Friday, April 22, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #21: Rickey Henderson

I feel compelled to remind you that I became a baseball fan in 1986, and for the purposes of putting these rankings together, anything before then was ignored. I mention this because from 1980 through the 1985, Rickey Henderson was the best baseball player on the planet, and that stretch isn't being counted here, yet he still made the list. I've basically taken away more than 1000 of his 3055 career hits, more than 700 of his MLB record 2295 runs scored, and precisely 573 of his MLB record 1406 stolen bases, yet he still cracks the top 20. If I'd included his full career, Henderson would have ranked 6th on this list, and if I ranked the top players in history, Henderson would be among the top 25. He was tremendous.


This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.


In 1980, when I was an infant and Rickey Henderson was just 21 years old, he became the youngest player in modern history to steal 60+ bases in a season. In 1998, when I was graduating from high school and heading off to college, and Rickey Henderson was 39 years old, he became the oldest player in history to steal 60+ bases in a season. Things like that are a part of what make Rickey Henderson such a fun player to think about, but they also lead to folks misunderstandings Rickey.

When I was a kid, I thought of Vince Coleman as the greatest base stealer in the game. If you're a young baseball fan, that statement might make you wonder who Vince Coleman is, because from what I can tell he doesn't have a very high Q Score these days. At the time though, I think it was a pretty legitimate viewpoint. Coleman led MLB with 110 stolen bases in 1985, and that's where the numbers on the back of baseball cards came from in 1986, the year I began following the game and collecting cards. Coleman led MLB in steals again in 1986 and 1987, the first two seasons I was paying any attention to, and again in 1990. During the first five years of my fandom, Coleman stole 439 bases, far more than anyone else, including Henderson, who was a distant second with 363. Henderson had a slightly higher success rate during those years (85% to 83%), but not nearly enough higher to make up for an extra 15 steals a season. Vince Coleman was the better base stealer in those years, I was right about that.

What I was wrong about (Well, there were a lot of things I was wrong about, because I was ten years old) is having thought that because Coleman was a better base stealer, he was a better player. The thing is, that's what Rickey Henderson was to me when I was that young, a base stealer.

It wasn't until a bit later that I realized what a woefully inadequate label for Rickey "base stealer" was. It was an apt description for Coleman, who didn't play strong defense, didn't get on base all that much, and had next to no power. Henderson though, played very good defense, he got on base more than almost any other player in baseball, and he had enough power to hit a dozen or more home runs in eleven seasons, topping out all the way up at 28 long balls. Rickey Henderson wasn't a base stealer, he was a fantastic baseball player who happened to steal hundreds and hundreds more bases than anyone in history.


  1. Loved watching Rickey play. Greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Amazing how much he broke the stolen base record by and also his power from the leadoff spot. He re-defined the game in certain ways.

    Just dedicated my first post on my new blog to remembering his breaking of Lou Brock's record!

    1. Agreed. He was an incredible player, someone anyone who got to watch him is likely to remember for a long, long time.