MLB Preview 2011: Power Ranking the Best Leadoff Men in Baseball
What makes a great leadoff hitter?
Getting on base at a high rate is a good start, but everyone in the lineup is expected to do that. A good eye always helps, but he shouldn't be afraid to swing. Speed is a bonus, but some of the fastest players in baseball hit at the bottom of the batting order.
The truth is that there's no formula for the perfect leadoff hitter. Every player approaches the game differently and every team has a different offensive style.
But, that doesn't diminish the importance of the leadoff man.
These 30 hitters are their team's respective table-setters, responsible for getting their club off to a good start and rallying their teammates to victory. They may not get the attention of the star slugger or the ace of the pitching staff, but a good leadoff hitter can be the difference between a postseason berth and an October date with the couch.
So here are my rankings of baseball's top leadoff men and what to expect from them next season. As always, share your thoughts below.
30. Melky Cabrera, OF, Kansas City Royals
Cabrera probably doesn't deserve to start, let alone lead-off, but he's still the best option Kansas City has at the moment.
The former Yankee had a promising start to his career, hitting 13 homers and swiping 10 bags in 2009 to go along with a respectable .333 OBP. He then joined the Braves in an offseason deal for Javier Vazquez and proceeded to fall off the proverbial map. He posted career lows in nearly every offensive category despite logging over 500 at-bats and his OBP slumped to .314 with a ghastly 42-64 SO-BB ratio.
Cabrera doesn't hit for power, doesn't walk and has average speed at best. He'll lose his center field job to Lorenzo Cain (part of the Zach Greinke trade) sooner rather than later and may find himself replaced at the top of the order by shortstop Alcides Escobar.
29. Erick Aybar, SS, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The speedy Peter Bourjos handled leadoff duties for the Angels at the tail end of the 2010 season, but he's too anemic offensively to get that many at-bats. Unfortunately for the Angels, Aybar isn't much better.
The Dominican-born shortstop had a terrible season in 2010, with a .253/.306/.330 line that barely warranted regular playing time. He was substantially better in 2009 (.312/.353/.423), so his production in 2011 should fall somewhere between the two.
Aybar doesn't strike out much (career 12.4 strikeout percentage), but he doesn't walk much either (career 5.0 walk percentage). He has decent speed (36 steals the last two seasons), but almost no power (10 home runs in the same time span).
Unless he can show some of the potential he had as a rising youngster, Aybar might lose his spot on the field and in the lineup.
28. Nyjer Morgan, OF, Washington Nationals
Morgan has spent his entire major league career playing for two of baseball's most inept franchises (Pittsburgh and Washington), so it's not entirely his fault that he's never had any lineup protection behind him. Although, no amount of sluggers hitting behind him could make Morgan into a serious offensive threat.
One skill he does have, however, is speed. Morgan has 76 steals in the last two seasons (and a league-leading 34 times caught stealing) and is a fantastic baserunner.
He doesn't hit for a particularly high average (career .288) and he doesn't get on base at a high rate either (career .344 OBP). His plate discipline is also lacking, with just 40 walks in each of the last two seasons despite over 1,000 total plate appearances.
Morgan had a bad year in 2010 (.253/.310/.314), but he should hit closer to his career averages in 2011. If he figures out how to take a pitch and how to hit a fastball, then there's a decent chance he could develop into a good player even at the age of 30.
27. Rajai Davis, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
Like Morgan and the next player on this list, Davis is a very one-dimensional player. He stole 116 bases in three seasons in Oakland while only contributing 83 extra-base hits in the same time span. He's a decent hitter, with a .281 career batting average, but he has awful patience as evidenced by his 5.9 walk rate.
Davis was traded to Toronto in the offseason where he will once again be the leadoff hitter. He'll keep stealing bases and slapping singles to left field, but don't expect his OBP to get above .320.
26. Juan Pierre, OF, Chicago White Sox
Pierre has truly elite speed, with 527 steals over an 11-year career and three stolen base titles, including one in 2010.
But the knock on Pierre is—and always has been—his bat. The man simply can't hit. He's never hit more than three home runs in a season and his .298 career batting average relies a little too much on infield hits (about a quarter in total).
His OBP was an impressive .341 last season, but he's unlikely to repeat that this season when considering his OBP hovered around .330 from 2005-2008.
Despite over 6,000 major league at-bats, Pierre still doesn't have great plate discipline. His 5.7 walk rate is poor for even a one-dimensional player and seemingly the only way he's ever going to get past first base is by stealing second.
25. Kosuke Fukudome, OF, Chicago Cubs
The Cubs would love to get rid of Fukudome and his $13.5 million salary, but since they're stuck with him they might as well put him in a spot in the lineup where he can at least contribute something.
Fukudome does one thing very well and that is take pitches. His 14.9 percent walk rate in 2010 was among the highest in baseball, so it's no surprise that he had a .371 OBP. But Fukudome has only average power and little speed to do anything with once he reaches first base. He also strikes out too much, with 283 in just three seasons.
Top prospect Starlin Castro—who's only 21 by the way—will get a chance to replace Fukudome atop the order once he gets some more major league seasoning. Fukudome will also lose some at-bats to 25-year-old outfielder Tyler Colvin.
24. Drew Stubbs, OF, Cincinnati Reds
The Reds could go with either Stubbs or second baseman Brandon Phillips in the leadoff spot, but neither is exactly an on-base whiz.
Stubbs posted just a .329 OBP in his first full season and struck out an ungodly 168 times. But, the 26-year-old is a truly special talent. He hit 22 home runs and recorded 30 steals last season and has the mold of a young Alfonso Soriano.
Stubbs doesn't hit for a very high average, but his strikeout numbers should go down as he adjusts to major league pitching. If he does that, he'll see himself rocketing up these rankings.
23. Andres Torres, OF, San Francisco Giants
Torres had never been anything more of a spare part, spending 12 years in the minors for six different organizations and earning only limited playing time in the majors. But the Giants gave the 33-year-old a shot to start and Torres surprised everyone by having a great season for the World Champions.
In just over 500 at-bats the former sprinter put up a .268/.343/.479 season and stole a team-high 26 bases. The strikeouts were high (128), but the power (43 doubles and 16 home runs) was a pleasant surprise for a player with less than 200 major league games under his belt.
It's tough to tell whether Torres is a fluke or a legitimate talent, but if he can just repeat his 2010 campaign then he'll give the Giants a major boost atop the batting order.
22. Coco Crisp, OF, Oakland Athletics
Crisp hasn't had more than 500 at-bats in a season since 2007 and only twice in his nine-year career. But when he's been on the field, Crisp has been pretty productive.
He had a .342 OBP in 2010 on top of a career-high 32 steals and he did that in just 75 games. Crisp has never been an easy hitter to strike out and has always kept his strikeout rate under 15.0. He doesn't walk too much, but he has enough power to hit 10-12 home runs.
Given a full season, there's no reason Crisp can't keep his OBP above .340 and add 50 steals. But for someone who's only played in more than 140 games twice in his career, that's a pretty big if.
21. Jason Bartlett, SS, San Diego Padres
Reality finally caught up with Bartlett in 2010 after two stellar seasons from 2008-2009 during which he hit everything in sight. His regression last year was severe enough to convince the Rays to move their shortstop in a trade with San Diego.
It was a tough season for Bartlett, who saw his batting average plummet from .320 to .254, his on-base percentage drop from .389 to .324, his speed shrink from 30 steals to just 11 and his power disappear altogether. Moving to pitcher-friendly Petco Park won't do Bartlett any favors either.
But, the 31-year-old is far from done. He's always been a good, if unspectacular, hitter and his speed and patience will keep him in uniform for a long time. The power numbers won't come back, but a .350 OBP in 2011 wouldn't be a stretch.
20. Michael Bourn, OF, Houston Astros
The two-time NL stolen base champ just keeps getting better and better. Bourn made his first All-Star team in 2010 and has established himself as one of the best on-base guys in the game.
His OBP dropped to .341 last season from .354 in 2009, but with some luck he could push it up as high as .360. Of course, Bourn is a threat to swipe second any time he reaches first base and he's a very high percentage base-stealer, converting over 80 percent of his opportunities.
Bourn's Achilles' heel is his high strikeout totals—over 100 in each of the last three seasons. But his strikeout rate has gone down each of those three years as well, while his walk rate has gone up, so the 28-year-old is definitely trending in the right direction.
19. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia Phillies
Once upon a time Rollins was one of the best all-around players in baseball. In fact, it was just in 2007 that Rollins was the NL MVP and the best player on a loaded Phillies team. But time hasn't been kind to the 32-year-old and 2010 was the first season in his career that he's missed significant playing time.
Rollins finished with a .243/.320/.374 line, his worst on-field performance since 2003. The speed is still there (17 steals in 88 games last season) and strikeouts are low (career 11.5 percent), but the loss of power is fading his batting average, which has dropped each of the last four years.
Rollins should get his batting up to .260 or .270, but his OBP is unlikely to get above .330. The only thing keeping him in the leadoff spot is his speed, but at this point his career Shane Victorino might be a better option.
18. Skip Schumaker, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals have probably the most fearsome middle-of-the-order in baseball, with Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus manning the No. 2-6 spots in some order. But the man setting the table for those four sluggers is none other than Schumaker.
His production is easy to overlook considering some of his teammates and the fact that he's only been a full-time player for three seasons, but Schumaker has put together some solid seasons. He has a career .291 batting average and .349 OBP, well above-average for a second baseman. He struggled in 2010 with his OBP falling to .328, but that was likely because he was moved around the field so much.
Schumaker has minimal power and speed, but it's not like he'd ever try to steal a base with Pujols at the plate anyway. He's 31 now and is still competent enough at the plate (career 1.41 SO/BB ratio) to keep his OBP around .350 next season.
17. Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers
Like several players on this list, Jackon's major weakness as a leadoff hitter is his high strikeout totals. In his first major league season the former Yankees prospect whiffed a league-leading 170 times and received only 47 free passes. But as painful as it was to watch A-Jax swing and miss, the Tigers were more than pleased with the rest of his contributions.
Jackson has unbelievable athleticism and, despite minimal professional experience, he wreaked havoc all over the field in 2010. He finished with 34 doubles, 10 triples, 103 runs and 27 steals. His OBP was unusually high at .345 considering his strikeout totals—Jackson is a good hitter who should continue to hit for a reasonably high average.
His .393 BABIP was the highest in baseball last year and that's just not sustainable. Jackson supporters should expect closer to a .330 OBP with 25-30 steals, at least until he improves his plate discipline.
16. Stephen Drew, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Drew, like everyone else in the Diamondbacks lineup, strikes out way too much. He whiffed 108 times last season and is a good bet to do reach triple digits again in 2011. But it's what else he does with the bat that makes him such a dangerous hitter.
The five-tool talent had 60 extra-base hits last season and has never had less than 44 in his five-year major league career. His power (career .448 slugging percentage) make up for his lack of speed and average plate discipline (9.8 percent BB rate in 2010). And at only 28 years old Drew has the potential to get even better.
Kelly Johnson will get some leadoff looks as well for the Diamondbacks, but right now Drew is the favorite.
15. Johnny Damon, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Damon could've run a camp on how to be a great leadoff hitter back in his heyday, when he was a consistent 20-20 threat with an OBP consistently in the .350-.380 range. He hasn't aged as gracefully as some of the other players on this list though and that's why he finds himself in the middle of the rankings.
Damon's 2010 campaign with the Tigers was one of the worst of his career. His power all but disappeared with only eight home runs and he stole a career-low 11 bases. His peripherals, meanwhile, dropped to .271/.355/.401 from a career line of .287/.355/.436. Damon was particularly bad on the road, compiling a line of just .249/.351/.364.
He won't be expected to contribute much now that he's in Tampa Bay, but he should still be able to get back to a .360 OBP with double-digit home runs and a handful of steals. Not great, but not too bad either.
14. Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies
Fowler has weaknesses—mainly his inability to hit lefties or on the road, but at 25 years old he can be forgiven. He's still a fantastic all-around talent who should only get better.
The Rockies center fielder was a stud during his major league debut in 2009 and had an impressive .363 OBP despite a relatively low batting average (.266) and lots of strikeouts (22.4 strikeout percentage). He struggled at times in 2010, but more or less put up similar numbers and showed flashes of power. The steals aren't jaw-dropping, but Fowler does use his legs to get lots of doubles and triples (a league-leading 14 last season).
If he can improve his splits, there's no reason Fowler can't consistently put up a .280/.360/.420 line with 20-30 steals thrown in.
13. Martin Prado, OF, Atlanta Braves
Some might be surprised to see Prado this high on the list after spending the early part of his major league career as a spare part for the Braves. But three consecutive seasons with a batting average of at least .300 and an OBP of at least .350 should be good enough to get anyone's attention.
Prado made his first ever All-Star team in 2010 while sporting a line of .307/.350/.459. He also added 40 doubles and 15 home runs, uncharacteristically good production for a middle infielder. He doesn't have much speed and he'd rather swing at four straight pitches than take four straight pitches, but the results seem to speak for themselves.
Prado is 27 so it'd make sense that he at least repeat his 2010 performance this season. If he does, he would give the Braves a truly potent lineup.
12. Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida Marlins
The 2009 NL Rookie of the Year had an unbelievable major league debut, sporting a .321/.390/.460 with respectable power (31 doubles, nine home runs) and speed (eight steals). Last season wasn't nearly as kind to Coghlan because of a knee injury that knocked him out for the last 10 weeks of the year. But if healthy, this 25-year-old belongs in any discussion about the best leadoff men in baseball.
Coghlan isn't just a good hitter, he's a smart hitter too. His 16.7 percent strikeout rate is impressive for someone still adjusting to major league pitching and he already has better plate discipline than most baseball veterans. His power projects to improve too.
The Marlins must be wondering what happened to the speed that netted Coghlan 34 steals as a Double-A player in 2008, but that would just be icing on the cake.
11. Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers
The debate over Weeks has never been if he has the talent, but rather if he can stay on the field. In 2010 he finally proved that he could and delivered a career year.
In 160 games the second baseman put up a .269/.366/.464 line to go along with 32 doubles, 29 home runs and 11 steals. Middle infielders with this much power don't come along very often and though Weeks is probably good enough to hit in the middle of the order, the Brewers are perfectly happy with him right where he is.
Weeks strikes out a ton (24.4 strikeout rate in 2010), but that won't matter if he keeps getting on base at his current rate. Fans should also see an increase in the stolen base department, with new manager Ron Roenicke taking over in Milwaukee.
10. Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees
Anybody who thinks Jeter is capable of repeating what he did in 2009 (.334/.406/.465 with 18 home runs and 30 steals) is kidding themselves. He's 36 years old and, lack of defensive range aside—he's lost the ability to drive the ball.
That said, Jeter is still a pretty good player. He's a safe bet for 700 at-bats, double-digit home runs and double-digit steals. His numbers may rebound from his .270/.340/.370 line in 2010, but they won't rebound much. Jeter would be lucky to get his OBP higher than .350.
Jeter's offense has always more than made up for his shortcomings on defense. It still does, despite a career 14.3 strikeout rate that will only go up, but not for much longer. Brett Gardner probably deserves the leadoff spot more than Jeter does, but that won't happen as long as Jeter's ego stays inflated to the size of a hot-air balloon.
9. Brian Roberts, 2B, Baltimore Orioles
Roberts missed most of the 2010 season with a variety of injuries, but if healthy he gives the Orioles one of the most consistent leadoff men in baseball.
The Baltimore second baseman has a rare combination of power and speed, with four seasons of at least 10 home runs and 30 stolen bases. He has a .355 career on-base percentage, though with the hitters behind him (Nick Markakis, Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, Luke Scott) that number should only go up.
Roberts' lone weakness is a strikeout rate which has hovered around 15 percent each of the past three seasons. But the 33-year-old balances that with above-average plate discipline and plus speed.
8. Rafael Furcal, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
Furcal has steadily been one of the best leadoff men in baseball throughout his 11-year major league career and 2011 should be no exception.
The shortstop hit .300/.366/.460 en route to his second-ever All-Star selection. Injuries sidelined him for large portions of the season, but in 97 games Furcal still managed to record 22 steals (the eighth time he's topped 20) and added a collection of doubles (23), triples (seven) and home runs (eight). He's also one of the hardest players to strike out in all of baseball.
Furcal is 33 and shortstops rarely age gracefully, so a small regression wouldn't be a surprise. But, if healthy, he's still a decent bet for a .350 OBP and 20-25 steals.
7. Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox
Carl Crawford is actually a much better leadoff hitter, but he will hit in the middle of the order. That means Ellsbury will return to the role he's held since breaking through with the Red Sox in 2007.
Like Roberts, Ellsbury missed almost all of last season. But from 2008-2009 he was arguably as good as any leadoff man in baseball. In those two seasons he combined for 190 runs, 49 doubles, 17 triples, 17 home runs and 120 steals. He had a career-high .351 OBP in 2009 and is at .344 for his career.
Ellsbury, 27, isn't a complete player yet. His plate discipline (6.8 walk rate) is worse than most major league regulars and his power is developing. But it would be a bit of a shock if Ellsbury didn't lead the league in both runs and steals with the high-powered lineup behind him.
6. Denard Span, OF, Minnesota Twins
In Span's first two seasons in Minnesota he had a combined .390 OBP and 41 steals in 238 games. He hit for a high average, didn't chase bad pitches and made smart decisions on the basepaths. The Twins rewarded him with a five-year, $16.5 million contract and Span returned the favor in 2010 by having the worst season of his short career.
Span's OBP plummeted to .331 and he got picked off from first base at an alarming rate. He struck out less, but he also walked less. The speed and defense were still there, but the Twins definitely need more from their center fielder if they want to make a run at the AL Central title.
Still only 27, Span should be able to rebound from a down year and post an OBP closer to .350 or .360. If he doesn't, the Twins could try out Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka at the leadoff spot.
5. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Texas Rangers
Ron Washington recently announced that Kinsler would be his leadoff man and that's good news for the Rangers because Kinsler is perfect for it.
Despite a pair of injuries that hampered him all season, Kinsler still put up a remarkable .286/.382/.412 line. He hit a career-low nine home runs, probably because of a groin strain that limited his ability to get lift on his swing, but still posted a career-high OBP. He also substantially improved his plate discipline to a 12.2 walk rate while keeping his strikeouts down.
Kinsler, 28, is in the heart of his prime and should put up numbers closer to what he did in 2009, when he hit 31 home runs and stole 31 bases. The OBP should stay around .370 and, if healthy, Kinsler should have no problem scoring 100 runs for the third time in his career.
4. Grady Sizemore, OF, Cleveland Indians
It's easy to forget now, but Sizemore was once an elite MLB talent. He made three consecutive All-Star teams from 2006-2008 and was a legitimate MVP candidate during Cleveland's surprisingly recent heyday. But then elbow issues limited his production in 2009 and a knee injury caused him to miss most of 2010 and forced him to get microfracture surgery.
But Sizemore is still only 28 years old, so it's way too early to call him washed-up. In 2008, his last full season with the Indians, the left-handed slugger had a great .268/.375/.502 line and became one of the few players in MLB history to hit at least 30 home runs (33) and steal at least 30 bases (38).
Sizemore does have a tendency to strike out (19.5 strikeout rate for his career), but he makes up for it with a good eye (11.0 walk rate) and a rare blend of power and speed. If healthy, he has the talent to once again be among baseball's elite.
3. Andrew McClutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
McCutchen had nearly identical lines in 2009 (.286/.365/.471) and 2010 (.286/.365/.449) so he's obviously the real deal. He has plus speed (33 steals in 570 at-bats last season) and excellent plate discipline for a 24-year-old (career 1.39 SO/BB ratio).
The only question with McCutchen is how much better can he get?
The power is still developing and pitch selection should only get better. His 2010 season is a floor for what he might do in 2011, but with modest improvements McCutchen could easily crack .300 batting with a .380 OBP. Even scarier, he has the potential to be a perennial 20-40 HR-SB guy. Try naming the last baseball player to do that, let alone doing it as a leadoff hitter.
2. Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets
Injuries have knocked Reyes off the platform of baseball stardom and limited him to two lackluster seasons. Though he hit 11 home runs and stole 30 bases, his .318 OBP left Mets fans gasping for breath. But he still hit for a high average (.282) and maintained a respectable SO-BB ratio.
Reyes should finally be healthy going into 2011 and that points to a big season for the shortstop. Before 2010 he had four consecutive seasons with an OBP of at least .354. He's still one of the fastest players in all of baseball and has led the league in steals in three of the past six years.
If Reyes stays healthy for an entire season, then there's no reason he can't get his OBP back above .350 with 50-60 extra-base hits and 50 steals. There are only a handful of players in all of baseball capable of that kind of production and Reyes is one of them.
1. Ichiro Suzuki, OF, Seattle Mariners
If you could genetically engineer the perfect leadoff hitter, chances are that he would look something like Ichiro.
The 37-year-old has been as consistent of a player over the past decade as there is in baseball. He's never had less than 200 hits in a season, never batted under .300 and never had an OBP under .350.
His legs also seem to be still working, with 42 steals in 51 attempts last year. Ichiro has never been known as a power-hitter, but his 85 extra-base hits over the last two seasons would beg to differ. And of coursehe's next to impossible to strike out, with just a 9.3 strikeout rate.
One of these days Ichiro will show his age, but it won't be in 2011. Until then he'll remain the best leadoff man in baseball and one of the best all-around talents in the history of the game.