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Billy Hamilton is neither Rickey Henderson nor Vince Coleman. Are those the only two options?

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Hamilton's rookie campaign doesn't compare to other famous speedsters -- and that's ok.

Thievery!
Thievery!
Joe Robbins

Billy Hamilton, by nearly all imaginable standards, is in the midst of a successful 2014 campaign.  He is also on course to join a fairly exclusive club: Hamilton will be either the 31st or 32nd player since the end of the Deadball Era to record a 50+ stolen base season in his age-24 season or younger (Jose Altuve is also on pace to join this rather arbitrary group this year, and will likely beat Hamilton to the 50 steal mark).  Some of these young and fast players enjoyed multiple such seasons; there have been 49 total player seasons meeting these criteria prior to 2014.  Cesar Cedeno, Rickey Henderson, and Tim Raines, for instance, all exceeded 50 SB four different times prior to the end of their respective age-24 seasons.

It has not been a surprise, of course, that Hamilton has stolen a lot of bases.  He is known, first and foremost, for his superlative speed.  What has been surprising has been how good of a season Hamilton is having.  He's the front-runner to win the NL Rookie of the Year award, and has been one of the few bright spots in a mostly disappointing season.

While it is premature to engage in a post-mortem review of Hamilton's rookie year, I'm struck by how little resemblance his numbers bear to either of the most common comparisons given to Hamilton in the minors; Billy Hamilton is certainly not Rickey Henderson, nor is he Vince Coleman.  This article desires to dig a bit deeper past the most famous speedsters of the 80's, in hopes of creating a more well-rounded comparison set for Hamilton.

Observation #1: The 1980's were indeed the peak decade for young speedsters, but not by as large a margin as you would normally think.

20s

30s

40s

50s

60s

70s

80s

90s

00s

0

1

0

0

2

12

17

7

10

The above table shows the number of pre-age-25 50+ SB seasons in MLB since 1920.  This rather arbitrary breakout actually obscures the real peak for such seasons: between 1977 and 1986 there were 21 instances recorded.  Nonetheless, I found it interesting that the post-millenium decade was virtually indistinguishable from the swingin' seventies, at least in one regard.  Hamilton and Altuve, for what it's worth, will be the first players meeting the stated criteria in this present decade.

Observation #2: It was never fair to put Billy Hamilton in the Henderson/Coleman category.  Hamilton is currently on pace to steal 64 bases this year.  A fine and respectable amount that will land Billy firmly in the MLB leaderboard for the season.  Also, this would represent a top 20 effort in terms of the combination of criteria established at the top.  Not bad.  Here, by way of comparison, are the top 5 entries in the post-deadball, pre-age-25 list:

Player

Age

SB

Year

Rickey Henderson

23

130

1982

Vince Coleman

23

110

1985

Rickey Henderson

24

108

1983

Vince Coleman

24

107

1986

Rickey Henderson

21

100

1980

These guys lapped the field.  Only one other player even reached 90 SB by age 24 and just two more got to 80.  The media's comparisons were rather shallow, given that no one has matched the numbers above in 30 years.  As a side note, it's worth pointing out that Henderson lost a sizable chunk of the 1981 season, squarely within his peak running years, due to the player strike that year.  Also worth pointing out despite its irrelevancy to this particular article is that the Cincinnati Reds had the best record in baseball in 1981 but did not advance to the postseason.  Never Forget.

Observation #3: There were some really good seasons represented on this list, and some really bad ones.  It's here where we can most clearly see the Henderson/Coleman dichotomy.  In 1983, Rickey Henderson stole 108 bases, while posting an OPS+ of 139.  Three years later, Coleman nearly matched the stolen base total, with 107, but only managed a 62 OPS+.  There's an ocean of value between the two.  bWAR scores the two seasons at 6.9 and 1.2, respectively.

Cesar Cedeno, incidentally, was on an accelerated path to the Hall of Fame.  In 1971 and '72, at the ages of 21 and 22, Cedeno stole 55 and 56 bases, while playing centerfield and hitting for 162 and 152 OPS+ marks.  I've mentally tried to contextualize this as hitting like normal-Votto and running like Hamilton.  All while being as young as, say, Phil Ervin.

Hamilton's at a 102 OPS+ this year, which puts him: a) in the middle of the pack of these swipe-happy seasons; and b) in the company of some pretty interesting hitters:

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

OPS+

24

Juan Samuel

23

72

1984

2B

107

25

Roger Cedeno

24

66

1999

RF

107

26

Willie Wilson

23

83

1979

LF

106

27

Carl Crawford

22

59

2004

LF

105

28

Jose Reyes

24

78

2007

SS

102

29

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

102

30

Juan Samuel

24

53

1985

2B

102

31

Bert Campaneris

23

51

1965

SS

102

32

Tim Raines

22

78

1982

LF

101

33

Pat Listach

24

54

1992

SS

99

34

Bert Campaneris

24

52

1966

SS

98

35

George Case

23

51

1939

CF

98

36

Luis Castillo

23

50

1999

2B

98

Observation #4: Hamilton goes for the extra base a lot.  I think one of the most surprising things to me is that the stolen base attempt rate was quite a bit lower than expected.  My thought was that 50 stolen bases means a non-trivial number of unsuccessful attempts as well, double digits at least, and that the number of attempts over opportunities must be pretty high for a player to reach half a hundred.

Fortunately, there's a simple tool by which to quantify this: SBO% (Stolen base opportunity percentage) is calculated as the sum of stolen bases and times caught stealing divided by the sum of singles and walks.  There are a couple of really broad assumptions included here...one, that players never steal third base, and two, that players always have a clear path to second whenever they reach first.  While neither assumption is true, the metric allows for rudimentary comparisons that give a rough picture of how aggressive a player is on the basepaths.

For these 50 player-seasons of 50+ stolen bases, the median percentage for SBO% is below 50%.  Roberto Alomar, in 1991, stole 53 bases with an SBO% as low as 35%, which is perhaps shorthand for saying he not only picked his spots, but that he had many, many spots to pick from.  Here's the top ten in SBO%, from our list:

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

SBO%

1

Miguel Dilone

23

50

1978

LF

100

2

Rickey Henderson

23

130

1982

LF

78

3

Tim Raines

21

71

1981

LF

71

4

Vince Coleman

23

110

1985

LF

71

5

Vince Coleman

24

107

1986

LF

68

6

Eric Davis

24

80

1986

LF

66

7

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

65

8

Marquis Grissom

24

76

1991

CF

64

9

Rickey Henderson

24

108

1983

LF

60

10

Juan Samuel

23

72

1984

2B

58

Hamilton takes off for the extra bases roughly two-thirds of the time.  That seems to jive with my casually observed perception.

That guy at the top of the list...Dilone.  It's surprising to me every time I come across an unfamiliar name of a player who not only played during my lifetime, but played for a decade.  I had never heard of Miguel Dilone prior to this week, or if I had, I'd already resolved to forget about him.  His 1978 season is worth remembering, however:  First off, he played in 135 games, but only amassed 292 plate appearances, presumably signaling a large number of pinch-running assignments.  When he did hit, the results were not good.  He hit .229, with just 9 of his 59 hits going for extra bases.  Only 23 walks as well, leading to a slash line of .229/.294/.271.  65 OPS+.  Despite his obvious speed, he led the league in times caught stealing that year, failing on 23 of his 73 attempts.  Anyways, 73 attempts on 50 singles plus 23 walks leads to a "perfect" score on the SBO% front.  Impressiveish.  Dilone is, incidentally, the only player on our list with a negative WAR on the year.

Observation #5: For all the speed represented on this list, there weren't many strong defensive seasons turned in by this group.  Billy will end the year with a dWAR greater than 1, something that hasn't happened often in this set:

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

dWAR

1

Willie Wilson

24

79

1980

LF

2.2

2

Rickey Henderson

22

56

1981

LF

2.0

3

Willie Wilson

23

83

1979

LF

1.9

4

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

1.8

5

Jose Reyes

24

78

2007

SS

1.8

6

Jose Reyes

23

64

2006

SS

1.6

7

Omar Moreno

24

53

1977

CF

1.5

8

Rickey Henderson

21

100

1980

LF

1.3

9

Carl Crawford

22

59

2004

LF

1.1

10

Julio Cruz

23

59

1978

2B

1.1

11

Jacoby Ellsbury

24

50

2008

CF

1.0

I don't have much to add, other than I would have suspected that speed = range = defensive value.  There were twice as many players who recorded a negative dWAR as those who reached at least +1 dWAR.

Observation #6: To the extent you believe the underlying metric, Billy Hamilton does not add much value with his baserunning, as recorded by the "Rbaser" value.  In fact, he projects to add 3 runs over an average player with his baserunning this year.  Presumably, this is a function of the number of times he's been thrown out stealing, as the metric doesn't appear to take into account things like tagging up from third on a pop up to the pitcher or whatever.  Whatever.

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

Rbaser

39

Rickey Henderson

22

56

1981

LF

3

40

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

3

41

George Case

23

51

1939

CF

3

42

Hanley Ramirez

23

51

2007

SS

3

43

Shannon Stewart

24

51

1998

LF

2

44

Juan Samuel

24

53

1985

2B

2

45

Steve Sax

23

56

1983

2B

2

46

Gerald Young

23

65

1988

CF

2

47

Bert Campaneris

23

51

1965

SS

2

48

Bobby Tolan

24

57

1970

CF

1

49

John Cangelosi

23

50

1986

CF

1

50

Miguel Dilone

23

50

1978

LF

0

Observation #7: Within this context of fast, young players, Billy Hamilton is almost perfectly average in terms of overall value.  The best season ever in this group was Rickey Henderson, 1980 (8.8 bWAR).  The worst was Dilone, as referenced above.  Hamilton is on pace to finish 25th out of the group of 50, and his extrapolated WAR of 4.2 tracks fairly closely with the mean average of 4.0.  I suppose that average can carry a negative connotation in this day and age in which everyone is a very special snowflake, but this is a pretty talented group of players, by and large.

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

WAR

19

Carl Crawford

24

58

2006

LF

4.5

20

Luis Castillo

24

62

2000

2B

4.5

21

Roberto Alomar

23

53

1991

2B

4.5

22

Pat Listach

24

54

1992

SS

4.4

23

Cesar Cedeno

24

50

1975

CF

4.4

24

Hanley Ramirez

23

51

2007

SS

4.3

25

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

4.2

26

Bert Campaneris

24

52

1966

SS

3.6

27

Tim Raines

21

71

1981

LF

3.5

28

Shannon Stewart

24

51

1998

LF

3.4

29

Jacoby Ellsbury

24

50

2008

CF

3.0

30

Juan Samuel

24

53

1985

2B

3.0

Observation #8: Billy Hamilton needs to learn how to draw a walk.  The all-time gold standard of leadoff hitting (Henderson) routinely had walk rates (walks divided by PA) above 16%.  The next best thing to Henderson (Raines) was in the 10%-12% ballpark.  Hamilton is at 4%.  This needs to be Priority One this winter, since a normal walk rate means an extra 30-40 times on base per season, which means an extra 25 or so SB, which should be worth an extra 1-2 wins.  Easy, Peasy.

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

BB%

40

Marquis Grissom

24

76

1991

CF

5.7

41

Carl Crawford

24

58

2006

LF

5.7

42

Carl Crawford

22

59

2004

LF

5.2

43

Juan Samuel

24

53

1985

2B

4.7

44

Willie Wilson

23

83

1979

LF

4.4

45

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

4.4

46

Bert Campaneris

24

52

1966

SS

4.1

47

Carl Crawford

21

55

2003

LF

3.9

48

Willie Wilson

24

79

1980

LF

3.8

49

Juan Samuel

23

72

1984

2B

3.8

50

Jose Reyes

22

60

2005

SS

3.7

Incidentally, in walking through this exercise, the name that keeps popping up as a seemingly appropriate comp for Hamilton is Willie Wilson.  Great speed, amazing defense, double and triple power, terrible walk rate.  Wilson totaled 46 bWAR in his career, which puts him in the Hall of Very Good.  This potentially could have been a better career; Wilson was involved in a cocaine-related arrest and scandal at the peak of his career.  We don't really know if the drug was a persistent or negative influence on Wilson's playing days, but perhaps we can safely assume it wasn't an asset.  Nonetheless, I'd be more than happy to sign up for a 40-50 WAR career from Hamilton.  I'd be even happier to see his walk rate improve enough to blow past that number.

Observation #9: Billy Hamilton is demonstrating an impressive amount of power for a speedster.  I suppose that's probably self-evident; he already has more home runs this year than I expected for his entire career.  Hamilton's ISO (Slugging percentage minus batting average) is higher than any of Rickey Henderson's at the same age range, however, and I definitely did not expect that.

Rank

Player

Age

SB

Year

Pos

ISO

12

Carl Crawford

22

59

2004

LF

154

13

Cesar Cedeno

24

50

1975

CF

152

14

Amos Otis

24

52

1971

CF

142

15

Jose Reyes

24

78

2007

SS

141

16

Roberto Alomar

23

53

1991

2B

141

17

Billy Hamilton

23

64

2014

CF

140

18

Shannon Stewart

24

51

1998

LF

138

19

Tim Raines

21

71

1981

LF

134

20

Tim Raines

23

90

1983

LF

131

21

Rickey Henderson

24

108

1983

LF

129

22

Tim Raines

24

75

1984

CF

128

23

Rickey Henderson

22

56

1981

LF

118

Some pretty good names on that list.

Observation #10: Eric Davis was a bad motherflipper.

1986.  Age 24.  First full time season in the bigs.  27 HR and 80 SB in just 132 games played.  88% success rate on stolen bases.  14% walk rate.  ISO of two hundred forty six (!).  OPS+ of 143.

One day, I'd like to get a glimpse of the alternate universe in which Eric Keith Davis stayed healthy.