a team. Maybe I'm the one that gets the number that goes with the record, but the team is most important."

In general, Runs Scored is an undervalued statistical category. It's not one of the so-called "Triple Crown" categories of Batting Average, Home Runs and Runs Batted In which the public identifies with, the numbers which are flashed on scoreboards and TV screens across the country when a player steps into the batter's box. Statheads (myself included) tend to rail against RBI as a meaningful statistic, saying that it has much to do with the neighbors one has in the batting order. But Runs Scored is simply the other side of the same coin, so isn't it a bit hypocritical for the same statheads to be the ones trumpeting this record? Probably so, though it's worth mentioning this difference: one can drive in a run while making an out, but one can't score a run having done so. Given that the statistical revolution of the past twenty-odd years values On Base Percentage (which is really the percentage of times a player doesn't make an out) so highly, it's understandable that the same people would celebrate the Runs Scored record.

Third, Henderson's chase has simply been overshadowed by Bonds' chase. The single-season Home Run record is a record, like Joe Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak, which transcends the normal boundaries of baseball, one whose numerical achievements are recognized by even the most casual of fans--60, 61, 70... The 1998 Home Run chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa made those two men household names and icons whose fame extends beyond the diamond. The man they surpassed, Roger Maris, was more infamous than famous when it came to breaking the HR record--he got death threats in 1961 when he chased Babe Ruth's record. Hank Aaron got death threats when he was chasing Babe Ruth's career Home Run record. The only threat Rickey seems to have gotten in his chase is the threat that it may escape notice altogether, the buzz surrounding it drowned out by a loud yawn.

Fourth, Henderson, like Bonds, isn't exactly the type of personality ready-made for a highly publicized pursuit of a record. Not that Rickey's ever been shy about self-promotion--who can forget his "I am the greatest" speech after breaking the steals record, in the presence of Lou Brock, the man he surpassed. But Rickey's complex personality also includes elements of surliness--his attitude has run him out of more than one baseball town--and the purely cryptic--talking to himself, referring to himself in the third person, and the various malapropisms and controviersies with which he's been (mis)credited.

Ah, yes, controversy. Rickey has seemed to find his share of it in the latter stages of his career. There's the story that Rickey was playing cards in the clubhouse with teammate Bobby Bonilla during the Mets extra-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves in 1999, perhaps the breaking point in a series of clashes with Mets manager Bobby Valentine. Henderson was pretty much run out of town after that one, though it took the first month of the 2000 season for that to happen (Henderson, in this sympathetic USA Today piece, refutes the card-game story). There's the Davey Lopes stolen base incident from earlier this season, in which Henderson stole second base in a game the Padres led the Milwaukee Brewers by seven runs. Manager Lopes came onfield and told Henderson that Brewer pitchers were going to drill him if he came to bat again.

Then there are the malapropisms and other verbal gaffes--the "tenure" story, and the Olerud helmet story, for example, both of which are detailed in the USA Today article and which I won't repeat here. Stories like these cast Henderson in the light of someone both unsophisticated and self-absorbed, hardly flattering traits for a superstar.

And then there's a story which combines both, and which sheds some light on the way Rickey has been treated by the media as his star has waned. Peter Gammons, in his August 3 column, reported this:

"What precipitated the Davey Lopes-Rickey Henderson blowup was that Rickey was sick and had been sleeping in the clubhouse when he was told he had to pinch-run for Tony Gwynn. Henderson, who is trying to get the career runs record, went to first base not knowing the score..."

The problem is that the story is false, and proving its falsehood is no more difficult than simply glancing at the box score and noting that Rickey was the starting leftfielder and leadoff hitter, and thus already in the game. Furthermore, given that one of Rickey's hits drove in the pinch-hiting Gwynn, he probably would have been aware of the game's score. Did Gammons ever retract his story, which was buried at the bottom of one of his notes columns? No, but that's nothing new with the self-styled dean of baseball columnists (for more about that, read this piece from the beginning of the season in the New York Press). Shoddy "journalism" like this, whether it's mean-spirited or simply devoted to adding to the Henderson lore, makes clear the possibility that Henderson, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, didn't say everything he said.

Fifth, baseball in general has been overshadowed by the events of September 11. No one really seems to be in the mood for records. The lack of enthusiasm over Bonds' historic chase is a better barometer of this; the previous record-breaking effort was surrounded by a media circus the likes of which this one hasn't seen.

Finally, there's the notion that Rickey's simply been hanging on just to get the record, not to mention surpass the 3,000th hit mark (he's three hits shy right now) before the end of the season. Henderson's critics point to his .232 batting average as evidence that the man is no longer worthy of a major league job. But a closer look at the numbers is revealing. Yes, Henderson's only hitting .232, but his On Base Percentage is .369, only 34 points off of his career OBP, and much higher than the leadoff hitters of several contending team. Does anyone really think that contending teams like the Dodgers (.304 OBP for their leadoff hitters), Giants (.309 ), Phils (.312), Braves (.321), Cubs (.324), and Diamondbacks (.327)--for example--couldn't have used an extra 30-40 times on base at the top of their lineup to separate themselves from the pack?

Hell, half the teams in the majors would benefit from having their leadoff hitters strapped into chairs with their eyes pried open, Clockwork Orange-style, and being forced to watch tapes of Rickey working pitchers for a walk. Yes, America, you can steal first base, through a little-known technique called "plate discipline."

Henderson was a free agent when the season began and could have been had by any of the aforementioned teams for a minimal price; of course, not every one of them could have made it work, given that Henderson's a leftfielder with below-average defensive skills, and some of those teams have pretty good LFs in place--guys like Bonds and Gary Sheffield and Luis Gonzalez.

Leftfield is in fact one of the prime offensive spots, and so while Henderson's sabermetric stats this season are respectable and show him to be above-average for a major league hitter [his Offensive Winning Percentage is .541 (ESPN), his Equivalent Average is .276 (Baseball Prospectus)], they also show him to be below-average for a leftfielder. The Equivalent Average/Equivalent Runs methodology used by Baseball Prospectus (which takes into account things like playing time, league context, and park effects), shows Rickey to be 4.4 runs below his positional average. Still, that's not too bad, given that the "average leftfielder" baseline includes Bonds' performance, quite possibly the Greatest Season Ever. It's also not too bad given the performance several contending teams have gotten out of their LFs (all totals rounded to the nearest whole):

Seattle: Mark McLemore is 17 runs above average, but the plethora of players Seattle has run out there this year drag their overall total down to 5 runs above average.
New York Yankees--Knoblauch and Spencer, combined 19 runs below average
Oakland: Damon 15 runs below average, with a hell of a lot of work just to get there
Cleveland: Cordova and Cabrera, combined 6 runs below average
Boston: O'Leary -15 runs
Anaheim: Anderson -10 runs
Minnesota: Jones -19 runs

Again, to suggest that every one of these teams could have found significant playing time for Henderson this season--or next, given that Rickey has indicated his desire to continue playing--is not my point. But Rickey should have a job somewhere in the big leagues next year if he wants one; it may not be as an everyday leadoff hitter, but there's not a ballclub out there who couldn't use him on their roster in some role.

So we're left with one of the game's all-time greats (albeit an underappreciated one), about to break one of the game's most important all-time records (albeit an underappreciated one). If you're a fan of great players and great records (and why the hell have you read this far if you're not?), do yourself a favor and pay attention to this one--it's as worthy as Bonds' home run chase.

Note: I've repurposed a good portion of what I've presented here from my contribution to two Rickey-related threads on Baseball Primer's Clutch Hits discussion boards. My thanks in particular to Rich Rifkin, Robert Dudek, and someone known to me only as "jdw" for helping to shape my views on this topic through our spirited debate.

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