Mookie Betts is special. You are not.
What is the thing you do best? How far would you have to go find to someone better? Maybe you’re the best bassoon player in your town, but in the next town someone is better than you. Perhaps you’re better at flossing one-handed than anyone else in Iowa. Congratulations, but someone in Minnesota is better. Maybe you’re the best in the whole world at catching jalapeno poppers in your mouth. Someone has to be, right? Odds are, some dead person was better still. There have been roughly 100 billion people that ever lived, and at least one of them was probably better than you at everything.
This is why Mookie Betts is more special than you. He actually is the best ever at something. In fact, he’s the best ever at several things. He’s likely the best baseball player to ever bowl a 300. He’s definitely the best baseball player to graduate from John Overton High School. More prudently, he’s the best ever at a very specific, especially difficult baseball skill: stealing bases off left-handed pitchers.
Actually, that doesn’t do him justice. The Red Sox’ incredible outfielder is WWAAAAAAAYY better than any human ever at stealing bases vs. lefties. He’s stolen 26 bases off of them without ever once being caught. No one else is even close, as you’ll see below.
No one in recorded history has even half as many steals off of lefties without getting thrown out. Rickey Henderson, the undisputed base stealing king, stole 410 bases vs. LHP, but he was caught 135 times (both are MLB records). However, Mookie is the most perfect, most prolific thief against lefties in baseball history.
This is super impressive because stealing bases off lefties is really hard to do. A left-handed pitcher faces directly toward first base before throwing the pitch. Have you ever tried to steal from someone while they’re staring straight at you? You’re almost certainly going to get caught, especially if you try it 26 times!
Even when he does get caught, he somehow gets away with it. Here he is on May 31, 2015. He robs Wandy Rodriguez blind despite getting picked off!
Now, anyone who’s this good at stealing bases from lefties should also be great at stealing from righties. Those are the pitchers with their backs turned to first base, of course. Indeed, Mookie is 68-86 vs. RHP, a 79% success rate. That’s certainly less than perfect, but still very impressive. The MLB average is 71.8% in 2018.
Given that stealing off RHP should be easier, the leader for most successful attempts without getting caught should be much higher. Surely, someone has mastered the art of stealing from pitchers who aren’t facing them, right?
NOPE! The best SB artist vs. RHP is James Jones, who was 17-17. In other words, Mookie is 9 SB better vs. LHP than the most perfect base stealer ever vs. RHP! Mookie is a superhero, and we should all be grateful for his presence.
However, if Mookie is Batman, there’s an even more surprising Robin. Here’s the highest SB% vs. LHP in MLB history (minimum 15 attempts).
Yes, that’s the same Edwin Encarnacion who’s hit 250 HR since 2012 for the Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays- the “walk the parrot” guy. You probably don’t think of him as a base stealer because, frankly, he isn’t one. He’s attempted only four steals in the last three seasons.
There was a time, though, when he was somewhat of a threat to run. He swiped 13 bases in 2012 and twice collected eight steals in a season. Maybe that’s not so special (Henderson once stole 12 bases in eight games in 1982), but it’s not insignificant either.
Here’s where it gets weird. Encarnacion is 58-71 stealing bases overall. That’s an 81.6% success rate, which is excellent. That being said, he’s nearly perfect against lefties. This means he is only 35-47 against RHP!
Sometimes baseball defies explanation. Encarnacion, who is big and slow, is the second best base stealer ever against pitchers who are literally watching him, but pretty mediocre against the ones with their backs turned!
Maybe one of these days, Mookie will get thrown out against a left-hander. He’s way overdue. When that day comes, he’ll no longer be the best ever at this one special skill. Don’t worry, he still has an unbelievable arsenal of athletic talents, so he’ll still be more special than me and you.
A big thank you to Sean Forman and the Baseball-Reference Play Index for research assistance. In my opinion, Forman belongs in the Hall of Fame, but that’s a topic for another day.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983