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The Best Leadoff Hitter(s) Ever

Billy Hamilton---Runs: Signed, sealed, delivered

Billy Hamilton—Runs: Signed, sealed, delivered

Who’s the best leadoff hitter ever? Rickey Henderson. We all know it. He batted first 2,875 times among his 3,081 games played, or 93% of the time (per BBREF’s career splits). He got on base at a .401 clip, and he stole 1,406 bases. Amazing.

Scratch the surface of that leadoff question, however, and we find some unknowns:

  • Who are the other candidates for the title of best leadoff hitter ever?
  • Who did Rickey replace as the best?
  • Who are the best right now?

We can answer a lot of these questions effectively, and, because we don’t have batting-order information before 1914, some merely pretty well.

From the top

So who else was (or is) a great leadoff hitter? As the first paragraph suggests, there are three qualifications:

  1. you have to be a leadoff hitter, which I’m going to define as spending more than half your career leading off
  2. you have to be awesome at getting on base (aka: have a high OBP)
  3. preferably you should also be a very fast, effective base runner so that you can score easily as the heart of the order hits behind you.

The leadoff man represents the most important lineup decision a manager faces because most runs score in the first inning, the only inning in which a team is guaranteed that its lineup dynamic can work.

I used BBREF’s splits play index to generate a ranked list of who led off the most times (going to back to 1914, remember). I then filtered that list by WAR’s batting and base running values and took only hitters with positive value in both. For batters before 1914, I sorted by steals, then went season by season to see who led their team in plate appearances per game for 50% or more of their seasons.

Here’s everyone who led off 80% of the time or more since 1914 and had positive value in batting and running:

NAME           %LED_OFF
==========================
Ron LeFlore       95%
Rickey Henderson  93%
Denard Span*      93%
Jose Reyes*       88%
Lenny Dykstra     86%
Austin Jackson*   85%
Shannon Stewart   84%
Brett Butler      83%
Eddie Yost        82%
Bob Dilinger      82%
Kenny Lofton      81%
Brian Roberts     80%
*=Active

If you knew that Ron LeFlore would beat Rickey in percentage of games led off, then I want you on my baseball trivia team. Also, I would have put money on Lou Brock making this list. Nope, he led off in only 72% of games. Tim Raines? Just 56%. In case you were wondering, Bobby Bonds, owner of the leadoff home run record prior to Rickey, led off just 49% of the time

Some other important leadoff men: Ichiro (79%), Chuck Knoblauch (79%), Davey Lopes (66%), Pete Rose (65%), Richie Ashburn (64%), Johnny Damon (63%), Paul Molitor (59%), Craig Biggio (55%), and others.

So how about the great leadoff hitters of the pre-1914 era? Billy Hamilton and Dummy Hoy may be the two who best fit the criteria. You expected, Cobb, Lajoie, Collins? Nope, those guys, even Cobb who used to hold the steals record, usually hit second, third, or fourth in the order. It surprised me to learn that even Max Carey only led off about a third of the time. I will disclaim one thing, however. I don’t entirely trust BBREF’s base running values before the play-by-play era (about 1945). They base them on regression analysis, but I’m a little skeptical. Leadoff hitters like Wee Willie Keeler, Harry Hooper, and George Gore all score negatively in base running, and something there feels a little off. Someday soon I hope we will have that information and revise this list accordingly.

You’re tops!

These are the top 10 candidates for greatest leadoff hitter ever. Plus a few other famous or interesting leadoff hitters, and the best active guys. I clipped off a few (like Bob Dillinger, Shannon Stewart, Brian Roberts, and Austin Jackson) who weren’t too great and didn’t hold my interest.

                 %LED
NAME              OFF   PA    OBP    SB     SB%   RBAT RBASER 
==============================================================
Top-10
Rickey Henderson  93%  13346  .401  1406   80.1%   555  144
Billy Hamilton    N/A   7608  .455   914    N/A    501   53
Paul Molitor      59%  12167  .369   504   79.4%   352   78
Tim Raines        56%  10359  .385   808   84.7%   292  115
Pete Rose         65%  15890  .375   198   57.1%   368   12
Craig Biggio      55%  12504  .363   414   77.0%   257   54
Brett Butler      83%   9545  .377   558   68.5%   188   37
Kenny Lofton      81%   9235  .372   622   79.5%   140   78
Lou Brock         72%  11240  .343   938   75.3%   121   78
 
Interesting/famous
Lenny Dykstra     86%   5282  .375   285   79.8%   133   46
Eddie Yost        82%   9175  .394    72   52.2%   184    7
Chuck Knoblauch   79%   7387  .378   407   77.7%   106   43
Davey Lopes       66%   7340  .349   557   83.0%    86   83
Johnny Damon      63%  10917  .352   408   79.8%    93   77
Ron LeFlore       95%   4872  .342   455   76.2%    48   52
Richie Ashburn    64%   9736  .396   234   68.2%   197    8
Dummy Hoy         N/A   8385  .386   596    N/A    178   15
 
Active
Ichiro Suzuki     79%   9764  .359   490   81.4%   115   62
Jose Reyes        88%   6696  .340   458   80.5%    65   51

RBAT and RBASER are the number of runs above average in batting and running that BBREF reports, aka: the sorting filter I used draw up the list.

Let’s break this down into getting on base and motoring around them once on. Here’s the difference in OBP between each of these guys and a league average player in their ballpark (expressed in the same way as OPS+) and the number of additional times they reached base than average.

                                          ADD’L
NAME               PA    OBP  lgOBP  OBP+  TOB
================================================
Top-10
Billy Hamilton    7608  .455  .354   129   768
Rickey Henderson 13346  .401  .327   123   988
Tim Raines       10359  .385  .331   116   559
Brett Butler      9545  .377  .327   115   477
Pete Rose        15890  .375  .331   113   699
Paul Molitor     12167  .369  .331   111   462
Kenny Lofton      9235  .372  .342   109   277
Craig Biggio     12504  .363  .336   108   338
Lou Brock        11240  .343  .330   104   146
 
Interesting/famous
Richie Ashburn    9736  .396  .337   118   574
Eddie Yost        9175  .394  .343   115   468
Lenny Dykstra     5282  .375  .329   114   243
Chuck Knoblauch   7387  .378  .341   111   273
Dummy Hoy         8385  .386  .348   111   319
Davey Lopes       7340  .349  .328   106   154
Johnny Damon     10917  .352  .339   104   142
Ron LeFlore       4872  .342  .342   104    58
 
Active
Ichiro Suzuki     9764  .359  .325   110   332
Jose Reyes        6696  .340  .331   103    60

On a per plate-appearance average, it’s Billy Hamilton, not Rickey Henderson who is the on-base king among leadoff men. There’s a big gap there before you get down to Ashburn, Raines, Yost, and Butler. Hamilton played in a time of shorter schedules and so couldn’t amass quite as many PAs. But, let’s assemble Rickey’s 7600 or so best OBP+ oriented PAs to match Sliding Billy’s fourteen seasons.

                                        ADD’L
NAME              PA   OBP  lgOBP  OBP+  TOB
==============================================
Top-14 Seasons
Rickey Henderson 7742  .415  .322  129   718
Billy Hamilton   7608  .455  .354  129   768

Henderson catches up in relative OBP, but he doesn’t quite catch up in the raw times on base despite 140 more plate appearances. Hamilton retains a slight advantage when it comes to demonstrating on-base ability. If you want to tell me that Rickey played during a more difficult period in history, you won’t hear dissent from these quarters. Call ‘em tied in this ability if you want. It’s fine. But in this department, Rickey does have a match or a better among our pool of leadoff men.

Run for it!

Now what about once on the bases? Here we’re on slightly shakier ground since detailed information isn’t available for all of history. And also, BBREF doesn’t make this easily queryable at the league level for a given player’s career, so we’ll turn to WAR’s base running values. There’s a bunch of unfamiliar stats here:

  • TOB: Times on Base
  • PKO: Pickoffs
  • XBT: Extra Bases Taken (e.g. going first to third)
  • XBT%: Percentage of times a player takes the extra base
  • OOB: Outs on Base (outs made attempting to gain an extra base)
  • BASES/TOB: A junk stat I just made up that tells us how many positive events a player created on the bases, net of the outs he ran into, per times on bae
  • RBASWER/200: Another junk stat I made up that returns the Base running runs per 200 times on base (which is around a season’s playing time)
                                                   BASES/        RBASER/
NAME             TOB*   SB  CS  PKO XBT  XBT%  OOB  TOB   RBASER  200
========================================================================
Top-10
Rickey Henderson 4989 1406  335 161  820  55%  105  .33    144    5.8
Lou Brock        3543  938  307  66  602  53%  138  .29     78    4.4
Kenny Lofton     3159  622  160  53  599  55%   97  .29     78    5.0
Tim Raines       3694  808  146  51  539  50%   75  .29    115    6.2
Billy Hamilton   3517  914                          .26     53    3.0
Brett Butler     3357  558  257  61  599  54%   72  .23     37    2.2
Paul Molitor     4112  504  131  23  679  48%   99  .23     78    3.8
Craig Biggio     4159  414  124  29  616  45%  125  .18     54    2.6
Pete Rose        5634  198  149  14  953  49%  180  .14     12    0.4
 
Interesting/famous
Ron LeFlore      1547  455  142  42  278  61%   51  .32     52    6.7
Davey Lopes      2330  557  114  41  393  53%   41  .32     83    7.1
Lenny Dykstra    1845  285   72  18  289  50%   42  .24     46    5.0
Chuck Knoblauch  2816  407  117  44  456  50%   62  .23     43    3.1
Johnny Damon     3478  408  103  16  583  48%   89  .23     77    4.4
Dummy Hoy        3027  596                          .20     15    1.0
Richie Ashburn   3677  234  113  52  644  52%  100  .17      8    0.4
Eddie Yost       3381   72   66  14  546  47%   66  .14      6    0.4
 
Active
Jose Reyes       2040  458  111  55  323  51%   83  .26     51    5.0
Ichiro Suzuki    3295  489  112  28  464  41%   80  .22     62    3.8
*H + BB + HPB – HR – 3B
^Includes unofficial PBP CS from BBREF for years with no official CS data

Nobody tops Rickey when it comes to creating positive base running events. This way of looking at things is, however, subject to some contextual issues such as how the batters behind the player perform (which itself is subject to park effects), the run environment, and even the base-running norms of the day. That’s where rbaser/200 comes in. It shows us the estimated run value the player generated on a roughly per-season basis. The first one is descriptive, the second analytical.

The biggest surprise here, to me, is Ichiro, who has doesn’t have a tremendous number of outs on base but is clearly the least aggressive base runner at taking extra bases of anyone generally thought of as an elite leadoff hitter. It’s not even close. Is that a Mariners thing or an Ichiro thing? I don’t know, but as the now-old joke goes, he could take those bases if he wanted to.

Another big surprise to me is how poorly Ashburn shows. While his batting is oustanding, his base running looks pretty poor for a guy widely considered to be a great leadoff hitter. So much so that I had to knock him out of my top ten. Strangely, while his stolen base percentage isn’t very good, other aspects of his running game seem OK. Can’t say for sure what’s going on there, and there could be some sort of contextual factor.

Back to the top of the heap, it looks as though Henderson is not necessarily the best base runner among the true elites. Tim Raines might be that guy. Raines was on base about 1300 fewer times thanks to Rickey’s playing 579 more games. So let’s take Rickey’s 2500 or so best games in terms of base running and compare to all of Raines’ 2506 games (meaning we will cut out 1979, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2003).

                                                     BASES/        RBASER/
NAME              TOB*   SB   CS  PKO  XBT  XBT% OOB  TOB   RBASER  200
==========================================================================
Rickey Henderson 3464  1256  283  126  700  55%   83  .42    148    8.5
Tim Raines       3694   808  146   51  539  50%   75  .29    115    6.2

Yeah, Rickey’s very much da man. He would look even better when we peeled off more seasons to compare with the amazing Davey Lopes (who maybe does deserve some credit for the base running exploits of the late-aughts Phillies that he coached for) and the unheralded Ron LeFlore.

Now it’s very hard to say much about Hamilton and Hoy as base runners. At the very least, from 1892 to 1897, steals were recorded when the runner took extra bases on a batted ball (e.g. going first to third). Some sources, such as Total Baseball, have less certainty and suggest that as early as 1886 (when steals first became official statistics) they comprised more base running feats than modern steals do. Regardless, Hamilton topped 100 four times, led his league 5 times, placed in the top-five three other times, and finished sixth in yet another season. Until we know a lot more about him, God willing that time comes, we can’t say much. Except this context-dripping piece of information: Hamilton scored an astonishing 1.06 runs per game. That’s more than any player with 700 or more career runs scored or more than 600 career games. In fact, he’s one of only three men with substantial careers (George Gore and Harry Stovey the others) to score more than one per game.*

*There are 164 such players in all of big league history, at least that’s how many I found using BBREF’s play index. Among them 77 scored just one run, another 51 scored fewer than 10 runs, and 23 scored fewer than 100. After Hamilton, Gore, and Stovey the rest of the remaining 13 were all National Association players. While one Jimmy Wood scored 1.59 runs per game, he only played 102 times. Ross Barnes at 1.40 runs per game is my vote for the kingpin among the NA guys with 698 runs in 499 contests, in that wild and crazy NA run environment he scored a cool 1.40 runs per game played.

Coming Home

So Rickey’s the best, of course. I think I’d take Sliding Billy second until proven otherwise. Boy, it sure seems like Tim Raines is the third man here, easily. Another little plank in the argument for why he should be given a plaque. After that, it’s probably Molitor or Lofton, but it’s not an easy call like the top three are. No active player appears to be coming along to take their place either. Ichiro should ultimately make the top 10, but he’s more like Lou Brock and won’t challenge Rickey, Billy, and Raines. Of course, as mentioned, an influx of new data could cause a revision to this list, and I hope it does. It’s more fun that way. Maybe we’ll see the George Gores or Harry Hoopers or George J. Burnses elbow their way into the mix once we really know what they were doing on the bases. For now, though, this is what we can do.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “The Best Leadoff Hitter(s) Ever

  1. Like the way you establish your criteria and understand context. Very nice piece.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | May 18, 2015, 8:31 am

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