The Weekly Reed: The pure dominance of Rickey Henderson 

Henderson steals a base as a member of the New York Yankees in 1988. Photo from Wikimedia Images.

As an avid Twitter user, I can say the platform allows people to post some of the most egregious sports takes the world has ever seen. When Major League Baseball announced the rule changes for the 2023 season, many users took to the platform to voice their opinions on how these changes could impact the records that many thought would be unbreakable. The worst one that I saw, in my humble opinion, was that larger bases will create an opportunity for some players to break Rickey Henderson’s all-time stolen base record of 1,406 steals in his 25-year career. That mark is 468 higher than the next-closest player in the history of MLB. To me, this signifies just how insanely good Henderson was at base stealing and just how hard it’s going to be for any player to top that.  

Rickey Henderson was the 1990 MVP, a two-time world champion, a ten-time all-star, a gold glover and a three-time silver slugger during his 25-year career that ended in a hall of fame induction in 2009. The outfielder had three separate seasons where he stole over 100 bases: 1980 (100), 1982 (130), 1983 (108). In the history of the MLB, there are 21 times in which a player had stolen over 100 bases in a season, 13 of which occurred in the 1800’s. Since Henderson’s 1983 season, there’s only been three times that a player recorded over 100 stolen bases in a season, all by Cardinal’s outfielder Vince Coleman in 1985 (110), 1986 (107) and 1987 (109). Coleman would finish his career with the sixth-most stolen bases (752) of all-time, but what separated him and Henderson?  

The answer is longevity.  

Coleman played a respectable 13 years in the majors, bouncing around six teams and making the all-star game twice, but Henderson almost doubled his lifespan in the league. His 25 years ties his for the fifth longest career ever in MLB, most notably with long-time journeyman Jamie Moyer who retired in 2012. As of 2022, the average MLB career lasts around 2.7 years, which doesn’t bode well for anyone trying to break a record, especially when competing against a player who had one of the longest careers in history. Since 2000, only three players have stolen more than 70 bases in a season, all three of them are out of the league currently. Outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Scott Podsednik played 11-years at the major league level and achieved just over 300 steals each. Jose Reyes had the longest career of the three players, playing from 2003 until he retired after the 2018 season to cap off a 16-year career. Reyes led the league for three consecutive years in stolen bases from 2005 to 2007 and finished off with 517 total steals. Rickey Henderson had 20 seasons that he played over 100 games compared to the 12 that Reyes had during his playing time. Henderson’s ability to stay healthy and on the field allowed him to continue to be dominant on the base paths.  

I agree that the new pick off rules and larger bases give the base runner an easier way to steal bases, but I don’t think any player can replicate the output that Henderson produced. We’ve seen exciting players such as Billy Hamilton, Carl Crawford and Dee-Strange Gordon rack up steals in the past few years, but none of them continue to at a high rate year in year out. Personally, I think we see an increase in team stolen base totals especially compared to recent years. An example of this can be seen in the series between Baltimore and Boston just a few weeks ago. The Orioles ran all over the Red Sox, stealing nine bases in just the first two games. Jorge Mateo led the charge, tallying four of the team’s steals while his teammate Cedric Mullins accounted for three himself. In the third game of the series, Boston adapted, and Baltimore didn’t even attempt to steal a base during the duration of the game. The pitch clock plays a role in why Boston struggled to deal with the Orioles on the bases, but teams are going to learn how to play with the new rules. Rookies and younger players come up with the advantage of having played with the new rules in the minor leagues, so seeing how teams’ veterans and youngsters mix will play a key role in how teams find success at preventing steals. 

Rickey Henderson is a once-in-a-lifetime player, a guy who continues to dominate especially when it comes to stolen bases. He set the bar incredibly high in order for a player to ever pass him as the best base stealer in MLB history, and I don’t think we’ll ever see that happen. Henderson performed at such a high level that even when the whole world knew he was going to steal, he’d still get it. There have been players who have had streaks of pure dominance on the bases, just never as long as Henderson.   

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