Here at Notgraphs Headquarters — at intimate moments before our shared mirror — we like to regard ourselves as Tricksters: rocking the boat, keeping society on its toes, therapeutically inverting the natural order of things. Hence our dedication to exposing the greatnesses of the weak and the weaknesses of the mighty. Given that dedication, I find it incomprehensible that we have not yet paid proper tribute to one such phenomenon: namely, the single most flagrant weakness of the single mightiest baseball player of all time.
This weakness is often described euphemistically, as in, “Babe Ruth was an aggressive, if not particularly efficient, base stealer,” or, “Ruth had deceptive speed on the basepaths, as evidenced by the 123 steals he racked up during his career.” No. Babe Ruth was the worst base stealer of all time. I want this point to be absolutely clear. Because there seems to be some ambivalence about ascribing such a glaring flaw to such a heroic figure, I will proceed to support my assertion with Evidence.
First, a caveat. The data on stolen bases are a mess. The American League didn’t start reliably keeping caught-stealing records until 1920, and the National League not until 1951, thus eliminating a very large number of contenders from our consideration, and forcing careful examination of many of the rest. Also, it must be observed that base-stealing has comprised a volatile section of the rulebook, with notable rule changes going into effect in 1904, 1910, 1920, 1931, 1950, and 1979 — though the data suggest (I believe) that any impact of these has been negligible, compared to the impact of attitudinal shifts and evolving offensive strategy. And finally, picking the “best” or “worst” base-stealers is hardly a trivial exercise, as we’ll see.
Remember that getting caught stealing is a very bad thing to do. It is much more bad than successfully stealing is good, because it turns a potential run into an out, while a stolen base only occasionally makes a difference in terms of getting a run across. In fact, the negative value of a caught-stealing, generally speaking, is about twice as much as the positive value of a stolen base. The ratio changes from year to year, largely because the more home runs that are hit by a league, the more counterproductive it is to get yourself caught. But as a rule of thumb, to be an effective base stealer (i.e. one that helps your team more than harms it), you need to be successful at least two-thirds of the time.
Nowadays baseball teams know that pretty well, and a guy who’s not hitting that mark is going to get his green light whisked away quick. Last year, of the 51 players with at least 20 stolen base attempts, only seven came in under 67%. (Austin Jackson and Michael Brantley, who both went 12-for-21 for a 57% rate, were the worst offenders.) In 1923? Not so much. That year, there were 35 guys who took off 20+ times, and only six of them hit the 67% threshold. Unless this is an artifact of some obsolete rule that has yet to be explained to me (and as I suggested, there aren’t any honking discontinuities in the year-to-year averages that would support this), I can only infer, in curmudgeonly fashion, that the new live-ball clubs had lost the art of the stolen base, and coaches just didn’t fully understand the values of success and failure on the basepaths.
Let’s glance over the leaderboards for that year, shall we? Why, there’s a name that stands out. It’s Babe Ruth, who nabbed a surprising 17 bags in 1923 — and got thrown out twenty-one times. That’s 45%: not quite the worst rate in the league, but among players with at least as many attempts (38), it’s the worst by a full 10 points.
Beginning in 1920, when AL record-keeping became consistent, and ending in 1935, when he retired, the Bambino stole 110 bases and was caught 117 times, for a rate of 48.5%. It’s the lowest rate all-time for a player with 200+ career attempts; just one other incorrigible runner, Charlie Jamieson, ever managed to try 200 times and fail more than half of them. To find a guy with a worse success rate, we have to lower the attempts threshold all the way to 148 (coincidentally, another Babe — Pinelli). So there’s that. But rate isn’t everything. As I suggested earlier, context matters. Getting thrown out wasn’t so big a deal in, say, 1968, when no one was going to be driving you in anyway. It was a whole lot more stupid in the turbocharged offenses of, say, the steroid era, when your best bet was so often to wait around for Barry or whoever to bring you home. Any other eras come to mind? Oh, yeah. How about the late twenties and early thirties? The era of Babe Ruth?
We’ve got a stat for that, and it’s called wSB. It takes into account the number of opportunities you had to steal, the number of times you stole and were caught, and the benefit or cost of each of those events (in runs, using value constants that change yearly based on the considerations noted above), and then compares your (positive or negative) contribution to the league average. Turns out that in a single season it’s awfully hard to earn your team even 1 full extra win (10 runs) by base-stealing alone, as Rickey Henderson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, and a few others have done. Turns out it’s just as hard to detract so much as half a win (5 runs) through larcenous ineptitude. On that ignominious leaderboard of 17 gentlemen there’s only one repeat, Red Kress (who deserves his own post someday); even in the days of ignorance, one couldn’t do that badly without learning one’s lesson.
The Babe never cracked that sad list — his worst season by wSB was the aforementioned 1923 campaign, when he posted a -3.2 — but he ran stupidly enough, for long enough, that he comes in second lowest on the all-time list of career wSB totals. His number is -23.4, meaning that over the course of his Hall of Fame career, Babe Ruth’s teams probably lost a net of twenty or thirty runs, i.e. lost two or three games that they would have won, had Babe not gone and gotten himself thrown out. That doesn’t sound so bad, maybe. If even the most incompetent thief can only do that much damage over the course of a 20-year career, then maybe to denounce the caught-stealing is to make a mountain out of a molehill. Nonetheless, what the Babe accomplished was extraordinary. As I said, only one man ever bested it. Who was that man? You don’t have to look far. It was Lou Gehrig.
Because Gehrig is really the only other challenger for the title of Worst Base Stealer of All Time, we need to take a hard look at his numbers. The Iron Horse took off about as often as his fellow Murderer did — logging 203 attempts over a 17-year career — but fared slightly better, finishing with 102 steals to 101 caughts for a lifetime percentage of 50.2% (though it took a heroic 6-for-7 streak, as a rapidly declining 35-year-old, to get him to the break-even point). However, Gehrig managed to pile up -27.2 wSB, outdoing Ruth by nearly four runs. Why? Basically, because Gehrig’s career started ten years later, when the home runs had already started piling up around the league; the average caught-stealing during the thirties was quite a bit more detrimental than the average one from the early days of Ruth.
By the best metric we have, then, Gehrig takes the cake. So why give the nod to his sultanic comrade instead? For one simple reason. Context is everything, and for all that a statistic like wSB reveals about a player’s performance in a particular league and year, it tells us nothing about in-game situation. What if all of Ruth’s failed steals came when the Yanks were up by 5 runs or more? What if Gehrig only ran in the ninth inning? We don’t know. But we do have one very important situational datum, and that is the fact that Babe Ruth spent a good portion of his career batting in front of one of the greatest power hitters of all time: Lou Gehrig. (Lou earned the cleanup spot in 1927 and was still there when Ruth left after ’34.) Even before that, he was batting in front of “Long Bob” Meusel, who finished second in the league in home runs twice in the early twenties. Though the hitters protecting Gehrig weren’t exactly milquetoasts either — late Meusel, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Dickey, George Selkirk — these were 10-20-homer guys, no comparison to the Horse himself.
So here we have a man, in Babe Ruth, who stole bases at historically dreadful rates, without much if any sign of remorse or reform, over a 20-year career, during one of the most offense-centric periods in baseball history, very often with one of the greatest home run hitters ever standing right there in the batter’s box. Even if that were all, he would thus have firmly cemented his status, with a mighty swat of cement, as the Worst Base Stealer of All Time: a title extremely unlikely ever to be relinquished. But Ruth seems to have understood that the statistical evidence wasn’t quite vivid enough: that a flamboyant dollop of semi-legendary anecdotal evidence would really push his candidacy over the top. So what did he do? He attempted to steal second base, while trailing by a run, with cleanup hitter Meusel at the plate, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series. The story goes that he was thrown out by ten feet.* (To be fair, there is some healthy debate over just how egregious of a boner this was.) So even if he did cost his teams only two or three wins over his career, one of those may well have occurred at the absolute worst imaginable time. As befits the worst base stealer of all time.
We’re left with plenty of questions, mainly regarding just what the Babe was thinking and how he got away with it. Seems to me that either a) Miller Huggins and Joe McCarthy weren’t so good at the math, or b) Babe Ruth did whatever the hell he wanted. Probably both — though lest you think that Yankee baserunning was a complete farce, forget you not Ruth’s nimble outfield-mate Ben Chapman (the same Chapman that went on to spew racist vitriol at Jackie Robinson), who was the premier American League speedster of the thirties and swiped 61 bags in 84 efforts in 1931. Mostly, I think Babe Ruth just did whatever the hell he wanted.
I just thought you should know.
* What did he do after that? The next day, Monday, he went and visited 11-year-old Johnny Sylvester in the hospital, after fulfilling his promise to hit a home run for him on Wednesday (he hit three). On Tuesday, he tootled over to Pennsylvania to join in with the Hughestown boys in an exhibition game against Larksville, and while he was there, cranked what was quite possibly the longest long ball ever hit. How do you stay mad at this guy?
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