Cap Anson: The worst base stealer ever!

Jim McIsaac

In baseball's 143-year history, 16,261 players have had at least one plate appearance; 7,592 of them have stolen a base. Only one, though, is the worst at the latter skill, and he's someone you might have heard of.

If you're reading this right now, you're probably, in some way, familiar with baseball. It's probably also safe to say that you're familiar with the history of said sport, and with some of the greatest players in the game's history. If all of these assumptions are factual, then you probably know of Adrian Constantine "Cap" Anson, the nineteenth-century first baseman and Hall of Famer.

In his day, Anson was well-regarded. In our day, he isn't necessarily as well-regarded; this is primarily because most people aren't cognizant of his existence, and those that are cognizant of it are disgusted by his, shall we say, ill dispositions toward those of darker skin tones. This article, however, isn't meant to focus on that. No, this piece concerns Cap Anson the player, not Cap Anson the person, as the latter has been well documented.

On the field, Anson was superb. His career fWAR and rWAR are 91.2 and 93.8, respectively, which ranks him as the 25th- and 26th-best position players, respectively, of all time. Players that are similar in terms of career WAR include Chipper Jones, Cal Ripken, and Albert Pujols. So, needless to say, Anson was good at his job. There were several areas in which he particularly excelled; however, there was one in which he did anything but. As the title and teaser might have betrayed, Anson was historically bad at stealing bases. How bad, you say? Well, according to FanGraphs's wSB, he is (drumroll) the worst of all-time, checking in at -35.3 runs below average for his career.

Because I have an affinity for awfulness, and because I don't really have anything better to do, I dissected exactly how that came to be, and how Anson was able to be so good otherwise. First, though, a brief tangent about wSB. In case you were unaware, wSB is a stat created to measure a player's base-stealing proficiency. The formula (available here) is fairly simple:

wSB = SB * runSB + CS * runCS -- lgwSB * (1B + BB + HBP -- IBB)

runSB and runCS -- the values for the average runs added on stolen bases and subtracted on caught stealings -- are available here. lgwSB is calculated thusly (using aggregate major-league stats):

(SB * runSB + CS * runCS) / (1B + BB + HBP - IBB)

Again, not that complicated of a formula -- it grades the player on how often he was successful (or unsuccessful) when he tried to steal, and weighs that against his rough total opportunities. The reason for wSB's harsh appraisal of Anson, though, would appear to be threefold.

Anson had longevity

Anson certainly played for a while; he played from 1871 to 1897, and his 11319 plate appearances are the 29th-most of all time. Moreover, they're easily the most in the 19th century (the next closest was Bid McPhee with 9409).

Just going by plate appearances understates his true endurance, however, as many of the seasons in which he played were more brief than the 162-game marathon we have today. If we go by total seasons, Anson sees a bit of improvement in his standing, which is to say, he is THE MOST DURABLE POSITION PLAYER OF ALL TIME. Yes, his 27 total years of service are tied with Nolan Ryan for the most ever.

As an aggregate statistic, wSB is going to be biased toward players that hang around for a while; hence, when put on a 600 plate appearance scale, Anson is a much more respectable -1.87 runs, which is the 173rd-worst of all time (among players with at least 1000 PAs). Statistical availability does give Anson an advantage in this area (more on that later), but he's nevertheless overrated by his permanence.

Still, though, it's safe to say that costing your team nearly two runs isn't very good; as a matter of fact, only two players were worse in 2013. Anson had to make up for this poor base filching in other ways, which will be discussed later; for now, though, let's elaborate on when he played.

Anson played in the days of yore

Now that we've discussed the length of time for which Anson partook in baseball, let's talk about what baseball was like during this period. In a nutshell, it was one of the most hitter-friendly in the history of the game. To demonstrate how hitter-friendly, I'll start with the most basic of stats: runs, which -- as our good friend Jim Caple has told us -- are the most important stat. Looking at the highest runs per plate appearances ever, there seems to be a definite trend:

Year R/PA
1871 0.237
1872 0.213
1873 0.207
1894 0.184
1874 0.179
1895 0.166
1897 0.165
1893 0.162
1875 0.156
1889 0.154
1896 0.154
1890 0.153
1897 0.151
1883 0.151
1876 0.15
1886 0.146
1884 0.146
1891 0.146
1877 0.146
1882 0.141

Yes, that's right -- Anson's 27-year career included the 20 highest-scoring seasons ever. This means all of Anson's non-era-adjusted accomplishments should be taken with a grain of salt (although, as I'll discuss later, they're pretty great even when you do adjust for the era).

Overall, from 1871 to 1897, the major league average R/PA was .152; for the 116 years since, it's been .115. The cause of this was twofold: the poor fielding of the time (league fielding percentage from 1871 to 1897 was .913; since then, it's .975) and the dearth of strikeouts (5.5% from 1871 to 1896, 13.2% from 1910 to the present*).

*There's no strikeout data from 1897 to 1909, for whatever reason.

Playing during this generation also had its disadvantages, as the spectators and other baseball cognoscenti didn't record many statistics. From 1876 to 1885, there are neither stolen base nor caught stealing data; as a result, Anson's wSB is nonextant (i.e. 0) for this period. His poor wSB is therefore comprised of the other 17 years of his career, meaning the poor wSB/600PA you saw above should have been even poorer. Furthermore, the stolen base numbers reappeared in 1886, but caught stealing didn't show up again until 1914, so the latter 12 years of Anson's major-league tenure don't have a stolen base success rate.

In case you got lost, Anson's career SB% only applies to the first five years of his career. In that half-decade, he swiped 29 bags while getting thrown out 16 times -- a much more modest 64.4% success rate that was a little below the league average (69.7%) for that span. Therefore, this era didn't hurt his wSB that much, as only -2.4 of the -35.3 stolen base runs were compiled during these years.

Why was he so inept at base thievery in his last dozen seasons? By our standards, he wasn't terrible -- he stole 276 bags in 6484 times at the plate, an average of 25.53 per 600 PAs. At the time, though, those levels were unsatisfactory, as this graph illustrates:


The lowest league-wide stolen base rate during that time period was 24.7, and that was in the anomalous 1886 season. That still doesn't explain it all, though; if you recall the wSB formula from above, copped bags (or the lack thereof) can only be positive, and the paucity of caught stealing figures meant that they couldn't have affected his wSB. As the -32.9 runs he amassed over that span would indicate, he was pretty bad over this time in this aspect of the game, so what caused it?

Again, 'twas the era. lgwSB made up the final part of the wSB equation, as it was multiplied by the (rough) amount of times a player reached first, then subtracted from the first two numbers. How high were the lgwSB figures during this period?


Quite high, as it turns out. Nonetheless, the wSB is still multiplied by the amount of times a player reaches first, which means the more times a player gets on base, the lower his wSB will be. This takes us into the third, and final, point.

Anson was good

We've already discussed ad nauseam the niceties of Anson's time, but we haven't talked about how well Anson did during that time. Given his phenomenal career WAR and the fact that he played the majority of his games at first base, you could probably infer that much of his value was derived from hitting; as his 134 wRC+ should indicate, that inference will not be proven wrong.

First, the stuff that doesn't concern wSB. During the one-score-and-seven-year run of dominance from Anson, major leaguers had an ISO of .088, while he put up a .112 figure in that department. What's more, for the first 26 years he played*, he whiffed in only 2.8% of his trips to the dish, nearly half of the 5.5% major-league rate over that span.

*Remember, there's no strikeout data from 1897 to 1909. Trust me, I'm as mad as you are.

Now that all of that's out there, we can get to the more salient stuff. Anson, presumably, made hard contact, as his career .339 BABIP was much higher than the average of .282; he also took free passes, with a walk rate of 8.7% that surpassed the 6.6% figure that an average payer put up. All told, he reached base safely in 39.3% of the time, which is definitely better than the 30.8% mark from the rest of the league.

For wSB, though, we only care about the times that Anson reached first safely -- singles, walks, and hit-by-pitches -- which should give us an idea of how often he could have stolen (as was the intent). In his 27 seasons and 11319 plate appearances, Anson went to first via one of the three aforementioned methods 3613 times, or 31.9%.

The trend is even more pronounced when we focus on the last twelve years of his career, when he was his worst at base stealing. Over those seasons, he walked 12% of the time (major-league average: 8.2%) and had a .332 BABIP (major-league average: .287); his OBP during this time was .408, and he took a trip to the 3-hole 33.8% of the time. This, coupled with the high lgwSB for these years, was the primary cause of his general crappiness at pilfering bags.

Adding all of these factors together, it's not hard to see why Anson was as bad as he was. He was still a great player, though, and I'm still a poor writer. Some things will never change.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Ryan Romano writes for Beyond the Box Score, the FanGraphs Community blog, and Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.

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