They might run more if they could walk

I’ve been thinking about bases on balls again. Last week I talked about Adrian Gonzalez’s multiwalk streak, but my obsession runs much deeper than that.

I don’t know when I first gained an appreciation for the walk, although I’m sure Bill James had something to do with it…OK, everything to do with it. The first time I remember writing about my love for the walk was in ’97, when the Internet was still a baby and I sang the virtues of Dave Magadan and waxed poetic about the free pass.

But there is a dark side to my obsession. It causes my shameful fascination with Miguel Olivo and leads me to where we are headed next.

The more sensitive among you may wish to avert your eyes because we are going to the freak show. Of course, I speak of players who stole 50 bases or more in a season while drawing fewer than 30 walks.

Yes, that qualifies as a freak show in my book. What can I say, I’ve lived a sheltered life.

But who are these people?

Fifty steals? Thirty walks? That seems arbitrary.

Well, it is arbitrary, but you have to draw the line somewhere. And these parameters yield a crop of interesting names. In the history of baseball, there have been 14 seasons that meet our criteria, produced by 12 players (two repeat offenders). If you’re my age or older, you should be familiar with most of these guys. Heck, one of them is in the Hall of Fame.

Enough of my yammering, let’s get to the names.

Bert Campaneris
1966: 25 BB, 52 SB

The first thing that jumps to mind when I think of Campaneris is that crazy 1970 season when he hit 22 homers. (His second-highest total was eight.) But Campy was a solid shortstop who collected more than 2,000 hits and 600 stolen bases in his career. He led the American League in steals on six occasions and ranks 14th all time in the category.

In 1966, Campaneris became the first player in history to meet our criteria. He hit .267/.302/.379 (98 OPS+) and finished 10th in the AL MVP voting.

Campaneris put up intriguing numbers throughout his career. In ’67, he swiped 55 bags with a .297 OBP. In ’69, he just missed making this list a second time by drawing exactly 30 walks. In ’72, he stole 52 bases with a .278 OBP.

Later, Campy became the master of sacrifice. In 1977, he dropped down an alarming 40 sacrifice bunts. I say alarming because the AL had begun the designated hitter experiment by this time, and yet Campaneris became the first (and only) man since the ’20s to reach the 40 mark.

He led the league again in ’78 with 25 sacrifice bunts. This despite playing in just 98 games. He also hit a remarkable .186/.245/.238 (37 OPS+) that year.

Anyway, we seem to have veered off course. Hard not to with a guy like Campaneris, who had such an unusual career.

Lou Brock
1967: 24 BB, 52 SB

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Here is a name I didn’t expect to see. Not that Brock ever drew a lot of walks (76 was his career high in 1971), but still.

The more closely I look at Brock’s ’67 campaign, the less sense it makes. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 4.5 to 1, but he had a career-high OPS+ of 128. Despite hacking at everything (as he did early on—in his 20s, he fanned more than three times as often as he walked), Brock remained productive.

Then again, Brock was a special talent. He could get away with things that might have killed other guys’ careers. Over 18+ seasons, Brock hit .293/.343/.410 (109 OPS+) and stole a then-record 938 bases.

Miguel Dilone
1978: 23 BB, 50 SB
1980: 28 BB, 61 SB

Where to begin with Dilone? He first arrived on the scene in 1974 at age 19. Over parts of four seasons with the Pirates he played in 75 games and amassed 72 plate appearances. He had 10 hits (all singles) and 21 stolen bases. Dilone was in the big leagues for one reason: his legs.

At the beginning of the 1978 season, the A’s sent catcher Manny Sanguillen to Pittsburgh for Dilone, Elias Sosa, and Mike Edwards. This was back when Charlie Finley liked to employ a designated pinch runner. From 1967 to 1973, Allan Lewis had filled that role. In 1974 and 1975, it was Herb Washington. In ’76 and ’77, it was Matt Alexander.

Dilone became the latest in a long line of one-tool players that Finley evidently thought he could afford to stash on his bench. (Finley won World Championships in the process, so who am I to argue?) Where Dilone differed from his predecessors is that he actually got to play in games, as opposed to sprint from first to second base every now and then. In ’78, he hit .229/.294/.271 (65 OPS+) and finished fourth in the league in stolen bases despite having fewer than 300 plate appearances.

This would make for a great story on its own, but it doesn’t end there. Two years later, with the Cleveland Indians, Dilone duplicated the feat, albeit in an entirely different manner.

In ’80, playing almost every day, Dilone hit .341/.375/.432 (120 OPS+) and finished third in the league in stolen bases. Everyone forgets about that season because George Brett hit .390 and Cecil Cooper hit .352, which left Dilone a distant third in the batting title. Henderson notched the first of his 100-steal seasons that year, too, so 61 thefts didn’t capture anyone’s imagination either.

Dilone picked a bad time to have a great season. Then again, it’s nice that he had one at all. In a career that spanned parts of 12 seasons, Dilone finished with a .265/.315/.333 line (81 OPS+) in exactly 2,000 at-bats.

I’m trying to think of a contemporary player who hit like him. Maybe Rey Sanchez? Orlando Palmeiro?

Willie Wilson
1979: 23 BB, 83 SB
1980: 28 BB, 79 SB

Wilson is the only guy on our list to break the 80-stolen-base mark. Like Campaneris, he just missed our criteria several more times (16 BB, 46 SB in ’78; 33 BB, 59 SB in ’83; 29 BB, 43 SB in ’85; 32 BB, 59 SB in ’87).

In 1979, Wilson led the AL in stolen bases despite his aversion to the free pass. (This blew my mind: Wilson’s teammate, Darrell Porter, drew more walks in June [29] than Wilson did all year.)

Think of what Wilson might have accomplished had he learned how to lay off a pitch every now and then. He ranks 12th all time in stolen bases, but his career high in bases on balls was 39!

In 1980, Wilson tied his then high water mark of 28 walks (he wouldn’t break the magical 30 threshold until his fifth full season) and garnered MVP support on the strength of a .326/.357/.421 (113 OPS+) campaign. He led the AL in runs, hits, and triples, finishing second to Henderson in steals.

It was a brilliant season at what appeared to be the beginning of a brilliant career. Through age 26, Wilson hit .312/.347/.401 (106 OPS+) with 287 stolen bases. From that point forward, he still enjoyed his share of thievery (381 steals) but hit just .272/.316/.363 (87 OPS+).

Damaso Garcia
1982: 21 BB, 54 SB

A member of my first Rotisserie League team, Garcia broke 50 steals for the first and only time in ’82. The 21 walks may not look like much, but that marks the second-highest total among his six full big-league seasons.

Garcia hit .310/.338/.339 (94 OPS+) in 1982. For his career, he hit .283/.309/.371 (84 OPS+) and stole 203 bases. He was sort of like Adam Kennedy without the walks or homers.

Mookie Wilson
1983: 18 BB, 54 SB

Wilson is the only player in history to draw fewer than 20 walks while stealing 50 bases or more. In 1983, Wilson hit .276/.300/.367 (85 OPS+) and struck out 103 times to go with the 18 walks. This marked the first of three straight seasons in which he finished with a .276 batting average.

Wilson just missed our 30/50 club in ’82 (32 BB, 55 SB) and ’84 (26 BB, 46 SB). Over his 12-year career, he never drew more than 35 walks in a season.

What else is there to say about Wilson? He was the Luis Polonia of his day. He once hit a ground ball between the legs of Bill Buckner. That’s pretty much it.

Juan Samuel
1984: 28 BB, 72 SB

Samuel’s rookie season was epic. He hit .272/.307/.442 (107 OPS+), leading the National League in at-bats (701), triples (19), and strikeouts (168). Samuel was a free swinger of the highest order, pacing the NL in strikeouts in each of his first four seasons.

He almost made our list a couple other times. In 1985, Samuel drew 33 walks and stole 53 bases. The following year, it was 26 and 42.

As was the case with Willie Wilson, Samuel’s career can be split into two halves. Through his age-26 campaign, Samuel owned a .269/.312/.457 (107 OPS+) line with 80 homers and 205 steals. From that point forward, he hit .252/.317/.390 (96 OPS+) with 81 homers and 191 steals.

Otis Nixon
1990: 28 BB, 50 SB

Another guy on that first Roto team of mine, Nixon’s ’90 bore strong resemblance to Dilone’s ’78. These are the only two players to meet our criteria in fewer than 300 plate appearances.

Nixon actually possessed decent on-base skills. His appearance on this list is a function of the way he was used at the beginning of his career. He almost made it two years earlier, when he drew 28 walks and stole 46 bases. Upon becoming a regular, Nixon typically walked 50-60 times a season.

He also looked about 10 years older than he really was, but that’s another story.

Vince Coleman
1994: 29 BB, 50 SB

Coleman hit .240/.285/.340 (59 OPS+) in ’94. He didn’t need to reach base often to rack up gaudy stolen base totals because he was adept at swiping third as well as second. Of his 50 steals that year, 11 (22 percent) were of third base.

In fact, of Coleman’s 752 career stolen bases, 189 (25 percent) were of third base. His success rate was even higher there (85.5 percent) than at second (80.5 percent).

While we’re on the subject of Coleman, his 1986 deserves an honorable mention. Although he drew 60 walks that year, he hit just .232/.301/.280 (62 OPS+). Despite this, Coleman managed to steal 107 bases. With any kind of offensive ability, he could have put the single-season stolen base record well out of everyone’s reach.

Carl Crawford
2003: 26 BB, 55 SB

Coleman was the oldest man (32) on our list. Crawford is the youngest (21). In his first full big-league season, Crawford hit .281/.309/.362 (81 OPS+) and led the AL in stolen bases. He still doesn’t draw many walks (37 is his career high, although he is on pace to eclipse that in 2009), but he perennially ranks at or near the top in steals.

Crawford has threatened to repeat his feat on more than one occasion. If we change our arbitrary thresholds to 40 walks and 40 stolen bases, Crawford qualifies in each of his first five seasons. Only Brock and Campaneris have equaled that total, while Willie Wilson leads the pack with seven such seasons. Crawford is only 27 years old, so he still has a chance to catch Wilson.

Alex Sanchez
2003: 25 BB, 52 SB

The appearance of Sanchez is somewhat surprising for two reasons:

  1. He wasn’t really good enough to garner significant playing time with most big-league clubs. Fortunately for Sanchez, he spent much of his season with the Tigers, who were busy losing 119 games.
  2. Although he had terrific speed, he was a mediocre base stealer. Sanchez got caught 24 times in ’05 to go with the 52 steals.

Sanchez hit .287/.319/.363 (84 OPS+) in his only season as a regular in the big leagues. For his career, he hit .296/.330/.372 (88 OPS+), with 122 stolen bases.

Jose Reyes
2005: 27 BB, 60 SB

Reyes, the second youngest player on our list, is similar to Crawford in many ways. Reyes hit .273/.300/.386 (81 OPS+) in ’05 and led the NL in steals.

Unlike Crawford, Reyes soon learned the value of a walk. He drew 53 in ’06 and 77 in ’07. Both seasons, he led the league in stolen bases.

Honorable mention

I’ve already noted the near misses of Campaneris, the Wilsons, and Crawford, as well as Coleman’s ’86 campaign, but an article like this wouldn’t be complete without the mention of one man. I refer, of course, to Omar Moreno.

Although he managed to break our 30-walk threshold all five times he stole 50 bases or more in a season, Moreno is one of four men (Campaneris, Dilone, and Coleman being the others) to swipe 50 bags while posting a sub-.300 OBP. He did it twice.

In 1977, Moreno hit .240/.295/.358 (73 OPS+) and stole 53 bases. In 1982, he hit .245/.292/.315 (68 OPS+) and stole 60 bases. For his career, Moreno hit .252/.306/.343 with 487 stolen bases. Among players with 400 steals or more (39 total as of this writing), Moreno ranks dead last in on-base percentage.

For perspective, Moreno’s career OBP of .306 is further away from Juan Pierre’s (.348) than Pierre’s is from Tim Raines (.385). Incidentally, Pierre has drawn the fewest walks of any member of the 400 steals club (although at his current pace, he should pass Ron LeFlore sometime in 2010).

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference provided the numbers. Several articles on base running in the Summer 2009 issue of The Baseball Research Journal provided the spark of inspiration.

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