It is one of the most unique positions in baseball, being the first batter of the game. They have to be able to take pitches, so that their teammates can see what kind of ‘stuff’ the pitcher has. They need speed. They need to be able to get on base and score runs, and a little power never hurt. They are usually the catalyst and set the table for the big hitters. They are often the most important hitters in the line up, even if they aren’t the most celebrated. There have been many great leadoff hitters and they’ve all done it in different ways for their teams. These are the best of the bunch.
14. Wade Boggs
The greatest third baseman in Red Sox history was certainly a baseball great and one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen The reason Boggs isn’t higher on this list is that he was never the prototypical leadoff hitter. To start, he was slower than molasses and he wasn’t even always a leadoff hitter. Despite spending a large portion of his career batting in the first spot in the lineup, he was far more suited as a number two hitter – where he also hit – and even batted in the three slot, despite his lack of power. One thing Boggs excelled at was getting on base, which is imperative for a leadoff hitter. He had seven straight 200 hit seasons, four straight 200 hit/100 base on balls seasons, scored at least 100 runs in seven straight seasons, and led the American League in on-base percentage six times, with five of them being consecutively. Again, not prototypical, but he got on base and scored runs.
13. Maury Wills
It’s been said that speed kills, and Wills (pictured right, below) is living proof. He was great in the leadoff spot mainly due to his speed, evidenced by the fact he lead the National League in stolen bases in six consecutive seasons. In two of those seasons, he had over 90 base thefts. Not to mention he is only one of four players – Lou Brock, Rickey Henderson, and Vince Coleman being the others – to swipe over 100 bases in a season. Although his numbers may pale in comparison to other leadoff hitters, it should be noted that he didn’t have the luxury of playing with a great offence, as the Dodgers teams of the 1960’s were predicated on pitching with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Still, Wills was able to pick up the 1962 NL MVP.
12. Chuck Knoblauch
The opposite of Boggs, he began his career as a number two hitter for the Minnesota Twins in 1991 and then morphed into a leadoff hitter, and a very good one. While he helped the Twins to the 1991 World Series title while batting second, he batted leadoff on a New York Yankees teams that three-peated from 1998-2000. In his short 12 year career, he scored 100 runs six times and stole over 400 bases. He was the type of player who would do whatever he had to do too help his team win. Four rings in 12 years isn’t that bad.
11. Kenny Lofton
In 1992, Kenny Lofton was upset in the Rookie of the Year voting, finishing second to the Milwaukee Brewer shortstop Pat Listach. But that made him realize he had to be better. He was. Lofton led the American League in stolen bases from 1992-96 and scored 100 runs or better in a season six times. His career numbers would have been better, but injuries seem to plague him during the second half of his career. Like Knoblauch, he was great at helping his teams win, as from 1995-2007 the teams he played for only missed the postseason twice – in 2000 and 2005.
10. Earle Combs
He was one of the lesser known players of the legendary 1927 New York Yankees, more commonly known as “Murderers’ Row.” He does have two strikes going against him though. First, he played during the offensive surge of the 1920s and 1930s. And two, he batted leadoff on a team that had Babe Ruth batting third and Lou Gehrig hitting clean up. Almost anyone would have great stats in his position. Regardless, Combs had a career .325 average in his 11 full seasons, had an onbase percentage of over .400 six times, and never scored fewer than 113 runs from 1925-32. Ruth and Gehrig definitely helped but Combs held his own.
9. Bobby Bonds
Similar to Boggs, Bobby Bonds would be higher on this list except the fact he spent part of his career batting in the third spot. He would be more known – even in the baseball world – if his son wasn’t none other than Barry Bonds. What made him great for the leadoff spot was his ability to combine power and speed. He had six different 30 homerun seasons, four other 20 homerun seasons, seven 40 stolen base seasons, and five 30 homer/30 steal seasons all exemplify that. Add to that his 35 career leadoff home runs and he would be great, except for his .268 lifetime batting average, single season high onbase percentage of .375, and nine seasons of more than 130 strikeouts. Not great for the leadoff spot. But still good enough for #9 on the list.
8. Max Carey
While he only hit .300 five times and had an onbase percentage of over .400 just twice, the Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder made the most of his opportunities when he did get on base. He retired with a National League record 738 steals – which is currently 9th all time – and led the NL in steals in 10 different seasons, scored 1,545 career runs, and hit 159 career triples. He also stole home 33 times, which is second all-time to only Ty Cobb (who did it 50 times) and he led the Pirates to the 1925 World Series. Outside of Western Pennsylvania, he is not really well known. Other Pirate greats – Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente, and Willie Stargell – get most of the notoriety, and rightfully so. But Carey should also get his due.
7. Billy Hamilton
Although he played before the modern era of baseball (1901-present), when the game was an offensively unorganized sport, he has to be mentioned. Why? Because even though his numbers may be ballooned by the era he played in, they are also so far superior to his contemporaries. He has to make this list. In his 13 full seasons, he scored 100 runs eleven times, including eight of 130 or better, and four straight with 150 or better. He stole 100 bases four times, three coming in consecutive seasons – he also had a 97 steal season. He had a lifetime onbase percentage of .455, while leading the National League five times in that category. We have to give respect where respect is due.
6. Lou Brock
Ironically, his career started out quite ‘slow’ with the Chicago Cubs, but things turned around for this speedster when he was dealt to St. Louis. He retired with the career and single season stolen base records, which have since been broken by someone who will appear later on this list. He led the National League in that same category eight times in a nine year span. He also picked up 3,023 hits in his career, four 200 hit seasons, and was outstanding in the World Series. In three trips to the Fall Classic, Brock had a .391 average – including two Series where he hit over .400. In addition, he had 34 hits, four home runs, drove in 13 runs, scored 16 runs, and stole 14 bags in 21 career World Series games.
5. Craig Biggio
One half of Houston’s ‘Killer B’s’ put together one hell of a stellar career down in the Lone Star State. He holds the National League record with 53 career home runs leading off a game, which is third all-time. He picked up 3,060 hits, 291 home runs (including eight seasons with 20 or better), 668 doubles, scored 1,844 runs, and 414 steals. He is one of only two players – Tris Speaker being the other in 1912 – to hit 50 doubles and steal 50 bases in the same season, which he accomplished in 1998. If he played in a bigger baseball market than he did in Houston, or if the Astros made more appearances in the post season, then Biggio would probably be more appreciated. He gets some love here on SportsBreak, with the #5 position.
4. Ichiro Suzuki
If only he had played his entire professional career in the Major Leagues, what could have been? Despite not stepping onto an MLB field until he was 27 years old, Ichirio was simply outstanding. This hitting machine batted over .300 in his first ten seasons in the Bigs, scored over 100 runs in his first eight, and collected at least 200 hits in his first ten, including setting the single season record of 262 in 2004. The 2001 American League MVP and Rookie of the Year also swiped over 40 bases five times. At 42-years old, Ichiro hung around the league long enough to knock his milestone 3,000th hit, to go alone with 507 stolen bases and 1,379 runs scored. And did we mention he played his first MLB game at 27? If you count his years playing professional baseball in Japan, he has the most hits of anyone in pro baseball history.
3. Pete Rose
Even though his skill set would be more suited to a #2 hitter, we just can’t deny Charlie Hustle. The career hits leader with 4,256, he also scored 2,165 runs (fifth all time), hit 724 doubles (second all time), and drew 1,566 walks. He won two batting titles, hit over .300 fifteen times, won three World Series, was the 1973 National League and 1975 World Series MVP, and did the majority of his damage from the leadoff spot. So can we stop with the nonsense and just put him in the Hall of Fame?
2. Tim Raines
This guy should get more notoriety and he would except for the fact that he was overshadowed by playing in the same era as the #1 player on this list. Tim ‘The Rock’ Raines had speed: 808 career thefts and is the only player in history with at least 70 stolen bases in six straight seasons, while leading the National League consecutively in four of those. He was a fine hitter as well, and won the 1986 NL Batting title. He also hit over .300 six different times. Unlike some others on this list, he also added a little power with double digit home run seasons seven times. Throw in six seasons of 100 or more runs scored, and you have a very complete leadoff hitter. But not quite the best.
1. Rickey Henderson
What’s that? You knew who it would be? Really, who else would it be? If God was to design the perfect leadoff hitter, he would look an awful lot like Rickey Henderson. Hit for average? He did: seven .300 seasons. Hit for power? He did: 297 career home runs and a record 81 leading off a game. Gets on base? He did that too: 3,055 career hits, 2,190 career walks (second all time), with seven 100 base-on-ball seasons and 15 more with at least a .400 onbase percentage, not to mention three more at .394 or better. When he gets on base, he runs. Do we really need to talk about his stolen base repertoire? And scoring runs? Yet again, he did: his 2,295 are first all-time, plus 13 seasons with at least 100 runs and led the American League five times. He was the 1989 ALCS MVP, 1990 AL MVP, and quite simply the greatest leadoff hitter to walk on planet earth.