Without a doubt, Lou Brock and Vince Coleman are the two most prolific leadoff hitters in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals. However, which one was the best?
Before the postponement of the 2020 season, St. Louis Cardinals fans and bloggers were debating on social media who would be in the leadoff position at the start of the season. Matt Carpenter has the most experience. Kolton Wong’s speed would be great at leadoff. Tommy Edman could be an option. How about giving Dexter Fowler another chance, or maybe even give Harrison Bader a shot?
However, during the eras of Lou Brock and Vince Coleman, there was never a debate. Both had the ability to get on base and then, with their speed, advance by stolen base or just taking an extra-base after a hit.
Each fits perfectly into their team’s style of play. Brock played most of his career for the more traditional style of play in the 60s and 70s, under Red Schoendienst. Coleman, meanwhile, excelled during the Whiteyball era of the 1980s under the tutelage of Whitey Herzog.
Both are in the record books for their base-stealing abilities. Brock is the career leader in the National League with 938 stolen bases and a member of the 3,000 hit club. Coleman, on the other hand, is the only player in MLB history to have more than 100 stolen bases in three consecutive years.
But which one of these members of the St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Fame was the best? The answer really depends on what you want. Career numbers or raw talent, or just the best single season.
For a career, give it to Lou
If you base your decision on career numbers, then without a doubt, you go with Lou Brock. Brock had a 19-year MLB career, in which 16 of those were as a Cardinal. After his trade in 1964 from the Chicago Cubs, Brock’s left-handed bat had a 16-year slash line of .297/.347/.414 with 888 stolen bases.
Though, when Brock arrived in St. Louis in 1964, he wasn’t used as the primary leadoff hitter. It wasn’t really until 1966 in slid into that role. His career leadoff slash line as a Cardinal was .291/.343/.406 with 762 stolen bases.
Lou Brock is baseball’s second in career stolen bases with 938, and his 118 stolen bases in 1974, was the best until Ricky Henderson broke it with 130 in 1982. He led the National League in stolen bases for a record eight times and had a record of 12 consecutive seasons with 50 or more stolen bases.
Additionally, the 1985 inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame had some impressive postseason numbers. In 21 postseason games during his Cardinal career, he had an incredible slash line of .391/.424/.655 with 14 stolen bases.
Nevertheless, take a look at Coleman’s early career
Vince Coleman had a 13-year MLB career, in which the first six (and most productive) were spent in St. Louis. The switch hitter’s career slash line at leadoff as Cardinal was .265/.326/.339 with 549 stolen bases.
Brock had the career numbers, but It was Coleman’s first three years in the majors that were so impressive. He arrived in the majors with a bang in 1985 stealing 110 bases, third in MLB history behind Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock, while earning the NL Rookie of the Year honor. Coleman continued by stealing 107 in 1986 and 109 in 1987, becoming the only player in MLB history to steal 100 or more bases in their first three seasons of their career.
The Florida native led the National League in steal six years in a row (85-90) while wearing the Birds on a Bat, joining Rickey Henderson, Luis Aparicio, and Maury Wills as the only members of this club.
To add to his accomplishments, in 1989 he stole 50 bases in a row without getting caught, and he is the last player to steal 100 bases in a season.
So who was the best?
Leading off is more than about the ability to steal bases, you have to get on base first, and have the ability to take an extra-base following a hit. Lou Brock and Vince Coleman, not only stole bases, they got on base and had the uncanny ability to take those extra bases.
As I stated earlier, if you’re basing it on career, then Lou Brock is your guy. However, Vince Coleman shouldn’t be dismissed, especially if you’re looking at a smaller sample size.
Coleman had more raw talent than Brock, which means he was faster with better acceleration. This would explain why Coleman was only caught stealing 23.5% of the time during his career vs Brock’s 32.7%. You can also add a check to Coleman’s box that he was a switch hitter, which is another weapon he offered over Brock.
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If you could get the Vince Coleman of 1985 to 1987 as your leadoff man, you would be getting one explosive weapon. This Coleman would likely cause more turmoil on the bases for an opposing team than Brock.
Nevertheless, because of consistency and longevity, I would go with Lou Brock. Even though Vince Coleman is a switch hitter, Brock’s splits vs right or left-handers are actually better. Brock has a career slash line vs right-handed pitchers of .306/.359/.430, while vs left-handed pitchers it’s .265/.308/.367. Comparatively, Coleman’s career slash line is .269/.330/.333 vs right-handed pitching and .253/.312/.367 vs left-handers.
Unlike Coleman, Brock didn’t originally arrive in the major leagues as a base stealer or leadoff man. He began to develop the skill after he arrived from the Cubs in 1964. According to David Halberstam in his best-selling book, ‘October 1964,’ manager Johnny Keane asked Brock to focus more on base stealing than hitting home runs.
It’s hard, and maybe unfair, to compare eras in baseball. That’s why I would like to see Lou Brock in his prime leading off for Whitey Herzog. Would he have stolen more bases? How would’ve he stacked up to Vince Coleman or even Ricky Henderson?
For Lou Brock, base stealing was a science that he studied over his long and successful career. It was Brock who Ricky Henderson learned from and studied over his own record-setting career.
Either way, you couldn’t have gone wrong with Lou Brock or Vince Coleman as your leadoff man. Hopefully, the St. Louis Cardinals will find their next Brock or Coleman in 2020.