Closest race in baseball?
At this moment, it's for the National League stolen-base crown, with no fewer than three players tied for the lead with 45 steals.
Luis Castillo .360 85
Juan Pierre .328 85
Dave Roberts .353 63
You've heard that old saying, "You can't steal first base"? No truer words were ever spoken, which is readily apparent when you see that none of these top base stealers are going to score 100 runs. Castillo and Pierre, with 85 runs apiece, are tied for 27th place in the National League.
In fact, it's been real tough, finding a good leadoff man who steals a lot of bases. Castillo's pretty good, and so is Roberts as a part-timer. After them, though ... Eric Young's got 31 steals, and a .333 on-base percentage. Tony Womack's got 28 steals, and a .324 OBP. Jimmy Rollins -- remember when he was going to be a star? -- has 28 steals and a .308 OBP. Rafael Furcal? He's stolen 24 bases, been caught 15 times, and has posted a .322 OBP. Roger Cedeno, the man who was supposed to kick-start the Mets' attack this season? He's got 23 steals, and a .313 OBP.
Aside from Castillo, if you want a prototypical everyday leadoff man, you have to head over to the American League, where Johnny Damon (31 steals, .357 OBP) and Ichiro (30 steals, .389 OBP) ply their trade.
This phenomenon has been noticed before, I think, but it's worth pointing out again ... There are 30 teams and 30 slots for leadoff men, but a small percentage of those slots are filled by players particularly well-suited for the role.
One player who's not suited for the leadoff slot is the aforementioned Juan Pierre. He's batting .286, which at some points in baseball history was fairly impressive. He's got a .329 on-base percentage, which is acceptable in some eras at some positions. But a .329 OBP in 2002 for a leadoff hitter who plays half his games in Denver?
Pierre's road OBP is .284.
I've often written that batting order isn't nearly as important as most people think, and I'm not changing my story now. With some of these guys, the question isn't so much whether or not they should be batting leadoff, but whether or not they should be batting at all. Pierre, for example, would be killing the Rockies even if he were batting eighth (or ninth, on the days that Mike Hampton or Jason Jennings pitch).
Personally, I miss the good old days of my youth, when players would actually steal one hundred bases in a single season.
Before we leave the subject of Senior Circuit base-swipers, is Vladimir Guerrero enjoying one of the all-time great unnoticed seasons? He's third in battin' average (.336), he's seventh in on-basin' average (.418), he's fifth in sluggin' average (.598). Guerrero's fifth in OPS, behind Barry Bonds, Brian Giles, and a couple of Rockies.
Oh, and did I mention that he's also stolen 40 bases this year?
Friends, this guy is an awesome player. A few years ago, the only knock on Guerrero -- in this quarter, at least -- was that he didn't draw a lot of walks. Well, he's got 80 this season, and it's not hard to argue that Guerrero is now a better player than Sammy Sosa. Once you get past Alex Rodriguez, Guerrero might be the most valuable property in the game over the next five or six years.