What makes a good lead-off hitter is an open-ended debate. What remains the most universally important trait is reliant on purely getting on base as much as possible. Whether the player does this through incredible patience or stressing more on stellar contact abilities, it needs to be done in order to be effective.
What’s more important than pure speed as a lead-off man, is the ability to be a sound fundamental base-runner.
As for stolen bases, a base-runner needs to steal successfully in at least 75% of his attempts to be efficient. Obviously, the better the percentage, the more the player’s stolen bases are worth.
I’m sure that many people will find their problems with these rankings, and you know what I have to say to these hypothetical people? Keep your hurtful thoughts to yourself, because I’m very sensitive (or post them politely in our “comments section” below the article).
I use multiple stats to base my selections off. Most importantly on-base percentage, but also how many home runs and stolen bases that guy has averaged over the past 3 seasons. The stat “OPS” is a player’s on-base percentage added to his slugging percentage.
This list is based off what these players have done over the past 3 seasons, on top of what they are projected to produce in 2010. If these players are all healthy in the upcoming season, this is how I would rank them out…
- 5) Ian Kinsler
- Averages from last 3 years: .278 avg /.351 On-base percentage /.834 OPS/ 23 home runs/ 27 stolen bases
For all of Kinsler’s struggles away from Texas, he is an absolute monster at home. The man had 42 extra-base hits in while playing in his home park at Arlington in 2009. Kinsler hit 31 home runs last season, while stealing 31 bases in only 36 attempts, which is extremely efficient. Ian struggled with his on-base percentage in 2009, but it was largely in part due to being unlucky with his batted-balls in play. In 2008, he put up a sterling .375 on-base percentage, so he can get on base with the best of them when he’s on his game.
Ian is a quality guy running the bases as well. He is as efficient as they come as well, stealing 89% of his bases over the past 3 years.
Kinsler would again be higher on the list if he didn’t struggle so much playing away from home.
Overall though, Kinsler remains an offensive dynamo that opposing teams need to prepare for heavily.
- 4) Chone Figgins
- Averages from the last 3 years: .301 AVG / .386 OBP / .768 OPS / 3 home runs / 39 stolen bases
Figgins joins the Mariners in 2010, who have the ever-fantastic lead-off hitter Ichiro already entrenched in the lead-off spot. I’ll get into this more a little further down in the list.
Chone is tied with the #3-ranked-man on this list for being the most patient. Chone took a career high 101 walks in 2009, which is quite the feat for someone with minimal power. In tow with that fact is another, that Figgins is also the least powerful player in this list. An extra-base hit beats a single and a stolen base, every single time.
Figgins is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, which saw him post an amazing OBP of .395.
Figgins turned 32 this past January, and time may be catching up with his legs. He stole 42 bases last year, but stole only 71%, which is a 5-year-low.
Figgins had a resurgent year compared to his down-year in 2008, but there is most certainly concern for an older guy who relies so predominantly on his speed.
- 3) Grady Sizemore
- .266 AVG / .373 OBP / .845 OPS / 25 home runs / 28 stolen bases
Not only is Grady the most powerful offensive player on this list, but he’s also arguably the most patient. Sizemore is an absolute superstar when he’s on the field. Injuries massively hampered him in 2009, but he will return to his superstar-form in 2010, if health allows.
When at 100%, Grady can steal with the best of them, swiping 38 bases in only 43 chances in ’08.
For anyone complaining about Grady’s contact rates not being high enough, a .266 batting average is ALWAYS acceptable if you are also posting a .373 OBP and hitting for prodigious power.
Not only is Grady very likely going to join the (meaningless) “30 home run/30 stolen base club”, but he has an outside shot in the MVP race if he can duplicate or extend upon his past successes.
When he’s playing to his full abilities, few players in baseball can change the game as much as this 27-year-old man.
- 2) Brian Roberts
- .290 AVG / .370 OBP /.814 OPS / 12 home runs / 40 stolen bases
The guy screams consistency in a role that is relatively difficult to lock down over any length of time. Roberts has been holding down the lead-off spot in Baltimore since the 2003 season; The man has his Oriole tenure for sure.
Brian is a constant league-leader in doubles who steals 30-50 bases a season efficiently. He gets on base at top-of-the-line rates, and makes well above average contact.
The only reason Sizemore isn’t ahead of Roberts is because of Brian’s stellar consistency.
Roberts isn’t very young anymore, but I expect him to continue his streak of consistency at the plate in 2010.
- 1) Ichiro
- .337 AVG / .381 OBP / .807 OPS / 8 home runs / 35 stolen bases
Even the smaller fans of baseball consistently associate anything involving the term “lead-off man” with Ichiro. Since 2001, he has been a staple of the role, and has been an all-around superstar in his time playing American Baseball.
Ichiro hit an other-worldly .352 in 2009. Sure, in 2008 he had an off-year compared to the rest of his career. Also, I accept that he doesn’t walk as well as the other men on this list, but through whatever methods he uses, Ichiro consistently gets on base as well as almost anyone in the Majors. His .381 OBP over the past 3 years speaks for itself.
Although he pumped the breaks on the base-paths a little last year, he still averages 35 or more bases over his career. He remains another smart base-runner who uses his speed efficiently, not abusing it ineffectively like some players tend to do.
Ichiro hits more than his fair share of triples; He will get enough extra-base hits to add more overall value.
Plainly, Ichiro is one of the hardest players in baseball for opposing teams to plan for. He’s one of the best contact-hitters in baseball history and a very intelligent speed-demon on the base-paths. Anyone can fully appreciate how valuable and dynamic Ichiro is.
This was an unbelievably tough list to compile. The funny thing about Ichiro is that even though he’s a more valuable offensive player than his new teammate Chone Figgins, Chone still has a good chance to take over the lead-off role for the Mariners next year.
Figgins walks more than Ichiro, and honestly, Ichiro’s crazy contact abilities suit him just as well batting second or third in the lineup. Ichiro is THAT good offensively, that he fits nicely into any spot of the order.
So Ichiro, who in my opinion is the best lead-off hitter in baseball, could likely be removed from that role (and in doing so, could reasonably make his team better).
Baseball is a funny game.
- Honorable mentions to: Jose Reyes, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, and Denard Span.