I recently wrote an article titled "The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know." It's gotten great responses, and I had a great time writing it. So with spring training here, I decided to do a series of these about different aspects of the sport. Enjoy.
The lead-off spot in the batting order is one of the most crucial positions in baseball. Having a good lead-off batter can help a team get a lead early and spark a rally.
A number one hitter's primary jobs are to get on-base and score runs. Some guys can hit for power too, steal bases, or both.
Here's a ranking of every teams lead-off batter, from 30 to 1:
30. Mark Ellis, A's, 2B (2008: .233, 55 R, 14 SB, 12 HR, .321 OBP)
Ellis is in the A's line-up mostly for his defense, but after a solid 2007 in which Ellis hit .276 with 19 homers and 76 RBI, his offensive production slipped in 2008. Ellis hit only .233 and scored only 55 runs from the lead-off spot.
His .321 OBP is extremely low for a number one hitter, but was 90 points higher than his batting average. Ellis did show some speed, swiping 14 bases in 16 attempts, but if Oakland wants to contend, Ellis will need to hit higher and get on base more in order to give Matt Holiday, Jason Giambi and Jack Cust opportunities to drive in runs.
29. Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays, SS (2008: .267, 76 R, 7 SB, 7 HR, .341 OBP)
Scutaro takes over full time at shortstop for the Jays this season after the departure of David Eckstein. He's a middle infielder who's known more for his glove than his bat, but has been known to hit in big spots.
His .296 average with runners in scoring position was third-best on the team, and he hit .333 with 6 RBI in 3 games for Oakland in the 2006 ALDS.
Still, his .341 on-base percentage is on the low side for a lead-off batter, but it's not terrible. The Jays will need Scutaro to get on base more if they want to contend in the tough AL east.
28. Jody Gerut, Padres, OF (2008: .296, 46 R, 6 SB, 14 HR, .351 OBP)
Jody Gerut proved to be a cheap and productive pick-up for San Diego in 2008. In only 100 games, Gerut hit 14 homers and scored 46 runs, both good for fourth on the team.
Gerut will get a full season as the Padres lead-off hitter, and is definitely not your typical top-of-the-order guy. Still, his .351 on-base percentage last season was decent, and if he can stay healthy and improve on that number, he may help San Diego surprise the experts.
27. Jerry Owens, White Sox, OF (2008: .250, 1 R, 2 SB, 0 HR, .250 OBP)
There is a youth movement on the south side of Chicago this year, and Jerry Owens is a part of it. Owens will get his chance to bat lead-off and play center field.
In 117 career games played, Owens has batted .268 with 49 runs scored and a .321 on-base percentage. Owens has the speed, but it's still unclear if he'll provide the offense needed to set the table for Carlos Quentin and company in the heart of Chicago's order.
26. Felipe Lopez, Diamondbacks, 2B (2008: .283, 64 R, 8 SB, 6 HR, .343 OBP)
Felipe Lopez's 2008 was really a tale of two seasons.
In 100 games with the Nationals, Lopez hit only .234 with a .305 on-base percentage. Lopez struggled so badly in Washington that he was released in August.
The Cardinals signed Lopez, and he immediately produced.
In 43 games in St. Louis, Lopez hit .385 with a .426 on-base percentage and scored 30 runs. Lopez's stolen base total also took a huge dive—he stole only eight bases all season after posting four straight seasons stealing 20 or more.
He'll now lead-off and replace Orlando Hudson at second base for the Diamondbacks. If Arizona gets the Felipe Lopez that the Cardinals got in August, then they should be in good shape at the top of the order.
25. Ryan Spilborghs, Rockies, OF (2008: .313, 38 R, 7 SB, 6 HR, .407 OBP)
Spilborghs will take over center field for the departed Willy Taveras. After spending the past three seasons as a part time player, Spilborghs will get the chance to play full time and bat lead-off in 2009.
He looks to be perfect for the role, boosting a career on-base percentage of .374, including a .407 mark in 233 at-bats last season. In 668 career at-bats, Spilborghs has scored 104 runs, hit 22 home runs, drive in 109 runs and batted .302.
If he puts numbers up similar to that in a full season, he'll easily move up this list.
24. Camerin Maybin, Marlins, OF (2008: .500, 9 R, 4 SB, 0 HR, .543 OBP)
Maybin spent almost all of 2008 in the minors after being acquired by the Marlins in the Miguel Cabrera trade. He is the Marlins' top prospect, and is considered by most scouts to be a can't-miss, five-tool player. He has all the speed in the world, but will he be able to hit in the big leagues?
He'll get every chance to take over the center field duties and bat lead-off for the Marlins. The only thing that keeps him this low is that until he proves it on the field, Maybin is an unknown.
23. Skip Schumaker, Cardinals, OF (2008: .302, 87 R, 8 SB, 8 HR, .359 OBP)
Playing his first full season in 2008, Schumaker proved to be a competent lead-off hitter batting .302, scoring 87 runs and posting a respectable on-base percentage of .359.
The lefty-hitting Schumaker also showed some pop, hitting eight homers, 22 doubles and five triples.
Schumaker did struggle mightily against left-handed pitching however, hitting only .168 compared to .340 against righties. Schumaker needs to improve upon that, but if he does the Cardinals will have a good lead-off hitter for years to come.
22. Kaz Matsui, Astros, 2B (2008: .293, 58 R, 20 SB, 6 HR, .354 OBP)
Matsui hasn't lived up to expectations since coming over from Japan, but he has turned into a solid second baseman and lead-off hitter.
After helping the Rockies get to their first World Series in 2007, Matsui signed with the Astros as a free agent. He played only 96 games last season due to injury, and has never played more than 114 games in a season.
Still, he managed to score 58 runs and steal 20 bases. His .354 on-base percentage last season was a career high, and not bad for a guy who only walked 37 times, and has never walked more than 40 time in a season. Matsui needs to be on the field more to get serious consideration as an elite lead-off hitter.
21. Rickie Weeks, Brewers, 2B (2008: .234, 89 R, 19 SB, 14 HR, .342 OBP)
This season may be Rickie Weeks' last chance to prove he's the five-tool player the Brewers thought he would be when they drafted him second overall in 2003.
Weeks fell so far out of favor last season that the Brewers traded for Ray Durham at the deadline.
Weeks is still only 26, and he did hit 14 homers, score 89 runs and steal 19 bases last season. His on-base percentage of .342 wasn't great, but it was more than 100 points higher than his .234 batting average.
He also strikes out way more than most lead-off hitters, whiffing 115 times in 475 at-bats. Nothing kills a rally more than a lead-off hitter who strikes out. The talent is there, Weeks just needs to put it all together.
20. Coco Crisp, Royals, OF (2008: .283, 55 R, 20 SB, 7 HR, .344 OBP)
After platooning with Jacoby Ellsbury Boston in 2008, Crisp was traded to the Kansas City Royals this off season. Crisp will get the chance to play center field everyday and bat lead-off for the upstart Royals in 2009.
Crisp has gotten the label as a defensive player first, and a solid hitter at best. Crisp did score 55 runs and steal 20 bases in only 118 games last season, but his .344 on-base percentage—on the low side for a lead-off batter—was only one point off of his career high.
His career on-base percentage is only .331, something he'll have to improve on if the Royals intend to make noise this year.
19. Christian Guzman, Nationals, SS (2008: .316, 77 R, 6 SB, 9 HR, .345 OBP)
After two injury-plagued and disappointing seasons with the Nationals, Guzman had a comeback season in 2008. He hit .316 with an on-base percentage of .345, both career highs for Guzman in a full season.
He scored 77 runs in only 138 games—pretty impressive for a team that didn't have one player drive in more than 61 runs. The once-speedy Guzman doesn't run like he used to, only stealing six bases last season, and he hasn't posted double-digits in steals since 2004.
Guzman is getting older, and expecting another season like 2008 might be a bit much to ask.
18. Denard Span, Twins, OF (2008: .294, 70 R, 18 SB, 6 HR, .387 OBP)
Last season, fellow rookie Carlos Gomez received most of the spotlight. That will happen when you get traded for a future Hall of Fame pitcher. Gomez had a fine rookie season, but it was Span who should have received the spotlight.
The speedy Span became the Twins lead-off hitter and immediately ignited the offense. His .294 average was good, but it was his .387 on-base percentage that showed his patience as a hitter. Span also stole 18 bases and scored 70 runs, a good number for any rookie season, but he did it in only 93 games.
Scouts have also raved about his defense and the way he works counts and takes pitches. He may be the next great lead-off hitter.
17. Akinori Iwamura, Rays, 2B (2008: .274, 91 R, 8 SB, 6 HR, .349 OBP)
Iwamua switched positions in the field and in the batting order last season.
Not your typical work-the-count lead-off hitter, Iwamura hit .424 when swinging at the first pitch, but still managed 70 walks in 152 games. Speedy enough to score 91 runs last season, Iwamura only stole eight bases in 14 attempts.
He did strikeout 131 times, a very high total for a lead-off man, and his .349 on base percentage is about average for a number one hitter, but he has been known to be a tough out and gritty player.
16. Kelly Johnson, Braves, 2B (2008: .287, 86 R, 11 SB, 12 HR, .349 OBP)
Kelly Johnson could be the Dustin Pedroia of the National League. The gritty second baseman does strike out a bit much for a lead-off hitter—swinging and missing 113 time last year—but in 434 career at-bats in the lead-off role, Johnson has hit .270 with 13 homers and a .363 on-base percentage.
He has decent speed and pop, stealing 11 bases in 17 attempts while hitting 39 doubles, six triples and 12 homers last season. Since the Braves were unable to sign Rafeal Furcal this off season, Johnson will get his chance to produce in the lead-off role full time.
15. Randy Winn, Giants, OF (2008: .306, 84 R, 25 SB, 10 HR, .363 OBP)
Randy Winn is as steady a lead-off hitter as there is in baseball. He's almost a lock to hit .280, 10-15 home runs, score 80-90 runs, steal 20-30 bases and post an on-base percentage of .350.
Winn had very good season in 2008, when he tied a career best by hitting .306, stole 25 bases in 27 attempts and had a career-high on-base percentage of .363. He has some pop in his bat too, hitting 10 home runs and 39 doubles last season.
If the Giants had a big bopper in the middle of the line-up, Winn probably would have scored 100 runs last season. He does regularly strike out around 90 times per year, but has never reached 100 wiffs. Winn will be 35 this season, but he seems to get better with age.
14. Rafael Furcal, Dodgers, SS (2008: .357, 34 R, 8 SB, 5 HR, .439 OBP)
Furcal was on his way to a brilliant season for the Dodgers before injuries ended his seasons. Playing in only 36 games in 2008, Furcal hit .357 and scored almost a run per game, with 34.
His .439 OBP would not only have been a career high, but 87 points higher than his career mark of .352. In his eight seasons prior to 2008, Furcal has never hit lower than .270, scored 100 or more runs four times, stolen 20 or more bases eight times and has hit at least 10 homers four times.
Furcal, the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year, is a complete lead-off hitter, but due to his injury last season, it remains to be seen if he will be able to return to hie pre-injury form. If he does, the Dodgers should score plenty of runs.
13. Willy Taveras, Reds, OF ( 2008: .251, 64 R, 68 SB, 1 HR, .308 OBP)
Playing for the Rockies, Taveras proved to be one of the elite base thieves in the game in 2008, when he led the majors with 68 stole bases. But as the old saying goes, you can't steal first base, and Taveras had trouble getting there in 2008.
He hit a career low .251, even playing home games in Colorado last year and his on-base percentage of .308 wasn't just a career low, but it's terrible for a lead-off guy. Taveras has tremendous speed, but still only managed 64 runs scored.
He also has little pop, never hitting more than 19 doubles or three homers in a season. Because of his speed, Taveras will get every opportunity to prove he can hit with the Reds, and should improve on his low offensive numbers last season.
If he doesn't, he'll prove to be nothing more than a one-trick pony.
12. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs, OF (2008: .280, 76 R, 19 SB, 29 HR, .344 OBP)
Alfonso Soriano is not the typical lead-off hitter. He's a power hitter with speed who strikes out a lot and may be better suited as a clean-up hitter.
A former 40 HR/40 SB player, injuries have limited Soriano to more of a 20/20 player the past few seasons. His career .329 on-base percentage is extremely low for a lead-off batter, but he can put a team on the board early with one swing of the bat.
He also drives in between 80 and 100 runs, a huge number for a lead-off guy. He's virtually a lock to strikeout 130 times per year and have an on-base percentage of less than .350, and may actually move to the middle of the order this season.
If this was a list of best all around hitters, then Soriano would be much higher, but as a lead-off guy, he's only slightly above average, at best.
11. Johnny Damon, Yankees, OF (2008: .303, 95 R, 29 SB, 17 HR, .375 OBP)
Johnny Damon has been one of the best lead-off hitters in baseball for 14 big league seasons. He hit over .300 last season for the first time since 2005 and his .375 on-base percentage of .375 was his best since 2004.
He has stolen more than 20 bases 10 times, scored more than 100 runs nine time and has batted over .300 five times.
Damon has some pop, hitting at least 10 home runs ten times in 14 season. Damon has slipped defensively, and that could limit his playing time a bit. Plus, Damon is 35 years old this season. so age has to be a concern. At some point he's going to slow down, and it's probable that his best years are behind him.
10. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox, OF (2008: .280, 98 R, 50 SB, 9 HR, .336 OBP)
Ellsbury burst onto the scene during the final month and postseason of 2007. His .438 batting average during the 2007 World Series cemented his spot as Boston's lead-off man for 2008.
After an average 2008, Ellsbury finished strong batting .340 with 20 runs scored in 22 games during September. Ellsbury also showed elite speed, finishing sixth in the AL in triples with seven, and leading the AL in steals with 50.
Ellsbury is a free swinger who struck out twice as much as he walked (41 walks compared to 80 strikeouts), causing him to have a low on-base percentage for a lead-off man at .336. If he can cut down on his strike outs and get on base more often, Ellsbury should become an elite lead-off hitter.
9. Ian Kinsler, Rangers, 2B (2008: .319, 102 R, 26 SB, 18 HR, .375 OBP)
Kinsler had a break out season in 2008. He got off to a fast start batting .337 with 14 homers, 58 RBI and 84 runs scored in the first half, only to have injuries limit him to a .258 average with 4 home runs, 13 RBI and 18 runs scored in just 28 games.
Kinsler still managed to get 165 hits and score 102 runs in only 121 games played in 2008. In fact, Kinsler has yet to play more than 130 games in his three-year career.
He proved that he can hit, hit with a some pop, get on base, steal bases, and score runs in 2008. Now he just needs to prove he can do it for more than 130 games.
If he does, he'll not only be one of the best lead-off hitters in the game, but one of the best all-around hitters in baseball.
8. Brian Roberts, Orioles, 2B (2008: .296, 107 R, 40 SB, 9 HR, .378 OBP)
No lead-off hitter in baseball has been as consistently good on consistently terrible teams as Brian Roberts. Despite the Orioles finishing last in the AL East seemingly almost every season, Roberts has scored at least 85 runs for five straight seasons, regularly hits between .280 and .300 with an on-base percentage over .350, hits 40 to 50 doubles, and steal 30 to 50 bases every year.
The two-time all-star will walk about 80 times per year, but also strike out close to 100. He's got excellent speed, and will be a huge part if the Orioles are ever able to contend.
7. Chone Figgins, Angels, 3B (2008: .276, 72 R, 34 SB, 1 HR, .367 OBP)
Chone Figgins ignites the Angels offense. He gets on base (.367 OBP in 2008), he steals bases (34 SB in 47 attempts in 2008), and he scores runs. The problem with Figgins is that he hasn't played more than 116 games since 2006.
When he has, he's been a lock for 90 or more runs scored, 50 steals, 10 triples, and .350-plus on-base percentage. He gets his share of walks, even if does strikeout 80 to 90 times per year.
At 30 years old, and already an eight-year veteran, Figgins may be losing a step, but if he can stay on the field, he's going to score runs for the Angels.
6. Nate McLouth, Pirates, OF (2008: .276, 113 R, 23 SB, 26 HR, .356 OBP)
A first time All-Star in 2008, Nate McLouth was one of the few bright spots for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
An exciting young player built in the mold of Grady Sizemore or Carlos Beltran, McLouth not only led the league in doubles with 46, but he also was fifth in the NL with 113 runs scored.
McLouth also showed some power, belting 26 homers and driving in 94 runs—a huge number for a lead-off batter. Throw in his 23 stolen bases, and McLouth could end up being a 30/30 or even 40/40 guy in the future.
His ridiculous .714 average and 19 RBI with the bases loaded, may mean that eventually McLouth ends up batting in the middle of the order rather than first. Until then, though, McLouth is a stud lead-off hitter who may have the most upside on this list.
5. Curtis Granderson, Tigers, OF (2008: .280, 112 R, 12 SB, 22 HR, .365 OBP)
Granderson is the catalyst for one of the best offenses in baseball. He's an extra-base-hit machine who has belted more than 20 homers and led the league in triples in each of the past two seasons. He finished in the top five in runs scored the past two seasons.
He strikes out a bunch, but has cut his wiffs from 174 in 2006, to 141 in 2007, to 111 in 2008. He's also increased his on-base percentage in each of the last four seasons, from .314 in 2005, to .335 in 2006, to .361 in 2007, and finally a career best .365 last season.
His stolen base total dropped from 26 in 2007 to just 12 last season, but that was mostly due to nagging injuries early in the season. Granderson is one of the most complete lead-off hitter in baseball.
4. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, SS (2008: .277, 76 R, 47 SB, 11 HR, .349 OBP)
After winning the 2007 NL MVP award, injuries limited Rollins to only 137 games in 2008. He still had a very good season, however stealing 47 bases in 50 attempts and scoring 76 runs. His .349 on-base percentage in 2008 was about average for a lead-off hitter, but he did strike out a career low 55 times.
Rollins gets a ton of extra-base-hits, following up his 2007 season of 38 doubles, 20 triples, and 30 homers with 38 doubles, 9 triples, and 11 homers in 2008. Rollins is at his best in the big spots.
He hit .313 with 15 runs scored in the month of September, and he hit .318 with 44 RBI with runners in scoring position. Let's not even mention about his declaring the Phillies the team to beat in 2007, and then killing the Mets down the stretch.
Rollins is one of the best and most clutch lead-off hitters in baseball.
3. Jose Reyes, Mets, SS (2008: .297, 113 R, 56 SB, 16 HR, .358 OBP)
No lead-off hitter in baseball changes a game more than Jose Reyes when he's on his game. He's a nightmare for opposing teams if he gets on base and he's a big reason why the Mets scored more time in the first inning than any team in the NL last season.
In 2008, Reyes finished in the top ten in games played (157), at-bats (688), runs scored (113), hits (204), total bases (327), triples (19), stolen bases (56), runs created (122), extra base hits (72), intentional walks (13), and times on base (271).
The one knock against Reyes is that, for the second straight seasons, he's struggled down the stretch when the Mets needed him most. He's not only a great lead-off hitter, but as Reyes goes, so go the Mets.
2. Grady Sizemore, Indians, OF (2008: .268, 101 R, 38 SB, 33 HR, .374 OBP)
Grady Sizemore is a five-tool player, and maybe the most complete lead-off hitter in baseball.
Sizemore did it all in 2008—he hit for power (39 doubles, five triples, 33 home runs), he scored runs (101 runs scored), he drove in runs (90 RBI) and he stole bases (38 steals, and his first 30/30 season). His .268 batting average was on the low side, and he did strike out 130 times, but he did walk 98 times leading to a very respectable .374 on- base percentage.
He scored 100 or more runs, hit 20 or more homers, and smacked at least 30 doubles the past four seasons. Sizemore is such a good hitter that it may not be long before he is moved to the third spot in the order to take advantage of his power and run production.
He is not only one of the best lead-off guys in the game, but he may also be the most complete player in the majors.
1. Ichiro, Mariners, OF (2008: .310, 103 R, 43 SB, 6 HR, .361 OBP)
Ichiro is the best lead-off hitter in the game today, period. His career lows of 101 runs scored (2004), 206 hits (2005), five triples (2004), 31 steals (2002), .303 batting average (2005) and .350 on base percentage (2005) would be career highs for most of the guys on this list.
In his eight seasons since coming over form Japan, Ichiro has been one of the most consistent lead-off hitters around, posting eight consecutive seasons of 100 or more runs scored, 200 or more hits, 30 or more steals, .300 or higher average, and a .350 or better on-base percentage.
He doesn't walk much, but he's still finished in the top 10 in times on base every year of his career.
Throw in the fact that Ichiro's as durable a player as any in the sport, playing in 1280 of a possible 1296 games in his career, and you've got the most reliable lead-off hitter in baseball.
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