For a long time, managers would put the fastest guy on the team in the leadoff spot everything else be darned. In the last 10-20 years, however, sabermetrics has told us that speed is an overrated quality of a leadoff hitter. Instead, on-base percentage rules. Leadoff hitters come to bat 36% of the time with runners on base compared to 44% of the time for the next lowest lineup spot. The idea is your leadoff hitter should be one of your three best hitters who is least likely to hit a home run and more likely to put the ball in play or get on base. Below is what we believe to be the ten best leadoff hitters of all-time.
Stan Hack (1932-1947)
Matt Carpenter (2011-Present)
Max Bishop (1924-1935)
Earle Combs (1924-1935)
Ichiro Suzuki (2001-Present)
Richie Ashburn (1948-1962)
Wade Boggs (1982-1999)
Pete Rose (1963-1986)
Tim Raines (1979-2002)
Rickey Henderson (1979-2003)
Stan Hack, often forgotten about because he played in the 1930s and 1940s and was not among the elite players that came out of that era, but he still deserves credit for what he was: an exceptional leadoff hitter for the Chicago Cubs. 74% of his career plate appearances came as a leadoff hitter for those “lovable losers”. Though he was not particularly speedy Hack was able to get on base at a .398 clip as the table setter for those Cubbies. He did a lot of the things that you want a leadoff hitter to do well. He scored 100 or more runs seven times including six seasons in a row (1936-1941). Had 190 hits or more in four seasons plus a 186 hits season and led the league in hits in back-to-back years (1940 & 1941). He hit over .300 in six different seasons and hit between .290 and .299 in three other seasons, compiling a career .302 batting average out of the leadoff spot. He could also get on base doing so more than 40% of the time six different times while carrying a career .398 on-base percentage while leading off. Hack also walked more than twice as much as he struck out (849 BBs vs. 339 Ks). It’s not as though he did not get any recognition, he was a 4-time NL All-Star and finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting twice (7th in 1938 & 8th in 1940). While he is one of the lesser known names on this list I think most teams would love to have him atop their lineup, regardless of the era.
If I told you that this spot was occupied by a St. Louis Cardinal you would probably have guessed Lou Brock or Vince Coleman. Well, you’d be wrong. In looking slightly deeper than batting average, stolen bases and hits we found that we believe, Matt Carpenter to be the ninth best leadoff hitter. Carpenter, at 30, is only six years into his career but we are impressed with how he handles leadoff duties for the Cards. He’s hit leadoff in 73% of career plate appearance. He brings above-average power to the top spot but does not sacrifice the ability to get on base. His career on-base percentage of .387 is noticeably higher than his overall career on-base percentage as is his batting average (11 point difference). He strikes out more than we’re historically used to a leadoff man doing but because he gets on base so often, 19th highest on-base percentage by all players with at least 1,000 career at-bats in the leadoff spot, it’s pretty easy to overlook. Because the skills that make him a good leadoff hitter don’t diminish with age, think speed, we expect he will be able to maintain his level of play and maybe even get more adept at getting on base.
Connie Mack‘s trusted leadoff man Max Bishop comes in at number eight. Bishop, nicknamed “Camera Eye”, might be the most extreme example of going against conventional thought. He possessed only a single attribute that leadoff hitters should have, he could get on base. In seasons that he qualified for the batting title he had an on-base percentage under .400 only once, 1929 when it was .398. Bishop didn’t just get on base. He scored, a lot, considering he got so few hits, relatively speaking. As a leadoff hitter, he scored 948 runs while collecting only 1,191 hits and 1,131 walks. His batting average varied wildly during his career. He hit as high as .316 and as low as .232 in seasons in which he qualified for the batting title. This might be as much of a case for Connie Mack as one of the greatest managers of all-time, but when you have hall of famers to be hitting behind you like Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, and Al Simmons, it’s easy to understand why he wasn’t afraid to walk. Bishop walked 100 times of more in eight consecutive seasons, leading the league in the category in 1929. A player who can draw a walk should be considered invaluable because you can’t score unless you get on base and no one could do it more effectively with less than Bishop.
The table setter for the greatest duo to ever play the game, Babe Ruth & Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs takes the seventh spot in my list. Ruth and Gehrig were going to drive in a ton of runs and be the most productive duo regardless of who was hitting in front of them. Combs though, has this spot because he earned it. He was at the top of the Yankees lineup 78% of his career at-bats. He posted an on-base percentage higher than .400 six times and carried a .399 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter. He also batted higher than .300 in every full season that he played except for 1926 when he hit .299. Combs scored more than 100 runs in eight consecutive seasons never scoring fewer than 113 times in any of those eight years. He also led the AL in hits once and triples three times, all three times hitting more than 20. While Combs got enough recognition to get elected to the Hall of Fame he has gotten lost in Yankee lore and more specifically the Ruth and Gehrig Yankee days. Make no mistake, though, I’d love to pencil in Combs atop my lineup card and so should you.
When Ichiro Suzuki first came to the states to play baseball many people had serious doubts about whether his talent would translate to major league success. During his rookie year, where he batted nearly exclusively out of the leadoff spot, he put those doubts to rest quickly. He not only led the majors in hits (242), stolen bases (56), plate appearances (738), and at-bats (692), he also led the American League in batting by hitting .350. So outstanding was his rookie campaign that he became only the second person since the inception of the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 to win both that and the MVP in the same season, matching Fred Lynn. Three years later in 2004 he broke an 84-year-old record for most hits in a single season that was held by George Sisler when he collected 262 besting Sisler by five hits. While his career .367 on-base percentage as a leadoff man is the lowest on this list he made up for it by hitting his way on base (2,527) and stealing a lot of bases (439). Ichiro had 200 or more hits in ten consecutive seasons (2001 – 2010), all ten at the beginning of his career. He also led the league in hits seven different times (2001, 2004, 2006 – 2010), five of those in consecutive seasons. Ichiro was just adept at getting on base. He was able to circle the bases over 100 times in each of his first eight seasons (2001 – 2008) in the league. The bottom line with Ichiro is he’s going to reach base at a clip greater than once a game and his ability to steal puts him in scoring position often. Ichiro at the top of any lineup makes scoring a greater possibility.
Had Richie Ashburn played on better teams or had better hitters behind him he might be more appreciated for the exceptional leadoff hitter that he was. Ashburn posted a .399 career on-base percentage out of the number one hole. He led the league in OBP four times (1954 -1955, 1958, & 1960), walks four times (1954, 1957 – 1958, & 1960), batting average twice (1955 & 1958), and hits three times (1951, 1953, & 1958). 301 of his 1,712 hits from the leadoff spot were extra base hits. He also added 166 stolen bases. Ashburn only scored more than 100 runs twice (1953 & 1954) although he scored 91 or more seven times during his career. Ashburn earned the number five spot despite some of his counting stats usually associated with leadoff hitters lacking because the man just knew how to get on base.
Although he led off in less than 45% of his career plate appearances (4,361 at leadoff 10,740 career), Wade Boggs earned the number four spot. While leading off he carried a .413 on-base percentage, .321 batting average, and an .841 OPS. He walked 594 times and scored 626 runs. Boggs led the league in on-base percentage six times and had four years (1986 – 1989) with 200 hits and 100 walks. While he was one of the slowest players during his career his affinity for getting on-base made him a good fit for the leadoff spot.
The all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, played the game harder than anyone in the history of baseball. He posted a .379 career on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot. He led the National League in on-base percentage twice (1968 & 1979), batting average three times (1968 – 1969 & 1973), hits seven times (1965, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976, and 1981), and runs four times (1969, 1974 – 1976). His 2,924 career hits and 10,710 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter are second all-time behind this lists number one slot. The shame is most people aren’t interested in hearing about how good Rose was. They only see him as a degenerate gambler. Make no mistake, Rose was one of the best leadoff men of all time.
Tim Raines got overshadowed because his career overlapped with the number player on this list. Raines, however, is the second best leadoff man of all-time. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves as a hitter. He carried a batting average of .300 or better seven times, leading the league in 1986, while five times surpassing .400 on-base percentage. Raines also led the league in stolen bases four consecutive years (1981 – 1984) and scored more than 100 runs six times, leading the league twice (1983 & 1987).
Rickey Henderson is the unquestioned greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history. He led off in 98.3% of his career plate appearances. He had a .400 or better on-base percentage in 16 different seasons (1980, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989 -1997, & 1999) and seven seasons with 100 or more walks (1980, 1982, 1983, 1989, 1993, 1996, & 1998). Henderson led the league in stolen bases 12 times (1980 – 1986, 1988, 1989, & 1998) posting 100 or more three times (1980, 1982, & 1983), while also scoring 100 or more runs 13 times (1980, 1982 – 1986, 1988 – 1991, 1993, 1996, & 1998). Rickey even brought power to the top of the order. His 293 career leadoff homers is 96 more than the second most. He holds nearly ever leadoff record in existences. As Henderson himself proclaimed, He is the greatest of all-time.