A single and a stolen base is as good as a double. Baseball fans have heard this adage a million times. And no one stole bases better than Rickey Henderson. His record 1406 stolen bases dwarfs Lou Brock’s second-place total of 938.
This brings up the question: what would Henderson’s numbers look like if his stolen bases actually did count as doubles and triples?
For this experiment, I analyzed all 130 stolen bases from Henderson’s 1982 season. Every time Henderson got on base and stole second, I removed the stolen base and single or walk from the season total and replaced it with a double. When he stole third, I replaced that stolen base with a triple.
And no, I was not able to convert either of his two steals of home into homeruns. Both steals relied on runners stealing second at the same time.
This isn’t as simple as it seems. Not every stolen base derives from a walk or a hit. When Henderson stole a base after reaching on a fielder’s choice, I left the stolen base as is. Henderson would not have had the opportunity to steal a base without the previous runner, and he possibly would have driven them in with a hit. Therefore, it can’t be considered a double.
Also, I did not adjust when Henderson stole a base after advancing on a sacrifice hit. Teammates can’t help a hitter hit a triple.
I did count the times Henderson reached on an error and then stole a base. An error and a stolen base equal a double.
Finally, no adjustment was made when a hypothetical double would have earned an RBI. If a runner was on third, and Henderson earned a walk and a stolen base without the previous runner scoring, it would be inaccurate to replace it with a double because the double would have scored a run.
In 1982, Henderson slashed .267/.398/.382/.780 with a 122 OPS+. He finished tenth in MVP voting. He racked up 143 hits, split between 105 singles, 24 doubles, 4 triples, and 10 homeruns. He added a league-leading 130 stolen bases and 116 walks.
However, his numbers look very different if a walk and a stolen base equal a double. Here’s how Henderson’s numbers look after the adjustments.
.299/.405/.600/1.005. A record breaking 84 doubles. 29 triples, the highest total since 1912. He leads both leagues in OBP, SLG, and OPS. Oh, and he still managed 74 walks and 47 stolen bases.
If you think that 1.005 OPS is great but uninspiring, then consider this. In 1982, Robin Yount led MLB with a .957 OPS and 166 OPS+. He also churned out a 10.5 WAR season and cruised to the MVP award.
Therefore, assuming that these calculations are applicable, it is safe to assume that Rickey Henderson was the best hitter in 1982.
Obviously, this math is rudimentary at best. It doesn’t account for the pitcher’s aspects of pitch selection when trying to prevent Henderson from stealing. A hitter’s approach may also change if a runner is at first on the first pitch, but steals second on the fourth pitch of an at-bat.
However, it’s a fun attempt to measure stolen bases. Stolen base numbers have plummeted since the 1980s, having been replaced by the homerun. This proves that stealing bases can be even better than hits.
You just have to be Rickey Henderson.
Featured Photo: @baseballhall on Twitter