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In this series of Hall of Fame nomination-based posts, we’re going to focus on specific roles/positions.  We’ll be reviewing both players on the HOF ballot as well as non-HOFers who we feel deserve re-consideration.

This first post will focus on leadoff hitters – in honor of two standouts:  Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines.  We’re also going to shine a belated spotlight on another 80’s/90’s leadoff hitter – Brett Butler.

Rickey Henderson (2008 % of Votes:  1st year on ballot)

This is a no-brainer. Rickey stealing third for the A's

Rickey topped .400 OBP in 15 seasons.  To put that in perspective, Lofton and Biggio managed that 4 times.  Ichiro managed it once.  Yes, Rickey stole a ridiculous 1,406 SBs but he also was successful above 80% of the time – a success rate that even Billy Beane would be happy with.  If that mix of OBP and speed wasn’t enough, he chipped in nearly 300 HRs.  Best leadoff hitter ever or, in Rickey’s words, Rickey “is the greatest.”

Vote:  YES

Fun anecdote:  Rickey’s got so many it’s hard to pick.  Let’s go with these two:

  1. When searching for a seat on the Padres team bus, he was told by Steve Finley, “You have tenure, sit wherever you want,” Henderson replied: “Ten years? Rickey’s been playing at least 16, 17 years.”
  2. Telling New York Yankees teammates that his condo had such a great view he could see the “Entire State Building.”

Tim Raines (24.3%)

Four things keep Raines from being a no-brainer selection:  1) The shadow of Henderson, 2) the anonymity of Montreal, 3) the lack of respect for leadoff hitters vs middle of the lineup hitters, and 4) the lack of respect for walks vs. hits.

Baseball fans are second to only John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity when it comes to compiling top 5 lists but here’s a doozy for you – name the top 5 leadoff hitters ever.  Rickey and then who?  Part of the reason for this is that some great hitters who start as leadoff are moved into the 2nd and 3rd slots.  Examples of high OBP/speed guys who started at leadoff and moved down the lineup include Rod Carew, Joe Morgan, and Barry Bonds.

Tim Raines on the ExposTim Raines runningTim Raines on the White Sox

Let’s use high OBP and above-average running as the two criteria we separate a good leadoff hitter vs. a good hitter.  Power is nice but not a prerequisite for a leadoff hitter.  Since the HOF is about longevity and performance, let’s focus on a counting stat and a percentage for each.  The below list focuses on players after 1930 who were not big power hitters (< 300 HR) that had at least 150 SBs (exception for Boggs) and 3,400 times on base (Hits + Walks + HBP).

Comparison of top leadoff hitters

Gwynn and Brock are both HOFers based largely on their 3,000 hits.  Raines is being questioned because he only had 2,600.  But Raines is ahead of both of them if you add H, BB, and HBP.  Raines and Gwynn are about equal in OBP and Raines was far superior to Lou Brock.  Raines’s OBP and SB ability separate him from everyone else below him on the list except for perhaps Ashburn and his impressive .396 OBP (and Ashburn is also in the Hall of Fame).

Raines also compares very favorably to Rod Carew (HOFer), Paul Molitor (HOFer) and Craig Biggio (surefire HOFer).  The only thing these three have over him is a couple more years of longevity.  And you can argue these were extended by occupying a power position in 1B, DHing and hanging around too long, respectively.

Based on the above, it is fair to say that Raines is arguably one of the top 5 actual or potential leadoff hitters as Henderson and Morgan are the only clear superiors in the past 70 years.  (I’d argue Boggs’ lack of speed makes him a better #2 hitter).  If we were talking about an arguably top 5 cleanup hitter, this wouldn’t even be a discussion.

Vote:  YES (see the excellent raines30.com if you need more convincing)

Fun anecdote:  In 1982, Raines snorted an estimated $40,000 in cocaine.  During the Pittsburgh drug trials in 1985, Raines testified that he only slid head first to not break the vial he kept in his back pocket which he didn’t want to risk stashing in his locker.  In a dubiously unrelated note, his nickname was ‘Rock’.

Brett Butler (Not on Ballot)

A top leadoff hitter of the 1980s and early 1990s, Butler got a grand total of 2 votes (0.4%) in his one and only year on the ballot.  It’s fair to say that Butler doesn’t scream ‘HOF candidate’.  He only made 1 All-Star game and finished in the top 10 for MVP only once.  He didn’t win any Gold Gloves.  If he was the ‘greatest’ at anything, it was bunting – with an unofficial modern record of 40 bunt hits in 1992 and the most bunt hits since 1960 (226).

Brett Butler on Bravesbrett butler on the indiansBrett Butler bunts on the GiantsBrett Butler bunts on the Dodgers

So we know Phil Rizzuto loved him (at least when he played in the American League).  Should he have received more MVP, All-Star, and HOF consideration love?  Probably yes on the first two but let’s focus on his HOF considerations.

You may have noticed Brett Butler’s name on the spreadsheet above.  I did another query of players since 1944 that are retired, not in the Hall of Fame, Total Times on Base > 3,000, and HR<250.  I then ranked it by OBP.  That’s a convoluted way of saying a player had longevity but wasn’t a power hitter.

Not in HOF, Times on Base>3000, HR < 250, Ranked by OBP

Comparison of Brett Butler

The only leadoff hitters higher than Brett Butler on this list are Tim Raines and Eddie “Walking Man” Yost – a 3rd baseman who played mostly for the Washington Senators and a Moneyballer 50 years before the term existed.

If we look at his career stats, we see he got started relatively late (first full-time season at 26) but was a consistently above-average leadoff hitter through 38.  He had 6 years over .390 OBP with 3 of them over .400.  That’s 2 more seasons over .390 OBP than Biggio and 4 more than Ichiro.  Devon White managed 3 All-Stars (plus 3 World Series Rings) and never cleared .342.

Brett Butler's Career Stats

Our end verdict on Butler, though, is a hesitant no.  His OPS+ of 110 would rank 55th out of 58 current OFs and that’s more of a condemnation of the three OFs below him (Brock, Max Carey, Lloyd Waner) than a compliment to Butler.  He stole 500+ SBs but  at a subpar success rate (69%).  Without the counting numbers (like 3000 hits or perhaps 4000 total times on base), we’d say he didn’t distinguish him quite enough for the HOF.

But he really deserved a lot more consideration than 2 votes in his single year on the ballot.  Perhaps Butler’s name will come back into the equation when Kenny Lofton is up for HOF consideration (Butler has higher Times on Base, OBP, and OPS+)

Vote:  NO

Fun anecdote:  Brett made enough connections while playing for the Dodgers in the early 1990’s to score a sitcom deal.  His show – Grace Under Fire – had an impressive 5-year run but was sadly derailed due to Butler’s painkiller addiction.

  1. Grey

    Grey says:
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    I hear people talk about how Grich should’ve had more consideration, but I never hear about Tony Phillips. We should petition the HOF to open its veteran doors to TP.

  2. Bert says:
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    These aren’t directed solely to this article, but more about media in general.

    One thing I wish people would quit bringing up about Raines is the cocaine usage. Not so much ignore it completely, but use it as an argument against enshrinement. If you wanted someone who was squeaky clean, Ty Cobb would never have gotten within 100 miles of Cooperstown. The current steroids flap certainly isn’t helping Raines and his case. However, the one thing I like about Raines is he was so up-front about his abuse and kicking it. Never hid behind it, once he realized he had a problem. Can’t say that for the majority of the folks accused of steroid use.

    Second, to say Raines does not deserve a vote because he wasn’t as good as Henderson is ridiculous. Just because Henderson is on the ballot the same year doesn’t mean Raines should be pushed to the background for the year. If anything, it should remind people how dominating those players were in their respective leagues. Raines is definitely in the top leadoff hitters all-time, as far as getting on base, advancing of his own accord via the stolen base (more successfully than anyone in history, I might add), and creating havoc on the basepaths to help his team.

    Finally, let’s not forget that Raines actually lost at least a full season or more because of his battle with lupus. Not only the missed time, but the effects it had on him, reducing his abilities, until it was all worked out. And of course, he came back from that too.

  3. @Bert: No offense taken. We’re both pro-Raines. The coke stuff makes for an interesting ‘anecdote’ but it doesn’t factor into my judgment. I think HOF voters have no clue what they’re doing when a player doesn’t get to 3000 hits, 500 HRs, or 300 Wins. B/c Raines should be a no-brainer…

  4. Bert says:
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    Thanks for the support. I gathered by the text of the article that it was supportive of Raines in the HOF. I just was taking the opportunity to sound off, in case a fence-sitter stumbled across the article.

    Love the big hair picture, BTW… :)

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