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Rickey & Raines were great leadoff men, but who's No. 3?

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Bob Levey

There's a building consensus that Craig Biggio isn't going to be elected to the Hall of Fame this year; we'll know for sure next week. The 2013 Hall of Fame Ballot Collecting Gizmo! shows Biggio falling short of the required 75 percent, although the sample size is small and only somewhat representative. I believe it's going to be close, with Biggio picking up somewhere between 70 and 80 percent.

By the historical standards, of course, Biggio should cruise right into Cooperstown. He finished his career with 3,000 hits. There are 28 players with at least 3,000 hits. The great majority of them were elected to the Hall of Fame immediately upon their eligibility. The notable exceptions were Rafael Palmeiro and Pete Rose; the non-notable exception was Paul Waner, who needed a few years to make it, but in those days (just after World War II) there was a huge backlog of great candidates.

Point being, 3,000 hits has always been a magic number unless you've been permanently suspended (Rose) or gotten busted for steroids (Palmeiro). I'm not saying it should be a magic number. I don't really believe in magic numbers, because if you use a single number as an automatic qualifier, it's just a short step to using a magic number as a barrier to entry. It's not far from saying "Biggio has 3,000 hits so he belongs in the Hall of Fame" to "Lou Whitaker doesn't have 3,000 hits so he doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame."

But the Hall of Fame is -- or at least has been -- largely about established standards, about precedent. And there's exactly zero precedent for not electing a player with Craig Biggio's credentials.

Objectively, it's difficult to understand how someone couldn't appreciate those credentials. According to FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (Wins+), Biggio ranks ninth among second basemen (I don't count Rod Carew as a second baseman). There is one problem with assuming that ninth in Wins+ is good enough, though ... the two guys just ahead of Biggio aren't in the Hall of Fame.

No wait, it's worse than that. Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker didn't just fail to get elected; both failed to draw the support of even three percent of the electorate, and fell off the BBWAA ballot forever. My guess is that one or both will someday be elected. Deacon White's going in this summer, only 123 years after he played his last game.

But while it's not terribly clear that Biggio was a better baseball player than Whitaker and Grich, the truth is that Hall of Fame voters have traditionally cared a great deal about hits (good for Biggio) and generally ignored defense (ditto). Because Biggio was not a good second baseman. Or a good catcher. Or a good center fielder. Or a good left fielder. Now, Biggio was immensely valuable because he could play all of those positions and not hurt the club. But it's endlessly frustrating to me that the experts with Hall of Fame ballots essentially treat Craig Biggio and Lou Whitaker as if they were the same fielders. When they weren't. At all.

Believe it or not, all of the above is just filler, stuff I wanted to get out of the way before next week. What really got me thinking about Craig Biggio was a question someone tweeted at me yesterday ...

Let me start by saying this is not about the Hall of Fame. It's not about Tim Raines's qualifications, or Craig Biggio's. While the leadoff and cleanup spots are special in their own ways, I'm not sure that "third-greatest leadoff man" is any more impressive than "third-greatest No. 6 hitter" or whatever. Mostly, what matter is how many runs your team scores because you're in the lineup. Wherever in the lineup that is.

But this question takes me back to the 1980s, when it was generally assumed that Rickey Henderson was the greatest leadoff man ever, and that Tim Raines was the second greatest. Which they probably were. Both were on-base machines who stole lots of bases, usually with high success rates. Ever since then, managers have been looking for leadoff men like them, and failing.

It seems like Craig Biggio was the closest we've seen in recent years, though. Well, or Kenny Lofton. And of course both are on this year's Hall of Fame ballot.

Seven years ago, McFarland & Co. published Herman Krabbenhoft's comprehensive -- and I mean comprehensive -- treatise, Leadoff Batter of Major League Baseball: Complete Statistics, 1900-2005. Without which, I wouldn't be able to write any of the below with anything resembling precision. But thanks to Krabbenhoft, I can present a list of hitters who led off at least 1,400 games in their career:

2875 Rickey Henderson*
2300 Pete Rose
1894 Lou Brock*
1845 Brett Butler
1729 Eddie Yost
1705 Kenny Lofton
1570 Paul Molitor*
1560 Craig Biggio
1544 Harry Hooper
1504 Maury Wills
1489 George Burns
1445 Bert Campaneris
1410 Richie Ashburn*
1397 Tim Raines

Okay, so I cheated a little to get Raines on the list. Just didn't seem right without him. But for a few years, he was such a great hitter that it made more sense (to his managers, at least) to bat him third instead of first.

That's a pretty good list. But you can see that being a good longtime leadoff hitter doesn't automatically punch your ticket for Cooperstown. Because only three of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. And only Biggio and maybe someday Raines will join them.

Just a few quick thoughts. Rose got on base, but didn't have the speed. Brock had the speed, but didn't get on base a lot (and his time as a great player lasted for only about five years, 1964 through '68). Yost drew a ton of walks -- they did call him "The Walking Man", after all -- but didn't run all that well and, like Brock, was a real force for only about five years.

Brett Butler, I think, has generally been underrated. He's not a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, because he got a late start and didn't age particularly well; his first really good season came when he was 27, and his last when he was 37. But I suspect that his 11-year run was better than Brock's best 11 years. Better than Lofton's, too, and not far behind Biggio's.

But how to compare them? Butler spent the great majority of his career batting leadoff, while Biggio led off only 57 percent of his games. Do they fall under the heading of "leadoff man" equally? I think not. I think if we're trying to decide between qualified candidates, we have to leave some room for distinctions like this. Same thing with Molitor, a great hitter who led off in only 59 percent of his games.

What you could do is count just the statistics for the candidates when batting leadoff. We don't have those breakdowns for the old-timers, but here are some OPS's, leadoff-only and unadjusted for context:

822 Rickey Henderson*
817 Craig Biggio
813 Tim Raines
804 Paul Molitor*
798 Pete Rose
794 Kenny Lofton
749 Lou Brock*
746 Brett Butler
671 Maury Wills
663 Bert Campaneris

Again, all the standard caveats. It was a lot more difficult to hit in the 1960s than in the 1990s, etc. But we might now agree that Henderson really was the best leadoff hitter ever, and that Bert Campaneris doesn't make the cut. Otherwise, though, there's still plenty of room for argument. Biggio, Molitor, Lofton and Butler were all good base-stealers; Rose wasn't, but he's got the virtue of longevity.

Which leaves us ... where? Still waiting for some sort of Bill James-ish Leadoff Rating, I suppose. Hell, maybe that already exists. I'm not near my books, so I can't check. But it's a really tricky question, once you get past Rickey. But just assuming that Raines really is the second-greatest leadoff man ever -- or since the 1950s, anyway -- who's No. 3 on the list?

Wait! Before you answer that question, one thing I haven't mentioned is that the answer depends on what you're looking for. Are you looking for the best hitter who batted leadoff? If so, that leaves out Butler and Lofton. But if you're looking for the hitter who displayed the pure leadoff skills, then Butler and Lofton are back in; they didn't have any power, but then nobody thinks about power when looking for a leadoff man.

Anyway, I think the answer here is probably Biggio, Molitor, Rose, or Butler (who spent most of his career in pitcher-friendly ballparks). But I'm having a hard time narrowing it down any farther. What do you think? (and extra credit for showing your work)

Update: Ichiro Suzuki deserves to be mentioned in this discussion. A leadoff hitter for most of his career, Ichiro's posted a 787 OPS in 1,755 career starts in the No. 1 slot. And of course he's been a fine base-stealer. Oddly, the numbers don't suggest that he's been any better than Kenny Lofton or Brett Butler, purely as a hitter and base-stealer.