The best base stealers in baseball history

21 Dec

When it comes to detrmining the greatest base stealers of all time in Major League Baseball (MLB) there are three schools of thought. One relies on the percentage of success, another on the sheer volume, and another a combination of these factors along with the impact on the game the players ability to steal had. Regardless of which school of thought one subscribes to the top handful of thieves in MLB history are almost unarguable in stark contrast to lists of many of baseballs other statistical categories.

Rickey Henderson is almost universally accepted as the single greatest base stealer of all time. His 1,406 career swipes make him not only the only man to ever steal over 1,000 bases, but also put him 368 thefts ahead of his nearest competition by virtue of averaging 56 steals per year over his 25 year career. His 130 steals in 1982 also made him the single season leader in regards to stolen bases. Amazingly enough Henderson was only caught stealing 335 times for a career average of only 13.4 times per year. He led the league in steals twelve times, at one point for seven years in a row, and somehow managed to do this with an eighteen year spread between his first and last time leading the league in the category. On the feild Henderson’s ability to steal at will changed the way teams had to approach him at all times and was at the very least disruptive to pitchers. Any way you slice it, when it comes to steals, Henderson is the king.

Lou Brock ranks second all time on the steals list and is also second in most peoples opinion in regards to ranking this category. Until Henderson came along Brock held the single season and career steals records with 118 and 938 respectively. His rate of success is too close to Hendersons to say either has a true edge, and over Brocks’ 19 year career he averaged about 16.1 picks per year. Certainly a respectable number. Henderson takes the edge over Brock in all regards definitively as Brock only stole over 100 bases one time as opposed to Henderson’s three trips over the century marker and only swiped over seventy on one other occasion. Brock led the league eight times and while remarkably consistent, was never as feared on the base paths as Henderson.

Here is where the real debate comes into play as I place the number four all time thief Ty Cobb at number three among my list of baseball’s best base stealers. Cobb finished his twenty four year career with 892 thefts for an average of about 37 per season. While that average may not seem impressive Cobb did steal 96 sacks one year and passed the 70 theft milestone three times. Considering he only stole 90 bases in his last seven seasons combined, it shows what a threat Cobb was when younger. It is said Cobb may have been not only one of the smartest players ever when swiping a base, but also the most physically brutal with his trademark spikes high slide.

Number four on my list is Tim Raines with 808 career steals which ranks him number five on the all time career leaders list. Raines averaged just over 35 steals a season over his 23 year career but was only caught a shockingly low 146 times to average a mere 6.3 failures per year. While Raines only managed to lead the league in steals four times he stole seventy or more bases six times, once surpassing 90. Only Rickey Henderson has surpassed this feat and shows Raines was not just prolific and highly successful in his trade, but remarkably consistent.

Weighing in as my number five on baseball’s all time greatest base stealers list is the number three man on MLB’s all time list Billy Hamilton with his 912 career thefts. Hamilton is credited with doing this in just fourteen years, three of which he appeared in near or below less than half the games his team played. He is also credited as being the only one of two players to steal over 100 bases in a season three times along with Henderson. While I would have liked to include Maury Wills here as Hamilton’s statistics are regarded to some as cloudy due to his career spanning 1888-1901 an era statistics often fall under some suspicion, it cannot be argued he was the supreme base stealer of his era. Even if inflated slightly, his numbers are still very impressive.

Of course there will always be debate on this topic and that’s what makes baseball great. However it is extremely hard to argue that in some order these are not the five greatest base stealers in baseball history and as they span almost the entire history of the MLB it can be seen how invaluable the stolen base has been and remains to be today.


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