I was intrigued by this comment from White Sox camp (Insider required) by ESPN's estimable Keith Law:
The Diamondbacks are going to regret giving up so soon on Adam Eaton, as Eaton is up to his old tricks: Taking good at-bats, hitting the ball hard, running well (a solid 60 on the 20-80 scale), and playing an above-average center field... He's just what the Sox needed -- a high on-base guy for the top of their lineup -- and adding him and Abreu to their offense this year already makes them look more potent.
It struck me that Eaton is the kind of player the White Sox have virtually always needed. In the whole history of the organization, have they ever had "a high on-base guy for the top of their lineup?" Sure, they've had good leadoff hitters from time to time, including a classic Tim Raines season in the 1990s, but have they ever had an optimal leadoff man for more than a season at a time?
If you answered, "Sure! Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio!" then we need to have a talk. Aparicio was inarguably one of the great basestealers of his day (leading the AL nine times), but he also had a career .311 on-base percentage, not good even in the offense-starved era in which he played. In 10 years with the White Sox he reached 90 runs only twice and never scored 100. No, Aparicio is not the answer, but if he isn't, who is?
The answer may in fact prove to be Adam Eaton. There is no other contender for the title in the roughly 80 seasons for which complete splits are available. Only 16 hitters have had even 1,200 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter for the White Sox in that time, and most of them haven't been very good for more than a season at a time.
A ranking of post-1920 White Sox leadoff hitters who actually delivered value would go something like this:
1. Johnny Mostil (2,195 PAs, 1924-1926): Mostil was a flyer who excelled both on the bases and in center field, earning one of the best defensive reputations of his day. He had an above-average bat as well, peaking in 1926 with .328/.415/.467 rates (133 OPS+), 35 stolen bases (albeit against 14 caught stealing), and 120 runs scored. In raw terms, this is the best leadoff performance in team history and followed on the heels of two other .400-OBP seasons, one of which resulted in his leading the AL in runs with 135. At that point Mostil tried to kill himself, and although he eventually returned to baseball, the magic was gone -- he never played with the elan of his earlier seasons.
2. Tim Raines (1,875 PAs, 1991-1995): The second-greatest leadoff man of all time saw his time with the White Sox truncated by injuries and the 1994-1995 labor wars, but he still was an important contributor, hitting .283/.375/.407 (113 OPS+) with great walk rates and his usual excellent stolen base percentages, including going 26 out of 28 over his last two seasons in black and silver.
3. Ray Durham (3,253 PAs, 1995-2002): If only Durham had been more consistent at his best he might be on his way to the Hall of Fame now, but it's the curse of second basemen to be variable. His career .278/.352/.428 rates with the White Sox only works out to a 102 OPS+ -- remember the era he played in -- but he walked 60 or 70 times a year, stole around 30 bases a campaign, and chipped in 10-20 home runs.
4. Pat Kelly (2,098 PAs, 1971-1976): A platoon corner outfielder with speed who is best known for helping the 1979 Orioles reach the World Series with a torrid postseason, Kelly was the main part of a leadoff group that hit .301/.373/.412 for the 1974 team, one of the best leadoff showings in team history.
5. Rip Radcliffe (1,659 PAs, 1935-1939): A journeyman outfielder who got a belated shot at the majors with the Sox in the early 30s, Radcliffe was a contact hitter who had two virtually identical seasons that, when looked at in raw terms, are among the best for a ChiSox leadoff hitter, hitting .330/.382/.446 from 1936-1937 and scoring 120 runs in the former season. Given the high offensive levels of the time, these seasons were just a little better than league average. Subsequently, Radcliffe got old, got traded, got World War II, and it was all over.
That's pretty much it; we're into the one-season wonders. Wally Moses, all-time major league eyebrow leader, had a strong 1945 (133 OPS+) but it was wartime and he was mediocre during the rest of his five-year run. Chico Carrasquel couldn't hit. Scott Podsednik had a great 2005 postseason, but didn't hit the rest of the time. Rudy Law stole 77 bases for the 1983 team, but had no power and didn't walk. Juan Pierre? Please. Other players -- Tony Phillips, Lance Johnson, Ralph Garr -- were good for about a year at a time. Overall, though, there hasn't been a single player to put up a series of good years at the top of the order. If you rank the best single-season leadoff performances in White Sox history, the only player who repeats in the top 10 is Durham.
The White Sox are famous for basically playing without a third baseman between Buck Weaver and Robin Ventura (said with apologies to Bill Melton), but they've been almost equally deficient at the top of the order. Eaton, a diminutive outfielder who hit .348/.450/.501 in 345 minor league games before being sidelined for a large chunk of 2013 by a sprained left elbow, has the speed and patience to excel in the leadoff role. If he can stick there for a few years, he would, almost by default, be the greatest leadoff hitter in White Sox history. There is literally no competition.