Thursday, January 29, 2009

All-Time Leadoff

Sportswriters have to write something down, find a new angle that other people aren't writing about, so they sometimes back themselves into these corners just for controversy's sake. I get that. Still, you are responsible for what you write, ultimately, so you don't have a good excuse if you write something stupid. When Rickey Henderson was just elected to the Hall of Fame, lots of people referred to him as the greatest leadoff hitter ever. That could be true. But just for controversy, ESPN suggested that Pete Rose might be a better leadoff hitter. Please, no. Let's not even have that discussion. I admit I have always liked to kick Pete Rose because he's a jerk, but this is just not an intelligent conversation. And the easiest way to illustrate that to you is to compare Rose to a player that you would never in a hundred years consider the best leadoff hitter of all time, and see that Rose loses that comparison. Carl Yastrzemski would be a better leadoff hitter for your all-star team than Pete Rose. I am not joshing you here. Their careers overlapped almost entirely, eliminating the need to make cross-era comparisons. Everyone gets excited by Rose's 4000+ hits and .300+ batting average, so they figure that of course you would bat him leadoff over Yaz. But you wouldn't. We now know that on-base percentage is a more valuable number than batting average, and Rose is behind Yaz, .379 - .375. Those walks add up over time, and Rose didn't walk much. Yaz did. 300 times more in his career. Sure it looks really cool, with Charlie Hustle running down to first base on a walk, with the announcers cooing about how he gets on base any way he can, but in strict point of fact, he didn't actually get on base more than Yaz. Once on base, both of them tried to steal some bases and shouldn't have bothered. We now know that stolen bases are only valuable is you make it 70% of the time, and neither approached that. Yaz stole 168 in 284 attempts, for a 59% average. Rose was worse, stealing 198 out of 347 for 57%. I am, you will notice, comparing them only as leadoff hitters. I am comparing Rose's strength to Yaz out of place in the lineup, and Rose still loses. It gets worse. If you made Carl Yastrzemski bat leadoff his whole career, if you told him that getting on base was more important to your team than power, do you think he might have done just a bit better still? Already leading Rose in the most important categories, wouldn't he start to pull away even more? At least 40 more AB per season, too. It adds up. Of course, with Yaz you get power, too. 100 fewer doubles, 80 fewer triples, and 260 more home runs. Pete Rose is not in the conversation for best leadoff hitter of all time.


Anonymous said...

You are right on. One of the overlooked benefits of Ricky Henderson is that, if he singled or walked to lead off the game, he was likely to be on second base before anyone was out. I could look it up, but the likelihood of scoring a run when you are on second base with none out is much better than on first base with none out. As you point out, Rose would fail in his attempt to steal second far too many times to be effective. Ellsbury has the potential to do the same thing with the Red Sox. He doesn't have to double to lead off the game, he needs to single or walk and then he can be on second, setting up the RBI situation for Pedroia, Youk or Papi. A single will get him home.

Anonymous said...

That just doesn't seem to be a fair comparison at all. Who was batting after Yaz and how does that compare to the hitter behind Rose?

Next, at least once a game Rose came up with no one on base. How often was Yaz up with no one on base.

In the end, your comparison of a clean up hitter and a lead off hitter just doesn't work.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Approximately, a walk is worth .3 runs, a single .4 runs, a double .7 runs, a triple 1.1 runs, and a homer 1.4 runs. I don't know the percentages for those with varying numbers of outs.

Anonymous - their differences in the order was why I did not compare RBI's - big advantage for Yaz - or runs scored - big advantage for Rose. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan came after Rose, Dwight Evans was often after Yaz.

Anonymous said...

Is it my imagination or is there a significant Boston Red Sox bias at this site?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

At a minimum, that was why Yaz occurred to me as a comparison, rather than George Brett or Frank Robinson, say.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't this work to show that no actual leadoff hitter was the greatest leadoff hitter of all time? You could probably find some home run hitter (who never, or almost never, batted leadoff) with a great on-base percetage and lots of home runs. Some of them would even be pretty successful base stealers (at least as measured by success rate; Canseco perhap? I don't know; too lazy to look it up).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

acuc, etc. There's something in that. A lot of #3/4 hitters actually have the best on base percentage, and thus would be better than the leadoff hitter. Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines would be exceptions to that. There were players in the old days - Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, who were more of the leadoff specialist type. These days, any number of #3 hitters might be better than all the leadoff hitters.

Still, there are enough exceptions to that - Wade Boggs comes to mind - that it's still worth considering that topic.

Interestingly, to lead with Henderson, you have to play him in LF. To do that, you have to leave off Barry Bonds (you can make that argument), Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and a few guys from the Negro Leagues. Greatest leadoff hitter or not, you probably don't want Rickey over those guys.

But I think that just emphasises further that you don't want anything to do with Pete Rose. If you need a multi-position player for your all-time team, take Craig Biggio, Robin Yount, or Martin Dihigo.

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