St. Louis Cardinals: Would Vince Coleman fit into today’s game?

ST. LOUIS - 1986: Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals runs the bases during an MLB game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri during the 1986 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS - 1986: Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals runs the bases during an MLB game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri during the 1986 season. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Vince Coleman was a base-stealing weapon for the 1980s St. Louis Cardinals. Given his unique skillset though, would he even play in 2020?

As our coverage of ’80s week continues, I think it’s important to highlight just how different the game was back then versus what it is now. Baseball is cyclical, sure, but even in all the cycles the game goes through, the St. Louis Cardinals were a different breed. Nowhere is that difference greater than with the speedster Vince Coleman.

As a team, the 1980s Cardinals had their own particular “Whiteyball” style that all fans know or have at least heard about. They led the league in stolen bases and played the best defense for the majority of the 1980s. All of this led to a team that had no need to hit homers because every single, walk, or ball in the gap had the chance to turn into a speedster on third base or at least in scoring position. Could you think of something that sounds even more opposite of baseball today?

During his time with the Cardinals, Vince Coleman was one of the best at this style of baseball.

When he broke into the league in 1985, Coleman wasn’t an extremely highly-touted prospect, but he quickly showed he belonged in the MLB.

In just his first month of being an MLB player, Coleman played in 12 games and stole 12 bases. For the switch hitter, this catapulted him into the lineup regularly and he went on to finish the season with 110 stolen bases. This total set the record for steals by a rookie and was third as far as most steals ever in one season behind Ricky Henderson (130 in 1982) and fellow Cardinal Lou Brock (118 in 1974).

It didn’t matter that Coleman only hit one home run that year or slugged just .335, when he got on base, it was almost a guaranteed man in scoring position. This stellar rookie year led to him being the fourth-ever unanimous Rookie of the Year winner in 1985, all with an OPS of .655. That would be unheard of in today’s league.

In the next two seasons, Coleman would go on to steal 107 and 109 bases, making him the only player ever to steal 100+ bases in his first three seasons in the league. By his second year, he was second in team history in stolen bases and remains there now with his 549 steals behind only Lou Brock’s 888.

In his six seasons with the Cardinals, Coleman led the NL in steals every year and made two All-Star teams (both years he had an OPS of .652 and .650) and finished top-15 in MVP voting twice. After Coleman left the Cardinals, his speed diminished as he got older and he transitioned into a backup/part-time player.

Coleman’s best years were always with the Cardinals and in those first six, he led the way through the Whiteyball era and was one of only a couple of unicorns in terms of stolen base talent.

How would Coleman’s talent fit into today’s game?

For the rest of the article, when I say Coleman’s talent, I mean the type of player he was in his first three years in the league. OPS near .650, no power, huge stolen base numbers. So, would Coleman fit in 2020, the home run league?

The answer has to be yes. It has to be.

My first thought was hell no. Coleman was no statcast darling and he technically only had two above-average offensive seasons and was only 4% above average in those seasons. He hit for no power and never slugged over .400.

But he was so damn good at what he did, there’s no way a team could let him sit on the bench or unemployed.

Billy Hamilton, Magneuris Sierra, and Mallex Smith are built like Coleman, they play like Coleman, but they are not anywhere close to as good as Coleman was.

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If you’ll remember back in 2017, the 21-year-old Sierra came up with the Cardinals and provided about a two-week spark where his speed electrified the stagnant offense. He never hit anything other than singles and only stole two bases. It was exciting to watch and while it was evident Sierra was overmatched after coming up from A-ball, the potential for excitement was palpable.

Sierra has never stolen more than three bases in the MLB and 33 in the Minors. Imagine that excitement Sierra gave but multiplied.

Billy Hamilton has carved himself a nice career but still isn’t a regular player and has only stole 59 bases at his peak. Smith is probably the closest comp to a modern-day Coleman, but even he hasn’t broken the 50-steal mark and he’s only starting because of the talent level around him on the lowly Mariners.

You can’t accurately judge what it would be like to have Vince Coleman in the MLB now because nobody has been close to Coleman’s level of base-stealing talent since Coleman.

Since Coleman’s 109 steals in 1987, no player has reached 100 steals in a season and Jacoby Ellsbury‘s 70 steals in 2009 are the only total that has even gotten close to Coleman since the turn of the century.

Players aren’t raised now to be base stealers. Track stars play football or hit the weight room to go after what the game pays players for right now: homers. To think that Coleman couldn’t even play on a team like the Marlins would be foolish but I would bet that if a player stole 100 bases in the Minors, he would stick around in the MLB until his speed was gone.

Coleman would do exactly what the 1980s Cardinals did- he’d change the game. The teams back then proved the speedy style can work and even in the era of homers, it would work again with someone like Coleman leading the way. It would just have to take a team willing to break the regular mold to do it. If you are going to be a speed team, you need to commit all the way like the Cardinals of the ’80s did.

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Coleman was truly a one-of-a-kind talent and while he may not fit the mold of most major leaguers in this day and age, someone with his talent level would make it impossible to ignore him.