Retro-drafting 1982: The year Rickey Henderson stole too many bases

Rickey Henderson stole a record 130 bases in 1982. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

I'll be honest. If I get one more invitation to a 2020 mock draft, I am going to strangle something. Yes, we can always use the practice planning for the upcoming season, but there are so many variables that can affect 2020 play that these practice runs might be moot. Besides, I've done all my 2020 drafts already. I want to play!

So I had this idea about a way to stay engaged during these uncertain times. The idea is not new or innovative -- and it was probably stirred by Pierre Becquey's Project GOAT challenge -- but in all this pandemic panic to find things to do, it seemed like a pretty interesting exercise.

Simply, we'd pick any past year and run a retroactive draft of those players. Even when we know the final stats in advance, drafting 23-man 5x5 teams would still be challenging. It would be a test of who can best navigate that particular player pool. And the winner would be determined immediately at the end of the draft.

I think the possibilities are intriguing. Would Pedro Martinez be a No.1 pick in a 1999 league? Assuming Babe Ruth would go No. 1 in a 1927 league, could any team beat that top seed? If you draft Rickey Henderson's 130 SBs in a 1982 league, could you forgo SBs completely with the rest of your roster? There are so many possibilities.

There are four great benefits of retro-drafting:

1. We get to draft with something at stake. All this mock-drafting going on proves that this is an activity we love and crave. But mocks don't result in anything real. In a retro-draft, at least it's a competition with a real winner at the end.

2. We get to hone our skills in roster construction. Building a fantasy roster consists of two skills: accurate player projections and optimal roster construction. A retro draft removes the variable of uncertain statistical output, but you still have to figure out the dynamics of the player population to fill those 23 slots.

Does the talent pool have certain strengths and weaknesses? Are there scarcities in some categories? Are there sharp drop-offs in the rankings at some positions? Are there statistical excesses that shift the supply and demand equation? Every season has different answers to these questions, and in the case of seasons from long ago, the variances from what we're used to today can be dramatic.

3. We all love immediate gratification. The great thing about a retro draft is that you can crown a winner at the end of the draft. That's even better than DFS!

4. We get to keep talking baseball. If you run the draft in a Zoom setting, the side conversations can take on a life all their own. And if you pick a past year from your youth, get ready to share memories of favorite players, baseball cards and Strat-O-Matic. Fun!

The 1982 draft

Last week, 12 of the members of the XFL (the experts keeper/dynasty hybrid league) convened in a Zoom conference to conduct a draft of the 1982 season. For many of us, this was a season when we were in our 30s. For the fantasy industry, this was two years before the first Rotisserie League Baseball book was published and the concept went viral.

The big question about the 1982 player pool revolved around one Rickey Nelson Henley Henderson. This was the year that the speedster set the still-standing Major League record of 130 stolen bases. Would that be enough to merit him being the No. 1 pick in the draft?

Imagine the advantage an owner would have by locking up the SB category with the very first pick! He'd then be able to focus on the other nine categories for the rest of the draft. It is rare that we've ever been able to go into a draft with that big of an advantage carried by a single player.

But the 1982 talent pool had several other interesting dynamics that we don't see in today's game. Position scarcity appeared not only at catcher, but was just as extreme in the middle infield. Relievers routinely racked up triple-digit innings and double-digit wins. And there were 50 starters who threw over 200 innings, but they were just as likely to strike out 100 as 200. In fact, nine pitchers threw over 200 innings but struck out fewer than 100!

With such an unfamiliar statistical pool, it took a bit of data play to figure out how to value the players, but that is exactly why retro-drafting is such a great way to challenge ourselves.

Here is how the first round played out.

Pick No. 1

Brian Feldman of fantasybaseballauctioneer.com had the No. 1 pick and I think most of us assumed that it would be the no-brainer Henderson. So when he announced that Steve Carlton would be his choice, there were some audible gasps. However, Carlton was a highly defensible pick; he led the league with 23 wins and 286 strikeouts, along with a 3.11 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. No other pitcher won more than 19 that year, and the top tier in strikeouts plummeted quickly:

Pitcher strikeouts, 1982

1. Steve Carlton 286
2. Mario Soto 274
3. Nolan Ryan 245
4. Floyd Bannister 209
5. Fernando Valenzuela 199
10. Don Robinson 165

Carlton was clearly the top pitcher in a season that saw a sharp decline from elite arms into mediocrity, particularly in the strikeout and WHIP categories.

Pick No. 2

Would BaseballHQ.com's Doug Dennis take Henderson at this point? No! He opted instead for Robin Yount. The position scarcity in 1982's shortstop pool -- heck, the entire middle infield pool -- was extreme, and Yount's Rotisserie value was a good $15 more than the second-ranked SS. Here were the top 5:

Only two other shortstops hit even 10 home runs that year. In the entire second base pool, only six players hit 10-plus homers. That's what made Yount's numbers so valuable, and merited such a high pick.

Pick No. 3

Surely Henderson would go now, right? Nope. Jeff Winick chose Dale Murphy instead. In 1982, only 16 players hit even 30 HRs -- and two of the top 5 were significant batting average drags -- so establishing a base in power was important. The fact that Murphy also stole 23 bases -- only three among the 30-HR hitters had more than seven -- helped Jeff open with a more balanced approach. Here were the top 5 home run hitters:

Pick No. 4

So, I was seeded fourth, and the last thing I thought I'd have to do was consider drafting Rickey Henderson. I expected that the top three picks would have been Henderson, Carlton and Yount, in whatever order, and that I would end up grabbing a share of the scarce starting pitcher market. But, Rickey ...

Tactically, it was not necessary to draft Henderson this early. Why was it easy to eschew 130 SBs? Because it was nearly impossible to avoid backing into gobs of stolen bases no matter where you were in the draft.

No. of players with ...
50 or more SB: 6
40 or more SB: 11
30 or more SB: 25
20 or more SB: 45

If you didn't draft Rickey's 130 bags, there was Tim Raines with 78, Lonnie Smith with 68 or Omar Moreno with 60. The top 5 second basemen averaged 41 SB. Of the 11 outfielders who hit at least .300, the fastest five averaged 44 SB. Heck, catcher John Wathan stole 36, and fellow backstops Carlton Fisk and John Stearns swiped 17 apiece.

I didn't need Henderson; I'd get my bags later. So I drafted Mario Soto, who gave me 14 wins, 274 strikeouts along with a 2.80 ERA and 1.06 WHIP.

Pick No. 5

How far would Rickey Henderson fall? He would land here, with Derek VanRiper of The Athletic drawing applause from the Zoom crowd.

And this is exactly why it all mattered. Derek's team would finish in third place at the end of the draft, unsurprisingly winning the stolen base category. But he finished with 276 SBs -- essentially, he couldn't avoid drafting another 146 bags -- which was exactly 50 steals more than the team that finished second in the category.

Here was how the top 7 speediest teams ranked in the standings:

The speed pool was so deep that it was not the category that would determine the eventual standings outcome.

Pick No. 6

Similar to the third pick, Don Drooker, from RotisserieDuck.com, went for balance -- power, speed and batting average -- and chose Pedro Guerrero. Here were the hitters who offered at least 20-20 balance, and where they were drafted:

I thought this was a good approach as well, and the Leon Durham pick was mine. In the end, going for balance early was no guarantee of success. Those two first-rounders above ended up near the bottom of the final standings.

Picks 7-12

Here were the remaining picks in the first round:

Before the draft started, I estimated that seven pitchers would go in the first round. There turned out to be five, which is nearly on par with what we see today. When the stats are known, one would think the hitter-pitcher split would be closer to 50-50, but this group wasn't going that way, at least not in the first round.

Seven pitchers did go in Round 2.

One other thing I found interesting was that, aside from Rickey, only two other first-round hitters were among the top 10 in steals. There were so many SBs all through the draft. The last 20-SB player -- shortstop Bob Bailor -- went with the 10th pick in Round 19.


Relief pitchers were an interesting breed. Only five closers had 30 or more saves, and seven more finished in the 20s, so there were just enough 20-save closers for each team to own one. But there were also seven closers with 10 or more wins, and four who struck out over 100 batters. Our retro-owners recognized the scarcity, so when the closer run started, it took over the fourth round.

In the end ...

There was one thing I wondered about with this exercise. If we all knew the stats in advance, would higher-seeded drafters have an advantage? As it turned out, at least in this sample of one, it wasn't just the higher seeds who fared well:

Four of the top six finishers were the teams at opposite ends of the draft seeding -- 1, 2, 11 and 12. And Doug's sixth-place team might have finished higher if he hadn't attempted a skewed strategy of passing on pitching until Round 8. Does having two picks close in succession allow teams more control over playing the numbers? Again, this was just one draft, but it will be interesting to follow as we continue to play.

I finished in seventh place; mistakes were made. I tried to play catch-up in power by taking Dave Kingman (37 HR, .204 BA) and hoping to make up ground in batting average later on, but there was just not enough BA to pull me out of the hole. I waited too long to grab weak middle infielders. I got sniped on a few important picks. My rankings spreadsheet choked on the unusual stat distributions.

But the experience was a rush, especially after spending all these recent weeks doing 2020 mocks in preparation for a season that may never come. The retro draft gave me practice in analyzing a new talent pool and allowed me to exercise my roster construction skills. And it was nice to have final standings immediately at the end of the draft.

The eventual winner, Rotowire.com's Jeff Erickson, got to pick the year we'd retro-draft next. So the XFL group will be deconstructing the 1990 season on Monday. A retro-draft every two weeks is a nice pace that allows us to learn about an unfamiliar talent pool and prepare ranking sheets. For as long as the baseball shutdown continues, we'll have some fantasy activity to keep us engaged.

If you would like to participate in a retro draft, there is an amazing spreadsheet model designed by ESPN's Todd Zola at Mastersball.com. All you need to do is download any season's statistics into the spreadsheet (baseball-reference.com and mlb.com are two good sources), and start drafting. Standings are updated in real time. The model is free with a subscription to his site, and can be purchased separately. Inquire at todd@mastersball.com.