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You can test Brock's discovery on your drive to work tomorrow morning. Suppose you're at a red light and one block away there's another light, which you know is going to turn red if you don't get there in 3.2 seconds. You have two options: Get as far into the intersection as you possibly can, so as to reduce the distance to the next light, or time the light and be rolling just as it changes. Which method will get you to the next light faster?
Sure. Brock finally realized that a little bit of momentum is worth much, much more than a little bit of distance. Wills had made a practice of nailing himself down in the middle of the intersection, unable to squirm until the light changed. Brock pioneered the rolling start. It was during the five years following Brock's realization that we saw the real emergence of the modern running game. Brock's record of 118 stolen bases came in 1974, of course. By '76, stolen bases per 100 games had reached a lofty 79. That figure hasn't risen since, and despite Rickey Henderson, it won't this year.
Obviously, the great leap forward cannot be attributed solely to a refinement in technique. Nor can it be attributed primarily to a refinement in technique. Like most of the changes that occur in baseball, this one was chiefly effected by the environment. Between 1968 and 1972, four teams moved from cozy old grass-field, Babe Ruth-era parks into new, spacious, plastic-turfed stadiums. Three of those teams—the Phillies, Reds and Royals—showed huge increases in stolen bases shortly after the move. So did the Astros and Brock's Cardinals, who went artificial in 1965 and '66, respectively, and the Expos, who joined them in '77. The fact that people can run faster on artificial turf than on grass explains part of the rise—a very small part. The principal reason why stolen base totals have increased so much since 1972 is the new ball parks themselves. First, because fans didn't want to see cheap home runs, the fences were built appropriately far away. Second, care was taken in the construction of these parks to ensure good visibility for the batters.
What did this mean to the base stealer? The higher batting averages improved a player's chance of scoring from second, and thus increased the potential profit on the stolen base; the declining home-run rate, meanwhile, decreased the cost of a runner being caught stealing. In short, home runs and stolen bases are competing methods of advancing base runners. The fewer home runs there are, the more stolen bases there will be, simply because the risk of attempting to steal outweighs the value of staying put.
What conclusions can we draw, now that the Rickey Henderson era is upon us? Merely that Henderson is an amazing ballplayer. As an offensive force, he's greater than either Wills or Brock (see chart, page 32)—incomparably greater, in fact, than any other leadoff man of this century. The great leadoff men of the home-run years, 1920-60—players like Richie Ashburn, Eddie Yost, Dom DiMaggio, Maxie Bishop and Earle Combs—had their excellence measured by their ability to get on base. The great leadoff men of the stolen-base years, pre-1920 and since 1960—players like Max Carey, Wills, Brock, Aparicio and Bert Campaneris—were good-to-excellent hitters and great base stealers. Henderson is the only player to excel at both skills. Consider a few comparisons:
1) Wills never led his league in runs scored. Brock led his league once and tied for the lead once. Neither Campaneris nor Aparicio ever scored 100 runs in a season. Henderson scored 111 his first full year up, led his league in his second (strike-shortened) year with 89, and is likely to lead the league this year with far more than 100.
2) In 1962, Wills's greatest season from every standpoint except batting average, he reached base 208 times on hits and 51 times on walks, a total of 259. Brock nosed past that total three times, reaching a peak of 276 in 1971. Henderson reached base 296 times in his first full season—301 if you include when he was hit by pitches. As of last Friday, he had already reached base on walks and hits 236 times. Wills and Brock each reached base about 1.4 times per game; Henderson's average is 1.79.
3) Among the many records that Henderson has broken or is threatening this year, the most amazing to me, and the most important to his team, is the American League record of 143 runs scored by a leadoff man. It's held by Earle Combs of the 1932 Yankees. But he played for a team that hit .286 with lots of power and averaged 6.5 runs per game. Henderson is threatening to break the record with a team that is hitting .232 and is ninth in the league in runs scored, 4.3 per game.
4) Henderson's 122nd stolen base was the 311th of his career. He's 23 years old. At the same age Brock had stolen 16 bases; Wills had stolen none. If Henderson doesn't steal another base until 1986, when he will be 28, he will still have stolen more bases than Brock had at the same age. It's very possible that Henderson may pass Maury Wills's career total of 586 by the time he's 26. It's even possible that Henderson will break Brock's all-time career record of 938 bases by the time he's 30.
Yet for all the fame they're bringing him, Henderson's stolen-base exploits this year have done virtually nothing to help his team from a dismal fate. Why? Despite the attention they command, stolen bases are not, I repeat, very important. Picture a vast desert. A single tumbleweed blowing across the landscape will attract the eye because it's the only thing moving. A runner stealing bases draws attention not because what he's doing is important, but because he is moving. Nobody gets excited about records for doubles or triples; very few people even know what those records are: doubles—67, Earl Webb, 1931; triples—36, Owen (Chief) Wilson, 1912. In the last 10 years, batting averages are up a few points, home runs are up maybe 5%. You have to be a statistician to care about stuff like that. Maybe the most significant result of Henderson fever is the inclusion of stolen base totals into newspaper box scores this year for the first time. It sure makes my job easier.