When I hear the name Vince Coleman, this is the first image that comes to mind.

Vince Coleman

With apologies to the California Angels’ very own speedster Gary Pettis, Coleman is RBI Baseball’s premier leadoff man; all it takes is a flaccid slap to the left side of the infield to get Coleman on base—and from there he’s off to the races. Coleman and Ozzie Smith are the one-two punch that makes the light-hitting Tommy Herr a somewhat tolerable three-hole hitter before Jack Clark marches in to clean up the bases. The RBI Cardinals are built on speed, and that all starts with Coleman.

Like many of RBI’s players, I am far less familiar with real-life Vince Coleman than I am with 8-bit Coleman. Play enough RBI and you start thinking every ’80s player was a dumpy white guy.

As someone born in 1984, I saw very little of real-life Coleman’s peak—or at least that I can remember. There does survive a video, taken just after the ’87 Twins-Cardinals World Series, in which I tell the camera that my favorite player is Greg Gagne (!) before a look of horror appears on my face and I ask my camera-wielding father whether viewers will be able to tell I just shit my pants. Fortunately, I do not remember this.

So, no, my recollections of Coleman come not from his mid-’80s Need for Speed heyday but from the early-to-mid-’90s, when Coleman was a 30-year-old Mets part-timer who still managed to burgle bases when given the shot.

Baseball Reference is many (remarkable, fantastic) things, but for me its most fulfilling use is to investigate and research a player you remember from baseball cards or old video games but of whom you never bothered to wonder: how did this guy actually play the game?

Vince ASG

Quickly, it turns out.

Coleman burst into the bigs in 1985 and immediately began to terrorize National League catchers, stealing 110, 107 and 109 bases, respectively, in his first three major league seasons. He went on to lead the National League in stolen bases in each of his first six seasons; Coleman led the league in steals every season he was a Cardinal and every season he was a full-time player. Ironically, Coleman’s final season with the Cards was both the first season he posted an above-average OPS+ and his last opportunity to play every day.

But we don’t talk about Vince Coleman to talk about hitting. We’re here to talk about the stolen bases.

Here is the list of players who have stolen 100 bases in a season since 1951, when caught stealing numbers were first tallied (click to enlarge):

100 Steal Club

Vince Coleman has three of the eight 100-steal seasons since we bothered tracking how successful base-stealers are, and his 1986 season was his finest. In ’86, Coleman stole 107 bases and was caught only 14 times — the only season in history where a player stole more than 100 bases and didn’t lead the majors in caught stealing. Maury Wills did lead the majors in caught stealing in 1962, but his ’62 season narrowly edges out Coleman’s in stolen-base percentage — 88.88 percent to 88.43 percent. (Wills’ ’62 season also ranks as BP’s top baserunning season ever.)

In looking at the above list, you’ll also notice that Vince Coleman had the worst batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage on that list—and it isn’t particularly close.

Vincent Van Go (best nickname ever) reached base with no runner ahead of him 196 times that season, according to a great 2014 post from Viva El Birdos. Coleman attempted to steal 121 of those 196 times. He was successful 107 times. Vince Coleman successfully stole a base 54.6 percent of the time it was possible to even try. Everyone in the building knew Coleman was going to steal, and it didn’t matter one whit. In a game against the Expos on July 2, 1985, for example, Montreal pitcher David Palmer reportedly threw over to first 17 times before throwing home (h/t to SBNation user Plowboy). Coleman stole second on the next pitch.

(That July 2 game was played at the Expos’ Stade Olympique, which got me wondering: what’s the number of pickoff attempts by a home pitcher before fans are allowed to boo? Seventeen seems like it’s within the allowable amount. I’m not a pickoff booer, since it’s, yanno, part of baseball, but I’d probably start hucking batteries at my own pitcher after a dozen.)

Coleman was a “one-tool player,” as Ben Godar wrote in that Viva El Birdos article. This is undeniably true.

But what makes Coleman’s one tool so compelling—and ultimately kind of sad—is that, of the five tools, speed is the one that depends most heavily on other tools. One’s baserunning means very little if one never reaches base.

Last season, Billy Hamilton took this premise to its logical conclusion: the Reds centerfielder tallied the lowest OBP of any player with more than 50 stolen bases since 1951. Hamilton batted .226/.274/.289 (woof) with 57 stolen bases. Hamilton was compared to Coleman pretty frequently in the minors and after arriving in the big leagues. But Hamilton hasn’t quite been able to strike the right balance between horrendous hitter/electrifying baserunner.

(Hamilton’s 2015 was actually the lowest on-base percentage of any 50-base stealer since 1888, but who the hell knows how many times Billy Sunday was caught stealing in his 1888 campaign for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. More importantly, check out this list of players who’ve ever stolen more than 50 bases with an OBP under .275.

Three Billys

They’re all Billys! Weird. Mothers, don’t let your Williams grow up to be Billys if you don’t want them to grow up to be speedy major league baseball players who can’t get on base but steal when they do. Also, Billy Sunday became America’s most successful pre-radio evangelist and “a model for Christian manliness and American decency,” according to his SABR bio. Fun with computers!)

Coleman was able to just barely strike this balance: in 1986, Coleman was the worst possible hitter who still earned enough opportunities to be the best possible base-stealer. Coleman also managed to be an utterly average player, value-wise, while reaching that value in an extraordinarily exciting way. Coleman’s 1986 season was worth 0.9 fWAR and 1.2 bWAR, respectively. For context, that 1.2 number is the same mark that Chris Young (hitter version) posted for the Yankees last season. Vince Coleman was not particularly valuable in 1986.

Coleman almost compensated for his dreadful hitting (26.7 park-adjusted runs below average) with his remarkable baserunning (15.7 baserunning runs above average) but couldn’t quite pull it off, ultimately logging a season as flashy and ineffective as Lane Pryce’s Jaguar. (Probably still too soon.)

In baseball, speed and baserunning requires at least some amount of on-base ability. In 1986, Vince Coleman had just enough of it to show off the kind of speed and baserunning prowess that people still marvel at decades later. But nearly 70 percent of the time, his impotent bat prevented him from showing the world his best trait.

What an unbearable paradox for Coleman: every time he strode to the plate, he was only 90 feet away from doing the one thing he was better at than anyone in the world. But to earn that 90 feet, Coleman had to confront and conquer his biggest flaw.

But enough pontificating about Coleman’s Faustian bargain to obtain superlative speed at the cost of feeble batsmanship, or wondering if there’s a German word for Coleman’s existential situation. (There probably is.)

Instead, I’d like to remember Vince Coleman in simpler times, as 8-bit Vince, who gave little thought to human frailty and fallibility as he shuffled his paunchy white body from first to second for another stolen base.

Vince!
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