Base running has been a minor focal point of the current baseball news cycle with StatCast releasing its Sprint Speed metric earlier this week. To see where the Cardinals land in all of this new data, Zach Gifford has two columns on the subject at the Intreped STL which are definitely worth the read. The Cardinals come out somewhat well which doesn’t seem to mesh with what we’re watching every night so make of that what you will.
Also close to home, on Monday Derrick Goold profiled Magneuris Sierra’s quest to be a Billy Hamilton-like asset on the bases. The piece included a casual mention that Vince Coleman once stole a then-professional record 145 bases for the Macon Redbirds in 1983. I knew of this stat and yet every time I see it I marvel and not just because players are no longer stealing bases like they were in 1983 (MLB teams averaged 127.8 stolen bases in 1983 compared to 84.6 last season), but because that amount of stolen bases is special no matter the player, decade, or level of play.
And that’s what Vince Coleman was - special. Or interesting. Or something. He wasn’t a great player, that’s for certain. He retired with nearly 6,000 plate appearances yet barely made it to double-digits in fWAR. He excelled at his one elite skill while being subpar in areas of the game that actually hindered it. Like in 1986 when he stole 107 bases while only getting on base at a .301 clip (he was still a staple his entire career at leadoff, of course). That season he joined Maury Wills as the only other player to steal more than 100 bases while being caught less than 15 times.
Sprint Speed obviously wasn’t around in Coleman’s day but you’d have to think he would have excelled. When measuring by FanGraphs’s BsR metric, Coleman still ranks in the top ten for all players since 1969. Seeing him play in person and scamper across the AstroTurf towards second was impressive even when viewed from the worst seats at Old Busch.
As for stealing 100 bases, that’s happened a grand total of eight times in the history of Major League Baseball - the same amount of 60+ home run seasons - and Coleman did it three times. His first three seasons in the bigs, in fact. When he left St. Louis after six seasons, he already had 549 stolen bases for his career, easily the most by any player during their first six seasons.
If you’re wondering what that list looks like, here it is:
- Vince Coleman - 549
- Rickey Henderson - 493
- Kenny Lofton - 327
- Tim Raines - 321
- Bob Bescher - 320
And this is where it gets crazy - had Coleman never played another game, his 549 stolen bases would still rank 19th all-time in the history of MLB, just below Cesar Cedano (550) and ahead of Barry Bonds (514). Compare that to other traditional, accumulative stats, the type you’d find on the back of baseball cards around the time when Coleman played, and nothing else comes close. Here, take a look:
Most hits years 1-6 in MLB: Ichiro Suzuki - 1,354
All-time rank: 706 (tied with Ken Oberkfell!)
Most walks years 1-6 in MLB: Ted Williams - 813
All-time rank: 229
Most doubles years 1-6 in MLB: Albert Pujols - 260
All-time rank: 589
Most triples years 1-6 in MLB: Paul Waner - 102
All-time rank: 101
Most home runs years 1-6 in MLB: Ralph Kiner - 257 (Pujols is second with 250, for what it’s worth)
All-time rank: 201
Runs Batted In
Most RBIs years 1-6 in MLB: Joe DiMaggio - 816 (Pujols is second with 758)
All-time rank: 413
Most runs years 1-6 in MLB: Ted Williams - 808 (Pujols is second with 748)
All-time rank: 484
Other than learning what we already knew, that we were so incredibly lucky to be up close watching Albert Pujuls’s first decade in the league, here we see that no other player’s best stats above their first six years in the league would have even ranked in the top 100 had they stopped playing then and there. And only Paul Waner’s triples mark would rank in the top 200. And yet there’s Coleman in the top 20.
Stealing bases is a unique, possibly eroding skill. Not every player is an equal candidate to steal a base, in fact, Henderson’s six-year mark would rank pretty close to the top 20 as well. True enough. But not every player is an equal candidate to hit a home run, or leg out a triple either. What Coleman accumulated during his six years in St. Louis will possibly never be replicated again no matter the statistic.
Coleman played for seven more seasons with an assortment of teams following his departure after the 1990 season and I don’t remember a single positive moment involving him after he left St. Louis (I remember some negative ones). He only stole 203 more bases for the rest of his career, which still left him fifth all-time. At the top of that leaderboard, in a sea surrounded by name-brand Hall of Famers like Henderson, Brock, Cobb, Eddie Collins, and the soon-to-be-inducted Raines, Coleman is on an island by himself.
Which is fine, of course. Coleman doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. His name is still associated with the elite base stealers and runners of all time though, and his six-year stretch with the Cardinals show that’s where he firmly belongs.
Credit to Baseball Reference’s Play Index for the stats in this post.