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Baseball by the numbers: Power-speed players a thrill to watch

Alcides Escobar

Alcides Escobar

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Sluggers slug and speedsters run. But whenever the
twain shall meet, that’s a thrill for fans.

Subsequent events have tempered fans’ enthusiasm, but there was a special excitement around Jose Canseco (1988), Barry Bonds (1996) and Alex Rodriguez (1998) when they became the first players to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in one season. The fourth member of the 40-40 club, Alfonso Soriano, joined while playing for the Washington Nationals in 2006, a year before signing with the Cubs.

The numbers don’t have to be right on the milestones for there to be a fascination with the power-speed guys. A 30-49 player, such as the Angels’ Mike Trout last season, is a combo thriller, and so is a 48-24 player, such as Ken Griffey Jr. for the Mariners in 1999.

In the 1980s, Bill James devised a method for quantifying the balance between home runs and stolen bases. It’s called the P-S, and it’s among the metrics you can find on the player pages at Baseball-Reference.com.

The P-S formula is 2 x HR x SB/HR + SB. To see how it works, let’s look at the White Sox’ Alex Rios. This season, Rios has 12 homers and 24 stolen bases. Start with the multiplication: 2 x 12 x 24 = 576.
The total of his homers and steals is 36, so divide 576 by 36. That gives him a P-S of 16, which ranks third in the American League behind Trout (20.2) and the Indians’ Jason Kipnis (17.5).

Because we’re tracking the balance between two very different skills, the P-S rises when the homer and steal totals are closer together. If Rios had reached his total of 36 homers and steals with 18 of each, the P-S would be 18. If he had 24 homers and 12 steals, then the number would be the same 16 it is with 12 and 24.

Whenever the homer and steal totals are identical, the P-S will match. A player with 40 homers and 40 stolen bases will have a P-S of 40. The actual numbers for the four 40-40 players are 40.98 for Canseco and Bonds (both with 42 homers and 40 steals), 43.36 for Soriano (46, 41) and a record 43.91 for A-Rod (42, 46).

For a career, Bonds is the record-holder at 613.90 on 762 homers and 514 steals, followed by Rickey Henderson at 490.40 (297, 1,405) and Willie Mays at 447.05 (660, 338). Henderson built a remarkable P-S by enormous numbers in one category, but he also had enough bulk in the other to provide some balance. Had he added 200 stolen bases but subtracted 200 homers, his number would have dropped to 182.94, not in the top 100 of all time.

Power-speed number isn’t meant to be a ranking of player value. Homers are a lot more valuable than steals, and power-speed doesn’t reflect that. It’s all about the players who capture our imaginations with flash and dash and the implied question of balance between the two.



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