Lou Brock, ’77 Record-Breaker in . . . (Yet Another) Nagging Question

January 14, 2009

For you youngsters out there, here’s a checklist you can use to gain quick, enthusiastic entry into the baseball Hall of Fame:

  • Surpass one or more of the long-established career statistical benchmarks equated with greatness
  • Have a pleasing, compelling, uncomplicated narrative component to your career

If you have the first item checked off but have neglected to ensure the achievement of the second, you will not be greeted with open arms by Immortality. Consider Don Sutton, who had to wait through a few years of rejection by voters before getting into the Hall even though he had surpassed the magic number of 300 wins, his problem being a lack of a story with a hook (beyond, perhaps, his underreported status as a brave pioneer in the eroding of baseball’s unsaid yet staunch and enduring no-perm policy). Or, to address the “uncomplicated” element in the second checklist item, consider Mark McGwire, whose statistics are festooned with garish statistical baubles that would seem to put him on par with the greatest sluggers in the history of the game, yet who has gotten very scarce support from voters because the perception of his story is that it is covered in lurid, nauseating back acne, the kind of thing that most people instinctively turn away from and try to pretend they never saw.

If you have the second item checked off but not the first, you might still be able to sail in on the first vote, but you probably have to be named Jackie Robinson or Sandy Koufax or have a similarly spectacular supernova-bright presence in your relatively short time in the spotlight.

So really it’s safest to have both items checked off, which the man pictured here did with a paradoxical combination of relentlessness and quiet grace. He amassed over 3,000 hits to check off the first item on the above list and checked off the second item primarily by (as noted in this special 1978 baseball card) establishing himself as The Greatest Base Stealer of All Time. (He also deepened the hues of Greatness in his story by performing spectacularly well in World Series play.)

A couple days ago Rickey Henderson, who supplanted Brock as The Greatest Base Stealer of All Time, also sauntered into the Hall on his first try, and many of the stories about his easy election mentioned his status as The Greatest Leadoff Man of All Time. I don’t know if Brock was also given that distinction upon his election, but I suspect that it at least came up in some retrospective reporting about his career. The prevailing perception of Brock was that he was one of the greatest of the greats (Bill James points out while compiling his own top 100 that Brock had a composite ranking of 63rd best player of all-time on the lists he consulted—The Sporting News; SABR poll; Total Baseball; Maury Allen; Honig and Ritter; and Faber), so it stands to reason that many would have ranked him as the Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time until the coming of the long and storied career of Rickey Henderson.

With this in mind, I thought I’d play around with a few simple numbers of the guys that sprung to my mind as being among baseball’s greatest leadoff hitters. Be warned: None of the lists below account for era and park factors, and the lists, since they are based on statistical records, also exclude any leadoff hitters from the Negro Leagues (Cool Papa Bell probably foremost among them). Please don’t hesitate to be the first to bring up the name of some should-have-been-obvious guy I left off the list. (Some all-time greats, such as Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, and Joe Morgan, who would seem to be perfectly suited for the leadoff role, were excluded from the lists because they were more often—or in Morgan’s case at least throughout his prime—used as middle-of-the-lineup hitters.) Consider the following then as just a bit of superficial numbers-related playtime, perhaps its only merit being that it happened to stumble into further illustrating how high Rickey Henderson towers over other leadoff-hitting greats.

With Henderson’s spot at the top as a given, then, and with the numbers below as mildly relevant party favors, I offer today’s nagging question:

Who was the second-greatest leadoff hitter of all time?

Games (The most underrated of all counting stats, in my opinion)
1. Pete Rose 3562
2. Rickey Henderson 3081
3. Craig Biggio 2850
4. Eddie Collins 2826
5. Paul Molitor 2683
6. Lou Brock 2616
7. Tim Raines 2502
8. Richie Ashburn 2189
9. Billy Hamilton 1591
10. Jackie Robinson 1382

Runs (What it all boils down to for a leadoff guy)
1. Henderson 2295
2. Rose 2165
3. Biggio 1844
4. Collins 1821
5. Molitor 1782
6. Hamilton 1690
7. Brock 1610
8. Raines 1571
9. Ashburn 1322
10. Robinson 947

Runs/game (A chance for short-timers such as Hamilton and Robinson to make up ground)
1. Hamilton 1.1
2. Henderson .74
3. Robinson .69
4. Molitor .66
5. Biggio .65
6. Collins .64
7. Raines .63
8. Brock .62
9. Rose .61
10. Ashburn .60

OBP (The list that might have benefited the most from adjustment for era)
1. Hamilton .455
2. Collins .424
3. Robinson .409
4. Henderson .401
5. Ashburn .396
6. Rose .375
7. Raines .385
8. Molitor .369
9. Biggio .363
10. Brock .343

Stolen bases (The leadoff-man list with all the bells and whistles)
1. Henderson 1406
2. Brock 938
3. Hamilton 912
4. Raines 808
5. Collins 744
6. Molitor 504
7. Biggio 414
8. Ashburn 234
9. Rose 198
10. Robinson 197

Stolen base percentage (And here’s where the great Tim Raines makes his move. Also, players with incomplete caught-stealing numbers were ranked by estimated place on the list; the deadball guys are near the bottom, cushioned only by the relentless out-maker, Rose, because I think anecdotal evidence points to high caught-stealing rates during those olden days.)
1. Raines 85%
2. Henderson 81%
3. Molitor 79%
4. Biggio 77%
5. Robinson ? (76% in ’51–’56)
5. Brock 75%
7. Ashburn ? (66% in ’51–’62)
8. Collins ?
9. Hamilton ?
10. Rose 57%

Stolen base titles (I don’t know, I added this category thinking it might benefit guys from low-stolen-base eras, such as Robinson and Ashburn. It didn’t end up doing this, but I kept it in here so as to throw the likable Lou Brock a bone. . . . Believe me, I understand how far this whole exercise is from actual useful analysis.)
1. Henderson 12
2. Brock 8
3. Hamilton 5
4. Collins 4
4. Raines 4
6. Robinson 2
7. Biggio 1
7. Ashburn 1
9. Molitor 0
9. Rose 0

Total score (This is the sum of the rankings, low score first; as alluded to before, I like how the biggest gap between any of the players is between Rickey and his closest pursuer. I think Jackie Robinson gets majorly shafted by my little game; because of his excellent OBP, plus his reputation as a ferocious competitor and smart, fast, and disruptive baserunner, I’m tempted to pick Robinson as the second-best leadoff man of all time. It’s a tough call, though, because his career was so short. And speaking of short careers, I really don’t know much about Billy Hamilton, but I think he’s getting a distorted boost here by virtue of the relatively high OBP and steal numbers of his era. Eddie Collins also comes off well here, as the guy Bill James ranks as the 18th best player of all-time should, but you could argue that his numbers benefit from the fact that he played during an era diluted by segregation. Next on the list is a two-man tie including Craig Biggio, but Biggio’s OBP and runs scored numbers were recorded during a long league-wide offensive explosion. With all that in mind, I think I’m still leaning toward the guy I was rooting for all along to finish second to Rickey in this exercise, Tim Raines, a man apparently lacking both of the checklist items mentioned at the top of this post, and the only man on the list who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, or ensured of someday being in the Hall of Fame, or currently banned from entering the Hall of Fame.)
1. Henderson 13
2. Hamilton 32
3. Collins 33
4. Biggio 38
4. Raines 38
6. Brock 41
7. Molitor 45
8. Rose 46
9. Robinson 47
10. Ashburn 54


  1. 1.  I really like this ad hoc analysis angle. My first thought was that Molitor was not really a lead off hitter for the majority of his career – but I could be just thinking of his post-Brewers years.

    I put Kenny Lofton into your analysis, and if I did it right I had him rated at 41 – the same neighborhood as Rock and Brock (given that their numbers would also increase for each category Lofton finishes ahead of them).

  2. 2.  Was Robinson a leadoff hitter? I think of him more as a two hitter.

    As so often happens with Robinson, it’s hard to really evaluate him properly-he was so special. He’s been dead almost exactly as long as I’ve been alive, and yet he is somehow a vivid presence to me. I’ve read acres of text about him, and seen those same film clips everyone else has, and yet-somehow, he still escapes me.

    In your rankings, though-you forgot nickname-“Sliding” Billy Hamilton.

    You have to give him points for that nickname.

  3. 3.  1 : You certainly could be right about Molitor not batting leadoof that much; I guess I’m stuck in the more distant past, when he batted first in front of Yount.

    Regarding Lofton: Bill James describes Billy Hamilton as a “Kenny Lofton type.”

    2 : And not to sound like a broken record, but you certainly could be right about Robinson not batting leadoff that much. So did Pee Wee lead off?

    “Sliding” is a good nickname; I’d probably rank it second behind “Rock.”

  4. 4.  I like the “simple narrative” explanation, Josh. Jim Rice probably used the “Most Feared Hitter” narrative to finally gain election.

    I’m a bit perplexed why Bert Blyleven’s narrative is seemingly so confused. If I were his HoF PR guy, I’d try to sell the “Best Curveball Ever” narrative first and foremost, and then add the other stuff (stats) as icing on the cake.

    It’s a bit unfair to ding the deadball guys for high caught stealing percentages–in a lower scoring environment, the breakeven point much lower, so you should be taking more risks.

    On the flip side, there’s a good case to be made that Tim Raines at his 85% success rate ran the bases far too cautiously. If he had run far more, and lowered his success percentage to a still-good 75%, he probably would have passed Brock in career steals, and had a much stronger comparative case for the Hall.

  5. 5.  4 : “I like the ‘simple narrative’ explanation.”

    Credit for that angle goes to Chris in Illinois, who offered this comment in yesterday’s post:

    “I guess in the end, the guys voting are writers so maybe it shouldn’t surprise me that they vote for good stories and are susceptible to emotional arguments that the baseball hall of fame is really about the narrative and not the objective worthiness of a candidate.”

    Blyleven’s narrative complications arise, I think, from the perceptions about his won-loss record (i.e., a lot of losses but not the magic 300 wins). The best curveball thing probably helps a little, but I guess it doesn’t have the narrative oomph of a legendary fastball.

    As for Raines, Keith Law has a piece suggesting that race might have something to do with his lack of support, voters being quicker to negatively view a black guy with a past drug problem (such as Raines) than they would a white guy with similar baggage (such as Molitor). I’m hesitant to rule something like that out as being a factor, but I really think it has more to do with the simple fact that Molitor got his 3,000 hits and Raines didn’t. If Raines had 3,000 hits nd 935 walks instead of 2605 hits and 1330 walks he’d have breezed into the Hall his first try. Anyway, there are a lot of interesting things in Law’s article:


  6. 6.  Here’s where I can put on airs; pretending to be part of the baseball intelligensia by noaming a guy 90% of you have never heard of who, while is nowhere near #2, should be close to the top 10. I’m talking, of course, about Topsy Hartsel.

  7. 7.  6 : I’ve heard the name, but I do admit I didn’t know anything about him until I just looked it up. Looks like he was a contemporary of Wee Willie Keeler, another good leadoff guy (I assume), and not to be confused with Ennui Wille Keeler.

    Another good lesser-known leadoff guy of a more recent vintage is Stan Hack.

    In other HoF news of a different variety: The Stooges, nominated for enshrinement, were denied yet again this year (not that anyone really cares that much about the R & R HoF):


  8. 8.  What about Runs Created? After all, isn’t their job to make something happen? Like…all those times Rickey, Lou, Billy, Ichiro, or any other leadoff hitter steal bases, it doesn’t just put him in scoring position, but also ensures the #2,#3, & #4 hitters got better pitches to hit. Which made the whole offense better. So what would be the RC rankings for all these #1 hitters and does it affect any of the overall ranking?

  9. 9.  8 : Good idea. Below is the list for runs created per game. I don’t think it’ll affect the “overall standings” much, but it does show two of my favorites, Robinson and Raines, in a good light, and it deals a further blow to Lou Brock. (By the way, you mentioned Ichiro, so I looked up his numbers in this stat and he’s right in the middle of the lofty pack at 6.5 runs created per game.)

    1. Hamilton 7.7
    2. Robinson 7.0
    3. Rickey 6.8
    4. Collins 6.6
    4. Raines 6.6
    6. Molitor 6.2
    7. Biggio 5.9
    7. Ashburn 5.9
    9. Rose 5.8
    10. Brock 5.2

  10. 10.  Great essay, and I vote for Raines.

    Jackie Robinson, by the way, was a cleanup hitter. Thanks to the old scoresheets of Allan Roth, Branch Rickey’s statistician, Retrosheet was able to compile Jackie’s splits for his career. He actually batted leadoff less often than any spot except 8th or 9th.


  11. 11.  10 : Wow. OK, so I guess Jackie Robinson joins Honus, Ty, and Morgan in the hypothetical leadoff guy universe.

    Robinson batting cleanup surprises me, what with all the other sluggers on those Dodger teams (Snider, Hodges, Campanella, Furillo). I mean, it’s not like he was on a team without other middle of the lineup options.

  12. 12.  Collins didn’t bat leadoff either.

  13. 13.  12 : D’oh!

    Now I wonder if Billy Hamilton batted leadoff. I assume he did, but we see how those assumptions have worked out so far. Anyway, the elimination of Robinson and Collins from the conversation certainly helps clear the way for Raines to take his place just below Henderson.

  14. 14.  Hamilton was a leadoff guy according to Bill James. A couple of other guys that might be mentioned are Nails Dykstra and (I know you might not like this one) Boggs.

    Did you ever figure out the answer to my trivia question?

  15. 15.  14 : Boggs was certainly an effective leadoff guy, though slow as a glacier. Nails wasn’t around very long, but for a couple (suspicious) years he was about the closest anybody ever came to Rickey.

    Yeah, I finally broke down and went to bb-ref to figure out the only guy to play with Ainge and Bo Jackson. It was surprising because I picture the guy as being a lifelong Jay. Further obscuring the answer for me was the fact that the team he played on with Bo was not the Royals, but a team I associate less strongly with Bo (the White Sox). (There were almost two answers to the question but ’81 Blue Jay Juan Berenguer missed being Bo’s teammate by one year, I think.)

  16. 16.  There were two answers. I’m assuming that you forgot about George Bell.

    If anyone from that era played for the Celtics and the Raiders there might be more answers.

  17. 17.  This trivia stumped me good. I was thinking that the Iorg brothers would be an answer if you counted them as one player. Darth Iorg, say. But it turns out even that doesn’t work.

  18. It would be interesting to see where everyone stand if you only count their stats for games when they were actually a lead off hitter.

    Why isn’t Al Bumbry or Omar Moreno on this list! 🙂

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