“Who Are the Ten Greatest Leadoff Hitters of All Time?”
While doing the research for my next ebook on the Baseball Hall of Fame, I worked my way to the career of Rickey Henderson. Acclaimed as the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of the game, I was struck by two thoughts- 1) Is this true?, and 2) If so, then who is the second greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history? Many will say that it is Tim Raines, currently a Hall of Fame candidate. I decided that it would be worth the investment of time to research this question. In doing so, I found a number of interesting points, and decided to turn the research into an article.
After reading through a number of sources, I compiled a list of players cited in one form or another as one of the best leadoff men. The final list contained 36 names. After going over each player’s individual records and batting orders for each year of their career, I broke the group down into four categories, which are:
“Notable Leadoff Hitters Who Were Not Leadoff Hitters”- These are players who were leadoff hitters in the minds of many, but spent so little of their careers being the primary leadoff hitter for their team that it is ludicrous to consider them to be one.
“Notable Leadoff Hitters Who Were Not Very Good at the Job”- These players did spent a significant enough portion of their careers to qualify as primary leadoff hitters, but really had no business topping any batting order.
“Notable Leadoff Hitters Who Fell Short of the Top 10”- These are the also-rans, players who qualified as primary leadoff hitters who were effective, but not quite worthy of being included in the top 10. There were nine of these players, and they are ranked in descending order from #19 to #11.
“The Top 10 Notable Leadoff Hitters”- These are the cream of the crop, and are ranked from #10 down to #1.
The methodology I used was a combination of statistics which I feel indicate the impact a leadoff hitter should have. After some deep reflection on the various statistics available, I decided on the following:
On Base Percentage (OBP) compared to the League Average OBP- A leadoff hitter should get on base more often than the average player- it is one of the images we have of a great leadoff hitter. But how to compare OBP for players from big-hitting eras like the 1930’s and Steroid Era to that of players from an era dominated by pitchers? The solution is to use the league average OBP as a baseline- the more the players’ OBP is above the league average, the better a leadoff hitting candidate he is.
90+ and 100+ Runs Created seasons- Runs Created is a much better stat than Runs Scored, which is heavily influenced by the hitters behind the leadoff man. Runs Created more accurately measures the entire contribution of a player, taking into account everything they do to contribute to creating runs. Some leadoff hitters contribute more than others, so this stat fits in well with this exercise. I chose the 90 and 100 levels as standards to provide a context, since scoring 90 or 100 runs in a season is considered a good year for a leadoff man.
Seasons ranking in the Top 10 in Runs Created in their league- Since Runs Created alone is influenced by era, I wanted a stat which weighed more neutral in comparing players. By looking at how many times a leadoff man broke into the top 10 in Runs Created (very difficult to do for a leadoff man, since all aspects of a players game is measured, giving power hitters just as much credit for a run being scored as a leadoff man), one can see how impactful they were as a leadoff man, regardless of era.
Stolen Base Percentage- Since some leadoff hitters are famous because of their stolen bases, I wanted to make certain that the downside of their running was captured as well. Great base stealers make it 80+% of the time. Anyone leadoff hitter consistently below that mark is costing their team opportunities to score.
To qualify as a “primary leadoff hitter”, a player had to meet one of two criteria:
1) They had to have been the primary leadoff hitter for their team in the majority of their professional seasons, with “primary” being defined as 100 or more games hitting leadoff, or at least hitting leadoff substantially more than any other player in a particular season.
2) They were a primary leadoff hitter in at least 10 seasons.
So there you have it. If you made it this far, I am sure you want to get to the players, so without further ado —
“Notable Leadoff Hitters Who Were Not Leadoff Hitters”
Roberto Alomar- Called out as a leadoff hitter of note by multiple sources, Alomar spent the second-least time in the leadoff role of any player mentioned herein. The only time Alomar spent as the primary leadoff hitter for his team was 49 games at the end of the 2003 season for the Chicago White Sox after being acquired from the New York Mets. Alomar replaced the immortal Tony Graffanino at the top of the White Sox order, and you will notice that Graffanino was not included in this article.
Luke Appling- OK, everyone, if this article does not clear anything else up for you, let it be this- Hall of Famer Luke Appling was never a leadoff hitter! Never was and, since he is long gone, never will be. Yes, he had the stats and attributes of a leadoff man, and would have undoubtedly excelled in the role. But his Chicago White Sox teams were about as bad hitting collection as you will find in the annuals of baseball, so Appling spent most of his time hitting somewhere in the number three-to-number six spot in the order. Appling was never the primary leadoff hitter for any of his teams, and as Yogi Berra would say, you can look it up —
Wade Boggs- Only spent three seasons as the primary leadoff hitter in his career, all for the Boston Red Sox. Why, I frankly don’t know. Boston did use Dwight Evans in the leadoff spot for a part of Boggs’ career, and Dewey Evans was about as good as Boggs at getting on base. I can only surmise that the mis-manager of Boston felt that Evans could get on, thus opening the hole between first and second for the left-handed swinging Boggs to shoot for, thus sending Evans to third on a single. In this scenario, whoever hit behind Boggs can drive Evans in with a sacrifice fly or something. If this was the case, I think the ignorance of this reason is apparent for three reasons- 1) Boggs was much better at hitting to the opposite field than pulling the ball, negating the first-to-third theory; 2) Evans had a ton more power than Boggs, which would have been put to better use with him at the plate and Boggs on first; and 3) When you play in Fenway Park, you don’t play small ball for a run at a time- you play to hang up crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Boggs/Evans has a much better chance of making that happen than Evans/Boggs. Playing small ball in Fenway is bringing a knife to a gunfight, which hitting Boggs second instead of leadoff is. While you could make an argument for hitting Dwight Evans leadoff in front of Boggs, I suppose, you really cannot for using Jerry Remy, Ellis Burks, or Marty Barrett in the role. Out of his three leadoff hitting years, Boggs finished in the top 10 in Runs Created in two of them, placing 8th in 1984, and 2nd in 1989.
Don Buford- A quality leadoff hitter atop the Baltimore Oriole juggernaut of the early ‘Æ'”¹ — “70’s (finished sixth in Runs Created for them in 1971), Buford falls into this category because he only spent the last five years of his career doing that in Baltimore. His first five seasons were spent hitting all over the top and bottom of the order for the Chicago White Sox, who you will see throughout this article proving that they have a vast history of not having a clue how to build a batting order. There are reasons the Pale Hose had historic problems scoring runs, and batting Buford anywhere except leadoff and giving those at-bats to an automatic out like Jim Landis is just one of them.
Rod Carew- A deserving Hall of Famer, Carew looks like he might have been a leadoff hitter, but actually spent only two of his nineteen seasons in the bigs at the top of the batting order. The overwhelming majority of the time, you would find Carew’s name penciled into the second or third spots in the order.
“Sliding” Billy Hamilton– Cited as one of the great leadoff hitters of the pre-historic era of baseball back in the late 1800’s, I could find no record of how often Hamilton actually did hid leadoff and, as you are seeing, the perceptions of where a player hit can differ dramatically from the facts, so I had to leave Hamilton out of consideration for ranking without any verification that he was a leadoff hitter.
Derek Jeter- The Captain has completed 16 seasons in Yankee pinstripes, and only four were spent atop the lineup. Sorry, I just cannot call someone with that record a primary leadoff hitter for a significant part of his career, even though in two of those seasons Jeter finished in the top 10 for Runs Created (8th in 2005, 4th in 2009).
Dick McAuliffe- As a kid growing up outside of Detroit, I remember McAuliffe as the leadoff hitter throughout my childhood for my beloved Detroit Tigers. Well, I guess my childhood only lasted four years, because that is how many seasons McAuliffe was the primary leadoff hitter of his sixteen MLB seasons. McAuliffe did finish sixth in Runs Created in 1968 as a leadoff hitter.
Tim Raines- Whaaaat? How can you say Tim Raines was not a leadoff hitter! His whole Hall of Fame case is built around his being the second-best leadoff hitter of all time. The fact is that, out of 23 major league campaigns, Raines was the primary leadoff hitter for his team in only six of them, with the four that we remember so fondly coming with the Montreal Expos. Now those four seasons as the leadoff man for Montreal were impressive (placing 9th in Runs Created in 1981, 2nd in both 1983 and in 1985)- so impressive, in fact, that the semi-brain trust of the Expos decided that Raines was too good of a hitter to waste leading off. Batting Raines third or fourth, as the Expos did, would have made some sense if they had anyone who could get on base replacing Raines at the top of the order. But you tell me, what difference did it make having guys who got on base once a week like Mitch Webster and Casey Candele batting in front of Raines instead of catcher Mike Fitzgerald and the pitcher? If Montreal really wanted to wake up their offense, they would have left Raines at the leadoff spot and moved the rest of their guys who could hit (Andre Dawson, Tim Wallach, Gary Carter) up a few spots in the order, giving all of them extra at-bats. At least that way the Expos would have good hitters coming up with Raines in scoring position with no outs instead of two. As it is, I just cannot call someone one of baseball’s greatest leadoff hitters when they did so barely 25% of their career.
Mickey Rivers- Remembered as the leadoff hitter for the New York Yankees in the late ‘Æ'”¹ — “70’s, Rivers actually led off for only five of his fifteen major league seasons, and never ranked in the top 10 in Runs Created. And yes, he did throw like a chicken —
Lou Whitaker- The leadoff hitter on the excellent Detroit Tiger clubs of the mid ‘Æ'”¹ — “80’s, “Sweet Lou” partnered with Alan Trammell to kickstart the 1984 World Series winner. Whitaker played nineteen major league seasons, but only led off for five, from 1983-1987. Then Sparky Anderson began to believe his own press that he was a genius, and started trotting out a series of fast guys who could not get on base. It is no coincidence that Whitaker’s run as Tiger leadoff man coincided with the best run of performance in recent memory.
“Notable Leadoff Hitters Who Were Not Very Good at the Job”
Luis Aparicio- Yes, he is a Hall of Famer, and a great deal of his support came from the misconception among the baseball writers who vote that Aparicio was some sort of spark plug at the top of the order. This fallacy can be directly traced to one thing- baseball writers are as infatuated as managers with the notion that the leadoff hitter has to steal lots of bases. Modern statistical analysis proves this to be utterly wrong, but the image is still out there among people who should know better, namely managers and Hall of Fame voters. Aparicio did steal a lot of bases. He also spent eight years as a primary leadoff hitter not getting on base. In those eight seasons, Aparicio never had one where his On Base Percentage was higher than league average- not one. This is the prime reason he never topped the 90+ mark in Runs Created in any year, and why he never once made it into the top 10 in Runs Created. There are a lot of ways a player can create runs, and most of them involve getting on base in some way, shape, or form. Now I ask you- how can a leadoff man be considered good if he doesn’t get on base and create any runs?
Max Bishop- “Camera Eye” Bishop spent ten seasons in the leadoff spot, doing two things- drawing walks and nothing else. Bishop had impressive On Base Percentages every year, which is something you want to see out of a leadoff man. But he had nothing else to offer- he had no power, no speed, and wasn’t much of a hitter. Hence his never breaking into the top 10 in Runs Created. Instead of putting guys like this at the top of the order, a smart manager would bat them eighth in the NL, where he could get on base for the pitcher to bunt over, putting him scoring position for the better hitters coming up. (In today’s AL, you hit Bishop ninth — )
Vince Coleman- Vince Coleman was fast! Vince Coleman stole tons of bases! Vince Coleman had a great nickname (“Vincent Van Go”)! That means Vince Coleman should hit leadoff! Please- Vince Coleman was a horrible leadoff hitter. He had only one year out of ten as a leadoff hitter where he created 90+ runs, and it was his only season with an On Base Percentage over .350. Coleman never ranked in the top 10 in any season in Runs Created, didn’t do anything with the bat other than slap occasional singles, and almost got himself eaten by a mechanized tarp during the 1985 National League Championship Series, which, considering how bad Coleman was as a leadoff hitter, would have to be considered a blessing for the St. Louis Cardinal offense. (They won that series, and lost to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series because their pitching imploded, not because Coleman was hurt.)
Johnny Damon- Currently active, Damon has spent ten years as a leadoff hitter, and built himself quite a reputation, which does not survive intense scrutiny. Damon has posted some big 90+ and 100+ Runs Created seasons (two 90+ers and five 100+ ones), but they all came in the big-hitting Steroid Era, where every team had some sort of Frankenstein behemoths slamming balls into the stratosphere. As a result, Damon- despite those gaudy seasonal numbers- never cracked the top 10 in Runs Created in any MLB campaign. When scoring goes up, everyone’s Runs Created goes up, which is why we have to look at stats like the top 10 to see who were the guys really creating impressive numbers of runs.
Rafael Furcal- He has a pretty big name, but the record doesn’t back it up. Furcal has been a leadoff man in eight seasons, and has never broke into the top 10 in Runs Created. Furcal has one 90+ Runs Created season, and two of 100+. Compare this to Brian Roberts, a contemporary of Furcal whose name comes up later, and you will see who is the better leadoff hitter. But I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that Furcal gets more HOF votes than Roberts when their names hit the ballot —
Otis Nixon- It isn’t fair for me to include Nixon in this section, even though his statistical record fits here. Nixon should have been a great leadoff hitter, and the only reason he was not is because he played for a bunch of idiot managers who could not see how good he was. Nixon got eight years as a leadoff hitter because he was ungodly fast, yet he never managed to break 80 Runs Created in any of those seasons. Why? Because managers never really trusted Otis Nixon. He bounced around teams, and the only reason I can fathom is that Nixon looked weird playing baseball. He was all arms and legs, his entire body was made up of sharp angles, and he ran funny. He didn’t look like a leadoff man, so while he would get gigs as a primary leadoff man, he did not get as many plate appearances as others did, hence his lower numbers. Why am I a big supporter of Otis Nixon? Look at his On Base Percentages- in those eight years, Nixon’s OBP was above league-average every year but one, and that one he was dead-on the average. I am not saying Otis Nixon would have been one of the greatest leadoff men of all time, but if you have an offense that is struggling, wouldn’t you want a guy who gets on base more than most others and could run like Otis Nixon? You ask most baseball fans who Vince Coleman was, and they will know. You ask them about Otis Nixon, and they will think he was Richard Nixon’s brother. But I state the following with firm confidence- Otis Nixon was a better leadoff hitter than Vince Colman (not to mention a better all-around player), and would have posted better numbers than Coleman if some manager had the insight to see what he could actually do. In today’s game, with more awareness of OBP, Nixon would be getting plenty of at bats and creating 80-90 runs a year, easy.
Notable Leadoff Hitters Who Fell Short of the Top 10
19. Bert Campaneris- Campy spent nine years as the primary leadoff hitter for the Kansas City/Oakland A’s, including topping the batting order for their three World Series winners. One would think Campaneris was an igniter, but the record shows otherwise. In those nine years, he had an above-league average On Base Percentage only twice, only got above the 90+ Runs Created mark once, and only once did he rank in the top 10 in Runs Created, finishing 9th in 1968 with 82 (the ultimate year of the pitcher). Don’t get me wrong- Campaneris was a fine player and an excellent defensive shortstop, which was his primary contribution to the Oakland A’s dynasty.
18. Willie Wilson- A nine-year leadoff hitter for the Kansas City Royals, Wilson could run like the proverbial wind- in fact, he may have been the fastest player of his or any other day. (I would have paid good money to see Wilson and Bo Jackson race each other around the bases.) Willie was a solid leadoff hitter early in his career, posting two 90+ and one 100+ Runs Created seasons, and came in 7th in 1980 in Runs Created with a career-high of 117. Then, sometime in the mid-‘Æ'”¹ — “80’s, Wilson simply quit getting on base, and his OBP- which had been above league-average to this point, dropped like a stone below that mark, and his leadoff production suffered. Bill James blames new batting coach Lee May for this, saying that May encouraged Wilson to quit slapping singles and start swinging for the fences. The stats back him up on this, as Wilson turned from a .300 hitter into a .270 batsman. That’s enough for me, and it is too bad, because Wilson could have been a top 10 leadoff hitter if he had kept doing what was working for himself and his team.
17. Ron LeFlore- Forgotten by many (unless you catch reruns of the movie detailing his life, his doing time in prison, and Billy Martin’s discovering him), Leflore was a pretty good leadoff hitter for eight big league seasons. Let me rephrase that- LeFlore was a real good leadoff hitter for four of those years, had one mediocre campaign, and stunk up the joint the other three. Twice placing in the top 10 in Runs Created (10th in 1977 and 2nd in 1978), LeFlore cranked up two 100+ Runs Created seasons and one more of 90+ through a combination of phenomenal speed and double-digit home run power. He got a late start on his baseball career (prison will do that to you) and only played nine total seasons in the bigs. But for a few years there, LeFlore was a dynamic leadoff hitter.
16. Maury Wills- Most sources you find put Wills in the top 10, some in the top 5. Balderdash- Wills is lucky to be in the top 16. If Wilson had kept doing what he did early in his career and LeFlore had got out of the hoosegow a bit earlier, Wills would be hanging out where he deserves to be with Bert Campaneris, as they were very similar players. (Campaneris was better overall). Despite all the hoopla about Wills’ stolen bases, his record shows that stealing bases was pretty much all he did in his ten seasons as a primary leadoff hitter. Looking at his Runs Created record, we see one season of 100+ (1962, his only year of placing in the top 10 in Runs Created with 106, good for 10th place). Wills’ problems were twofold- 1) While his OBP was above league average most the time, it usually was barely above, so he was not on the bases as much as other leadoff hitters, and 2) his stolen base totals were impressive, but his success rate was not, with that big 1962 year his only season above 76%. Wills lost a lot of chances to create runs by being thrown out attempting to steal. But writers cannot get past that 104 stolen base campaign in 1962, and as such consistently overrate Maury Wills as a leadoff hitter. The man he replaced- Junior Gilliam- was better. Wills edges out Wilson on quality, and LeFlore on quantity, of leadoff seasons. But when I say “edges”, I mean by the very thinnest of margins.
15. Davey Lopes- The leadoff man for the Dodger powerhouses of the ‘Æ'”¹ — “70’s, Lopes spent nine years atop the order for the boys in Dodger blue. Lopes had two seasons of 90+ Runs Created, and one more of 100+. That 1979 season of 113 Runs Created put Lopes in 8th place that year. Lopes packed a surprising amount of pop into his little body, was consistently above the league average in OBP, and was a very successful base stealer. In short, he was a much better leadoff hitter than Maury Wills, and baseball fans should know this.
14. Junior Gilliam- The third Dodger leadoff hitter in a row, Gilliam manned that spot in the order for seven of his fourteen years as a Dodger. In those seven years, Gilliam had two of over 90+ Runs Created, and one over 100+. He also had one season in the top 10, finishing 8th with 103 in 1956. As stated before, Gilliam dropped down to the number two slot in the order to make room for Maury Wills. Even though Gilliam was better at that role, the idea would have worked if Wills had spent less time getting thrown out on the basepaths. Wills and Gilliam would have given the Dodgers two above-average OBP guys at the top of their order, opening up more chances for the following hitters to cash them in. The Dodgers always whined about how hard it was to generate offense in their LA home park. It would have been a lot easier if their manager had given Wills the stop sign more often. In fact, since Gilliam was a better leadoff hitter, if they had kept Gilliam in the leadoff spot and put Wills second, then Wills would have had to stay safely on first with Gilliam on second. If Gilliam did not get on and Wills did, then give him the green light. But Wills ran faster than Gilliam, so he got to hit leadoff. That is what passed for offensive logic for the Dodgers at the time. They wanted to blame something for their offensive woes? Blame themselves for the way they set their lineup.
13. Lenny Dykstra- Another 10-year primary leadoff hitter, Dykstra became on on-base machine once he went from the New York Mets to the Philadelphia Phillies. Dykstra had two monster 100+ years of Runs Created, both putting him well into the top 10 in that category for the year (3rd in 1990 with 121, 2nd in 1993 with 142.) His stats are not that gaudy aside from those two campaigns, but that is because Dykstra got hurt- a lot. But when he could play, he led off, and was a disruptive and quality leadoff man.
12. Brian Roberts- Still active, Roberts has ten complete MLB seasons under his belt, eight of them being spent as the primary leadoff hitter for the Baltimore Orioles. A very underrated leadoff hitter, Roberts has four 100+ Runs Created seasons to his credit, with another of 90+ on his resume. Twice finishing in the top 10 in Runs Created (both times 10th, in 2005 and 2008), the record shows Roberts as a quality OPB guy who is usually way above the league average percentage and is a very successful base stealer. Add in a high number of doubles and low double figure home run power and you have a quality leadoff hitter, even if his Runs Created numbers are bit inflated by his era.
11. Chuck Knoblauch- Meet Mr. Bubble Boy, as Knoblauch is the guy who just fell outside of the top 10 leadoff hitters of all time. A nine-year primary leadoff hitter for the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees, Knoblauch was on on-base demon for the first seven of those years. Knoblauch also created bunches of runs, posting four years of 100+ and one more of 90+ Runs Created. Yeah, those numbers are pumped by the era (late ‘Æ'”¹ — “90’s/early ‘Æ'”¹ — “00’s) in which he played, but Knoblauch could swing the stick. Placing in the top 10 in Runs Created twice (1995-9th with 115 and 1996- 7th with 147), Knoblauch could create runs with his bat and his speed. A couple more high quality seasons or a few more good ones for quantity’s sake would have put Knoblauch in the top 10.
The Top 10 Notable Leadoff Hitters
10. Kenny Lofton- Sitting atop the order for a bit over 12 Æ”’½ seasons, Lofton posted some big Runs Created seasons, with four topping the 100+ Runs Created mark, and another three coming in at 90+. Even with all those big numbers, Lofton only cracked the top 10 list for Runs Created once, coming in 4th in 1994 with 111. Despite this, for the longevity and solid quality of his performance in the role (only one seasons below the league average in OBP as a primary leadoff hitter), Lofton breaks into the top 10 at the tenth spot.
9. Craig Biggio- A lifelong Houston Astro, Biggio spent nine years leading their attack from the top spot. Why he was not their leadoff hitter in more seasons is beyond me. Look at his numbers at that place in the order- six seasons of 100+ Runs Created, two more of 90+, and finishing in the top 10 in Runs Created twice (1997- 5th with 148; 1998- 4th with 142.) The two preceding years, when the Astros so-called manager moved Biggio out of the leadoff spot, he still managed to break into the top 10 in Runs Created as well. A solid source of doubles power, Biggio could also reach the seats. So why wasn’t Biggio the primary leadoff hitter every season? Because he wasn’t exceptionally fast, and as we all know, you have to be faster than a speeding bullet to hit leadoff. So Biggio (career OBP- .363) would be shuttled out of the leadoff spot in order to get “real leadoff hitters” like Brian Hunter (.313), James Mouton (.328), and Wily Tavaras (.320), atop the order. These guys should not have even been on their roster, let alone hitting leadoff instead of Biggio. And to think that Houston had Kenny Lofton (#10 on this list) at the same time and relative age as Biggio. (They dealt Lofton to Cleveland along with Dave Rohde for pitcher Willie Blair and catcher Ed Taubensee. Nice move, Houston- what, you couldn’t get Cleveland to at least throw in a couple of buckets of balls?) Imagine if Houston had came to their senses, kept Lofton, tossed out the scrap they were slotting in at leadoff, and hit Lofton and Biggio #1 and #2 in front of Bagwell and the boys? That offense would have scored runs like nobody’s business, the stands would have been packed, and every pitcher in the league would have wanted to play for the Astros. But that is way too much wisdom to expect from a team which moved Biggio out of the leadoff spot for those other yokels in the first palce. As it is, those lost seasons cost Biggio a few spots on this list, but he still makes it in a #9.
8. Brett Butler- Leading off for twelve seasons, Butler is often misremembered as a leadoff hitter. Despite having good stolen base numbers, he wasn’t particularly good at stealing bases- sort of like Maury Wills. Unlike the Dodger shortstop, Butler actually understood what a leadoff hitter was supposed to do, which is to get on base. An outstanding OBP guy, Butler was above league average every one of his twelve leadoff seasons, and well above the average in every season but one while leading off. Along with a great batting eye, Butler was one of the most accomplished players of recent years at bunting for base hits. By doing everything he could to get on base, Butler created a boatload of runs, with four 90+ and two 100+ seasons of Runs Created (done in an offense-neutral era. I figure he would have had four 90+ and six 100+ if he had played in the late ‘Æ'”¹ — “90’s and early ‘Æ'”¹ — “00’s — ) Three times in the top 10 for Runs Created (9th with 99 RC in 1988, 6th with 108 RC in 1990, and 10th with 96 RC in 1994), Butler is usually neglected in the conversation regarding great leadoff hitters. He shouldn’t be- by my factoring, Brett Butler is the eighth greatest leadoff hitter ever.
7. Lou Brock- Another 12-year veteran of being a primary leadoff hitter, Brock is usually included in the discussion of who were baseball greatest leadoff hitters, and deservedly so. But forget about the steals (which is why he is normally mentioned in that debate). Brock earns his spot for his top-flight ability to create runs. How did he do so? Well, it wasn’t his ability to get on base- Brock was a good, but not necessarily great, OBP guy. He was good on the bases, but again, not great- his stolen base percentage hovered just below 80% most of the time. What people overlook concerning Lou Brock was that he could really hit. Brock had a career batting average of .293 (and that is with playing through the entire “Pitchers Era” of the ‘Æ'”¹ — “60’s), and put up huge numbers of extra base hits (Brock could reach the seats, and he ranks 66th in career doubles and 63rd in career triples). Combine these numbers with good/very good on base and stolen base percentages, and you have a recipe for creating runs, which is what Brock did- five 100+ and four 90+ Runs Created seasons, and placing in the top 10 in RC’s three times (1967- 106 RC, good for 7th, 1968- 98 RC, good for 6th, and 1971- 114 RC, good for 5th). Remembered as a leadoff hitter for one thing he only did well at, Brock is forgotten for all of the things he did very well. Not by me, and I will put Lou Brock at #7 on this list.
6. Richie Ashburn- Spending almost all of his nine years as a primary leadoff hitter with the Philadelphia Phillies, Ashburn stocked up some pretty nice leadoff numbers. Relying on his outstanding ability to get on base (above league average OBP each of those nine seasons, and very much above league average in eight of the nine), Ashburn cracked the top 10 in Runs Created four times- 1955 (11th, 111 RC), 1956 (9th, 101 RC), 1958 (3rd, 129, and 1960 (9th, 91 RC). A .300 career hitter, Ashburn lacked the extra base punch of a Lou Brock, but made up for that with his high walk total, putting him in a position to create tons of runs- and in the 6th position overall as a leadoff man.
5. Earle Combs- Only was a leadoff hitter for seven of his twelve seasons, but what numbers he put up over that time! Filling the leadoff spot for the “Murderer’s Row” Yankee teams, Combs had five 100+ Runs Created seasons, and just missed a sixth (99 RC in 1931). This was good enough to get Combs into the top 10 in Runs Created four times in those seven years, placing 4th in 1927 (137 RC), 5th in 1928 (111 RC), 10th in 1929 (113 RC), 9th in 1932 (106 RC- and in 1925, Combs placed 9th with 109 RC not hitting leadoff.) When I first saw his numbers, I suspected that Combs’ stats were overhyped by his era and teammates. Upon further research, I discovered Combs’ outstanding performance in being in the top 10 in Runs Created in his league, and that the guys who preceded and followed Combs in the leadoff spot did nowhere near as well. After considering this, I decided that, while having Ruth and Gehrig hitting in your lineup sure helps to create runs, it also helps to have a leadoff hitter whose on-base percentage was usually 50-75 points higher than the league average. I have to think the opposing pitchers recognized this as well, and worked Combs as hard as they could to keep him off the bases for when Lou and the Babe stepped up to the plate. They couldn’t do it, and Combs did more than enough to help that he deserved a spot in the top 10, and his dominance earns him the #5 spot.
4. Paul Molitor- A 13-year primary leadoff hitter for the Milwaukee Brewers whose run came to an end only when he landed on the same roster as Rickey Henderson in Toronto, Molitor had a stellar career in the leadoff spot. Molitor posted six seasons of 100+ Runs Created, five of which cracked the top 10 for that season. (For those of you interested, those years were 1982- 6th/117 RC, 1987- 5th/125 RC, 1988- 8th/112 RC, 1989- 8th/106 RC, and 1991- 3rd, 132 RC). Molitor could do it all as a leadoff hitter- hit for average (career .306 average), hit for power (double figure annual HR, spiked with plenty of doubles and triples), and a solid base stealer (usually around 80%). Anytime you have a leadoff hitter with an OPS above .800, you have something, which Molitor was for 75% of his primary leadoff hitter years. Molitor could have continued his HOF-level performance at the top of the order for a few more years, at least, but he was moved down to the third spot when he went to Toronto, as Rickey Henderson took over the leadoff role. That says a lot about how good Henderson was in that role; it also says a lot about how good of a hitter overall Paul Molitor was. An easy choice for the #4 spot on the list.
3. Ichiro Suzuki- Currently in his 11th season as a primary leadoff hitter for the Seattle Mariners, his first ten seasons rank right there with the best in the history of the game. How are these for numbers- nine 100+ RC seasons, with the other being 90+. Four of the ten years have been top ten campaigns- 2001 (9th, 127 RC), 2004 (2nd, 137 RC), 2007 (8th, 121 RC), and 2009 (7th, 118 RC). Ichiro’s OBP has never been less than 25 points above the league average (with a high of 80 points better in 2004), and he topped the 80% success rate in steals in seven of those ten years. Ichiro may not walk much, but he makes up for it by being the best batsman in the game since Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn, sporting a current career batting average of .328. His speed makes for a good amount of triples, adding to his ability to create runs. It was a very tough call for the #3 spot between Ichiro and Paul Molitor. I gave Ichiro the edge because- even cutting his numbers some for his era- his Runs Created season totals for 90+ and 100+ RC would be huge, and Ichiro has stayed healthy, something Molitor had problems doing. I will keep Ichiro Suzuki here as the third best leadoff hitter of all time.
2. Pete Rose- Why do people forget about Pete Rose when discussing leadoff hitters? I know he was slow, chunky, and has been banished from the game by the powers that be. But, man, just look at the record! Rose was the primary leadoff man for 13 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds. He led off for two years, was moved out of the spot for three years, then returned to the leadoff spot in 1968. For the next eleven years, Rose crafted a record that is simply incredible. In each of those eleven seasons Rose topped the 100+ Runs Created mark, the longest streak ever for a leadoff hitter. All eleven of those years, Rose ranked in the top 10 in Runs Created league-wide, including leading the NL in Runs Created in 1968 with 113. Read that again– eleven straight years in the top 10 in Runs Created from the leadoff spot! Rose finished second in Runs Created in 1969 (138) and1976 (123), and third in 1975 (120), along with two 5th place finishes (1972 and 1973), a 7th in 1970, three 8th place finishes (1974, 1977, and 1978), and a 10th place finish in 1971. (These do not include Rose’s three other top 10 finishes when he was not leading off in 1965, 1979, and 1981). Rose was able to dominate the leadoff position due to his extraordinary ability to hit. He just piled up doubles and triples, spiced with the occasional big fly. Simply an on-base monster, Rose was only under the league average for OBP once, during his second year as a leadoff hitter. Starting when he returned to his natural home, the least Rose exceeded the league average in OBP was 40 points, and he had three seasons where he topped the league average by a ridiculous 90 points. No, Rose was not a base stealer and yes, he was terrible at it when he tried. But no one took more extra bases than Pete Rose, and he could create runs by scoring or driving them in, as his RBI counts are very good for a leadoff hitter in the NL. There are only two legitimate candidates for the title of “Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time”, and Pete Rose is one of them.
1. Rickey Henderson- Common baseball wisdom is that Rickey Henderson is the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, and by a wide margin. Let’s see if that wisdom is sound:
– Longevity: Henderson spent 23 seasons as a primary leadoff hitter for a number of teams, almost doubling the next highest total of any player.
100+ Runs Created seasons: 10, one behind Pete Rose for first place among leadoff hitters.
90+ Runs Created Seasons: 5, giving Henderson 15 total seasons of creating more than 90+ runs, which is the most among leadoff hitters.
Top 10 in Runs Created in His League: Nine times, trailing only Pete Rose’s 11. Rickey led the AL in Runs Created in 1990 with 137, joining Rose as the only primary leadoff hitter ever to do so.
On Base Percentage: 23 seasons, each one above the league average in OBP. Five seasons of more than 90 points better than the league average, and two seasons (1992 and 1993) of 100+ points better. No leadoff hitter comes close to this performance.
Steals- C’mon, he’s Rickey! You know the story —
So it looks like Rickey Henderson is indeed the no-brainer call as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history — but hold the phone, Mabel. There is one argument I can see where you might pick someone else, and that argument is represented by Pete Rose. While Henderson’s numbers are awesome, Rose did throw together a magnificent eleven year run, so we cannot dismiss the possibility that he-and not Rickey- is the greatest leadoff hitter ever. How can that be? Henderson is the prototype for a leadoff man, Rose is, well, not. Let’s identify their strengths:
Henderson- OBP, speed.
Rose- Ability to hit.
And here lies the answer- it all depends on the type of team you have. If you have a team like many of those that Rickey Henderson led off for, one with a lightweight hitting at the bottom of the order (Walt Weiss and his .300-.310 OBP while in Oakland, for example), you would want Henderson as your leadoff guy. He gets on base more than anybody, and even if there are two outs, a steal puts him in scoring position. Rickey makes up for having a bad-hitting bottom of the order.
Now, what if you have a better hitting #8 guy- say, Dave Concepcion (he of the .325-.340 OBP)? Here is a #8 hitter getting on base a third of the time in front of the pitcher. In this case, you want the pitcher to bunt him into scoring position, and so you need a leadoff hitter who can hit well enough to drive him in- and Pete Rose is perfect for that. He was a much better hitter than Henderson (about a 30 point difference in batting average), so Rose was much more likely to get that run home than Henderson.
When you create a list like this, you have to choose a number one, so I will pick Rickey Henderson as the greatest leadoff hitter of all time, with Pete Rose a very close second. I give Henderson the edge because of longevity in the role- he and Pete Rose were about equal in greatness at the leadoff spot, but Rickey was great at it longer, so he gets the nod.
Tim Johnson is a historian and author of the ebook, “Who Da Man? The Quintessential Analysis of the History of the NBA Draft 1947-2010”, available at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and the Apple IBookstore.