Herb Washington was Like No Other

The annals of baseball history are littered with interesting stories and stat lines. Being the young sap that I am, much of that history is unknown to me which is why I dig around in our databases from time to time so that I can come across stories like this one.

Herb Washington was a world-class sprinter. Literally, he held world records in both the 50 and 60-yard sprints. He also played baseball in high school but stopped after his Junior year. About six years later, Charlie Finley signed him to the Oakland Athletics for the 1974 season to be used as a pinch runner.

That was not an unprecedented move for Finley, but what ended up being special about Washington is that despite appearing in 110 games total across 1974 and 1975, Washington never once came to bat nor spent even an inning in the field. The 1975 Oakland team actually featured at least two such speed specialists in addition to Washington in Don Hopkins and Matt Alexander.

Even that, as footnoteable as it is, is not what I found the most remarkable about Washington. Because Washington appeared in so many games and because his ultimate stolen base success ratio (65%) was not spectacular, Washington actually achieved a negative WAR by the way FanGraphs calculates it for his career thanks to the slow accumulation of pinch running for positions that carried a defensive penalty.

While that might be an unintended quirk of the calculation process, without it I would have failed to stumble into Herb Washington’s glorious baseball state line. And it is not all bad news for the former three sport athlete. His career WPA is actually positive, indicating that the brunt of his stolen base successes might have come in higher leveraged situations than most of his failures.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

21 Responses to “Herb Washington was Like No Other”

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  1. Jim says:

    I always wondered if a team signed someone like Usain Bolt to pinch run what would happen.

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  2. AustinRHL says:

    That’s absolutely fantastic. I had no idea that such a player has ever existed, and I love seeing the uniqueness of his career line. That 65% success rate really illustrates the importance of baseball knowledge and instincts above and beyond pure speed with regard to basestealing.

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  3. Robert Wayne says:

    I remember Herb Washington. In fact I even had a baseball card of him, must have been around 1974 or so. I grew up in southwest Louisiana and used to listen to a lot of the Astros and Rangers games on the radio and of course both the Rangers and Athletics were in the A.L. West so they played each other quite often. But getting back to Washington’s baseball card, I remember there was a little section that year on Topps’ set where it had the player’s position and instead of pitcher, catcher, infielder, outfielder it just said ‘pinch runner’ on Washington’s card. And in the back where the stats were he had no at bats, average, RBIs, etc. just stolen bases and attempted steals….LOL. I think the card showed him taking a lead off base. I thought they should have shown him swinging a bat or looking like he was pitching a baseball as a joke.

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    • Herb says:

      i think he had a 1975 Topps bb card because i think i had the mini version of his card and they only had the mini’s in 1975…

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    • First thing I thought of after seeing this article hed was Herb’s “pinch runner” card. A classic. 1975 Topps. That card made him seem like the most exotic baseball player ever.

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  4. baycommuter says:

    I went to the second game of the 1974 WS, where the turning point came when Mike Marshall picked off Herb. That was the only game the A’s lost, and the only one he got in.

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    • Dan says:

      Washington actually got in 3 games: picked off, stranded, and forced out at 2B. Not very effective. :)

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    • Tiger says:

      I saw that play (on tv), I remember it as a bit of a strange play. Marshall had stepped off the rubber and held the ball but Washington made no move, got caught flatfooted when Marshall did throw to first. The commentators made a big hoohah out of Washington’s apparent inexperience.

      I only wish that Washington had been around in 1951, or that Bill Veeck had the foresight to sign a similar pinch running specialist. Paired with Eddie Gaedel’s career 1.000 OBP, that would have been the ultimate one-run threat.

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  5. DL80 says:

    What is the maximum advantage (WPA perhaps) of even the best pinch runner throughout the season, assuming he does literally nothing else? Doesn’t the fact that he’s taking the spot of someone who could play defense or hit or pitch negate whatever small Win Probability Added that he would bring to the table?

    Even a guy who was above 75% would only add a small bit of value, even if we don’t consider his spot as 1 out of 25. Right? Or is that way off?

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    • B N says:

      You could have a positive WPA and a positive WAR as just a pinch runner. But you’re totally right that it wouldn’t be worth much. Your team is truly in some dire straights if that modest benefit is the best one could do with the roster spot. A mediocre lefty specialist would be worth more than almost any pinch runner that couldn’t also field.

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  6. JT says:

    In the 80s rampant rumors/speculation/wishcasting had Ben Johnson signing up for pinch running duties on the Blue Jays. He would have been ahead of the curve for baseball in other ways, too.

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  7. GiantFaninDodgerLand says:

    Gotta love/hate Charlie Finley. After creating and pushing through the idea of the DH, he was trying to create the designated runner position.

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  8. NIGHT FGHT says:

    Herb worked summers at a GM plant in Flint, MI while attending MSU in Lansing. Really a nice guy, glad to see he made good after college and being exposed to Finley. LOL Seems his McDonald restaurants franchises are doing well.

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