Happy Birthday Rickey! We didn’t appreciate you…

You didn’t appreciate Rickey Henderson.

Don’t feel bad, he was one of my favorite players and I didn’t either, apparently.

If we’re talking about the totality of his career, of course we all did.  We all regard him as the best run scorer of all time, the best base stealer of all time and the 3rd best left fielder of all time behind Ted Williams and Barry Bonds.  (When two of the best three players of all time are the only ones ahead of you on the positional depth chart, people know you’re good.)

We all knew he was a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  We all remember him talking to himself at the plate, in the field and on the bases as much as we remember his ability, maybe more.  We remember the “snatch” manner in which he caught routine fly balls. And of course, his remarkably rare trait of throwing left handed but batting right handed – I will go to my grave being part confused, part fascinated by that.

But I’m not writing about his career as a whole today, but rather specifically about his time with the Yankees.  As a Yankee, Rickey was criminally underappreciated.  On a team that had Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield in their primes, Rickey was the best player the Yankees had from 1985-88.  Frankly, a pretty solid case could be made he was the best player in baseball while he was wearing pinstripes, and I’m pretty sure most Yankee fans don’t remember him that way.  Going one step further, depending on what your definition of a Yankee is, Rickey is one of the best Yankees of all time.

Not sure why he isn’t remembered that way.  He wasn’t as gritty and blue collar as Mattingly (…?)  He actually got better when he returned to Oakland giving some the impression he turned it on and off (…?)

Doesn’t really matter. But consider, from 1985-88, Rickey:

  • Averaged 6.6 Wins Above Replacement per season.  For some perspective, the only Yankees to ever have a better 4 season stretch were named Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, ARod and Cano.  (No – Berra, Maris, Munson, Reggie, Donnie or Jeter ever had as good a 4 year stretch as Rickey did in pinstripes.)
  • He had a .395 OBP, .467 SLG over that span with season averages of 118 runs scored and 75 SB.  (Keep in mind, he missed almost half of 1987, so his runs, SB and WAR totals would be higher if it weren’t for misfortune.)
  • He was 2nd in MLB in WAR over that stretch – Wade Boggs was 1st.  So not only was he the most valuable Yankee, he was more valuable than Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, George Brett, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines and Kirby Puckett.  Seven Hall of Famers in their prime and Rickey was better than all of them when while he was a Yankee.
  • He stole 301 bases and was caught 49 times (86%).  In today’s game, 23 SB out of 27 attempts in a season makes you one of the best base runners in baseball.  That’s a lower success rate than Rickey’s with about 60 fewer attempts per season.  Everybody knew he was going – and he still made it almost 9 times out of 10.  And don’t tell me about starting speed – a lot of professional athletes are very fast.  But that level of domination suggests an ability to read pitchers, catchers, infielders and game situation on an extremely high level.
  • He led MLB in runs scored.  We can talk about advanced statistical analysis all day, but baseball games are won by who scores more runs.  Rickey scored more runs – again, only playing in about 3.5 of those four years – than anyone in baseball when he was a Yankee.  (And don’t tell me he had Mattingly and Winfield hitting behind him – Bobby Richardson batted in front of Maris and Mantle in 1961 and only scored 80 runs.)
  • His 9.9 WAR in the ’85 season is the single best season a right handed batter has ever had for the Yankees.  Yes, better than any single Yankee season by anyone named DiMaggio, Rodriguez, Judge, or Jeter.

Then on June 21st, 1989 while sporting a .392 OBP and 41 runs scored in 65 games, Rickey was traded to Oakland for Greg Cadaret, Eric Plunk and Luis Polonia.  I think we can move on without any analysis of that deal.  But I will point out that was the beginning of the worst four season stretch for the Yankees in my lifetime.

Happy birthday Rickey.  Not that you need to be told how great you were, but I wish we realized it when you were on our side.

PS: On another note, the only team to under appreciate Rickey more than the Yankees was the Mets.  In 1999 with the Mets, Rickey had a .423 OBP, 128 OPS+, 89 runs scored in 121 games.  He started out the 2000 season with a .387 OBP and 17 runs in 31 games – which got him released on May 13th, 2000.

Mets GM Steve Philips and Manager Bobby Valentine preferred Joe McEwing’s hustle to Rickey’s ability to play baseball.  True story.


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