Splitting Rickey Henderson in Two

In a post earlier this week, I mentioned a Bill James quote: “If you could split [Henderson] in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.” James was totally serious. Since James wrote those words, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has become the Nerdosphere’s favorite total value stat. Does it support James’ contention? Let’s “split Rickey in two” and found out.

Average Hall of Famers are worth around 60 WAR for their career. Henderson’s career total is about 114 WAR. Dividing that by two gives you 57 WAR per “player.” That’s just about right for the Hall. However, as we’ve discussed before with regard to players like Johnny Damon (here) and Omar Vizquel (here), it isn’t all about totals: we want a player with an impressive group of peak seasons.

What is a good baseline for a Hall of Fame career? We should not simply say “well, player x is in, so anyone with a better career than player x should be in.” If Jim Rice is the baseline, it’s going to water down the Hall too much for most of us. That was a nice bonus to Andre Dawson getting in: although he wasn’t universally thought to be a Hall of Famer, he wasn’t a travesty. He had longevity, but also had a nice peak. He’s not shame to the Hall. So he’s our Actually Existing Baseline Hall of Famer. We can get good picture of his career by looking at a handy “nth Best Season” WAR Graph.

That’s a tremendous career, but check it out in comparison with Henderson’s:

Um, yeah. That 1985 MVP that Royals fans think Don Mattingly stole from George Brett? He actually stole it from Rickey. And Henderson’s 1990 in Oakland might have been even better.

You knew Rickey was awesome, but does he have two sets of Hall of Fame-level peaks in his career? I took Henderson’s seasonal WARs, sorted them in descending order, and did a “draft.” His best season went to Rickey 1, his second-best to Rickey 2, his third-best to Rickey 1, and so on (should I have snake-drafted? I don’t know.). Here is how the careers of Rickey 1 and Rickey 2 match up with Dawson’s. [You’ll need to click on the image to read it decently… sorry I’m not better at this stuff.]

Click to embiggen

The total WARs of Rickey 1 and Rickey 2 aren’t quite as high as Dawson’s but a few wins are no big deal. Neither had Dawson’s longevity either, but careers over ten seasons are good. But the peaks… oh those peaks. Both Rickeys have two seasons better than Dawson’s best season, and their third-best seasons are right there. The overall accumulation is borderline for the Hall, but those incredible peak seasons push the careers over the top. I think Dawson is a rightful Hall of Famer, and if he is, both Rickeys are, too.

What a surprise, Bill James was right. Now to see what happens if we divide Barry Bonds into three…

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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