And thus we begin our countdown of the 25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era. The rest of the posts can be found here.
The baseball gods sent us a wonderful Christmas present on December 25, 1958.
The greatest leadoff batter of all-time: Rickey Henderson.
The Hall-of-Famer was born in the back seat on the way to the hospital, proving that even in the beginning, Rickey was faster than everyone else.
It seems very fitting that Rickey will be the first of the countdown, both because of his leadoff abilities, and because it fits the blog’s moniker. So let’s talk about Rickey. We all know about the stolen bases. Henderson finished with 1406, best in history. But this is about his hitting ability. Why does he deserve to be in the graduating class?
In my original preview for this countdown, I mentioned “expectations.” Is it fair to consider that the best hitters of all-time must be sluggers? The number one thing a guy can do, as a batter, is hit the ball out of the yard. Nothing helps a team more, nothing hurts an opponent more. So is there room for batters with other specialties? There is some room, especially when those other specialities are done by a generational talent.
Rickey was expected to get on base. And Rickey set the table at an elite rate for his entire career.
Sporting a .401 career on-base percentage, Rickey made a habit of placing himself on the base paths. Sure, there are others who get on base at that clip, and we’ll talk about them later. I brought up his on-base first because his average of .279 doesn’t describe him fairly. Again, expectations. Henderson did his job as good as any leadoff man should be expected. And, as we know, this was especially important for Henderson, who terrorized pitchers his entire career by stealing bases. Once he got on, his speed and the threat of it changed games.
Perhaps forgotten in recent times, Rickey is second all-time in bases on balls. He drew 2,190 walks in his career. In his 25 years in the big leagues, he finished a season with a .400+ OBP 15 times. He also carries a .398 and a .399 on that resume, so in 17 seasons he got on base at .398 or better. That stat is my ace-in-the-hole to support Henderson. His career high came in 1990 with the Oakland A’s, when he got on base at a rate of .439 in 594 plate appearances. He batted .325 and hit 28 home runs in that campaign, earning him the MVP award.
His abilities to reach base by walk or hit never seemed to slow down, either. At age 40, as a member of the New York Mets, he rolled to a .423 on base while hitting .315 over 526 plate appearances.
And oh yeah, he could also hit home runs.
Although it’s arguable his total of 297 was simply a result of a long career, he found the seats at better career rate (2.71%) than Robin Yount (2.28%), Roberto Alomar (2.31%), or even Craig Biggio (2.68%). And he leads all hitters in history with 81 home runs to lead-off a game.
I suspect someone might point out some of the hitting sabermetrics attached to Rickey. For instance, his wOBA is .379, which can be topped by hitters like Fred McGriff (.383) or even Juan Gonzalez (.383).
But for me, Rickey’s dynamic influence on the game carries weight.
In my original criteria, I said I would not use stolen bases as a stat to rank hitters. The only exception I’m allowing myself is Rickey Henderson, who changed the game just by stepping into the batter’s box. Pitchers feared that he would reach base, because a single could be a triple after two pitches to the next hitter. And even with major league pitchers determined to do their best to keep him from reaching, he still got on over 40% of the time. That carries significant weight, to me.
I hope you agree.
Thanks for reading. You can find other blogs related to this countdown here.
Look for #24 soon!