Leadoff men overshadowed but providing sparks

Leadoff men overshadowed but providing sparks

Leadoff men overshadowed but providing sparks
It's not as if Major League Baseball has a shortage of plaques and trophies to present in November, but one more couldn't hurt. How about the Rickey Henderson Award for leadoff excellence?

Let's give these table-setting catalysts their just due, since they so rarely are recognized in existing awards. Shape the hardware in the form of home plate, every leadoff man's desired destination.

The men at the top of the lineup jump-start the offense, setting a tone. They work counts. They bunt, run and steal. They do whatever it takes to generate offense and excitement. A crucial element in any team's success, they generally find themselves overshadowed by the big men muscling their way to glory behind them.

Consider Henderson, universally recognized as the greatest leadoff hitter in the game's history. The Man of Steal is the all-time leader in runs scored with 2,295. He stole 1,406 bases -- 468 more than anyone else in history -- including a record 130 in 1982. That's two seasons worth for a steals king these days.

Opposing managers frequently called him the most impactful, intimidating player in the game, even when he played alongside Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco with the A's. Henderson was the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1990, one of just three seasons in which he was named a Silver Slugger Award winner for offensive excellence.

That hardware usually goes to bash brothers, guys who pound 30-plus homers and drive in 100 or more runs. A player who scores in triple digits gets overlooked even though logic suggests it's much harder to score 100 than drive in 100. RBIs can come in bunches. But you score one run at a time.

That's something Rickey liked to point out whenever he was asked to talk about Rickey.

"Scoring runs is the most important part of the game, right?" Henderson told a reporter during his time with the Yankees in the 1980s, during which he crossed home plate 146 and 130 times in consecutive seasons. "Who scores more than Rickey?"

The answer is unchanged all these years later. Nobody.

"I always said that Rickey's the greatest player I ever played with," said Dodgers manager and former Yankees superstar Don Mattingly. "He influenced a game in so many ways. Rickey was a force, one of the all-time greats."

Tim Raines, the National League's answer to Henderson during most of Rickey's run, claimed one Silver Slugger. That's four Silver Sluggers combined for the two greatest leadoff men of the modern era. Ryan Braun and Matt Holliday already have four apiece. Albert Belle had five, Juan Gonzalez six.

Craig Biggio, the Astros' wonderful second baseman who began his career as a catcher, was a four-time Silver Slugger honoree. His position doubtless was a factor, given the relative shortage of power bats at second.

Ichiro Suzuki, a leadoff man until this season, has matched Henderson with three Silver Sluggers in the outfield. The Royals' Willie Wilson earned two.

Jacoby Ellsbury was a Silver Slugger winner in 2011 as Boston's highly productive -- and unconventional -- leadoff man. Ellsbury unloaded 32 homers to go with a .376 on-base percentage, scoring 119 runs and driving in 105.

This season, Ellsbury injured a shoulder on the basepaths on April 13 and has been limited to 37 leadoff appearances. The Red Sox were not the same in his absence.

Henderson, the prototype, walked 2,190 times, second on the career list, and had 3,055 hits. In 3,081 career games, he reached base by hit, walk or hit batsman 5,343 times -- 1.73 times per game.

That's a lofty standard for leadoff men of future generations.

"Rickey was my favorite player growing up," said Oakland-born Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 National League MVP as the Phillies' leadoff generator. "He's the guy I wanted to be like, play like. I loved the way he attacked the game."

Here's a look at the leading men of 2012 in the all-important leadoff role:

Mike Trout, Angels: With rare power/speed combination, in the image of Henderson, Trout is having a rookie season for the ages. The 21-year-old leads the AL in batting average and steals while ranking in the top three in the Majors in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS (on-base plus slugging).

Henderson would salute Trout's 93 runs scored in 96 games and his 38 steals in 41 attempts (a 92.7-percent success rate). Trout has done all this after missing the season's first 22 games, tuning up at Triple-A Salt Lake while regaining his strength after a debilitating spring illness.

"When people start comparing you to people, you definitely start looking him up and see what they're all about," Trout said. "I definitely remember all the stolen bases Rickey had that one year and that he hit for power. You really don't see a lot of people hitting home runs and stealing bases, as well. To be in that group with him is awesome."

Austin Jackson, Tigers: True to form, Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera is gathering most of the attention. But Jackson has been a dynamic presence at the top of Detroit's order, a multifaceted weapon along the lines of Trout.

The key piece in the Tigers' end of the Curtis Granderson swap with the Yankees, Jackson has brought his offense to the level of his superb defense. He's batting .311 with a .397 OBP and .511 slugging mark, scoring 75 runs while driving in 53. He has gone deep 13 times with 10 steals in 15 attempts. In any normal, non-Trout year, he'd be the main man.

Michael Bourn, Braves: Only Trout brings as much speed to the job as the guy who was Bourn to run. His .349 OBP has positioned him to score 82 runs, and he's 31-for-39 in steal attempts. Bourn is hitting .291 and brings some pop to Atlanta's lineup with nine homers and nine triples, driving in 51 runs.

The move to Atlanta from Houston, where he soared for three years before being traded in July 2011, has brought attention to Bourn's game-changing skills. If the Braves erase the sting of last autumn's fall, he'll be a trail-blazing component.

Derek Jeter, Yankees: He might not be as fast or as elastic as he once was, but Jeter remains a major asset with a bat that continues to crank out base hits and make good things happen.

The Yankees' enduring star has a .318 average, surpassed among leadoff men only by Trout. His OBP is .361, ranking fifth, and he has eight homers and 36 RBIs to go with 68 runs scored. Picking his spots, Jeter has stolen seven bases in 10 tries.

Shin-Soo Choo, Indians: After spending most of his career lower in the order, Choo has flourished at the top, hitting .310 with a .397 OBP and scoring 54 runs in 70 games as the Tribe's leadoff force. Bringing power to the role, he has 11 homers and 27 homers. He's also stolen seven bases in 12 tries.

Alex Gordon, Royals: He's not a burner in the leadoff-hitter mold, but a slash line of .307/.379/.466 as Kansas City's leadoff man for 82 games has raised his stock. He has scored 48 runs and driven in 31 with six homers, and he's 6-for-10 in steal attempts.

Alejandro De Aza, White Sox: With 72 runs scored in 108 starts leading off, De Aza has provided juice for manager Robin Ventura's club. He's batting .281 with a .346 OBP, generating action on the bases (21 steals in 30 efforts) along with timely hitting (44 RBIs with six homers).

Ian Kinsler, Rangers: The dog days have taken the bark from Kinsler's bat, a 4-for-35 slump negatively impacting his numbers across the slash board: .268/.336/.430. He has, however, scored 82 runs in 113 games with 20 steals (in 27 tries) and 13 homers with 55 RBIs. When he's right, Kinsler is among the top three in the game.

Jose Reyes, Marlins: The expensive free-agent shortstop has not come close to his 2011 numbers in his new environment, falling to .274/.339/.403 in 95 games. He has scored only 48 runs but remains a major threat on the bases with 23 steals in 28 attempts.

Rollins: Once the leadoff model, Rollins is trying to get on a J-Roll in a substandard season. He has scored 61 runs in 93 games atop the Phils' order, but he's not hitting for average (.253) or getting on base (.319) the way he once did. The power (14 homers) is there and so is the speed (15 steals, 19 attempts).

Threats to break through: Coco Crisp, Athletics; Shane Victorino, Dodgers; Denard Span, Twins; David DeJesus, Cubs; Norichika Aoki, Brewers; Ruben Tejada, Mets; Eric Young Jr. and Dexter Fowler, Rockies.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.