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Ranking Ten of the Greatest Leadoff Seasons

by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
January 1, 2007

Let me start by telling you what this article is not.  This is not a ranking of the greatest leadoff seasons of all time.  I'm not including any season before 1960.  That's not just because caught stealing and other stats were spottily kept in the early days, but that is a factor.  The biggest reason for this narrowed emphasis is that I just learned that my favorite leadoff season of all time was not, in fact, a leadoff season at all.

In 1922, Max Carey swiped 51 bases and was caught just twice.  51-2: a 96.2% success ratio.  Even Billy Beane would want Carey to have the green light.  What makes this even more impressive is the fact that most of the prolific basestealers of Carey's time had trouble keeping their SB percentages above 60.  Take a look at the data available for Tris Speaker sometime.  Yuck.

Not only was Carey a good basestealer that year, but he was also just plain good.  In addition to leading the NL in stolen bases and walks, Carey finished fourth in both hits and OBP.  He tied with teammate Carson Bigbee for fourth in the league in runs created, and he managed 23 batting runs, good for sixth in the NL behind teammate Reb Russell (check out the career he had!).  Using LABR, Carey jumps ahead of Reb.  Those 1922 Pirates actually led the league in runs scored with a virtual no-name offense.  The biggest name was Pie Traynor, but at just 23, he was actually one of the worst hitters on the team.  Carey's 140 runs scored were one less than Rogers Hornsby's total, and he tallied 16.2% of the Pirates' runs.

I was ecstatic to find that Retrosheet had data on the 1922 season.  When I went to try and calculate Carey's LOBP+, I found that Carey generally hit second in the order to one Rabbit Maranville.  Hassen Pfeiffer did have one of his best seasons with the stick, but I was quite disillusioned; if Carey wasn't a leadoff hitter in 1922, then how can I even guess who else was before the full play-by-play era of 1960 on?

However, this is also not a ranking of the best leadoff seasons since 1960.  That's because Rickey Henderson would have three of those seasons for sure, and arguably as many as seven.  So what we've got here is an examination of the ten best leadoff seasons since 1960 by ten different players.  And yes, they are arranged in my best estimate of their deserved ranking.

Methodology

#1 Rickey Henderson, 1990      

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1990 65 97 65 10 14 65.2 0.4 0.439 91.12 119 28 232 0.392 733 16.2
1985 50 99 80 10 19 51 0.418 0.419 99.76 146 24 250 0.488 839 17.4
1993 46 120 53 8 12 47.1 0.459 0.432 106.3 114 21 242 0.384 N/A N/A
1983 34 103 108 19 23 37.1 0.377 0.414 91.06 105 9 248 0.387 708 14.8
1982 23 116 130 42 17 26.6 0.406 0.398 102 119 10 251 0.434 691 17.2

Rickey's 1982 season is probably the most famous leadoff season of all time.  I remember looking at the back of his 1985 baseball card as a kid and thinking there was a misprint.  130 stolen bases?  No way.

Rickey led the majors in walks that year, and the next highest stolen base total in the AL was Damaso Garcia's 54.  But despite the extra credit my LABR system delegates for walks and strikeouts only bumps up Rickey's ABR from 23 to 26.6 that year.  I'm confidant that this is the highest increase in runs all time from ABR to LABR in a season, but it's really not even enough to make this one of Rickey's top five seasons.  Other than those listed here, his 1980 and 1981 seasons were phenomenal, and certainly on par with 1982. 

He scored 17.2% of the Athletics' runs that year, just a hair behind his 1985 mark with the Yankees. As impressive as that runs scored statistic is, look at his runs scored per time on base; if Rickey got on base in 1985, you could lay about even odds that he would score.  That's just sick!

For an oddity, look at Rickey's 1993 season.  He tallied more than one adjusted batting run per game for the A's before actually posting a negative ABR total for the Blue Jays.  But he still stole bases efficiently and finished with a leadoff OBP of .459 - the second highest I could find.  Amazing.  The last player in the history of the game that a pitcher would want to have reach base to lead off an inning reached base to lead off an inning 46% of the time in 1993.

When I look at 1990, I don't see one of Henderson's finer leadoff seasons.  "Just" 65 stolen bases, a leadoff OBP far lower than his aggregate OBP (though still .400), and a failure to score even 40% of the time that he reached base.  He didn't even walk 100 times.  But I look at that 1985 season, and I add value for the extra stolen base runs, and the extra runs scored, and it still just falls short.  Leadoff home runs may not be as valuable as a three-run bomb, but when you hit a dozen of them, it's still pretty useful.  All of the little things that Rickey did well in those other season still don't quite add up to match that 1990 season, in my humble opinion.  He deservedly won the MVP that year, and was the only Oakland Athletic to show up for the 1990 World Series debacle versus the Cincinnati Reds.

#2 Tim Raines, 1985

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1985 45 81 70 9 16 46.7 0.391 0.405 96.54 115 11 257 0.405 633 18.2
1983 28 97 90 14 20 30.4 0.413 0.393 105.1 133 11 271 0.45 677 19.6

It should come as no surprise that Tim Raines would have the only modern leadoff season in the same league as Henderson's big seasons.  The 62.7 Offensive Batting Runs he totaled in 1985 ranks only behind Rickey's 1985 and 1990 seasons.  But in a similar scenario to what we had with Henderson, Raines' 1983 season actually looks better in many of my leadoff statistics.  In fact, look at that TR% - nearly one in every five runners to cross home plate for the Expos in 1983 wore #30 on his back.  That's the highest total I've been able to find.  If it weren't for that 1985 season, Raines' 1983 season would rank very high on this list.  But as it is, it receives only an honorable mention.

#3 Craig Biggio, 1997

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1997 46 84 47 10 8.9 46.3 0.385 0.415 92.77 146 22 287 0.432 777 18.8

Craig Biggio's 1997 season is somewhat legendary here at Baseball Evolution, and not just because it was probably the 5th best leadoff season in the modern era.  You see, in Bill James' New Historical Abstract, he compares Biggio's 1997 season - clearly his best ever - to Ken Griffey Junior's.  James argues that Biggio has a better season than Griffey, and I don't disagree.  But James takes this edge over Griffey, along with a few other close season's between the two, to mean that Biggio was actually a better second baseman than Nap LaJoie and Charlie Gehringer.  We're still trying to figure that one out.       

Anyway, Biggio's 1997 season is the second best TR% I've found so far to Raines in 1983.  Those 146 runs scored tie Henderson's 1985 mark (and several others) for the 59th best total of all time.  But those seasons are also tied with Sammy Sosa in 2001 for the second best total since World War II.

And for those of you expecting to see Biggio's 1995 season listed here as well, sorry, but he hit second most of that year.  Leadoff duties were shared by Brian L Hunter and John Cangelosi.  Hey, look at their stats before you laugh like that.  You learn something new every day.

#4 Lenny Dykstra, 1993

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1993 48 129 37 12 4.9 49.2 0.433 0.42 103.1 143 19 306 0.405 877 16.3

A lot went right for the 1993 Phillies to make the World Series, and it all started with Nails.  Lenny had a low stolen base total for a list like this, but the runs total jumps out at you, and so should that walk total.  Rickey Henderson has never walked as many as 129 times in a season.  Need I say more about how rare that accomplishment is for a leadoff batter?  Also, 306 times on base is just one shy of Ichiro's total in 2004.

#5 Chuck Knoblauch, 1996

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1996 44 98 45 14 6.2 45.4 0.462 0.448 103.1 140 13 301 0.422 877 16

Here's a season that flies under most people's radar.  Maybe it's because most people remember him as that Yankee who couldn't throw to first base.  Maybe it's because there were so many other stellar seasons in 1996 from sluggers.  Or maybe it's just because no one paid attention to the Twins in the mid-90's.  That leadoff OBP of .462 might just be the highest ever, folks. 

#6 Kenny Lofton, 1994

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1994 31 52 60 12 12 31.9 0.432 0.412 104.9 105 12 202 0.46 679 15.5

Speaking of seasons flying under the radar, how about this doozy?  Teams only played 70% of the 162-game schedule in 1994.  Increase all of Lofton's stats by 30% and you get 208 hits, 136 runs scored, 69 extra base hits, and a career high 78 stolen bases.  His LABR+SBR would have ranked ahead of Biggio, Dykstra, and Knoblauch.  But projected stats aren't worth quite as much as actual stats, are they?  Remember Rickey Henderson's 1993 season?  Project his numbers with the A's over the course of 162 games and you have one of the top seasons of all time, leadoff or otherwise.

#7 Pete Rose, 1969

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1969 50 88 7 10 -3.1 50.2 0.379 0.428 88.55 120 16 295 0.353 798 15

Ah, now here's a season where looking beyond the adjusted batting runs really pays dividends.  At first glance, you've got to like this season.  An uncharacteristically high OBP for Rose, plus a league lead in runs scored.  But even though the 1969 season wasn't a great one for offense, the start of the Big Red Machine makes his 120 runs a little less impressive.  The -3 stolen base runs is nothing new for Rose, but it doesn't help his cause here.  And it's not the most damning part of the season.

I'm sure that Charlie Hustle looked great running to first base on those 88 free passes. But only 17 of those were drawn when Rose was leading off an inning.  Less than 20%!  But over 37% of his plate appearances led off an inning.  Something's not quite right there, is it?

On another suspicious note, take a gander at that runs scored per time on base.  35%?  Are you kidding me?  This is supposed to be the player that embodies hustle, taking extra bases, and making something happen, yet batting leadoff on the best offensive team of the era, he could only score 35% of the time after reaching first base.  Something tells me that Charlie was hustling into nearly as many outs as he was extra bases.

But in dispute of Ken Harrleson's tiresome chant, what you hit IS more important than when you hit it.  Even though Rose's walks came at the least useful times, he still got on base enough.  And even though he either ran into bunches of outs or stranded himself on the pond regularly, he still did score more runs than anyone else in the NL that year.  His 1969 was still a great season.  But those that would give Rose extra credit for his hustle and his clutch play might want to penalize him in those areas instead.  For his career, Rose walked once every 13.6 plate appearances when leading off an inning, and once every 9 plate appearances in other situations.

#8 Ichiro Suzuki, 2004

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
2004 35 49 36 11 5.1 35.8 0.405 0.414 97.83 101 8 307 0.303 698 14.5

Here we have a smooth transition from the most overrated baserunner of the last generation to the most overrated baserunner of this generation.  I realize that the Mariners did not have a good offense in 2004, but when you reach base 307 times, you really ought to score more than 101 times!  I'd buy the Mariners excuse if his TR% wasn't lower than any other player on this list.  As it is, we have to say that he is as miscast in the leadoff role as Rose was.  Perhaps more so, as Ichiro probably steps up his game with runners on base than any other player in baseball history.  He has an unheard of .494 OBP with 2 outs and runners in scoring position and is a .443 career hitter with the bases loaded.

Hey, the Mariners are realizing that Ichiro is more valuable in center field this year.  Maybe they'll finally realize that he should be hitting #3 in the lineup as well.

#9 Lou Brock, 1971

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1971 24 76 64 19 9.3 25.9 0.382 0.385 99.22 126 7 270 0.441 739 17.1

I'm well-known for giving Lou Brock a lot of crap, and most of it is well deserved.  But the man had his best year in 1971, and despite the fact that the Cardinals did not have an outstanding season, it's a travesty that he finished 13th in MVP voting behind players such as Lee May (who could have easily snatched the Dave Kingman Award from Johnny Bench's grasp that year) and fellow leadoff man Maury Wills (who had the worst season of his not-so-hot career).

The unusual part of 1971, of course, was not that Brock led the majors in steals, or scored 17% of the Cardinals runs, or scored 44% of the time when he reached base.  The surprising part was how often he reached base!  Those 76 walks were a career high, as was the .385 OBP, and consequently, so was the 126 runs scored.  Just think... all Brock needed to do to put up great numbers was to walk more than 50 times in a season.  It really is a shame that he could only do that four time.

#10 Maury Wills, 1962

Year ABR BB SB CS SBR LABR LOPB OBP LOBP+ R HR TOB R% TR TR%
1962 -2 51 104 13 24 0.31 0.357 0.346 103.2 130 6 255 0.486 842 15.4

To be honest, there are plenty of seasons more deserving of the #10 spot on this list, but this was a list tailored for Maury Wills'1962 season, so I'm including it.  It's the most stolen base runs in any major league season, no matter which values you use for stolen base runs.  In my system, Maury Wills contributed as many runs with his legs in 1962 than Lou Brock did with his bat in 1971.  But even though this was Maurice Morning Wills' finest season at the plate, he still did not contribute more runs to his team than the average player in 1962.  When he did get on base, however, he scored nearly half the time, just a hair below Henderson's mark in 1985. 

An interesting tidbit about Wills' career: He only stole more than 52 bases twice, and they were totals of 94 and 104.

Wrap Up

Like I wrote before, this is by no means a definitive ranking of the top leadoff seasons.  You can argue that Henderson's 1985 season was actually better than his 1990 season using some of the statistics that I've favored here.  You can argue that Lofton's 1994 season should be ranked #3 in this list because of what might have been.  Or you could say that Pete Rose's 1969 season has no place among a list of seasons in which ballplayers exhibited some aptitude for starting off an inning.  The important thing to me is that these statistics can be used as a basis for such arguments, as opposed to, "Oh I saw Tony Pena go from first to third on a groundout.  He's the best baserunner of all time."

Even more importantly, LABR gives us a method to more accurately compare the accomplishments of leadoff hitters with that of other players in a linear weights model.   You might see LABR on a season-by season basis and think that situation for events isn't that important.  But the use of LABR increases Rickey Henderson's career ABR total by 37.7 runs, shooting him from 29th all time to 21st.  Add in 248 stolen base runs, and it becomes pretty obvious that Rickey is among the top dozen offensive threats of all time.                

 




Did your favorite player have a fantastic leadoff season that Keith missed? Think Keith's love of Rickey Henderson is blinding him? Or are you a Pete Rose fan who thinks this article was utter crap? Reach Keith at keith@baseballevolution.com with your comments.

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