Rickey Being Rickey

In looking at Carl Crawford‘s career totals this morning, it’s hard not to be impressed by his consistent stolen base numbers. Since 2003, he has stolen between 46 and 60 bases in every year except one (2008, when he wasn’t healthy), and he’s already in the top 100 in all time base stealing leaders. He’s an excellent baserunner, one of the best in the game, and it’s part of the reason he’s going to become a very rich man this winter.

However, this post isn’t about Crawford. It’s almost impossible to look at the SB leaderboard and not be in awe of the sheer dominance of Rickey Henderson, who has 468 more steals than anyone else in the history of the game. Only 43 people have ever stolen 468 bases in their careers, and yet that’s the margin between Henderson and the next most prolific thief.

Once you start looking at Henderson’s numbers, you can’t help but be drawn to 1982: 130 stolen bases, a number exceeded by only four teams last season. In addition, he was caught stealing another 42 times for 172 total stolen base attempts. He was on first or second base with the next base open 225 times, and he attempted 172 steals.

Seventy-six percent of the time, when he had the chance, he ran. The league average, not including Henderson’s craziness, was 7.8 percent. Tim Raines, who led the National League in stolen bases that year, ran on 36 percent of his chances.

We hear talk about how the game has changed so dramatically in the last 20 years, switching to a home runs and strikeouts model. However, the league average attempted stolen base rate hasn’t fallen all that far, as runners in 2010 have taken 6.3 percent of their stolen base chances to date. It’s lower, but perhaps not as dramatically so as the hyperbole would suggest.

Twenty-eight years ago, the best basestealer in the world saw an open base and ran 76 percent of the time. Forget 511 wins or a 56 game hitting streak – that’s a number that will never be duplicated. Maybe the game hasn’t changed all that much – it’s just without the most aggressive runner anyone has ever seen.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Paul A.

I’d be interested to see Vince Coleman’s numbers, as well. I believe he stole 100 or more bases once or twice. To top that, St. Louis was a run-happy team. How often did they attempt a steal as a team that season, and is it the most ever?