A defensive play is at least five times as hard to make as an offensive play. An error by a fielder can come from a bad throw, a bad hop of the ball, the muff of an easy chance, or a mix-up of responsibility between a shortstop and second basemen, or two outfielders, on a given play. But on offense, a man can run a play 100 times without variation or error. About the only mistake you can make is to stumble.
Weighing those odds I became extremely aggressive on the paths.
I often wonder how much can speed change the game of baseball, I’ve seen the need for it come and go and come back again, so I ponder….
Is it the pressure speed creates that makes a difference?
Or is it the mistakes it can make up for?
Simply put, the mystique speed creates and the mystique that remains years after speedsters of the past have left the game always linger in the buzz that surrounds game.
Speed IS a BIG part of the game, even when guys aren’t using it to steal bases.
The use of speed in baseball to steal bases can be described via a graph on a piece of paper, methodically breaking down the nuances and percentages we are able to get numerous explanations to why the existence of a steal is a bad risk in the grand scheme of run scoring in today’s game.
Speed explained can also be as simple as the salivating scout stressing the beauty of the havoc speed can create between the lines, on the bases or in the field.
To most baseball fans the big part of speed in baseball is the running of bases
Running is the one thing most fans grasp, it is perhaps the one act on the field all can relate to. Running from something, or someone, trying to be “safe”, trying to reach “Home” all of theses items are tenets of most games that children play. We all understand base running and it’s perhaps the easiest part of the game to explain.
But base running in baseball is known gamble, a large risk being taking with the currency of the game (Outs) it can shape our ideas about risk and its rewards, it can reveal one’s sporting character as they wrestle whether it is prudent in today’s game to employ tactics that are more attuned the past.
Or is it something from the past?
Because speed is a big part of the Reds future right now.
We could talk of Billy Hamilton’s monumental task of replacing Shin-Soo Choo’s impressive on-base% and penchant for reaching base numerous ways, or we could talk about the plus factor his speed lends to his patrolling of center field for the Reds in 2014.
Instead I’m interested in the baseline that Hamilton is facing, the records and reputations that a man with his speed and ability faces, not just in Cincinnati but in all of baseball history. Let’s look at a few of the things that Billy Hamilton might be known for when his career is over, let’s review a few of the legends he needs to match as far as speed goes. Then let’s look at the stolen base records that confront him as he steps into the limelight, already a minor league legend and deemed the fastest man in the game and a potential record breaker in the MLB stolen bases category.
Let’s start with speed, which as we all know has been a huge part of the game since it was played without uniforms or even gloves. In The Bill James Historical Abstract, Bill names a fastest man for each decade he reports on. In the grand scheme of baseball history these are the men that Billy Hamilton is being measured against. Just this spring Hamilton was timed at 3.3 seconds on a run from home to first base, which could be the fastest time ever and if it is these are the men that he’s going to be compared to when he hangs up his spikes.
Let’s start back when the game was a just a baby.
Lip Pike – 5’8 – CF
Most steals in a season: NA
Pike was the first great Jewish star and quite a speedster. A Cincinnati Red Stocking in 1877 Pike once raced a horse who was given a 25 yard start to get up speed. Once the horse met Pike’s mark the race was on, for most of the race it was a close contest, but Pike was able to put on speed towards the end beating the challenger by 4 yards.
Billy Sunday – 5’10 – CF/RF
Most Steals in a season: 71
Sunday was not only a famous evangelist who slid onto the stage to recreate the excitement he recalled on the bases but he was known as the fastest man in the National League in the 1880’s. This was extended to all of baseball when in 1885 a race between Sunday and Arlie Latham, the fastest runner in the American Association was staged. Sunday won the hundred yard dash by 3 yards.
Billy Hamilton – 5’6 – CF
Most Steals in a season:111
Hamilton played in an era that steals were ill defined, credited at times for a players success in stretching an extra base out of a hit. His stolen base numbers were great, his reputation as a speedster was equally wide spread and yet as a subject in baseball history little is written about him. He did manage to steal 7 bases in a single contest on 8/31/1894 and his nickname “Sliding” Billy Hamilton belie to a player reputation that was made on the base paths.
Harry Bay – 5’8 – CF
Most Steals in a season:45
Bay broke in the game with the Reds, but moved on to the Indians the following year. Bay was clocked on a stopwatch from plate to first in 3.5 seconds and was considered by many to be the fastest man in the American League in the early part of the 20th century; his nickname was “Deer Foot”
Hans Lobert – 5’9 – 3b
Most Steals in a season: 47
Another former Red, Lobert was known for two things, his speed and being the man the Reds received from the Cubs for Harry Steinfeldt (The answer to a famous baseball riddle) Of course Lobert’s biggest speed cache came in an exhibition match on the west coast in 1914 prior to taking part in the The Grand World Baseball Tour of 1914. It was in California that Lobert raced a thoroughbred racehorse around the bases , barely losing Lobert declared that he was thrown off by looking back at the horse as he rounded second. Lobert’s time around the bases at a Cincinnati Reds Field Day in 1910 was clocked at 13.9 and was considered the MLB record.
Maurice Archdeacon – 5’8
Most Steals in a season: 11
Because of his speed, Archdeacon was nicknamed Flash and/or Comet, he held the organized baseball record for time around the bases (13.4) which he achieved in Rochester in 1920. By the time Maurice made it to the big leagues power was king and the speedsters were expected to bring a little pop to their games or they would end up like Archdeacon, spending most of their career in the minor leagues.
Evar Swanson – 5’9 – CF/RF
Most Steals in a season: 33
Once again, a onetime Red. (note a pattern?) Swanson etched his name in the speed annals on 9/15/1929, at a field day held at Redland Field between games of a doubleheader. A $100 prize was offered up if anyone could circle the bases from a standing start in less than 13.8 seconds and beat Lobert’s aforementioned major league record. Among the participants were Swanson and former University of Cincinnati track and baseball star Ethan Allen. Swanson was able to circumnavigate the bases in full uniform in 13.4 seconds for a MLB record. No mention was made of Allen’s finish time. Swanson also played a little pro football and was most likely the first Red to also log time in the NFL.
George Case 6′ – OF
Most Steals in a season: 61
Case was the fastest man in an era that saw more old and young players in the game, mostly a war time player Case was out of the game by 1947, his speed reputation though was marked when a race was held between games of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns on 9/8/1946. when Case raced Olympic great Jesse Owens, who was wearing a specially made Cincinnati Reds uniform. The race was a 100 yard dash across the outfield grass that Owens took by a stride.
Mickey Mantle – 5’11 – CF
Most Steals in a season: 21
My God,” he said on seeing Mantle running in the field, “the boy runs faster than Cobb.”
Mantle certainly was fast, but the era had more Hank Sauer’s than Vada Pinson’s too so I guess his speed could have stood out. If you want to note a lag in the running game look no further than the post WW2 era. From 1945 to 1958 only 16 times was 30 bags stolen in a season and only one of them reached 40 (Mays in 1956) Jackie Robinson who was known for stealing bases only topped 30 once (1949 he had 37)
Willie Davis – 5’11 – CF
Most Steals in a season: 42
Sample line from most sports publications in the 60’s.
The new young Dodgers have speed enough to put together a sprint-relay team that could scare USC. Center Fielder Willie Davis is generally regarded as the fastest man in baseball.
While always on-base challenged his name was rarely mentioned in the press without noting his speed. Davis has more at bats than any LA Dodger, and is third on the franchise list behind Zack Wheat and Pee Wee Reese.
Willie Wilson – 6’3 – CF
Most Steals in a season: 83
The tallest of the fast guys here, by far. Note the height of most of these men, 5’9 is a popular number. Wilson whose speed was his whole game was forced to bat left, asked to chop the ball, asked to make use of his speed as his weapon. So remember when guys like Corey Patterson and Wily Taveras get chances again and again it’s because of guys like Willie Wilson.
Herb Washington might have been faster than Wilson, but let’s ask Sal Bando for his opinion on this subject.
Sal Bando, captain of the Oakland A’s, commenting on the release of sprinter Herb Washington: “I’d feel sorry for him if he were a player.”
Tim Raines – 5’8 – OF
Most Steals in a season: 90
Raines has good natural speed—9.7 in the 100—but the key to base stealing isn’t so much sprinter’s speed as quickness over short distances. “A cheetah is fast,” says Expo Pitcher Bill Lee. “Raines is quick.”
The Raines era is fraught with guys built like Vince Coleman, wearing skin tight polyester uniforms running on huge swaths of plastic encased outfields with 12 foot outfield walls in the background. To me that will always be the visual I see when speed and baseball are mentioned in the same sentence.
Kenny Lofton – 6’ – CF
Most Steals in a season: 84
Lofton is another speedster who came later to the game (as a Junior at Arizona he decided to play baseball after the basketball season) Lofton was asked to chop, slice, and take the ball the other way and whatever he did to make sure to use his speed. Amazingly enough he was asked to do this for 11 teams in MLB, making him easily the most traveled speedster in this list.
Jose Reyes – 6’ – SS
Most Steals in a season:78
Lost in the power of the last decade was the fact that speed was still showing up in the game, sure we noticed it, sure we thought about it, but suddenly folks were noticing that without getting on base speed was a waste of time. This was something that even casual fans were getting introduced to. Thus Reye’s 2005 season was a challenge for any Mets fan. Speed redeems many though and his following season did just that. As he’s aged his speed cache has been challenged by guys like Angel Pagan on his own team.
Billy Hamilton – 6’ – CF
Most Steals in a season: 13
Once had a inside-the-park home run that a trainer clocked at 13.9 seconds, clocked at 3.3 to 1st base in the spring of 2014, currently building a legend of his own.
Of course like any list this one is debatable, (I didn’t even touch the Negro Leagues) and no it’s not science, however it provides a nice baseline for what Billy Hamilton will be measured against as far as pure speed goes.
He fits the bill physically as we can see that only Willie Wilson was truly a big guy and at 6′ 3” certainly was the largest man in the list above. The real task with speed is for it to produce outs on the defensive side and to steal 90 feet on the base paths in a way that disrupts the rhythm of the game for the opposing team and gains advantages offensively for yours.
Steal in bases
“I feel like I can steal anytime I want to.”
When your game is speed then you will be measured by what you do with that speed offensively. The game is not to forgiving to defense only players no matter how much defense they provide the offense they provide will be scrutinized. With Hamilton naturally it’s the stolen base that will be what separates him from other players and with that you get the predictions of how many steals he might get this season.
Here’s just a sample
Harry: His bat makes a bit more noise than I thought it would, which won’t matter if pitchers find multiple holes to exploit. I took the over on 70 and I’ll take the maybe on 80.
Meanwhile Vegas has set the over and under line at 63.5
Outfielder Billy Hamilton is the best base-stealing prospect in decades.
Don’t be surprised if Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton becomes the first major leaguer to reach 80 steals since Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson topped the mark in 1988.
In short Billy Hamilton is expected of a lot when it comes to stealing bases, an awful lot. To understand what he’s measured against let’s look at the steals since 1900, pre-1900 baseball has flimsier numbers and steals were often given to a batter when he took an extra base, many games had 1 umpire, a foul ball was not counted as a strike, in short the data is a bit fuzzier, so with that in mind we’ll use 1900 as the kick off point.
Looking at steals lets first agree that they should be always looked at in context, ten steals one season might be worth three steals another season. That said, stealing 25 bases has always seemed like a nice stolen base number to me, high in low steal eras and competent in high steal eras. If we were to look at how many guys had a season where they stole 25 bags or more since 1900 we get the following numbers.
25 stole bases:
- American League – 946
- National League – 1087
Quite a few in that group, too many to call elite, let’s double the amount and see how many guys have swiped 50 bags in a season.
50 stolen bases :
- American League – 127
- National League – 149
If Billy Hamilton steals 50 bases this season that would be nice, but 75 would be better, After all Rickey Henderson stole 66 bases at age 39.
75 stole bases:
- American League – 19
- National League – 21
I’d be apt to call this the elite list (sorted by year)
Player Year SB Ty Cobb 1909 76 Eddie Collins 1910 81 Ty Cobb 1911 83 Bob Bescher 1911 80 Clyde Milan 1912 88 Clyde Milan 1913 75 Ty Cobb 1915 96 Maury Wills 1962 104 Maury Wills 1965 94 Lou Brock 1974 118 Davey Lopes 1975 77 Bill North 1976 75 Willie Wilson 1979 83 Ron LeFlore 1979 78 Omar Moreno 1979 77 Rickey Henderson 1980 100 Ron LeFlore 1980 97 Omar Moreno 1980 96 Dave Collins 1980 79 Willie Wilson 1980 79 Rickey Henderson 1982 130 Tim Raines 1982 78 Rickey Henderson 1983 108 Tim Raines 1983 90 Rudy Law 1983 77 Tim Raines 1984 75 Vince Coleman 1985 110 Rickey Henderson 1985 80 Vince Coleman 1986 107 Rickey Henderson 1986 87 Eric Davis 1986 80 Vince Coleman 1987 109 Rickey Henderson 1988 93 Vince Coleman 1988 81 Rickey Henderson 1989 77 Vince Coleman 1990 77 Marquis Grissom 1991 76 Marquis Grissom 1992 78 Kenny Lofton 1996 75 Jose Reyes 2007 78
Couple of notes, the larger stolen bases numbers are really a byproduct of the game played on plastic 72% of the seasons with 75 steals or more came between 1966 and 1994, the big age of the multi-purpose stadium. Little known Reds fact, Bob Bescher held the NL steals record for 50 seasons and still shares the team record with Eric Davis. In his career as a Red Bescher averaged a steal every 8.8 at bats (Joe Morgan averaged 1 every 9.9 at bats) And yes that’s the Reds Dave Collins with 79 in 1980.
Every team has a steals leader and the fact that Bob Bescher still is in the mix 103 years later seems amazing considering the speedsters that the AstroTurf era produced. The table below is the list of the all the the team leaders and you can see of the same date patterns in there as well as some some organizations whose philosophies regarding the run tend to be more conservative. The Senators (Twins) franchise record holder is from 1912, the Giants from 1914 and both teams have had a combined total of 3 players with 50 or more steals since the dead-ball era. The Orioles/Browns team has 4 players with 50 steals or more and team high of 57.
Earl Weaver is smiling somewhere.
The other side of the coin is the St Louis Cardinals, their team leader at the start of the 1966 season was Red Murray who had swiped 48 bases ion 1908 (oddly enough the last year that franchise lost 100 games) Since 1966 the Cardinals have had a guy deliver 50 steals 23 times.
Player YEAR SB OBA+ Team Rickey Henderson 1982 130 .070 A's Mickey Rivers 1975 70 .003 Angels Gerald Young 1988 65 .014 Astros Dave Collins 1984 60 .040 Blue Jays Otis Nixon 1991 72 .046 Braves Lou Brock 1974 118 .033 Cardinals Frank Chance 1903 67 .098 Cubs Tony Womack 1999 72 -.019 Diamondbacks Maury Wills 1962 104 .010 Dodgers Ron LeFlore 1980 97 .008 Expos George Burns 1914 62 .075 Giants Kenny Lofton 1996 75 .021 Indians Harold Reynolds 1987 60 -.009 Mariners Juan Pierre 2003 65 .021 Marlins Jose Reyes 2007 78 .012 Mets Luis Aparicio 1964 57 .000 Orioles Alan Wiggins 1984 70 .014 Padres Juan Samuel 1984 72 -.022 Phillies Tommy Harper 1969 73 .018 Pilots Omar Moreno 1980 96 -.023 Pirates Bump Wills 1978 52 .005 Rangers Carl Crawford 2009 60 .028 Rays Jacoby Ellsbury 2009 70 .019 Red Sox Bob Bescher 1911 80 .040 Reds Eric Davis 1986 80 .046 Reds Willy Taveras 2008 68 -.031 Rockies Willie Wilson 1979 83 .017 Royals Clyde Milan 1912 88 .035 Senators Ty Cobb 1915 96 .153 Tigers Rudy Law 1983 77 .013 White Sox Rickey Henderson 1988 93 .069 Yankees
The one notable item in that list is there is a few guys who led their team in steals yet had a below average on-base percentage, and that is the rub, you can’t steal 1st base is the credo we so often say, or hear and a stolen base is a nice thing but not making outs at a crazy rate is preferred if stolen bases is the main thing you bring to the team.
A prime example of insanity and the steal is the 1980 season of Omar Moreno, The Pirate record holder who had 96 steals after reaching base 223 times which is a steal 43% of the time he reached base.
The real problem is that Omar also had a on-base% .023 below the league average and he made 560 outs that year , the equivalent of every out in almost 21 games.
So as the season progresses measure Billy Hamilton’s speed against the past speedsters who succeeded, or failed and those who etched their names into the corners of baseball history and let’s measure the stolen bases he garners against the good, the impressive and the legendary. At the end of the season perhaps we’ll see him on the top of this this list, and hopefully Deion will remain as the only Red to top 50 steals with an on-base % below the leagues average.
Players YEAR SB Eric Davis 1986 80 Bob Bescher 1911 80 Dave Collins 1980 79 Bob Bescher 1910 70 Joe Morgan 1975 67 Bob Bescher 1912 67 Joe Morgan 1973 67 Joe Morgan 1976 60 Joe Morgan 1974 58 Joe Morgan 1972 58 Bobby Tolan 1970 57 Deion Sanders 1997 56 Bob Bescher 1909 54 Barry Larkin 1995 51 Dode Paskert 1910 51 Eric Davis 1987 50
Brian first met the greatest game in Detroit in 1968, that team played in a league called the “American League”…. but I digress.
Later after a family move he started a dalliance with the Cincinnati Reds, who perchance were in the midst of their greatest era. It was a romance that was greater than many could hope to be.
After barely stomaching the strike of 1981 Brian headed West but never forgot the Reds, and even despite being surrounded by Giants and A’s fans who tried to entice him with things both Green and Orange he found himself wondering what was up with Kal Daniels and was that kid from Moeller ever going to make us forget Davey.
A long time member of SABR and a baseball history junkie he currently lives in Portland and can be followed at @baseballminutia