In 2012, Shin-Soo Choo hit lead-off for the Indians 98 times. He's gone now, of course, so someone new will get that job. Well, maybe not someone new, since Michael Brantley seems a likely candidate and he held that gig for most of 2010, but it won't be Choo.
Recently, there's been some talk here about Kenny Lofton, but also about Brett Butler, another player who led off a lot of games for the Indians. The specific argument made by some, was that Butler was the "more exciting" lead-off man, which I realize is not the same as "better." Still, it got me thinking, who have the best lead-off hitters in Indians history been? I'm looking at only how a player performed during games in which he was the lead-off hitter, so Grady Sizemore (for example) gets no credit for the 187 games games in which he was somewhere else in the order.
According to the Play Index at Baseball-Reference, since 1916, there have been 268 different players to start a game as the lead-off hitter for the Indians. Roger Maris and Joe Carter, each best known for home runs, both batted at the top of the order for the Indians fifteen times. Larry Doby and Al Rosen both started there four times. Alex and Joey Cora each hit lead-off three times, Casey Blake was there twice, and on June 14, 1975, big Boog Powell was given the lead-off spot for a night (he went 0-4, ending that experiment).
Of those 268 players, 37 of them have been penciled into the top of the lineup enough times to collect at least 500 plate appearances there. I'm using that as the cut-off for these rankings (since they will be largely dependent on rate stats, it seems unfair to include players who were good, but in only a small sample of games). Beyond the 500 PA cut-off, my rankings attempt to balance the rate stats against the counting one. In other words, while an OPS of 850 is better than an OPS of 825, if the former came in 600 PA and the latter came in 2,000 PA, I'm probably going to favor the second player. I've attempted to make some adjustments for the run scoring environment of different eras and I'm also looking only at contributions on offense, which I think is reasonable.
*Two last notes:
A) The OPS+ figures are approximate because there is no official listing for that metric going by batting order splits. I took each player's OPS for their lead-off games and looked at similar OPS figures from that era to do the best I could.
B) Due to a minor quirk of B-R's play index tools, the SB and stolen base success rate (SB%) figures are based on all games for which a player was in the lead-off spot, whether he started there or not, meaning that a player pinch hitting or pinch running in that spot would still be counted. This makes almost no difference, as only two player on the list had such a situation in more than five total games, meaning any minor differences would not have changed the rankings
Without further ado, here are my choices for the...
TOP TEN LEAD-OFF HITTERS IN INDIANS HISTORY
1) Kenny Lofton - 1175 G, 5500 PA, .299/.374/.424, .797 OPS, ~108 OPS+, 83 HR, 439 SB, 81.3 SB%
The team's lead-off man from 1992-1996 and 1998-2001, Lofton is the team's all-time leader in games in the lead-off spot, his bat was very solid there, and he was by far (by very far) the most effective base thief.
2) Grady Sizemore - 703 G, 3317 PA, .274/.366/.488, .854 OPS, ~126 OPS+, 121 HR, 121 SB, 76.6 SB%
Sizemore was the team's primary lead-off man from 2005-2009. He ranks 3rd in games played in the lead-off spot, ranks 2nd in OPS (and ~OPS+), and was probably the third-most effective base runner.
3) Charlie Jamieson - 1170 G, 5521 PA, .316/.389/.403, 792 OPS, ~103 OPS+, 17 HR, 92 SB, 49.5 SB%
The team's primary lead-off man from 1920-1929, Jamieson ranks 2nd in games at lead-off and is 1st in PA. He didn't have any power, but he got on base a lot. Unfortunately, he looks to have been a poor base runner.
4) Mike Hargrove - 114 G, 533 PA, .326/.438/.477, .914 OPS, ~145 OPS+, 10 HR, 1 SB, 12.5 SB%
A tricky one to rank, Hargrove didn't lead-off all that often (barely enough to qualify for this project, mostly in 1979), but he was so damn good when he did. Highest BA, OBP, OPS, and ~OPS+ of any player to qualify.
5) Dale Mitchell - 672 G, 3136 PA, .323/.378/.438, .816 OPS, ~122 OPS+, 31 HR, 33 SB, 44.0 SB%
The team's primary lead-off man from 1947-53, Mitchell ranks 4th in games played in that spot and 3rd in OPS and ~OPS+. A solid hitter, not much of a base runner.
6) Al Smith - 352 G, 1660 PA, .275/.381/.430, .811 OPS, ~118 OPS+, 41 HR, 20 SB, 52.6 SB%
Smith was the team's primary lead-off man from 1954-1957. He was similar to his predecessor (Dale Mitchell), in that he got on base a lot, but wasn't much for running once he was there.
7) Lou Boudreau - 370 G, 1741 PA, .284/.373/.414, .787 OPS, ~ 117 OPS+, 19 HR, 17 SB, 56.7 SB%
The team's primary lead-off hitter from late 1939-1941, Boudreau also penciled himself into the spot quite frequently from 1942-1946. Similar to the pair above him on this list, with a little less bat.
8) Brett Butler - 473 G, 2171 PA, .287/.373/.389, .762 OPS, ~107 OPS+, 16 HR, 138 SB, 69.3 SB%
Butler was the team's lead-off man from 1984-1987. His bat was comparable to Lofton's, given his era, and is 2nd is SB, but his success rate wasn't very high, negating much of the value those steals provided.
9) Jack Graney - 482 G, 2202 PA, .236/362/.340, .702 OPS, ~102 OPS+, 37 SB, 94.9 SB%
The team's primary lead-off man from 1916-1919, Graney didn't have much of a bat, as evidenced by his BA and slugging, but it was the Deadball Era and he could draw a walk, twice leading the American League.
10) Miguel Dilone - 278 G, 1279 PA, .293/.338/.372, .710 OPS, ~97 OPS+, 3 HR, 119 SB, 78.8 SB%
Dilone was the team's primary lead-off man from 1980-1982. He had the worst bat of any player on this list, but he was the second-best base thief and in the context of his era, the bat wasn't awful.
It's not a bad group, but while doing this research, I was struck by how few bases so many of the Indians' lead-off hitters have stolen. Lofton was course brilliant at it, one of the best in history. Aside from him though, Dilone, Butler, and Sizemore are the only players to steal 30 bases in a season while hitting lead-off for the Tribe or steal 20 bases more than once. Michael Brantley isn't going to add his name to the list of great base stealing lead-off men in team history, though if Drew Stubbs hits well enough to hold that lineup spot, he's got the potential to steal 30+.