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Interpreting the Henderson triple-down effect

4/22/2003

Last Friday's column about The Mystery of Rickey's Missing Three-Baggers brought a goodly volume of e-mail, which was expected since I asked for help in figuring out why Henderson's ratio of triples to steals is so low compared to other top leadoff men of his time. I've received 118 responses (so far), and I was able to sort most of them into specific explanations.

"His triples turned into home runs." (35 votes)
Easily the most popular hypothesis, with Zachary Shirkey among those putting the argument succinctly.


    Considering the mystery of Henderson's lack of triples, part of it is undoubtedly his remarkable power for a leadoff man. A lot of the balls he hit hard left the park, rather than rattling around in the outfield. The career homers for the men you list in your column:

    Willie Wilson 41
    Brett Butler 54
    Lou Brock 149
    Tim Raines 170
    Vince Coleman 28
    Rickey Henderson 295

    Henderson leads his closest rival by 125 homers and leads the group average by 207.

I'm not sure how to express this notion, but it does seem that players tend to hit one sort of extra-base hit or another. When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs, he hit only 21 doubles. When Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, he hit "only" 32 doubles. When Edgar Martinez totaled 104 doubles in 1995 and 1996, he hit "only " 55 homers in those seasons. Martinez, by the way, is living proof that doubles aren't about speed.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that Henderson has never been a big doubles guy, either. His career high is 33 (in 1990) and he's reached 30 only five times. And no, I don't think those figures are due to a lack of hustle, because despite what you've heard, doubles aren't generally about hustle, either. Looking at Henderson's career extra-base hits, one gets the impression of a hitter who was generally content to slap the ball through the infield for a single ... but when he got a pitch he liked and wanted to muscle up, he'd knock the ball over the fence.

And as a few readers pointed out, Henderson's power could have had a direct triples-depressing effect, as outfielders presumably played deeper for Rickey than they might have for, say, Wilson and Coleman. And the closer the outfielders were to the wall, the less time the ball has to rattle around the warning track while the hitter sprints around the bases.

No Hustle/Bad Jump (32 votes)
These two aren't perfectly related, but I stuck them together because they're somewhat related and I'm writing this so I can do whatever I want. The general notion is that Henderson didn't hit more triples because it took him so long to get out of the batter's box that he simply didn't have time to run all the way to third base.

But why? Many suggested a general lack of hustle. Jon DeMent writes, "This doesn't seem like a mystery to me. It's hard to leg out a triple after you jog/strut/preen/style around first base and walk the last five steps into second." Similarly, Matt Mitchell writes, "Henderson was probably content to be on second, from where he could score on a single. Remember, this is the man who, when questioned why he stole second in a non-steal situation, said, 'Rickey needs to score, so he needed to be on second. Rickey can't score from first.' "

Fair enough. If memory serves, Henderson did have a tendency to hang around and admire some of his pretty drives. But might something else have been slowing him down? Shane Waggoner writes, "Rickey's batting stance could also contribute a little bit. As I recall, Rickey, despite his speed, didn't get many infield hits because of his batting stance (or rather batting crouch) and his follow-through (he pretty much had to unwind the bat to get running). Given the extra time it took to drag himself out of the box, it seems plausible that this could account at least partially for his low triples rate."

"Why bother?" (10 votes)
Otherwise known as, "What's the point in risking get thrown out trying for a triple when I can steal third base whenever I like?"

Because Henderson certainly didn't suffer from a lack of confidence when it came to stealing third. As he wrote in his memoirs (published in 1992), "For me, stealing third is easier than stealing second. It's a shorter throw for the catcher, but I get a much bigger lead and need far fewer steps, seven steps instead of eleven. ... I've stolen third base 235 times. Nobody has ever gone after third base like I have. Most guys won't even try taking third."

And Henderson really could steal third base. According to Retrosheet's Tom Ruane, Rickey was successful 80.5 percent of the time he tried to steal second base, and 82 percent of the time he tried to steal third (these figures do not include the 15 times he was successful on the back end of a double steal).

That said, he didn't try to steal third nearly as often as he tried to steal second, relative to his opportunities. When he was on first base and second base wasn't occupied, Henderson tried to steal 32 percent of the time. When he was on second base and third base wasn't occupied, he tried to steal only 12 percent of the time (of course, 12 percent is probably a lot compared to almost anybody else).

So it's not really accurate to say that for Henderson, a double was as good as a triple.

"Oh, those bases on balls." (11 votes)
Henderson drew more walks than any other player in major league history. What does this have to do with anything? I'll let David Newman explain, because it's a bit confusing to me, too ...


    I think I have a part of the answer that you didn't mention: Henderson was a walk machine, especially later in his career. A lot more of his stolen bases came after walks than for other players. In other words, because of Henderson's penchant for the base on balls, his ratio of steals-to-hits was higher than that of most other speedsters. He has anomalous SB ratios for all hits, not just triples.

    Consider this: Rickey stole one base for every 2.2 hits. Tim Raines stole one base for every 3.2 for every 3.2 hits. And Lou Brock stole one base for every 3.3 hits. You just can't look at Henderson's ratio of triples to stolen bases in isolation, because Henderson probably stole more bases per hit than any other speedster in history.

    The bigger point, I suppose, is that stolen-base totals are a poor proxy for "speed" because they ignore the effect of on-base percentage. Rickey's OBP was higher than most other speedsters, so his stolen-base totals somewhat overstate his speed, which was considerable but not nearly as unusual as his gaudy career steals would suggest.

By the way, special credit goes to Eric Williams, Grant Peterson, and Jamison Foser, all of whom made compelling cases that the home runs and the walks were significant factors.

Speaking of Rickey's speed ...

"Rickey just wasn't that fast." (7 votes)
Or as Henderson told his ghost writer, "I don't claim to be the fastest runner in baseball. I don't think I've ever been the fastest."

Fine, but I just don't think lack of speed can account for anything but a tiny percentage of Henderson's low triples rate.

OK, so he wasn't Willie Wilson or Vince Coleman. But once Rickey got it going, he was one of the fastest players in the game. Not the fastest, but certainly one of the fast.

"Rickey stole too many bases." (3 votes)
Well, not too many. But as Chris Edelson writes, "Rickey stole so many bases that he has an inflated number of steals per game, steals per season, or steals per triple. For example, in years when Rickey stole 80-100 bases, an "average" speedster might have stolen 40-50. If Rickey hit four triples in such a year and the "average" guy hit six, Rickey's ratio is 20-1 or 25-1, while the other guy's is 7-1 or 8-1, even though Rickey only hit two fewer triples."

I think there's something to this, but only something. As the always-amazing Lee Sinins notes, Rickey Henderson is the all-time leader in plate appearances (13,262) among players who tripled at exactly the league average rate. So while it's true that he stole so often that it would have been close to impossible for his triples to keep up, it's also true that he didn't triple nearly as often as you'd expect a fast player to triple, steals or no steals.

Summing up ...

See, this is why I ask for help. I don't know that we've exhausted this subject, but I do think we've made one helluva start for anybody who's really interested in getting to the bottom of things.

My guess is that all of these things figure into the answer. Rickey Henderson was, in many ways, an outlier. He drew more walks than anybody, scored more runs than anybody, and -- by a huge margin -- stole more bases than anybody. He wasn't much for triples, especially relative to his steals, but I think this is because aside from speed he had just about everything going against him. Sure, styling might have cost him a few three-baggers along the way. But I suspect the homers and the walks and the steals -- especially those steals -- are what best explain Henderson's odd-looking ratio of triples to stolen bases.

And if you live in New Jersey, pretty soon you'll be able to see for yourself. According to the latest report, Rickey Henderson is on the verge of signing with one of three New Jersey teams in the independent Atlantic League. He's 44, but he wants to keep playing ball.

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.