Vince Coleman: The one-tool player

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To make it in the big leagues with only your speed, that speed has to be otherworldly. That was Vince Coleman.

On Aug. 16, 1987, Vince Coleman stepped to the plate to lead-off the game. He bunted for a hit. He stole second base. Then he stole third. A Terry Pendleton groundout later, he had the Cardinals on the board with nothing but his legs.

That was the first inning of the very first Cardinals game I ever saw in person, but for Coleman, it was just another day at the office. It was 1987 and he was on his way to his third consecutive 100-steal season, and the Cardinals were on their way to a second World Series with him in the leadoff spot.

Fans swoon over the five-tool player, but Coleman was something even more rare and memorable: The one-tool player. To make it to the majors with a single tool, that ability has to be skewed to such an extreme, it is unforgettable. That was Vince Coleman’s speed.

In one of his two All-Star appearances, he got a base hit, then scored without another ball being put in play. He hit stand-up, inside-the-park home runs. He raced Willie Gault on primetime television. He could not be thrown out in RBI Baseball.

Modern metrics illuminate just how spectacular Vince Coleman’s base stealing ability was, but also how it just barely offset the deficiencies in the rest of his game. If you want to see what a One-Tool Player looks like, check out Vince Coleman’s 1986 season.

Vince Coleman: 1986

AVG

OBP

SLG

SB

wSB

WAR

.232

.301

.280

107

15.7

0.9

In 1986, Vince Coleman was on base 196 times with the base ahead of him open. He stole 107 of those bases and was caught only 14 times. Fangraph’s measures Weighted Stolen Base Runs as a way to quantify the value a player added just by stealing bases. Coleman’s 1986 wSB was 15.7 - the highest in baseball history.

As for the rest of his numbers? Not a tool to be found. Even with the greatest stolen base season in history, Coleman could only manage 0.9 WAR.

Those are sobering numbers for Billy Hamilton, the closest thing to Vince Coleman in the last 30 years. Hamilton broke Coleman’s minor league stolen base record, which stood since 1983. Now he’s in the Big Leagues trying to do the same high-wire act.

Rookie Seasons


OBP

BB%

SB

SB%

Vince Coleman 1985

.320

9.0

107

88%

Billy Hamilton 2014 (to date)

.316

5.2

28

78%

There's that old adage about the punchless speedster: You can't steal first. Hamilton, like Coleman, has struggled to get on-base. Through May, Hamilton's OBP was under .300. He's stolen 28 bases, which puts him on-pace for 65. With fewer steals and only a 78% success rate, his speed is not adding the kind of value Coleman did.

In June, Hamilton has been more than a one-tool player, batting .344 and slugging a shocking .560. His defensive metrics have soared. He currently ranks first among all center fielders in UZR, and it's not even close. Coleman, despite all his speed, played left - and still rated as a sub-par defender. For all the talk of his speed and comparisons to Coleman, Hamilton's viability will hinge on whether or not he can sustain these other tools.

After Coleman left St. Louis via free agency in 1991, he never again swiped more than 50 bases and his WAR was negative. There were reports of clubhouse fights with coaches and teammates. Most notoriously, he inexplicably tossed a firecracker into a group of fans in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, injuring a one-year-old child.

Strange occurrences seemed to follow Vince Coleman, back to when he was caught in the tarp as it rolled onto the field during the 1985 NLCS. In fact, if you type "Vince Coleman" into Google, two of the first suggestions are "tarp" and "firecracker."

But strange incidents seem somehow fitting for a guy who was the strangest kind of player: The one-tool superstar. Many players have been better than Coleman, but few were more memorable.

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