Is Willie Wilson baseball’s best baserunner ever?

Willie Wilson, all-star center-fielder with the dominating Kansas City Royal teams of the 1970s and 1980s showed up recently as one of the players in a quiz I was researching. Rest assured you quiz afficionados will get your chance to try your luck, but first I wanted to tell you about what I found to be a truly startling result.

Those who remember Willie will recall a lightning-fast singles hitter who, unfortunately, couldn’t take a walk to save his life. Thus, he ended up his playing days with a .285/.326/.376 slash, good for just a 94 OPS+. But, wait. Wilson parlayed that 94 OPS+ into a nice 46 career WAR in just over 2000 games. How many outfielders have done that? Actually, only Willie. And, among those with a career OPS+ of 95 or worse, there’s nobody else even close.

Rk Player WAR OPS+ From To Age G PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Willie Wilson 46.0 94 1976 1994 20-38 2154 8317 1169 2207 281 147 41 585 425 1144 .285 .326 .376 .702
2 Darin Erstad 32.3 93 1996 2009 22-35 1654 6628 913 1697 316 33 124 699 475 939 .282 .336 .407 .743
3 Lance Johnson 30.1 95 1987 2000 23-36 1447 5800 767 1565 175 117 34 486 352 384 .291 .334 .386 .720
4 Marquis Grissom 29.4 92 1989 2005 22-38 2165 8959 1187 2251 386 56 227 967 553 1240 .272 .318 .415 .732
5 Jim Piersall 28.5 93 1950 1967 20-37 1734 6592 811 1604 256 52 104 591 524 583 .272 .332 .386 .718
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/8/2014.

So, how did Willie rack up the WAR? More after the jump.

A closer look at the above list reveals Marquis Grissom as having pretty similar counting stats to Wilson’s, except for the power numbers where Grissom holds a sizable edge. While some may remember Grissom as a defensive liability in the latter part of his career, he was actually a pretty fair defender as a younger player and compiled a respectable 4.0 career dWAR, not quite half the 10.0 dWAR that Wilson put up. But, surely that difference can’t account for Wilson’s huge WAR lead.

Indeed, that dWAR difference is not what separates Wilson from Grissom, Rather, it’s WAR baserunning runs that propel Wilson to the head of this list. Wilson compiled 120 WAR baserunning runs over his career. How does that stack up to the competition?

Rk Player Rbaser From To Age G PA R H BB GDP SB CS Pos Tm
1 Rickey Henderson 144.5 1979 2003 20-44 3081 13346 2295 3055 2190 172 1406 335 *78HD/9 NYY-OAK-TOR-SDP-ANA-SEA-NYM-BOS-LAD
2 Willie Wilson 120.4 1976 1994 20-38 2154 8317 1169 2207 425 90 668 134 *87H/9D KCR-OAK-CHC
3 Tim Raines 114.8 1979 2002 19-42 2502 10359 1571 2605 1330 142 808 146 *7H8D/49 MON-CHW-NYY-OAK-BAL-FLA
4 Luis Aparicio 91.7 1956 1973 22-39 2601 11230 1335 2677 736 184 506 136 *6/H CHW-BAL-BOS
5 Max Carey 88.0 1910 1929 20-39 2476 10769 1545 2665 1040 738 109 *879/H PIT-BRO
6 Davey Lopes 83.0 1972 1987 27-42 1812 7340 1023 1671 833 126 557 114 *4H/8795D6 LAD-OAK-CHC-HOU
7 Barry Larkin 80.2 1986 2004 22-40 2180 9057 1329 2340 939 178 379 77 *6H/4D CIN
8 Joe Morgan 80.2 1963 1984 19-40 2649 11329 1650 2517 1865 105 689 162 *4H/7D58 HOU-CIN-SFG-PHI-OAK
9 Ozzie Smith 79.3 1978 1996 23-41 2573 10778 1257 2460 1072 167 580 148 *6/H SDP-STL
10 Kenny Lofton 78.5 1991 2007 24-40 2103 9235 1528 2428 945 111 622 160 *8/H7D9 HOU-CLE-ATL-CHW-SFG-CHC-PIT-NYY-PHI-LAD-TEX
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/8/2014.

Pretty good company for Willie. But look closely. Wilson finished a reasonably close second to Henderson despite Rickey collecting almost 40% more hits and 5 times as many walks.

Here’s a chart showing Rbaser by age for Henderson, Wilson and Raines.

WAR Baserunning Runs by Age

So, pretty much a dead heat through age 28. Henderson starts to separate himself after that point, extending his lead to eventually reach a margin of over 20 Rbaser.

But, look at the same data expressed as Rbaser per 100 times on base.

WAR Baserunning Runs per 100 TOB By Age
Probably best to just ignore the data prior to age 23 or so, as these data are distorted by low career TOB up to that age. The key point, though, is that Wilson maintained a ratio of 4 Rbaser per 100 TB throughout his career while Henderson never reached that level and Raines did so only up to age 25. At age 38, Wilson has a 1.4 Rbaser per 100 TOB edge over Raines and Henderson, almost 50% higher than the rate for those two.

Looking at individual seasons provides this view.

WAR Baserunning Runs per 100 TOB By Age COLUMN

Even a cursory glance quickly ascertains that the blue bars predominate as the top result at most ages. How many others have produced multiple seasons of 4+ Rbaser per 100 TOB? It’s a short list.

Rk Player Yrs From To Age
1 Willie Wilson 8 1979 1990 23-34 Ind. Seasons
2 Marquis Grissom 4 1990 1994 23-27 Ind. Seasons
3 Rickey Henderson 4 1983 1988 24-29 Ind. Seasons
4 Vince Coleman 3 1985 1987 23-25 Ind. Seasons
5 Tim Raines 3 1981 1985 21-25 Ind. Seasons
6 Ron LeFlore 3 1979 1981 31-33 Ind. Seasons
7 Julio Cruz 3 1978 1981 23-26 Ind. Seasons
8 Davey Lopes 3 1975 1985 30-40 Ind. Seasons
9 Michael Bourn 2 2009 2010 26-27 Ind. Seasons
10 David Hulse 2 1993 1994 25-26 Ind. Seasons
11 Otis Nixon 2 1988 1991 29-32 Ind. Seasons
12 Eric Davis 2 1986 1987 24-25 Ind. Seasons
13 Gary Redus 2 1984 1988 27-31 Ind. Seasons
14 Freddie Patek 2 1971 1975 26-30 Ind. Seasons
15 Bert Campaneris 2 1966 1969 24-27 Ind. Seasons
16 Dick Howser 2 1962 1965 26-29 Ind. Seasons
17 Maury Wills 2 1960 1962 27-29 Ind. Seasons
18 Luis Aparicio 2 1959 1960 25-26 Ind. Seasons
19 Max Carey 2 1920 1922 30-32 Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/8/2014.

And, the career leaders in Rbaser per 100 TOB with a minimum 1000 times on base.

Rk Player Rbaser TOBwe Rbaser per 100 TOB From-To Age G PA R H HR RBI BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Tm
1 Willie Wilson 120.4 2801 4.30 1976-1994 20-38 2154 8317 1169 2207 41 585 425 1144 668 134 .285 .326 .376 .702 KCR-OAK-CHC
2 Vince Coleman 75.0 1988 3.78 1985-1997 23-35 1371 5970 849 1425 28 346 477 960 752 177 .264 .324 .345 .668 STL-NYM-KCR-SEA-CIN-DET
3 Davey Lopes 83.0 2626 3.16 1972-1987 27-42 1812 7340 1023 1671 155 614 833 852 557 114 .263 .349 .388 .737 LAD-OAK-CHC-HOU
4 Tony Womack 51.8 1757 2.95 1993-2006 23-36 1303 5389 739 1353 36 368 308 649 363 74 .273 .317 .356 .673 PIT-ARI-COL-CHC-STL-NYY-CIN
5 Ron LeFlore 51.5 1752 2.94 1974-1982 26-34 1099 4872 731 1283 59 353 363 888 455 142 .288 .342 .392 .734 DET-MON-CHW
6 Julio Cruz 42.4 1471 2.88 1977-1986 22-31 1156 4438 557 916 23 279 478 508 343 78 .237 .321 .299 .620 SEA-CHW
7 Tim Raines 114.8 4076 2.82 1979-2002 19-42 2502 10359 1571 2605 170 980 1330 966 808 146 .294 .385 .425 .810 MON-CHW-NYY-OAK-BAL-FLA
8 Gary Redus 39.4 1422 2.78 1982-1994 25-37 1159 4066 591 886 90 352 481 688 322 83 .252 .342 .410 .752 CIN-PHI-CHW-PIT-TEX
9 Michael Bourn 37.2 1363 2.73 2006-2014 23-31 1017 4013 540 975 28 270 339 828 301 79 .270 .334 .364 .698 PHI-HOU-ATL-CLE
10 Rickey Henderson 144.5 5503 2.62 1979-2003 20-44 3081 13346 2295 3055 297 1115 2190 1694 1406 335 .279 .401 .419 .820 OAK-NYY-TOR-ANA-SEA-NYM-SDP-BOS-LAD
11 Tom Goodwin 37.9 1456 2.60 1991-2004 22-35 1288 4315 636 1029 24 284 365 660 369 118 .268 .332 .339 .671 LAD-KCR-TEX-COL-SFG-CHC
12 Dick Howser 27.1 1043 2.60 1961-1968 25-32 789 2937 398 617 16 165 367 186 105 34 .248 .346 .318 .664 KCA-CLE-NYY
13 Otis Nixon 53.6 2078 2.58 1983-1999 24-40 1709 5800 878 1379 11 318 585 694 620 186 .270 .343 .314 .658 NYY-CLE-MON-ATL-BOS-TEX-TOR-LAD-MIN
14 Brian Hunter 30.4 1192 2.55 1994-2003 23-32 1000 3659 500 882 25 241 243 581 260 61 .264 .313 .346 .660 HOU-DET-SEA-CIN-COL-PHI
15 Luis Aparicio 91.7 3635 2.52 1956-1973 22-39 2601 11230 1335 2677 83 791 736 742 506 136 .262 .311 .343 .653 CHW-BAL-BOS
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/9/2014.

If your’e wondering about the lack of old-time players on the list above, you are right to be suspicious as the derivation of Rbaser is based on much more data for recent players that is unavailable for earlier players. That said, old-time players will be limited in their ability to build up sizable Rbaser scores because of their generally lower stolen base efficiency (often much lower) than for recent players, particularly those of the very recent past.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of getting on base by looking at ratios per TOB. Clearly, Wilson’s lower TOB totals were a significant detriment to his overall career value. But, for just looking at baserunning skill in isolation, it is startling to me to see how much Wilson outdistances himself from even the top contenders.

To close, here is that quiz I told you about.

Willie Wilson has one of only two seasons since 1946 with a particular offensive accomplishment that was achieved 29 times from 1901 to 1945, including on two occasions by each of these players.

Ty Cobb
Red Rolfe
Lloyd Waner
Earle Combs
Tris Speaker
Charlie Gehringer
Kiki Cuyler
Woody English

What is the seasonal offensive feat, and who is the other player (besides Willie Wilson) to have accomplished this since 1946?

Congratulations to John Autin and Artie Z! They teamed up to identify Willie Wilson and Chuck Knobluach as the only players with a season since 1946 with 125 runs scored, excluding their own home runs. Here’s the list of all those seasons since 1901.

Rk Player HR R Year Age Tm G PA H BB SO SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Pos
1 Eddie Collins 0 137 1912 25 PHA 153 673 189 101 28 63 22 .348 .450 .435 .885 *4
2 Eddie Stanky 1 128 1945 29 BRO 153 725 143 148 42 6 .258 .417 .333 .751 *4/6
3 Woody English 1 131 1929 23 CHC 144 699 168 68 50 13 .276 .352 .339 .691 *6
4 Donie Bush 1 126 1911 23 DET 150 692 130 98 64 40 .232 .349 .287 .636 *6
5 Lloyd Waner 2 133 1927 21 PIT 150 683 223 37 23 14 .355 .396 .410 .806 *87/4
6 Johnny Mostil 2 135 1925 29 CHW 153 715 181 90 52 43 20 .299 .400 .421 .822 *8
7 Charlie Jamieson 2 130 1923 30 CLE 152 746 222 80 37 18 14 .345 .422 .447 .869 *7/8
8 Willie Wilson 3 133 1980 24 KCR 161 745 230 28 81 79 10 .326 .357 .421 .778 *78/H
9 Ty Cobb 3 144 1915 28 DET 156 701 208 118 43 96 38 .369 .486 .487 .973 *8
10 Red Rolfe 4 143 1937 28 NYY 154 741 179 90 53 4 2 .276 .365 .378 .743 *5
11 Lloyd Waner 5 134 1929 23 PIT 151 726 234 37 20 6 .353 .395 .479 .874 *8
12 Paul Waner 6 142 1928 25 PIT 152 698 223 77 16 6 .370 .446 .547 .992 *93
13 Earle Combs 6 137 1927 28 NYY 152 725 231 62 31 15 6 .356 .414 .511 .925 *8/H
14 Lu Blue 6 131 1922 25 DET 145 681 175 82 48 8 5 .300 .392 .414 .807 *3/H
15 Ginger Beaumont 7 137 1903 26 PIT 141 674 209 44 18 23 .341 .390 .444 .833 *8
16 George Sisler 8 134 1922 29 SLB 142 655 246 49 14 51 19 .420 .467 .594 1.061 *3/H
17 Tris Speaker 8 137 1920 32 CLE 150 674 214 97 13 10 13 .388 .483 .562 1.045 *8/H
18 Ty Cobb 8 147 1911 24 DET 146 654 248 44 43 83 .420 .467 .621 1.088 *8
19 Earle Combs 9 143 1932 33 NYY 144 675 190 81 16 3 9 .321 .405 .455 .860 *87/H
20 Max Carey 10 140 1922 32 PIT 155 732 207 80 26 51 2 .329 .408 .459 .868 *8/7
21 Tris Speaker 10 136 1912 24 BOS 153 675 222 82 36 52 28 .383 .464 .567 1.031 *8
22 Jesse Burkett 10 142 1901 32 STL 142 673 226 59 70 27 .376 .440 .509 .949 *7
23 Chuck Knoblauch 13 140 1996 27 MIN 153 701 197 98 74 45 14 .341 .448 .517 .965 *4/DH
24 Kiki Cuyler 13 155 1930 31 CHC 156 741 228 72 49 37 .355 .428 .547 .975 *97
25 Red Rolfe 14 139 1939 30 NYY 152 731 213 81 41 7 6 .329 .404 .495 .899 *5
26 Woody English 14 152 1930 24 CHC 156 755 214 100 72 3 .335 .430 .511 .941 *5*6
27 Nap Lajoie 14 145 1901 26 PHA 131 582 232 24 9 27 .426 .463 .643 1.106 *46
28 Charlie Gehringer 15 144 1936 33 DET 154 731 227 83 13 4 1 .354 .431 .555 .987 *4
29 Charlie Gehringer 16 144 1930 27 DET 154 700 201 69 17 19 15 .330 .404 .534 .938 *4
30 Kiki Cuyler 18 144 1925 26 PIT 153 701 220 58 56 41 13 .357 .423 .598 1.021 *98
31 Harlond Clift 20 145 1936 23 SLB 152 701 174 115 68 12 4 .302 .424 .514 .938 *5/7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 5/9/2014.

Leave a Reply

47 Comments on "Is Willie Wilson baseball’s best baserunner ever?"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Cyril Morong
Guest

in 2007 I had him as 3rd Fastest Player Since 1900 According to the Triple-to-Double Ratio

http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2007/3/21/73126/2262

Lance Johnson and Roger Metzger were 1 and 2

David Ober
Guest

Fastest in a pure sense? Or solely in a baseball sense? I can’t imagine Metzger beating Willie Wilson in a foot race. I believe Wilson ran a 9.4 100 yard dash?

Brent
Guest

As a Royals fan born in the same year as the franchise itself, I grew up watching Willie and I do think he was absolutely the fastest player I ever saw play baseball. He is one player whose ability to get on base may be underestimated by his OBP because reaching by error is not reflected in that number, but I can say I sure remember a lot of rushed and inaccurate throws on his ground balls (I have no proof of this and I presume it would be hard to compile the evidence)

birtelcom
Editor

In one of Bill James’ abstracts, he riffs on the high degree to which William (“Willie”) Wilson and William (“Mookie”) Wilson were very similar players in style, in addition to being born just months apart. Contemporaries with the same name and same style — almost doppelgangers. Which, James observed, raises the eerie coincidence that Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy, classic tale about doppelgangers is titled, after the name it gives to its own pair of identically named copycat contemporaries, “William Wilson”.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Red Rolfe sure had a lot of runs scored.
Just over .17 * his PA.

I ran that search for at least 1000 Games Played and there are 12 guys.
Eight of them are at 1700+ runs.
Then:

1390 Joe D
1186 Earle Combs
1050 Hank Greenberg
942 Red Rolfe
1 …and Jose Mesa

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Is the quiz answer:

At least 15 triples, and triples 35%+ of XBH ?

Jimbo
Guest

How high do you suppose Ichiro’s Rbase might’ve been if he had started his career in MLB at age 22 or 23?

He racked up 59 rbaser started from age 27, seems pretty strong since baserunning peak tends to be early.

Richard Chester
Guest

Running R > 130 and triples > HR comes close. Six of the names made it twice, two made it once. There are 28 seasons on the list but with 4 after 1945.

Jimbo
Guest
Also, I just noticed how odd it is that in such a large sample size, Ichiro hits left handers better than right handers. I looked this up because I was curious if maybe he was benefiting from a platoon this year, but it appears that would not benefit him. And Ichiro came to mind because in his prime he was one of the quickest players to 1st base I ever saw (among good players anyways) A stat was recently posted showing the graphic of Billy Hamilton and Mike Trout compared to some other players and including Prince Fielder, and I… Read more »
mosc
Guest
He hits differently against RHP and LHP, also adjusts his approach if they’re pitching inside or out. I mean it’s crazy watching him at the plate sometimes. His entire swing seems to look like somebody else pitch by pitch. When he was younger he used to do this inside out thing against LHP a lot where he would scrunch way up and slap the ball to short left field. I think if he knew and inside fastball was coming he could do it at an exceedingly high rate. I remember Sabathia used to get him out throwing fastballs up and… Read more »
Cyril Morong
Guest

Here is a similar study “The Greatest Base Thief” by Tom Hanrahan.

http://www.philbirnbaum.com/btn2009-08.pdf

Tom came up with Vince Coleman. I did, too. Wilson was third. See below

Here two more by me that are similar (in addition the first one)

What Were The Best Relative Base Stealing Careers?
http://cybermetric.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-were-best-relative-base-stealing_7319.html

What Were The Best Relative Base Stealing Seasons?
http://cybermetric.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-were-best-relative-base-stealing.html

Cyril Morong
Guest

Did you include SB and CS when the pinch ran?

Neil_L
Guest
Very nice, thorough study, Doug! So much to digest…. Your post motivated me to look up how Rbaser is calculated and it looks like the stat doesn`t miss much in terms of base running opportunities to advance. Trying to distill all the good stuff down to a nutshell, I take away that Willie Wilson made the most of his times on base and if he had been a more selective batter he would have easily surpassed Rickey as the all-time greatest base runner, hands down! It makes me wonder if the offensive potential of the team influences the degree of… Read more »
bstar
Guest

Welcome back, Mr. Neil!!!!!

Neil_L
Guest

bstar, thanks. Gotta get up to speed with everyone else in here so I can contribute again.

Jimbo
Guest

This is why I feel batting speedy players leadoff is just plain silly. Stealing bases is a better risk to take when weak hitters are at the plate. Wby risk an out when you have a 3TO type hitter batting? That base is worth very little.

Speedsters should bat 7th, and run wild and free while the 8 and 9 hitters bat.

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

I’d have a speedster batting 1,2,3,7,8,9

Michael Sullivan
Guest

If your speedster is efficient running, and has a high OBP, then batting 1 or 2 makes sense because of all the extra PAs they will get.

If you have good baserunning, but a mediocre bat, then the 6-7 slot sounds like a better idea.

John Autin
Editor
Excellent piece, Doug. I think most of us recall the BJHBA essay on Willie, particularly the claims that he “resented being thought of as a speed merchant” and “after 1980, he could have stolen twice as many bases if he had wanted to use his speed a little more.” Well … Yes, Wilson averaged 80+ SB at age 23-24, then never again reached 60. But he did average 45 SB from age 25-31 (80% success). He did rank 3rd in Rbaser in that span (1981-87), behind only two of the all-time greatest. And I’d suggest thinking about that “1980” dividing… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

Rbaser leaders just for ages 20-29: #10 on that list — and #8 if you make it (baserunning + DP) — was a guy with just 116 steals in that span, over 100 less than anyone else in that top 20.

The Commerce Comet.

mosc
Guest

Damn that storm drain

Brent
Guest
Just one more thing on Wilson. Often when determining how much speed a player has, triples are focused on, which makes sense you pretty much have to be very fast to hit a lot of triples, but one stat that I have a feeling Willie blows away the Ricky Hendersons and Vince Colemans of the world is Inside the park Home runs. Willie hit 41 career homers, but 13 of them were inside the park. That is a high number and one that I suspect is a post Dead Ball era record. Now, it is probably true that his home… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

Here are some IPHR totals after 1919:
Hornsby, 16
Cobb, 6
Speaker, 12
Gehrig, 10

wpDiscuz