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Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Updated: February 21, 1:26 PM ET
In power age, prototype leadoff hitters are rare

By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

They're baseball's most precious commodity, and no, they don't do their work on the mound.

Pitchers, even the left-handed variety, can be found -- if you're willing to pay. Or overpay, in some instances.

Power hitters? They're everywhere, and can now play any position.

AL runs leaders
Top five teams in the AL whose leadoff hitters scored the most runs in 2001 (complete list):
Team Runs
Seattle 135
Cleveland 126
Oakland 115
Toronto 114
Texas 111
NL runs leaders
Top five teams in the NL whose leadoff hitters scored the most runs in 2001 (complete list):
Team Runs
Houston 130
Colorado 126
San Diego 117
Los Angeles 113
San Francisco 113

But ask general managers and other personnel experts about the most difficult position to fill and the answer is nearly unanimous -- leadoff hitter.

Just try and find a player who can reach base at a steady clip, steal bases and score runs. They're not actually extinct, but they're increasingly hard to find.

Want evidence? Rickey Henderson, 43, just signed a minor-league deal with the Boston Red Sox. Rickey isn't what he once was -- the best leadoff hitter in the history of the game. But more than two decades after he began his major-league career and following a season in which he reached a trio of career milestones, he's still got plenty to offer, including a .366 on-base percentage that was higher than all but three teams received from their leadoff hitters last year.

"For years," says Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, "everybody would look at Rickey and say, 'We've got to get another Rickey Henderson.' But the one thing you eventually realize is that there aren't a lot of Rickey Hendersons out there.

"Rickey spoiled everybody. There aren't many guys willing to go deep into the count, see a lot of pitches, who value a walk and realize the object is get on base."

AL OBP leaders
Top five teams in the AL whose leadoff hitters had the highest on-base percentages in 2001 (complete list):
Team OBP
Seattle .385
Texas .367
Minnesota .348
Anaheim .343
Toronto .340
NL OBP leaders
Top five teams in the NL whose leadoff hitters had the highest on-base percentages in 2001 (complete list):
Team OBP
Colorado .366
Houston .360
St. Louis .357
San Diego .349
Florida .346

Even Ichiro Suzuki, who became a dominant offensive force last year in his first season in the major leagues, doesn't fit the classic leadoff hitter mold. Sure, Suzuki recorded a .381 on-base percentage and stole 56 bases. But his OBP was a reflection of his ability to slash the ball to all parts of the field more than his willingness to do whatever it takes to get to first. In well over 700 plate appearances, Suzuki worked just 30 walks -- and 10 of those were intentional.

The disappearance of the classic leadoff hitter -- smallish, pesky players with the patience to make pitchers work, then create havoc once on base -- has been gradual, but otherwise entirely predictable given the game's evolution.

Power is in. Speed, if not out, is on the decline.

"In the offseason, they have a home run derby in Las Vegas," points out San Diego GM Kevin Towers. "They don't have a 100-yard dash."

Smaller ballparks have been built over the past decade, with turf fields (where speed is more important) replaced by grass fields. In the weight room, bigger bodies are constructed. The results: stronger players, hitting the ball farther, and being rewarded for their power.

Asked to put his finger on why prototypical leadoff hitters are so rare, Towers responds: "Arbitration."

"They get paid to hit homers," Towers continues. "They get batting titles for (a high) average. But there's no real reward for (being among the league leaders in) on-base percentage. It's sad, but I think it's a problem. What's more important than runs scored? But we don't reward people for that, either.

Try them!
The Dodgers may hit Paul Lo Duca leadoff this year, a move we applaud. Five other guys who would make good, if unconventional, leadoff hitters:

1. Derek Jeter, Yankees. Joe Torre has hit him there on occasion and we may see him there full time. Becomes best leadoff guy in majors.
2. Jeremy Giambi, A's. Slow, but had a .391 OBP last year. Would score more runs than Terrence Long, who's fast but had .335 OBP.
3. Doug Mientkiewicz, Twins. With 15 HRs, he's not a big power guy. How about moving his .387 OBP to the top of the order?
4. J.D. Drew, Cardinals. Fernando Vina is a good leadoff guy, but how about getting Drew's .400+ OBP and good speed in front of Edmonds, Pujols and Martinez?
5. John Vander Wal, Yankees. Or, if Torre wants to keep Jeter's 21 HRs in the No. 2 spot, Vander Wal had a .364 OBP (still much higher than Alfonso Soriano's .304).
-- David Schoenfield

"And I think you're going to see more of it. Clubs are less worried about speed. The game has become all about offense."

Indeed, on-base percentage headed in the other direction last season (in part due to the new strike zone). In 2001, the average on-base percentage in the American League was .334 (compared to .349 in 2000); in the DH-less NL, it was lower still at .331 (.342 in 2000).

And the players who are getting on base aren't table-setters. Rather, they're dangerous sluggers, being pitched to carefully by gun-shy pitchers.

In the offensively-saturated AL, the leader in on-base percentage last season and the leader in slugging percentage was the same: Jason Giambi, who reached base at an astounding .477 clip while slugging .660.

Of the top 10 OBP leaders in the AL, in fact, only two could loosely be considered classic top-of-the-order players: Roberto Alomar (fourth at .415) and Frank Catalanotto (10th at .391).

The rest read like the entry field at a home run derby: Giambi, Edgar Martinez, Jim Thome, Carlos Delgado, Manny Ramirez, John Olerud, Alex Rodriguez and Bernie Williams. All but Olerud have had at least one 30-homer season in their careers.

"Ultimately," says Oakland GM Billy Beane, "what's happened is that guys still get on base. But some of those guys have power numbers, too, and people don't recognize them. The focus is different now. People have this traditional view of a leadoff guy as a guy who can run, first and foremost. Maybe that's shifting."

The A's have made on-base percentage their bell-wether stat. Everything else is secondary. The philosophy is simple: the object is to score as many runs as possible, and you can't score runs until you first get on base.

Having lost Johnny Damon to free agency, the A's must find a replacement for him at the top of the order.

Beane only half-jokingly suggests Jeremy Giambi, the muscle-bound DH/outfielder, by dint of his .391 OBP.

"We could lead him off because he gets on base," says Beane logically. "We want whoever leads off to get on base. If he happens to run, too, well, bingo, you've got the perfect leadoff man."

If Jeremy Giambi seems an unlikely leadoff choice, so, too does stout catcher Paul Lo Duca. Yet he may be the Dodgers leadoff man, despite his 3-for-11 success rate in stolen bases for his career. More significant to the Dodgers was his respectable .374 OBP last year.

"I'd rather have (someone like Lo Duca) than a guy hitting first just because he's fast," observes another GM. "What good is being fast if he doesn't get on base?"

Ricciardi is fortunate enough to have outfielder Shannon Stewart, one of the handful of current players who qualifies as a traditional leadoff type. His .371 OBP and his 27 steals are testament to his ability to get on base and advance, and he's topped 100 runs scored in each of the last three seasons.

But Stewart is the exception rather than the rule. And don't look for the trend to change any time soon. One general manager sat down with his scouting director recently and reviewed this June's top amateur players.

"We went over the high school and college players and you could count on one hand the guys who would be your prototypical leadoff guys," said the executive. "Most of them are lifting weights, getting stronger and seeing who makes the big money."

Meanwhile, Rickey Henderson, 43 years young, gets ready for his 24th season in the big leagues.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.