July 22, 2003

The Old Man

A couple weeks ago, 44 year old outfielder and former 10-time major league all-star Rickey Henderson was dominating the independent Atlantic League, while playing for the Newark Bears. Henderson signed with Newark after trying unsuccessfully to find a job with a big league team this off-season. Having found none interested, Rickey was faced with the choice of either retiring from the game he had played professionally for the last 27 years or trying to prolong his career by playing in an independent league, in front of sparse crowds and zero spotlight.

Rickey chose to play, because...well, that's what he loves to do and that's what he has always done.

The general thought about aging star athletes is that they should retire while they are on top, or at least not at the bottom. For anyone who has seen a player at the very top of his game and his sport, it is painful to watch them struggle in the twilight of their career, like, for example, the great Willie Mays did for the 1973 Mets. It is generally thought that a great player deserves better than to play poorly while trying to hang onto the last days of his career, and that whatever legacy that player has is hurt somewhat by his final days as a sub par player.

Rickey Henderson is 44 years old and has not been at the "top of his game" since about 1995. The difference with Rickey is that his game, at 44 and nowhere near the top, is still pretty damn good.

When a baseball fan thinks of Rickey Henderson, the first thing that comes to mind is almost certainly his amazing ability to steal bases. Stolen bases are exciting, and Rickey Henderson did it better than anyone in the history of the sport. His 1,403 career stolen bases are nearly 50% more than the second leading base-stealer of all-time, Lou Brock.

What many casual fans don't realize is that the things that made Rickey Henderson such an amazing baseball player went far beyond his ability to steal a base. And, as he has aged and his speed has gradually dimished, with his power slowly leaving with it, it is his one remaining outstanding skill that has enabled him to continue to be a valuable player well into his 40s.

What is that skill? Quite simply, the ability to get on base.

Early in his career, that meant hitting .290 and drawing 90 walks. Later in his career, it has meant hitting .225 and coaxing as many walks as humanly possible.

Despite declining speed and power and bat speed, Rickey Henderson has been able to continue to be a valuable major league outfielder by doing the one thing that he always was able to do better than any other leadoff man in baseball history - get on base.

Which brings us to last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the few major league teams that Rickey Henderson had yet to play for, found themselves in contention for a playoff spot, despite the worst offense in the National League.

In an effort to strengthen a unit that ranked last in the NL in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, hits, walks and home runs, the Dodgers traded for Mets outfielder Jeromy Burnitz. Then, shortly after that, they signed the greatest leadoff man in baseball history, a 44 year old outfielder that had been playing his games for the Newark Bears.

Rickey was immediately installed as a starter and the Dodger lineup suddenly had a familiar look at the top:

1) Henderson, LF

Rickey started 3 of the 4 games the Dodgers played against the St. Louis Cardinals and his impact on the lineup was felt immediately. He hit home runs in 2 of the games, including the 81st leadoff home run of his career (an all-time major league record) in front of Joe Morgan, Jon Miller and a national audience on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.

In his three starts against the Cardinals, Rickey went 5-13 (.385) with 2 homers, as the Dodgers scored 6, 8 and 7 runs. Last night, in his fourth start as a Dodger, Rickey had his first bad game, going 0-4, as the Dodgers lost 4-1 to Colorado. Prior to signing Rickey, the Dodgers averaged 3.52 runs per game this season. In Rickey's 4 starts as a Dodger thus far, they are averaging 5.5 runs per game. Small sample size, I know, but it's fun anyway.

Now, it's unlikely that the Dodger offense is suddenly going to turn into a run-scoring machine and it's unlikely that Rickey Henderson is going to continue hitting a homer every other game. But Rickey Henderson can still play the game of baseball at age 44 and his being in the Dodger lineup will help them score more runs. Rickey isn't going to hit .385 or probably even .285 this year, but he'll get on base and that's something any offense can use.

It's way too early to speculate as to what Rickey Henderson's 2003 season will end up looking like. Although he's off to a good start, it's unlikely that he'll end the year with a ton of plate appearances, simply because the Dodgers are not expected to play him everyday when Dave Roberts returns from his injury, and also because Rickey wasn't signed until after the Dodgers had already played their 93rd game of the season.

Still, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what Rickey Henderson's competition for "Best Offensive Season by a 44 Year Old" looks like. As you may have noticed, I have "The Rickey! Watch" on the left-hand side of this page and I have dubbed Rickey, "The best 44 year old hitter in baseball history." Now that I've dubbed him that, I thought maybe it would be a good idea if I actually looked to see if it were true or not.

Before I show you the actual numbers and players involved, take a guess as to how many different seasons there have been in the history of baseball when a hitter that is 44 years old or older has accumulated at least 125 plate appearances. Go ahead, take a guess.

Now, here's the answer:

                      YEAR       PA     AGE     

Pete Rose 1985 500 44
Cap Anson 1897 497 45
Cap Anson 1896 459 44
Sam Rice 1934 367 44
Pete Rose 1986 272 45
Tony Perez 1986 228 44
Carlton Fisk 1992 214 44

That's it. 7 seasons in the 100+ year history of the sport. If Rickey can join that list (he would need to average about 1.8 plate appearances per game), he'd be joining some pretty special company. Of the 5 players on that list, 4 of them are in the Hall of Fame and one of them is Pete Rose.

So, what would Rickey Henderson have to do to be the best hitter on that list?

Let's take a look...

                      YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+

Cap Anson 1896 .331 .407 .400 110
Pete Rose 1985 .264 .395 .319 99
Cap Anson 1897 .285 .379 .361 92
Tony Perez 1986 .255 .333 .355 88
Sam Rice 1934 .291 .351 .364 83
Carlton Fisk 1992 .229 .313 .309 76
Pete Rose 1986 .219 .316 .270 61

I ranked the 7 seasons by "Adjusted OPS" (OPS+), which takes a player's on-base percentage and slugging percentage and adjusts them for the ballparks, leagues and eras they were posted in, and spits out one number. 100 is "league-average," anything below 100 is below-average, anything above 100 is above-average.

Basically, only once in baseball history has a hitter 44 years or older had an "above-average" season. That's pretty remarkable and it surprised me quite a bit. Cap Anson is the king of the group, hitting .331 as a 44 year old in 1896, while posting a .407 on-base percentage and a .400 slugging percentage. All 3 numbers - AVG, OBP, SLG - are the top figures among the 7 seasons.

Anson's season also came in a very good environment for offense. The National League as a whole (adjusted to Anson's home ballpark) hit .302 in 1896. The NL also had a .368 on-base percentage and a .404 slugging percentage - which is actually 4 points higher than Anson's .400 slugging percentage. Anson's OPS+ (which weighs OBP and SLG differently) for 1896 was 110, meaning about 10% better than league-average.

It would be impossible to try to figure out what the overall hitting environment of the National League will be at the end of this season, let alone the individual "park factor" for Dodger Stadium, but a pretty good estimate can be made.

Last year, the National League hit .259/.327/.410.

This year, the National League is hitting .262/.333/.420.

Assuming Dodger Stadium ends up having a similar effect on offense as it did last season, the National League, adjusted to Dodger Stadium, will likely look something like .257/.333/.415.

What would Rickey have to hit, while playing in an environment with a .257/.333/.415 average, in order to top Cap Anson's 110 OPS+ from 1896? Well, obviously, there are a lot of different answers. A player could get a 110 OPS+ by having a high OBP and a low SLG, a low OBP and a high SLG, slightly above-average OBP and SLG...you get the idea.

But let's try to figure out a reasonable estimate for a 44 year old Rickey Henderson. Over the last two years, Henderson has hit .226/.367/.351. His OPS+ figures for those 2 seasons are 95 and 96. So, a performance in line with how he has played over the last 2 years is going to fall short of Anson's mark. In fact, if Rickey put up a 95 OPS+ this year, it would rank 3rd on the list, behind Anson's 1896 season and Pete Rose's 1985 season.

Let's say Rickey gets a few more singles to drop this year than he did in 2001/2002 and he is able to raise his batting average about 25 points. That sounds like a lot, but it's not so impossible, since, over the course of 150 at bats, the difference between a .225 batting average and a .250 batting average is a measly 4 hits.

So, let's add 25 points to Rickey's batting average and do the same to his OBP and his SLG. Our new numbers are .251/.392/.376. Doing a quick-and-dirty calculation, with the assumption that the league-average for Dodger Stadium will be .257/.333/.415, Rickey's OPS+ would be 108.

108 isn't quite 110, but it's pretty close. If Rickey does a little better than .251/.392/.376 or if Dodger Stadium depresses offense more than it did last season or if the National League hits a little worse in the second-half than it did in the first-half - Rickey could find himself with a 110 OPS+.

Of course, projecting a 44 year old to perform they same way he did at 42 and 43 is risky, and projecting him to hit the same way, with an additional 25 points of AVG, OBP and SLG added on, might be considered crazy. That said, he's off to a very good start (.278/.278/.611 in 18 PAs), he had a 130 OPS+ as a 40 year old, and stranger things have happened.

Just by simply getting 125 plate appearances this season, Rickey Henderson will have one of the top 8 seasons in baseball history for a hitter 44 or older. Judging from his first few games though, I'd say Rickey's got slightly loftier goals. I think Rickey has an outside shot at bettering Cap Anson's 110 OPS+ from 1896, but, more than likely, will have to settle for an OPS+ somewhere around 100. That's not too shabby either.

Of course, "Greatest 44 year old since 1900" doesn't quite have the same ring to it as "Greatest 44 year old hitter in baseball history."


Remember yesterday, I said the following:

"If you have a chance to watch the Oakland/Kansas City game tonight (8:05 ET), make sure you do so. It will feature the major league debut of stud pitching prospect Rich Harden. In a short time, he'll be the reason why Oakland's "Big Three" is Oakland's "Big Four" and, trust me, you'll want to be able to say you saw him pitch his first game in the big leagues."

Sadly, it turns out the game wasn't even available for me to watch on the MLB Extra Innings package for DirecTV. For those of you who did get a chance to see it, you are the lucky few.

Rich Harden certainly didn't disappoint. In his major league debut, Harden pitched 7 innings of 4-hit ball, striking out four, while walking two. He gave up a single run in the 6th inning and got a no-decision, as the A's scored 5 runs in the top of the 9th inning to break a 1-1 tie and win the game.

"He was terrific," Oakland manager Ken Macha said. "He was tipping his pitches a little bit, and I think they picked that up in the first inning. But his stuff was so good it really didn't matter."

Link of the Day:

This is something I have been thinking about doing for a while now. Basically, there are a ton of awesome websites out there, many of which are featured in my links on the left side of this page. I visit quite a few of those sites on a semi-regular basis, but I don't always get a chance to give them the "plugs" that I think they deserve. So, what I am going to do (for a little while, at least) is have a featured "Link of the Day." I might feature a site with a really great article currently posted on it or a blog of a team that is making headlines or, most likely, just one of the many great websites that I enjoy. Today's link...

Dodger Thoughts - "Jon Weisman's outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball"

Today's picks:

Houston (Robertson) -145 over Pittsburgh (Torres)

Montreal (Ohka) +120 over Florida (Pavano)

Arizona (Schilling) -140 over San Francisco (Moss)

Oakland (Hudson) -155 over Kansas City (Wilson)

Toronto (Halladay) +110 over New York (Pettitte)

Total to date: + $845

W/L record: 175-175 (1-3 yesterday for -220, and back under 1,000.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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