OAKLAND -- A 20-year-old Rickey Henderson joined the A’s midway through the 1979 season and swiped 33 bases as a rookie to kick off what went on to be a 25-year Hall of Fame career that ended with him as baseball’s stolen base king.
Forty-four years later, another speedster who dons the green and gold appears to be at the outset of a prolific career on the basepaths.
With a pair of stolen bases bringing his 2023 total to 35 in Friday night’s 6-1 A’s loss to the Phillies at the Coliseum, Esteury Ruiz surpassed Henderson for the second-most stolen bases by a rookie in Oakland history. He remains well in line to overtake the record of 42 held by Mitchell Page in 1977.
“It’s special,” Ruiz said in Spanish of surpassing Henderson. “I know I get compared a lot to him when it comes to stealing bases. They say nothing is unreachable, but I'd say his [all-time stolen base] record is unreachable. Of course, it makes me feel good. It’s something I feel proud to have accomplished.”
Ruiz swiped his 34th bag in the third inning, taking second base shortly after his RBI single cut the A’s deficit to one run at the time. This came despite the Phillies utilizing a modified pitchout in an attempt to neutralize his 80-grade speed. Following his leadoff double in the sixth, Ruiz took off for stolen base No. 35.
It was Ruiz’s sixth multi-stolen base effort of the season. Both steals came against J.T. Realmuto, a two-time Gold Glove Award-winning backstop who entered Friday leading all Major League catchers in pop time to second base.
“I remember talking about [Ruiz] in April and someone asked whether he would get to 65 or 70 bases this year,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “My comment was, ‘I truly believe so.’ He continues to get on base and steal bases. It was one of the better arms behind the plate and he stole third base on him. We’ve seen the speed. It’s real, and it’s quite an accomplishment if you’re being mentioned in the same sentence as a Rickey Henderson.”
In that ‘79 campaign, Henderson did not reach his 33rd stolen base until his 89th game, which fell on the final day of the regular season. Ruiz’s 34th and 35th swiped bags came in only his 70th game played this season.
Sure, Ruiz is certainly benefitting from the introduction of bigger bases and limits on pickoffs in 2023 that are encouraging more stolen-base attempts around MLB. But given his thorough daily routine, Ruiz might just be fast and savvy enough to have racked up high stolen-base totals in any era.
Before every game, about three hours before first pitch, Ruiz grabs the iPad that sits at his locker inside the clubhouse and engulfs himself in film study. He spends a good while analyzing the opposing team’s pitchers, from the starter on that particular day to any reliever he might see throughout the contest.
By the time, the game begins, Ruiz has a strong gauge on the perfect moment to take off for the next base. For the most part, Ruiz is right, now 35-for-42 on stolen base attempts this season.
“The amount of studying he’s doing at a craft he knows he’s excellent at is impressive,” Kotsay said. “He doesn’t take for granted that he’s got the speed to steal bases. He puts the work in. His processes start when he gets to the locker room. … He’s a great student of the game.”
Ruiz has become a must-watch figure on a daily basis, especially for his teammates. Now on pace for 79 stolen bases, Ruiz is taking aim at the American League rookie single-season record of 66, set by Kenny Lofton in 1992. It would be the most in a single season since José Reyes swiped 78 bags in 2007.
“It’s a treat to watch him,” said A’s starting pitcher JP Sears, who allowed four runs on four hits with seven strikeouts over seven innings and departed having retired 10 straight Phillies.
“It’s always good to see guys out there stealing bags and making things happen on the field. I’m excited whenever he’s on first base. You know that he’s going to go at some point. … He’s going to be a really good player in the coming years.”