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Rickey Henderson, and one-sixth of all MLB pitchers in history

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Rickey faced 1,285 pitchers during his regular season career.

Rickey Henderson made his MLB debut on June 24, 1979. Over the next 25 seasons he suited up for nine different teams, playing 3,081 regular season games and another 60 in the postseason. He made his final appearance on Sept. 19, 2003, although he didn’t officially retire until 2007.

That marathon career was one of the longest in history. His 13,346 plate appearances rank fourth all-time, behind just Rose, Yaz, and Aaron, and the same goes for his games played total. Very few people have ever played as much Major League Baseball as Rickey.

It no wonder, then, that the Man of Steal was my first thought when I noticed this tweet the other day:

That’s not a newly discovered factoid, by any means. Here’s a mention of it back in 2012, just before Moyer’s actual retirement. But it’s still a shocking stat every time you see it. Nine percent of all hitters ever, from over a century of league history.

Moyer pitched for 25 seasons, between 1986 and 2012. That’s the same number as Rickey! Naturally, that made me curious about Rickey’s percentage, though the answer can vary depending on how you frame the question.

The first part of the equation is easy. During his career, Henderson faced 1,285 pitchers in the regular season. Click here to see the whole list!

As for the divisor, we have options. Moyer’s 9% mark is based on the pool of players up through his retirement, with 2012 serving as the cutoff. If we look at it that way, we can use 2003 as a cutoff for Rickey, which would give us 7,561 pitchers (dating back to 1871). If we roll the starting point up to just the Modern Era (starting 1901), the number drops to 6,737. Or, if we start in 1871 and keep it running all the way to the present day, then there have been 9,847 pitchers. Take your pick of the following results:

  • When Rickey Henderson finished playing after 2003, he had faced 19% of all MLB pitchers ever during the Modern Era.
  • When Rickey Henderson finished playing after 2003, he had faced 17% of all MLB pitchers ever in history.
  • Through the present day, Rickey Henderson faced 13% of all MLB pitchers ever.

Holy Toledo. If we stick to the middle version, which is closest to the famous Moyer stat, then that means when Rickey stopped playing he’d faced one out of every six pitchers EVER. The exact percentage is 16.995% (one-sixth would be 16.667%).

As for why that percentage is so much higher than Moyer’s, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Applying that same 1871-2003 cutoff, there were 14,830 hitters during that span, which is nearly twice the number of pitchers. By the time Moyer retired in 2012, that number had climbed to 16,775, so he’s simply being judged on a different scale. The southpaw actually faced more total hitters than Henderson did pitchers, at 1,445.

But back to Rickey. Now that we’ve established the fact that he faced a ton of pitchers, let’s take a quick peek at the actual list.

Rickey’s matchups

There’s no better place to start than at the top. Five pitchers faced Rickey at least 100 times in the regular season:

  • Frank Tanana (117)
  • Jack Morris (109)
  • Jimmy Key (102)
  • Charlie Hough (101)
  • Dave Stieb (100)

In the landscape of ‘80s/’90s pitching, those are some big names. In particular, Rickey destroyed the two lefties on that list, Tanana and Key. In fact, those are arguably the two hurlers he hit the hardest during his career.

vs. Tanana: .350/.427/.767, 11 HR, 13 BB, 11 Ks
vs. Key: .409/.480/.784, 9 HR, 13 BB, 8 Ks

The OPS marks can’t be touched by any other pitcher he saw significant time against, and those are far and away his highest homer totals. He didn’t hit more than three against any other individual.

Looking at smaller sample sizes, one name that pops up is Mike Morgan. He was on the 1979 A’s team on which Rickey debuted, but later allowed three homers in just 25 plate appearances (1.344 OPS). Even worse was Ken Schrom, who needed only 10 plate appearances to serve up three dingers and a double. Meanwhile, Rick Sutcliffe issued him 10 walks in only 29 PAs, leading to a .655 OBP.

vs. Schrom: 5-for-10, 3 HR, double, 0 BB, 0 Ks, 2.000 OPS
vs. Sutcliffe: 9-for-19, 1 HR, 10 BB, 2 Ks, 1.287 OPS

Among some others that he hit well in 50+ plate appearances: Dennis Martinez (1.169 OPS), brief Oakland teammate Bobby Witt (1.120), Charlie Leibrandt (1.114), Jack McDowell (1.052), Tommy John (1.036), championship teammate Mike Moore (1.029), and Geoff Zahn (1.011).

On the other end of the spectrum, one opponent he never figured out was Kevin Millwood. He went hitless in 10 at-bats against the righty, with no walks, four strikeouts, and a double play. That’s his biggest 0-fer among any matchup in terms of never reaching base at all, though his biggest hitless matchup was against Twins lefty Darrell Jackson (0-for-13, with 1 walk).

In terms of larger samples, perhaps his toughest assignment was his own Hall of Fame teammate, Dennis Eckersley. They faced many times throughout the early 80s before Eck came to Oakland, and then many times afterward while Rickey did tours in New York and Toronto. Only four of their matchups came with neither wearing green-and-gold, all in 1996-97. The overall results, in 53 plate appearances (6-for-47):

vs. Eckersley: .128/.226/.149, 1 double, 6 BB, 11 Ks

He also struggled against a couple other big names, in Roger Clemens (79 plate appearances) and Randy Johnson (85 plate appearances). Fair enough.

vs. Clemens: .167/.304/.197, 2 doubles, 13 BB, 19 Ks
vs. Johnson: .119/.388/.169, 3 doubles, 26 BB, 30 Ks

Some other notables in 50+ PAs: Jim Clancy (.559 OPS), Jim Abbott (.606), David Wells (.617), Tom Gordon (.622), Chuck Finley (.627), and Milt Wilcox (.647). Among the triple-digit sample sizes listed at the top of this section, the knuckleballer Hough gave him the most trouble (.654 OPS).

One last demographic worth checking out is Hall of Famers. Rickey faced 24 of them, and you can see the full list here. Included are old-timey A’s greats Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers, plus many others who debuted as early as the ‘60s. He did great against aging stars Jim Palmer, Phil Niekro, and Don Sutton, and a 30-something Bert Blyleven. He never even made contact off reliever Goose Gossage, though, going 0-for-9 with 9 Ks (and 2 BB). Against Mariano Rivera he was 0-for-5 but reached base four times (2 BB, 2 HBP).

Combine all two dozen Hall of Famers, and here’s what his line looked like in 628 plate appearances. It might not seem like much at first glance, but remember this split is against exclusively the absolute best pitchers of the last couple generations:

vs. HOF: .234/.354/.335, 7 HR, 94 BB, 118 Ks

It all began in 1979, with a double off John Henry Johnson of the Rangers, and it ended 25 years later in a Dodgers uniform, with a HBP courtesy of Jason Christiansen of the Giants. Naturally, he scored after receiving that final free pass, adding to the career record of 2,295 runs that he still holds. In between those dates, Rickey put together one of the best and longest careers of all time, and he did so against one-sixth of the pitchers who had ever appeared in the majors to that point.