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Rickey Henderson’s lost MVP

Rickey Henderson’s 1985 campaign might be one of the most underrated in the history of baseball.

New York Yankees

As it should be, Rickey Henderson’s major league legacy is that of a very, very fast man. The gloriously powerful runner is the all-time leader in stolen bases and runs, with nearly 1.5 times as many thieveries as baseball’s second most numerous base stealer, Lou Brock. His perennially elite ability to get on base, combined with his legendary speed, made him a constant threat to steal, warping defenses with the magnitude of his base stealing prowess.

While he’s also been caught stealing on more occasions than anyone else in the history of the game, it was only due to his radically superior volume of attempts compared to his peers. Rickey stole safely 80.8 percent of the time that he took off, whereas the league’s successful steal rate across the quarter-century (!) in which he played (1979-2003) was just 68 percent.

In 2021, as total stolen base attempts have plummeted, the league conversion rate has crept up to 75.9 percent. Today’s base stealers base stealers (i.e. already exceptionally fast runners) swipe bags almost exclusively in the perfect count, or against noodle-armed catchers and slow to the plate pitchers.

Rickey’s dynamism on the bases was unstoppable to the point of inevitability; even when opposing batteries knew exactly what was coming they stood little chance of nabbing him. He stole comparatively indiscriminately, with a greater rate of success than many of today’s hyper-selective speedsters.

However, knowing Rickey for his speed alone is like knowing Stephen Curry only for his ability to shoot the basketball. Yes, they are indeed the greatest ever at their respective crafts by a measurably wide gap. Yet their superpowers share a symbiotic relationship with the rest of their athletic repertoires. Curry’s shooting ability, coupled with his quickness and craft away from the basketball, sends defenders into frenzied scrambles trying to chase him around, freeing teammates for easy buckets wherever he’s not. Likewise, Henderson’s speed and patience at the plate made him one of the greatest table-setters ever, as walks quickly turned into two and three free bases.

At times, in the case of both Curry and Henderson, it seems as though they outperformed their peers by such an incomprehensible margin, the general public has tended to underrate their impact on their respective games.

At the conclusion of the 2015 Finals, Andre Iguodala was awarded with the series MVP award despite averaging 16.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game compared to Curry’s 26.0, 5.2, and 6.3 on almost identical true shooting percentages. While Iguodala’s solid defense of LeBron dwarfed Curry’s impact on that end, it was Curry who was essential to everything that the Warriors did with their all-time great offense. Without Iguodala, the Warriors may or may not have lost that series to the Cavs, but without Curry, they likely would have been swept.

After the 1985 major league season, Henderson of course led the American League in steals, but for the first time in his career, he led the entire major leagues in WAR (9.9 bWAR, 9.7 fWAR). Even with advanced statistical leads over all of baseball in Off, BsR, a fourth place finish in wOBA, and the 17th-best Def, Rickey failed to receive a single first place vote for the AL Most Valuable Player award.

Instead, first baseman and fellow Yankee Don Mattingly won the award handily with 23 of 28 possible first place votes. While Wade Boggs and George Brett had more impressive portfolios by modern standards, the 1985 Yankees outperformed the Red Sox and Royals, likely adding to the outdated impression of Mattingly’s superiority. Still, that doesn’t account for Mattingly’s sizable lead over Rickey.

Donnie Baseball finished 1985 near dead even with Rickey at the plate, with Mattingly leading Henderson in OPS by just four-thousandths of a point. But Rickey’s massive edge in base-running and defense made him the far more valuable player, even if he didn’t win the titular award. Rickey’s most underrated talent, his ability to draw walks, may have actually cost him when it came to awards voting. Mattingly led baseball in total bases, but walked almost half as often as did Rickey, and finished with 105 more at-bats. More at bats led to greater offensive counting totals including 11 more homers, 20 more doubles, and 39 more hits.

Most importantly, for voters at least, was the gulf between Mattingly’s RBI total and everyone else’s. At the time, RBI was the primary metric of assessing a player’s run production, and with 21 more than anyone else in baseball, Mattingly was considered the game’s best run producer according to that rudimentary rubric. The fact that the Yankees made a 10-win improvement from 1984 and finished just two games behind the AL East-winning Blue Jays made the narrative of Mattingly’s case even better. Tellingly, though, another Yankee, Dave Winfield, finished third in the majors in RBI, while Rickey led everyone in runs scored by 30. In fact, Henderson alone accounted for more than a third of the baserunners Mattingly cashed in, and almost a third of Winfield’s own RBI.

By consistently getting himself into scoring position, the Yankees’ two other sluggers had a hard time doing their jobs without plating Rickey. Conversely, as the leadoff man, Henderson drove himself in more than anyone else (due to his 24 homers), still finishing the season with 72 RBI despite coming to bat with runners on base less often than the average major leaguer. Despite finishing fifth in AL fWAR — just a short while before the all-in-one stat was first concocted — Mattingly’s 145 RBI likely swayed the voters in his favor.

While he is best known as an Oakland Athletic, having called the Coliseum his home four different times, Rickey’s four-and-a-half-year stint with the Yankees was one of the most productive in franchise history. In those seasons, Rickey posted 27.3 bWAR, including his 1985 total that still ranks as the 15th-best ever by a Yankee position player, and the best by a right-handed hitting Yankee (a half-win better than even Joe DiMaggio’s best).

Despite just 596 games in pinstripes, Rickey even set the Yankees’ franchise record for steals at 326 until the long-lasting Derek Jeter came along. He does, however, still hold the team’s single-season mark with 93 in 1988.

Across 25 years in the bigs, Rickey totaled 111.2 bWAR (19th) and 106.3 fWAR (17th). Just a spot behind Lou Gehrig, and two ahead of Mickey Mantle, on the bWAR career leaderboard, it’s not always that Rickey Henderson is spoken about with the same reverence as some of baseball’s other larger than life heroes. His unique propensity for referring to himself in the third person, among other on-field antics, coupled with a complete and utter unwillingness to pander to the press made him a polarizing figure during an especially white and conservative era of major league baseball.

Further, with the decline in popularity of the stolen base as a winning strategy for men with merely mortal footspeed, some have likely come to latently disregard Rickey’s expertise as a historical artifact, ill-suited for the modern game. While Rickey might have stolen less often now than he did in his prime, he was so far ahead of his own peers that no era of perfected pop-times could have wholly offset Henderson’s speed, which was — in his own words — “...the greatest, of all-time.”

It’s comforting to picture Rickey as the electrifying and universally beloved superstar he would have deserved to be in today’s game, though frankly, less has changed than we’d all like to think and I’m not sure what good our collective imagination can do for an underappreciated, retired, yet Hall-of-Fame-enshrined Rickey at this point anyway.

If anything, as baseball fans, we should all try to honor just how electrifying Rickey was at his best, and maintain his legacy by giving him his due amongst his genuine peers — the pantheon of baseball’s all-time greats.