Rickey Henderson. Jackie Robinson. Ty Cobb. Tim Raines.
All would be great answers, but would you believe that the answer to this question might be Willie Wilson?
Yes, that Willie Wilson, who played outfield for the Kansas City Royals during the 70′s and 80′s, and was perhaps most famous for becoming one of the first active major league players to serve time in jail when he, along with Willie Aikens, Vida Blue, and Jerry Martin, served 81 days in a Texas jail in 1983 for attempting to buy cocaine.
Because Dan Fox has just written a fascinating article over at Baseball Prospectus which suggests that Wilson just may have been the greatest baserunner in the history of baseball.
By running the numbers on all play-by-play data going back to the 1956 season (thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Retrosheet folks), Fox was able to calculate how many runs players added to their team’s total with their legs alone, by looking at all opportunities to increase the chance to score a run, including stealing bases, advancing on hits and flyballs, and getting extra bags on things like balks, past balls, and wild pitches.
By adding up the fractional increases in the runs their teams could be expected to score based on league averages whenever a player took an extra base (as well as the decrease when he got caught trying to advance), Fox was able to add up the total number of runs each player added to his teams’ totals over the course of their career.
Only three players added over 100 runs with baserunning alone during the course of their careers. Two of them you have heard of – Rickey Henderson added 107.1 runs with his speed and Tim Raines tallied 102.5 runs. But in first place All-Time was Willie Wilson, with an almost superhuman 109.6 runs added by his legs alone over the course of his career. After these three, the dropoff was huge, with no other player adding even more than 80 runs in their career, and only three players ever adding at least 70 – Davey Lopes, Paul Molitor, and Vince Coleman. (The three worst baserunners of all time? Wade Boggs, Todd Zeile, and all-time goat Ted Simmons each subtracted a net total of around 50 runs over their careers with their poor baserunning).
Of course Willie Wilson did not have anywhere near the power of a Rickey Henderson, or the on-base percentage of Henderson or Raines (his career mark was an execrable .326), so he wasn’t nearly as valuable a player as Henderson or Raines, but in terms of pure baserunning prowess, he has them slightly beaten. And given that Wilson only had 668 stolen bases (to Henderson’s 1406 and Raines’s 808), it is clear that he was also a transcendent baserunner when it came to taking the extra bag on balls in play.
Finally, lest one might be tempted to think that Wilson was only great because he played for 19 seasons and thus could pile up a high cumulative total of runs added, it is also worth noting that he also has the highest rate of runs added per chances to take an extra base, at an astonishing 8.3 runs added per 550 chances to take an extra base (Coleman was second at 6.8, and Mookie Wilson was third at 6.7 runs).
Of course, there are a couple of possible counter-arguments to the case for Wilson as the greatest baserunner ever. First, as Fox points out, stealing bases is discretionary, so players who played in eras where stolen bases were more common get an advantage. Thus Fox reran the numbers excluding stolen bases, and decided that since 1956 Chone Figgins is the greatest pure baserunner, having increased runs scored with his baserunning by an additional 35% over the average player during the course of his career.
The second objection, of course, is that Fox’s data only uses major league play-by-play data since 1956, and thus excludes the careers of players like Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, and Cool Papa Bell.
This second argument is hard to counter, but the first objection can be done away with, as I feel like it’s kind of silly to consider who the greatest baserunner of all time is without considering stealing bases at all, since almost everyone would consider stolen bases an important part of “baserunning.” While it’s true that present-day baserunners aren’t allowed to steal anywhere near as often, and may actually be faster than previous ball players, we can hardly give them credit for being better baserunners, if they don’t actually run the bases as much.
So looking at the numbers, I think it’s probably fair to say that Wilson was the greatest pure baserunner in at least the last 50 years, if not necessarily of all time.