Who’s the Best Leadoff Hitter in Baseball?

Call me old fashioned, but I love good, well-executed small ball. I would probably go to the lengths of saying that I prefer it to the blazing fireworks of the long ball. There’s something about a guy stealing second, legging out a double, and going first-to-third that reminds me of why I love the game so much. That’s why, for example, I got more excitement from watching Pujols steal second and then getting knocked in by Ludwick last week against the Cubs than from his no-doubt grand slam blast the very next day (although I rather enjoyed both). That’s also why I love a good leadoff hitter – when they’re good, they’re the epitome of this style of play. This got me thinking: who is the game’s best leadoff hitter right now?

To answer this question, we must first consider a different question: what indicates a good leadoff hitter? Is there a simple metric we can use to assess this distinction? Perhaps the most obvious stat to look at would be on-base percentage. After all, the leadoff hitter is supposed to get on base so that the guys behind him can knock him in, right? In a way, yes, but OBP is hardly the best assessor for quality leadoff batters. In 2008 only six teams (Florida, Cleveland, LA Angels, Kansas City, Seattle and Washington) had leadoff guys who led their team in OBP. The highest OBP over the last three seasons for a leadoff hitter was .379 (H. Ramirez, Sizemore), which was good for 24th best during that span. Many leadoff guys don’t walk all that much, especially when compared to power hitters, which deflates these totals for them and thus renders the stat somewhat moot for comparison.

Let’s see, OBP won’t work for this – what about runs? I mean, isn’t the main job of the leadoff hitter to set the table and score his team’s runs? Again, this is partially true, but it is hardly an indicative stat for which to judge a leadoff man’s success on its own. Much like with OBP, only seven teams (Florida, Detroit, Seattle, Texas, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Washington) had leadoff hitters who led their team in runs (Eight, actually, if you count Baltimore, where Roberts and Markakis were tied.).

So not OBP and not runs. Hey, how about steals? Unlike with OBP and runs, leadoff hitters will almost exclusively be the leaders in this category. The problem with this, however, is that just because this category excludes most other types of players doesn’t make it the best means of assessment for this group. It’s almost like using height as the sole method of recruiting the center for your basketball team, or speed as your only factor for considering a wide receiver (cough, Al Davis, cough). Guys like Juan Pierre, Willy Taveras and Michael Bourn perennially rank among the league’s best base-swipers, but you probably wouldn’t want these guys at the top of your line-up everyday because they don’t actually get on base enough.

Our main problem is that we have yet to identify the main responsibility of a leadoff hitter. Sure, they’re supposed to get on base, score runs and exhibit their speed on the bases, but these are all just components that contribute to a successful leadoff man. A great leadoff hitter is someone who, in my opinion, allows others to easily bring him in. Basically, it’s not enough to simply get on base – you want to be able to put yourself in scoring position on your own ability to make it as easy as possible for the high-average guys hitting immediately behind you to bring you in.

The question then becomes what are the ways in which you can put yourself in scoring position? There are basically three major ways a player can do this on his own (AKA, without any errors or other defensive contributions): hitting a double, hitting a triple and stealing a base. Obviously, there is some defensive involvement with each of these scenarios, but it is at least limited enough to say that the batter is primarily responsible for these outcomes. With this in mind, I developed the following formula to measure a player’s scoring position efficiency (SPE):

2B + 3B + SB


The three scoring position situations are divided by plate appearances minus home runs because this factors in all of the circumstances in which a player can reach first (walks, HBP). It discounts home runs because these are plate appearances that don’t concern these results. There’s no need to detract from a player’s rate because of plate appearances where he drove himself in, but there’s also no reason to count it towards his scoring position efficiency since it doesn’t allow others to bring him in.

Also, I chose not to weigh triples over doubles even though it’s obviously much easier to score from third, especially with nobody out. Likewise, steals of third are not distinguished in any way from steals of second. The idea with this stat was to provide a convenient yet accurate assessment of a player’s ability to give other batters the chance to bring him in with a hit. I say this because while a sac fly will score a run, it won’t ignite an offense like a run driven in as the result of a hit will. In this way this metric also shows how big of a catalyst a player is for his offense.

Here are all the players have at least a 10% SPE over the past three seasons combined:

Player SPE
Jose Reyes 15.9%
Hanley Ramirez 14.1%
Carl Crawford 13.9%
Brian Roberts 13.4%
Jimmy Rollins 13.4%
Juan Pierre 13.3%
Willy Taveras 12.6%
Chone Figgins 12.0%
Eric Byrnes 11.5%
Alex Rios 11.4%
Alfonso Soriano 11.3%
Grady Sizemore 11.1%
Shane Victorino 10.9%
Bobby Abreu 10.3%
Matt Holliday 10.3%
Rafael Furcal 10.1%
Ian Kinsler 10.1%
David Wright 10.0%
Carlos Beltran 10.0%

Keep in mind that this list was not excluded to leadoff hitters, so it’s somewhat significant that it’s dominated by the presence of leadoff guys. It’s not necessarily surprising with the weight of steals, but I think it’s still significant. It’s also important to remember what exactly this means – this isn’t meant to be the ultimate leadoff hitter stat, just a more thorough assessment than just looking at runs or steals.

A few things that stood out to me: I was somewhat surprised to see Pierre and Taveras so high on this list since they’re not very big extra base threats at all. This shows me that such an abundance of steals can sometimes compensate for severe lacking in other areas, but it’s still not enough for me to favor this group of leadoff hitters as a whole. The top five really come as no surprise, as they are generally perceived to be the cream of the crop for this kind of player (even though Crawford isn’t a leadoff hitter for the Rays). I would’ve expected Sizemore and Soriano to be a little higher up, but their more substantial home run numbers hurt them for this particular assessment.

Not to be anti-climactic, but the real purpose of this article was to present a new angle on assessing the quality of a leadoff batter. I think too often people view this spot in the lineup too simplistically and try to put too much importance on one stat, especially in the popularity of fantasy baseball with steals. I’m not saying that this new measure is perfect, but it does look more accurately at what a leadoff batter does on his own to put himself in position to score.

In answering the question, though, I would say that Reyes is the game’s best right now. He’s clearly above everyone in this measure because he has a rare combination of base-stealing speed and instinct as well as gap power. He’s also scored 14.5% of the Mets’ runs over the past three years (which leads the Mets, which has no shortage of run-scorers) – third behind only Hanley Ramirez (15.9%) and Ichiro (14.7%) for their respective teams during that span, but those two played on much lesser offensive teams.


Kincaid said...

Interesting list. I wouldn't take this stat as much more than a supplement to other measures like OBP, but it is definitely another angle to consider. It does still marginalize on base skills and to some extent power skills that are still valuable in the lead-off spot, but it's good for it's simplicity and it's conceptual grounding.

There is a lot more to consider, I think, in asking who is the best lead-off hitter. A fly ball that bounds off the wall is not really better than one that goes over, lead-off hitter or not, and standing on first base 50 extra times will go a long way to producing more runs. You are putting yourself in position to be moved into scoring position with a walk, another hit, a bunt, some ground outs, a wild pitch/passed ball, etc., and that's also important.

In general, the better hitter/offensive weapon (since baserunning also has to be taken into account) will make for the better lead-off hitter, although there are some skills that are more valuable leading off, so in some ways, this comes down to who is the best hitter who happens to bat lead-off, which is Grady Sizemore right now. I've got a stat I've been working on for Lead-off Runs, which basically measures how often a player would be expected to score leading off an inning for a neutral lineup and considers the unique situation of leading off compared to hitting in other situations, and eventually I'll get that up when it's more ready.

Baserunning will probably be a fairly significant part of this, at least in looking only at the lead-off hitters, because these guys are mostly among the best baserunners in the game. I've been debating whether to post a rough draft of my baserunning stats because they aren't park-adjusted yet, but I might post some of the most interesting players at some point.

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