Could it be Rickey had double vision?


At this moment, I'm watching ESPN Classic, and Rickey Henderson just led off the All-Star Game with a single to left field. The 1982 All-Star Game. Think about that: it's almost 21 years later, and Henderson is still playing ball, hoping for one last (?) go-round in the majors.

Before I get into that, here's a piece of Rickey-related trivia that pops up now and again, but I don't believe I've written anything about it before ...

    Hey, Rob! Whilst perusing Baseball-Reference.com, I came across an interesting statistical anomaly. It is widely accepted that triples and stolen bases are the best indicators of a player's speed. Rickey Henderson's career triples, though, are not even close to top 100 all-time! One would suspect that a) anyone with that kind of speed would rank higher, and b) with his longevity alone, he would rank higher. When comparing him to other career triples or stolen base leaders, however, his ratio of triples to stolen bases is by far the lowest. It is so low, in fact, that one would suspect that he often eschewed the three-bagger in favor of the two-bagger and a steal! Could it be that Rickey Henderson, the "greatest of all time," was intentionally avoiding triples to pad his stolen-base numbers? The numbers get more extreme when his average season is compared to other contemporary speedsters like Raines, Wilson, Brock, Coleman and Butler.

    I thought you might appreciate this.

    Chuck Furnari

I do appreciate this, Chuck. It's funny, every couple of years somebody points this out to me, but you've done more work than anybody else has, which might be why I feel compelled to respond.

Here are the career steals and triples for the aforementioned sextet of leadoff man:

Steals Triples SB/3B
Willie Wilson 668 147 4.5
Brett Butler 558 131 4.3
Lou Brock 938 141 6.7
Tim Raines 808 113 7.2
Vince Coleman 752 89 8.4
Rickey Henderson 1403 66 21.3

Wow. Henderson bagged approximately one triple for every 21 steals, a ratio that's nothing like those of other leadoff men of Rickey's era.

So what's going on?

Here's the table from above, with an extra column (how each player batted) and four extra rows (every right-handed hitter who stole at least 500 bases and played at least one season while Henderson was active).

Steals Triples SB/3B Bat
Willie Wilson 668 147 4.5 B
Paul Molitor 504 114 4.4 R
Brett Butler 558 131 4.3 L
Lou Brock 938 141 6.7 L
Tim Raines 808 113 7.2 B
Bert Campaneris 649 86 7.5 R
Vince Coleman 752 89 8.4 B
Cesar Cedeno 550 60 9.2 R
Davey Lopes 557 50 11.1 R
Rickey Henderson 1403 66 21.3 R

Anybody notice a pattern here? With the exception of Paul Molitor, the fast right-handed hitters didn't hit as many triples as the fast left-handed and switch-hitters.

There's an obvious explanation for this phemonenon: lefties generally hit more triples than righties, because 1) triples generally are hard-hit balls, 2) hard-hit balls are usually pulled, and 3) a ball that's pulled into the right-field corner or the right-field gap is a lot farther from third base than a ball pulled into the left-field corner or the left-field gap.

For example, in 2001 right-handed hitters tripled once every 201 at-bats, while left-handed hitters tripled once every 156 at-bats. Based on those numbers, we might surmise that lefty hitters have something like a 30-percent edge over righties in the triples department.

We'd also want to consider park effects. Willie Wilson tops the SB/3B list, and he spent much of his career playing in what was probably the most favorable triples park of the last few decades. Of Wilson's 147 career triples, 134 came from 1978 through 1990, when he played for Kansas City. And of those 133 triples, 81 came at Royals Stadium, where the turf was fast and the fences were distant.

What about Henderson? Thanks to the wonders of perusing Retrosheet and STATS, Inc., it's not that hard to find Rickey's home and away triples for his entire career.

He hit 32 triples at home, 34 on the road.

While we still can't rule out the possibility that his home ballparks depressed his triples, it certainly isn't apparent from his own totals.

So if it (probably) wasn't the ballparks and Henderson's right-handedness explains only part of the anomaly, what's going on? Did he really have some sort of personal aversion to triples?

If you've got any other ideas, please drop me a line.

In the meantime, please drop Rickey Henderson a line if you've got a major-league job for him, because even at 44 he still wants to play.

Can he play? Yeah, a little. He can still run, and his on-base percentages the last two seasons were .366 and .369. He still has some power, too: 13 homers in his last 558 at-bats.

I wouldn't sign him, though. He has trouble making contact, he's a defensive liability, and when he's not playing he's got a tendency to make a nuisance of himself. As a fan, I'd love to see Rickey Henderson on the field again ... just not for my team.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.