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Big-Boned Base Stealers

Athletes that I would call both “fast” and “huge” are relatively common in football. I will try not to embarrass myself by talking about football at length, but take a guy like the 49ers’ Vernon Davis — a very fast tight end who weighs around 250 pounds. Some baseball players are that heavy and heavier, but they are not known as “fast” players. That is obviously connected to the different skills required for “game speed” in the respective sports.

Like many fans, I find “big-boned” baseball players quite entertaining. For example, Adrian Gonzalez and Pablo Sandoval are both wonderful players. Overall, Adrian Gonzalez is probably superior, objectively speaking. However, subjectively, I would much rather watch Pablo Sandoval, and I would be lying if I said that his “body type” had nothing to do with it.

While special events sometimes happen, the big guys in baseball rarely pull off “speed moves,” especially the main move — the stolen base. Leaving the (obvious and no-so-obvious) reasons for this aside, I thought it would be fun to look at the the top stolen base seasons by “big-boned” players in baseball history.

Let me begin by noting the obvious fact that listed heights and weights are probably inaccurate. Moreover, one weight is listed for each player, and hey, I weight exactly the same as I did when I was 21, don’t you? However, this is not a precision study, but an exp;oratoin of trivia, so we have to make do with what we have

I will be talking about a player being “big-boned” somewhat arbitrarily. For most of us, 228 pounds would be too big. Alex Rodriguez has done alright for himself at that (listed) weight. If we included him and others like him on the list of big-boned base stealers, it simply would not be that interesting.

My initial plan was to arbitrarily define “big-boned” as a player listed at 250 pounds or more and to look at all the seasons with 20 or more stolen bases by those players. There have been no such seasons. That was a bit surprising. Once I lowered the miniumum to 240 pounds, I found 16 seasons with 20 or more steals, and they are all attributed to only three players.

Derrek Lee (listed at 245 pounds) did it once, when he was the first baseman of the 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins. That team seemed to run a lot, but Lee was relatively efficient that season (only caught 8 times). Lee was traded to the Cubs after that season, and had a couple of seasons with double-digit steals. Some people seemed to think that Lee’s contract with the Cubs was a disaster and albatross, but looking at the numbers, he only had one bad season (2006). He was great for them in 2005 and 2009, and during the other seasons he was above-average.

Jose Canseco (listed at 240 pounds) had three seasons with at least 20 steals: 1991 (26 steals), 1998 (28 steals), and 1988 (his 40-40 season). Say what you want about Canseco, but the man definitely had his moments. I wonder what Jose is doing right now?

The other 12 seasons with at least 20 steals by a player listed at 240 pounds were all by Barry Bonds. I will not list them all here, other than to highlight his 40-40 season in 1996 (he was 31 when the season started) and his 52-steal season (only 33 dingers, though) in 1990. Writing about Bonds is sort of pointless for me, since his legacy is, fairly or unfairly, associated with “other stuff” that I am not really interested in. If one does not want to deal with that, it really boils down to a bunch of superlatives. Honestly, this is a case where the numbers simply speak for themselves.

In any case, none of those three players really stand out as “chunky” guys, they were all obviously athletic when they had their big seasons for steals. I finally just searched for the top steals seasons by any players 250 pounds or more, and came up with a pretty fun little list. Here are the top six (I would have done five, but there was a tie for fifth):

Carlos Lee (listed at 266), 17 steals in 2001

(We will come back to Lee.)

Dave Orr (listed at 250), 17 steals in 1887

Confession: I knew nothing about Dave Orr prior to doing this query and looking around the internet. Apparently he had a really nice run back in the 1880s, but his career ended when he had a stroke in 1890, when he was only 31. Listed weights for this era are even more dubious than contemporary ones, but if this old-timey baseball card is admitted as evidence, I do not think it is too far off.

Orr actually led the American Association in triples in 1885 and 1885, and hit for the cycle on on June 12, 1885. Bill James listed Orr as the 117th-best first baseman in baseball history in The New Historical Abstract page 475.

Andres Galarraga (listed at 250), 18 steals in 1996

Big Cat! If the Expos had had as many fans when they existed as now claim to have been, they would still be in business. By 1996, Galaragga was on the Colorado Rockies during the Utterly Isane Era at Coors, when a player could have a .402 wOBA and it would still be just a 123 wRC+. For the sake of comparison, Travis Hafner had a 123 wRC+ in 2011, with a .353 wOBA. Galaragga had six seasons with double-digit steals, but this season (at age 35~!) was his best.

Carlos Lee, 18 steals in 2003
Carlos Lee, 19 steals in 2006

If Derrek Lee’s contract with the Cubs was not as bad as some people thought, Carlos Lee’s contract with the Astros has been at least as bad as everyone thinks. Lee was a pretty athletic big guy when he started out with the White Sox, making this list three times and having double-digit steals in seven different seasons. Lee’s contract with Houston finally runs out after this season (during which he is slated to make $18.5 million). Lee hit decently in 2011, so it will be interesting to see if he hits enough this season to catch on with a team as a cheap first baseman or DH in 2013. You know, just in case he needs the money.

Adam Dunn (listed at 287), 19 steals in 2002

Can you imagine being the second baseman or shortstop receiving a throw with Adam Dunn sliding toward you? He is easily the biggest guy on this list. It is hard to imagine Dunn running this much, but he was quite the amateur athlete, having been a high school quarterback. He actually was a redshirt football player at the University Texas (playing in the minors for the Reds during the summer), and only left Texas when the team asked him to move to tight end.

I do not remember how this happened in 2002. Did he catch teams by surprise? In the minors, Dunn stole more than 20 bases in both 1999 and 2000, but, well, I guess he filled out. Dunn went unappreciated by the mainstream media for a long time due to his strikeouts. When people began to get over that, the sabemetric crowd began to sour on him for his fielding. For most of his career he was miscast as a fielder, and when a team finally smartened up and put him at DH, his bat fell apart completely — although given that he hit well right up until he was 31, Dunn is not exactly a poster child for an early decline due to “old player skills.”

Maybe Dunn will get a dead cat bounce in 2012, perhaps he is finished. He had some great years with the bat, though, and at one time, he stole some bases.