Take a Look at Otis
by Asher B. Chancey
September 5, 2006
I recently noticed that Kenny Lofton needs nine more stolen bases to get to 600 for his career, something only 16 other players have ever done, and of those, only 12 played the majority of their careers in the 20th Century.
Lofton debuted in 1991 with the Astros at the age of 24, after a college career at Arizona in which he famously played both baseball and basketball. He only played 20 games in 1991, and then the Astros traded him to Cleveland. In Cleveland, Kenny exploded onto the scene, winning the Rookie of the Year and promptly beginning a five year run leading the league in stolen bases. Kenny led off for the resurgent Cleveland Indians of the 1990s, taking 1997 off to play for the Braves before returning to the team in 1998 until 2001. After 1998, however, at the age of 32 Kenny Lofton was no longer a regular player in the majors. Though active for the last seven seasons, he played only 140 games once, in 2003, and played as few as 83 games for the 2004 Yankees. Though Lofton remains a solid centerfielder and hitter – last season he went .335/.392/.420 in 110 games with the Phillies; this season he has played most of the Dodgers' games – Lofton passed his prime several years back. He stole 30 bases only twice in the last eight years, his on-base percentage has slumped in recent years, and he hasn't scored 100 runs since 2000.
Nevertheless, in my opinion, Kenny Lofton is a Hall of Famer. Maybe not first ballot, and the large number of stars on the ballot when he becomes eligible will be problematic, but I think he belongs.
But this article is not about Kenny Lofton. Actually, what really impressed me when I looked at the career stolen base leaders was not Kenny Lofton at all, but rather Otis Nixon.
I have noticed in the past that Otis Nixon impresses me every time I look at his stats. I have always known that Nixon could do little other than flat-out fly, and that his brother Donell used to average more than a stolen base per game in the minors. But what I never really focused on before was Otis Nixon's career placed up against his age.
By the way, those who have never taken a nice long look at Donell Nixon's minor league stats should – I first noticed them on the back of his 1988 Topps Card, when he was with the Mariners. I recall one time, while watching a Game of the Week on network television, hearing a sportscaster say that Otis and "his brother" were taught to run by their mother, who used to race them in the park, and usually win. Anyway, Donell used to steal bases in the minors at Vince Coleman-like clips, only in fewer games. Check it out sometime.
So anyway, back to Otis.
Like Lofton, Nixon debuted at the age of 24, in 1983 with the Yankees. And like Lofton, he was traded to Cleveland the following year. But unlike Lofton, he was not an immediate success. In his first six major league seasons, he played 13, 49, 104, 105, 19, and 90 games. In the remaining eleven years of his career, he would play over 140 games exactly once, in 1997 at the age of 38.
Even in 1989 and 1990, Nixon only batted 258 and 231 times, respectively. By the time he finally got over 400 at-bats, it was 1991, and Otis was 32 years old.
But along the way, something remarkable was happening. Without knowing for sure, we must assume that Nixon was being used as a pinch runner a lot, because his stolen base numbers are shocking, particularly when put up against his ABs.
The following table shows how many bases Nixon stole each season, along with his number of at-bats, and the number of bases he is projected to have stolen if he had gotten 600 at-bats each season:
| Year || AB || SB || SB/600 |
| 1983 || 14 || 2 || 86 |
| 1984 || 91 || 12 || 79 |
| 1985 || 162 || 20 || 74 |
| 1986 || 95 || 23 || 145 |
| 1987 || 17 || 2 || 71 |
| 1988 || 271 || 46 || 102 |
| 1989 || 258 || 37 || 86 |
Obviously, the issue of pinch running complicates things – the times he was put on base as a pinch runner is not reflected in at-bats, and his on-base percentages from those years indicate that Otis would not have gotten on base enough to produce those kind of projected stats – but still, this was a special base stealer.
So, in 1991, at the age of 32, Nixon finally gets the chance to play "every day." And in 401 at-bats, Nixon steals 72 bases and scores 81 runs for the worst-to-first Atlanta Braves. In 401 at-bats, he finished second in the league in steals to Marquis Grissom, who stole 76 bases in 558 at-bats – just 4 more steals in 157 more at-bats.
Incidentally, Nixon and Grissom were teammates on the Expos in 1989 and 1990, along with Delino DeShields, Larry Walker, and Tim Raines. Man alive, if the Expos weren't fast back then!
Lets take a step back to put this in perspective, shall we? Otis Nixon was born 15 days after the greatest base stealer of all time, Rickey Henderson. In 1991, they were both 32. Henderson, playing for the A's that season, stole 58 bases in 470 at-bats, to bring his career total up to 994 stolen bases. In that year, Rickey stole his 939th base to pass Lou Brock as the all time major league leader in stolen bases.
At the same time that Rickey Henderson reached the pinnacle of the major league stolen base pantheon, a man who was the same age as Rickey was playing in his first full major league season. And he stole more bases in fewer at-bats than Rickey that season.
After 1991, Nixon would never again steal more than 60 bases, despite getting an adequate number of at-bats. Nevertheless, Otis would steal 40 or more bases six times, and 50 or more three times, from 1992 to 1997. And remember, the 1980s were becoming the 1990s at this point, so the number of steals in the league were on the decline generally. From 1991 to 1997, Nixon was in the top five in his league in steals 6 out of 7 years, despite the at-bats issue and the fact that he was in his mid-30s.
Which brings me to my ultimate point – Otis Nixon finished his career with 620 stolen bases, which is good for 15th of all time. Think about your great base stealers of all time. Do you know who finished with fewer steals than Nixon? Let me rattle off some names for you:
Ozzie Smith. Maury Wills. Brett Butler. Davey Lopes. Cesar Cedeno. Luis Aparicio. Barry and Bobby Bonds. Paul Molitor. Omar Moreno. Roberto Alomar. Eric Young. Delino DeSheilds. Ron LeFlore. Steve Sax. Jimmy Ryan. Marquis Grissom. Tris Speaker.
Lots of guys. Otis Nixon finished with more steals than a lot of guys we normally think of as among the elite basestealers of all time, and he did it basically playing half of a career. Nixon played in 1709 games, with 5115 at-bats, and on his 30th birthday, he had all of 108 steals, which means that after the age of 30, he stole 515 bases.
To put that
in perspective, after he turned 30
, Nixon stole more bases than Barry Bonds, Fred Clarke, Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar, and Luis Aparicio stole in their entire careers.
In 1999, at the age of 40, Nixon played 84 games for the Atlanta Braves, batting 151 times. He finished the season with 26 steals in 32 attempts. 29 year old Tony Womack led the NL that year with 72 steal in 641 at-bats. Nixon's AB/SB rate in 1999, at the age of 40, was 5.8:1, which means if Nixon would have batted 641 times, he would have been on pace for about 110 stolen bases.
Here is a table that show the Top 15 basestealers of all time, with the number of steals each had after the age of 30, and the percentage of their career steals that came after the age of 30.
| Player || Total SB || SB After 30 || % |
| Lou Brock || 938 || 604 || 0.64 |
| Rickey Henderson || 1406 || 592 || 0.42 |
| Otis Nixon || 620 || 515 || 0.83 |
| Honus Wagner || 722 || 464 || 0.64 |
| Tom Brown || 657 || 414 || 0.63 |
| Arlie Latham || 739 || 372 || 0.50 |
| Joe Morgan || 689 || 369 || 0.54 |
| Max Carey || 738 || 361 || 0.49 |
| Eddie Collins || 744 || 282 || 0.38 |
| Bert Campaneris || 649 || 281 || 0.43 |
| Billy Hamilton || 912 || 274 || 0.30 |
| Ty Cobb || 892 || 244 || 0.27 |
| Willie Wilson || 668 || 232 || 0.35 |
| Tim Raines || 808 || 210 || 0.26 |
| Vince Coleman || 752 || 166 || 0.22 |
As you can see, Otis is in some elite company – only Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson have more than Otis.
You kind of get the idea that Nixon may have stopped being able to swing the bat, or play the field, but he never lost the ability to run.
So, congratulations to Kenny Lofton on getting his 600 stolen base (in advance). You've had a wonderful career, and I look forward to your induction into the Hall of Fame.
You were almost as good at stealing bases as Otis Nixon.
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Asher resides in Philadelphia, PA and can be reached at email@example.com