Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Henderson

My posts of the last two days were scavenged from the thoughts of others:
1. The Adam Dunn--1+ HR, BB and KO in a game, courtesy of Comcast SportsNet Chicago's Christopher Kamka (@ckamka)
2. The Greg Maddux--9+ IP shutout with 99 or fewer pitches, courtesy of Jason Lukehart (@JasonLukehart)
I've mentioned before how a guy like me without a platform is lucky to get around 200 views on a post (less if it's on the NFL-A LOT LESS), up to 400-500 if the subject matter is interesting (a constantly shifting target) and break 1,000 views with a little help. Both these posts did very well, the Dunn at around 500 and the Maddux close to 800 views. As always, thanks to all who read and for the implied encouragement to keep on writing.

I decided to create my own metric for a change, the Rickey Henderson. These are occasions in which a player has 1+ HR, BB and stolen base in a game.Here's the list:

Whoops! Bit of a problem when the created metric isn't headed by the PERSON IT WAS NAMED AFTER. Lucky for me I don't care about trivial matters like this and will continue to call this the Henderson. I chose Henderson because he:
1. #1 in career stolen bases and will be for quite some time
2. #2 in career walks
3. His 297 career home runs places him comfortably in the top 150 of all time

For the most part these are players we would expect to see--fairly fleet of foot, a good number of center fielders  and some interesting surprises. I don't claim to be a walking baseball encyclopedia (that would be the aforementioned Christopher Kamka) as much as a researcher who knows how to find answers to questions, but I never would have placed Jeff Bagwell, Mike Schmidt or Larry Walker on a list like this--shows what I know.

So who's the missing player? It's no real surprise, the son of #3 on the list, one Barry Bonds who was a pretty good base stealer early in his career. By around 1999 his base stealing days were over--these are pictures from early and later in Bonds' career:

I don't know about you, he looks EXACTLY THE SAME to me (yes, this is sarcasm). I'm old enough (soon to be 51) to remember when Bonds first came up--he was truly a player to behold, a guy that thin, that fast and that POWERFUL. He was a one-man wrecking crew who was as close to a five-tool guy as anyone in recent memory (he played center field in his rookie season and played it very well). When I get around to writing a series of Hall of Fame posts (probably in early December--mark your calendars) I'll make my case for why I have absolutely no problem putting him and Roger Clemens in the Hall. What both did in the early portions of their careers was enough for me.

But this isn't about Barry Bonds. I did a little more research into Rickey Henderson because he did upend the notion of the leadoff hitter when he came up in the late 1970s. Prior to that, leadoff hitters were typically middle infielders with some speed. This table shows players with the most plate appearances when slotted as a leadoff hitter from 1970-1980:

Take a good look at the OBPs for some of these players--for every Pete Rose there was a Bert Campaneris, Ralph Garr (an OBP less than 40 points higher than his batting average when the major league average is around 60-70 point difference), Freddie Patek, who couldn't hit, hit for power or walk and the cream of the crop, the old Cub Don Kessinger who hit five home runs in the 1970s--FIVE. These folks had two primary jobs (typically)--field well and get on base. Generally speaking, they DID field well, back in the day before the actual value of fielding was known (i.e., hitting provides about 3-4 times more value in general), but whether they got on base was debatable. It was so bad that even Mark Belanger, the ultimate good-field no hit player batted leadoff a significant number of times in his career, and he played for Earl Weaver, who was ahead of his time and KNEW that OBP was important.

Enter Rickey Henderson--he didn't hit for power as much early in his career, but he came up stealing and knowing how to take a walk. Lou Brock is pretty high on my list of questionable Hall of Famers, and Rickey Henderson is what Lou Brock could have been if he'd been able to take more walks. Teams took notice--the prior chart lists the top 20 in PA when slotted as the leadoff hiter--this one shows the same for the period 1981-1990:

It's dangerous to put the cart before the horse, because these are some very good players on this list, at least at the top. There's a mix between good hitter and change in strategy and thinking, but it's pretty clear that OBP went up and the slugging was night-and-day different from the 1970s. When Henderson, Paul Molitor and Wade Boggs are on the list as well as outstanding players like Willie Wilson, Tim Raines, Lou Whitaker and Willie Randolph, the 1980s could be well-described as the best period for leadoff hitters in baseball history.

I'll finish with several slices of Henderson's power, since it's well-documented that he has the most home runs as a leadoff hitter. These are the leaders since 1946, the first year with quasi-complete data:

The idea of a power hitter in the leadoff slot is something fairly recent. I've written before and will write again on the importance (or lack thereof) of batting order position--who is slotted #1, #2 and #3 is VERY important because they are guaranteed to bat in the 1st inning. After that--well, who knows? All I do know is that a leadoff hitter actually leads off an inning around 40% of the time--roughly 20-25% at the beginning of the game, the rest as the luck of the lineup allowed as the game progressed. Given that, who is the leader in home runs when leading off an inning?

This list is a mixture of good home run hitters and some leadoff hitters like Henderson and Alfonso Soriano. In a perfect world hitters like Hank Aaron and Jim Thome wouldn't be leading off innings as opposed to coming to bat with runners on base, but that's what separates baseball from the other major sports in that the managers have no control over use of their stars after setting the lineup.

Is the Henderson a real stat? For that matter, is the Dunn or Maddux? The way I use statistics is to see if I can make inferences (NOT predictions) based on mounds of data. I tried to invent another stat that was a caught stealing, strikeout and GDP in the same game but it went nowhere--the leader had something like 7 games, so it's trivia. I WOULD like to do the KO/GDP/Error Golden Sombrero, but that's more difficult to tabulate so don't stay up late waiting for that. 

The Henderson does three things that can lead to increased runs--the obvious with the home run, the less-so with the stolen base and the far-underrated with the walk and identifies those players able to do all three. Even with run scoring down from the historic highs of 1995-2007 there are still more home runs being hit than in almost any other period of baseball history, and if run scoring is down, the player who possesses power and speed gains increased value. The all-around player disappeared for a while--I won't show the table, but the leaders in Hendersons from 2000-2013 are a bit long in the tooth, reflecting the decline in the steal, but steals are coming back. Carlos Gomez and Mike Trout are the latest incarnations of the power-speed combo and could very well be the vanguard for the return of the player in this mold--the latter-day Rickey Hendersons.

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