Rickey Henderson is not one for conservative claims. Not during his playing career and certainly not now. Henderson, working as Oakland’s baserunning instructor, recently said that Rajai Davis could steal 80 bases. It’s been a while since one player stole that many bases on his own throughout a season. Jacoby Ellsbury took 70 last year, Jose Reyes grabbed 78 in 2007, Scott Podsednik hit 70 during 2004, Tony Womack swiped 72 in 1999, Brian Hunter and Kenny Lofton stole 74 and 75 in 1997 and 1996, and so on. The last time someone took at least 80 bases was 1988, when Vince Coleman lead the National League with 81 and that Henderson guy took 93 in the American League.
Davis’ career high in steals is 41 and he’s stolen 93 bases in 333 career games. He’s been caught 27 times, giving him a 78% success rate. That means Davis would need to attempt roughly 103 steals, if and only if, it is to be assumed that his success rate would remain static to his career rate. The odds of that occurring are highly unlikely. Yes, it’s just a throwaway spring quote meant to inspire confidence in a player, and yes, I’m totally going to overanalyze it.
Let’s start with the historic data. Since 1961 (or Baseball-Reference’s “Expansion Era” filter) there have been 18 players who successfully stole 80 bases. They averaged an 83% success rate with the lowest individual success rate belonging to Omar Moreno (74.4%). This makes sense, both intuitively and numerically. Managers are not going to allow wishy-washy basestealers to attempt upwards of 100 grabs a year if it means being thrown out 30 or more times. For now, let’s say Davis is going to need something like 90-110 steal attempts to make this thing a reality.
There are a few conditions needed to actually steal a base – among which, actually being on base is the most vital and obvious. Davis’ career on-base percentage is .336. If you simply multiply his on-base percentage by his career plate appearances, then divide that number by his steal attempts, then you will find that he’s attempted a steal in roughly 40% of the times he’s reached base throughout his career. But that’s just not true because Davis has been used aggressively as a pinch runner.
Say Davis lives up to his ~.330 projected OBP. That would be pretty low, but not the lowest (or even close to it) in the 80 steals club. Vince Coleman stole at least 80 three times with an OBP of .320 or below; including 1986 when he stole 107 bases despite a .301 OBP. Moreno got on base about 30.6% of the time in 1980, and even Maury Wills only had a .330 OBP when he stole 94 in 1965. It’s doable, certainly, but that means Davis will need even more pinch running appearances and even more plate appearances.
Oakland has a stacked outfield depth chart and he happens to be right-handed, meanwhile they have a switch-hitter (Coco Crisp) and two lefties (Ryan Sweeney & Gabe Gross) also on the depth chart. He’s not starting most days. That didn’t stop Eric Davis (487 PA) or Ron LeFlore (587) from swiping more than 80, but those are the only two players with fewer than 600 plate appearances to do it.
As you can see, the odds are stacked against Rajai. That doesn’t mean the discussion is over though. Check back later for the answer. Mostly for the sake of blowing this totally out of proportion, but also showing something about the relationship between stolen base success rate and runs added.