Willie Wilson and George Brett celebrate together

Willie Wilson and the Lost Art of Baserunning

Quick – Who is the greatest Royals hitter ever?  That’s easy, the answer has to be George Brett.   Baseball Reference has Brett listed as the 22nd greatest hitter of All-Time on their EloRater, and he’s in the Hall of Fame, so it’s a no brainer.  Who is the greatest Royals fielder ever?  Few would argue that it’s Frank White and his 8 Gold Glove awards.  (He should have won more.)  Now, how about the greatest Royals baserunner?  Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Tom Goodwin, Amos Otis and Freddie Patek all had tremendous talent, but without any doubt the answer has to be Willie Wilson.  Willie excelled in what I believe is a long lost skill today, the fine art of tearing up the base paths and setting defenders’ nerves on edge.

When Willie Wilson started his career with the Royals, he was used as a pinch runner, much the same way that Jarrod Dyson has been used the past couple of years during the short periods of time he has spent in Kansas City.  However, the difference between them is significant.  Dyson is now 27-years-old and is never projected to hit very far above the Mendoza line.  He’s a pinch runner and a late-inning defensive replacement, and in all likelihood, that’s all he’ll ever be.  If you can’t get on the field, you’ll never be considered historically great no matter how quickly you cover the gaps or how fast you can circle the bases.

On the other hand, Willie Wilson was being used as a pinch runner in KC starting when he was 20-years-old, and was a regular player batting .315 with 83 stolen bases when he was 23-years-old.  I’m sure you’ve seen pitchers get distracted by runners on the bases.  If you look up “Pitcher Distractions” in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Willie Wilson standing on first base, leaning toward second.  Then you’ll see a picture of him on second base.  Then on third base.  Then an image of the pitcher pulling his hair out.  With the exception of the fact he didn’t hit the ball over the fence very often (although he did stroke 13 inside-the-park home runs, more than anyone in the majors since 1950), he was a complete player with a gift for running the bases as well or better than anyone in the history of the game.

In the 110 year existence of the American League, only three players have stolen more bases that Willie Wilson who had 668.  You may have heard of two of these guys – Rickey Henderson and Ty Cobb.  Rickey Henderson’s base stealing percentage was 80.8% compared to Willie’s 83.3%, so by this comparison Willie was more successful than the man with the greatest career number of base thefts in MLB history.  I’m not certain Ty Cobb’s ranking on this list is completely legitimate.  Baseball legend says he would slide into second base with his sharpened spikes in the air to intimidate any defender that dared to tag him out.  Without his lethal shoes, Ty Cobb may have run the bases with no greater success than the rest of the mortals.  The third guy is Eddie Collins who played in the early 1900’s during a completely different era.  Willie Wilson is the only one of this group who is not in the Hall of Fame.  Pretty lofty company I must say, and in my opinion, his overall baserunning skills may have been better than any of them.

When you compare Willie Wilson’s talent to all the greatest base stealers in the history of the game (with at least 400 career stolen bases), only Tim Raines has a greater stolen base percentage at 84.7% compared to Willie’s 83.3%.  This is particularly impressive when you consider Vince Coleman once stole 50 consecutive bases without being thrown out.

As you know, there’s a lot more to baserunning than just stealing bases.  In the Sabermetrics world, there’s a stat called “RSP” or Run Scoring Percent which is the percentage of times a baserunner eventually scores a run.  Willie’s career run scoring percentage was 43% – an astounding number.  For comparison, Albert Pujols is 32%, Ichiro Suzuki is 36%, Vladimir Guerrero is 30%, and Chipper Jones is 31%.  Rickey Henderson, the all-time stolen base leader and Lou Brock were both 40%.  The only player I can find with a higher percentage than Willie is Vince Coleman at 44%.  How would you like to have a player on your team that scored 43% of the time he got on base?  You’d like it a lot I’m quite certain.

In 2011, the Royals had a pretty good year at running the bases.  Alex Gordon had a 33% RSP.  Alcides Escobar had a very good year at 40%.  Melky Cabrera had 38%.  Jeff Francoeur had 29%.  Do you think the Royals could use an everyday player with a CAREER average RSP of 43%?

In 1979, Willie’s first year as an everyday player, he had a run scoring percentage of 50%.  50%!!  Exactly half of the time he got on base he came around to score.  It’s almost unbelievable.  And, it’s not as if he only got on base a handful of times giving us a small and inaccurate sample size – he had a .315 batting average in 154 games.  And then, he doubled down the next year when he led the league in hits with 230, 15 triples, and 133 runs scored while achieving 50% again!  Willie’s baserunning skills were a huge contributing factor to the Royals ALCS and World Series visits.

Willie’s speed was a weapon and it was wielded with great success on the Astroturf of what was once called Royals Stadium.  There was no such thing as a routine ground ball when Willie made contact.  He was a switch hitter and when swinging left handed he was next to impossible to throw out at first base.  I loved seeing him slap the ball over the First or Third Baseman’s head and watching the outfielders run like crazy to get the ball back to the infield before Wilson could round the bases for one of his 133 career triples in a Royals uniform.  Other than George Brett, no other Royal has half as many triples as Wilson.

I have a theory about Willie Wilson’s success that stems from my time playing softball.  When I was a little younger, and a lot faster, I was a pretty reckless baserunner.  I thought that if I ran with my head down as fast as I could and forced the other team into a hurried throw, there was a good chance they would make a mistake.  So I just kept running and running until the ball was back on the infield and positioned between me and the next base.  Most of the time my theory worked and I frequently ended up on third when most of my teammates had been screaming for me to stop at second.

Willie took this theory to the next level.  There’s another stat called “ROE” or Reached on an Error which records the number of times a batter reaches base due to a fielder’s mistake.  This statistic isn’t dependent on being a fast runner, because you can reach on an error whether or not you are fast.  However, I believe Willie’s speed forced other teams into mental mistakes, to hurry their throws, to react too quickly and throw the ball away.  During his career, Willie reached base on errors 107 times.  Mickey Mantle also reached on an error 107 times in his career.  Again, pretty lofty company.

One of the things I dislike about watching baseball highlights on TV is the constant barrage of home run replays.  Borrr-innng.  I want to see a double stretched into a triple, a dropped fly ball, a well turned double play, a diving catch, an umpire missing a bang-bang call, Jeff Francouer or Alex Gordon gunning down a runner at the plate, a Salvador Perez snap throw to pickoff a runner at first, or Alcides Escobar skidding into the grass of left field and rifling a throw to Eric Hosmer which he digs out of the dirt, spins, and tags the runner just before he crosses first base.  That’s what I want to see on Baseball Tonight.  Watching Willie Wilson create havoc with the defense night after night was one of the most exciting aspects of nearly every Royals game throughout the 80’s and one of the things I miss most about the Royals golden era.

The Royals have been blessed with several outstanding baserunners and base stealers throughout their history including the following players who led the American League:

  • 1971 Amos Otis – 52 stolen bases
  • 1977 Freddie Patek – 53
  • 1979 Willie Wilson – 83
  • 2000 Johnny Damon – 46

You might wonder how in the world Willie Wilson only led the American League on one occasion.  I can answer that question with two words: Rickey Henderson.  Rickey’s career almost exactly overlapped Willie’s, except that Rickey refused to retire and continued to play until he was 44-years-old, long after Wilson had hung up his cleats.

Willie Wilson possessed an astounding combination of hitting prowess and speed making him one of the key ingredients of the Royals championship teams.  His career is somewhat tainted by his cocaine conviction with three of his Royals teammates, causing them to be the first active major leaguers to be sentenced to jail time, and his ill-conceived decision to ride the bench on the last day of the 1982 season to preserve his batting title over Robin Yount.  (Yes his plan worked, but his “respect stock” definitely dropped a few points that day.)  However, I suppose neither of these issues has anything to do with the fact that IMHO (and I realized I’m a tiny bit biased), Willie may very well have been the greatest baserunner in the history of the Major Leagues.

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Tags: Baserunning Kansas City Royals KC Royals MLB Royals Willie Wilson

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