It’s sometimes hard to appreciate what’s right in front of your eyes. Charlie Blackmon, for example, has quietly established himself as an all-timer in Rockies history. He’s the most successful center fielder the team has ever had, and he’s also the best leadoff hitter in club history. In 2017, Blackmon has elevated his game. He’s having the best season of his career in a run that will almost surely result in MVP votes. But Blackmon’s not just fighting his way into Rockies’ history. He’s also having one of the best seasons from the leadoff position baseball has ever seen. And he even has a shot to make it the best ever.
Through Saturday’s game, Blackmon has a 1.024 OPS from the leadoff spot, and he has a chance to be the only player to have an OPS that high in a full season from the leadoff spot. Among all seasons since 1961 (the expansion and integration era) with at least 500 leadoff plate appearances, Blackmon’s current OPS is better than all others. It’s right ahead of the guy who comes to mind when you about the leadoff position: Rickey Henderson.
In 1990, Henderson posted a 1.018 OPS for Oakland, but he did it in 132 games and 588 plate appearances. The only other time a batter posted an OPS over 1.000 from the leadoff spot was Hanley Ramírez in 2007—1.001 in 112 games and 526 plate appearances. If you want to cheer for Chuck to do something nobody else in modern baseball has done, cheer for him to maintain an OPS over 1.000.
It’s dishonest to point to OPS and leave it without accounting for park adjustments. When we do that, Blackmon’s 2017 season from the leadoff spot diminishes from possibly the best ever to one of the best ever. That’s called praising with faint damn. Henderson’s 1990 rises to the top with adjustments, as it earned an sOPS+ of 177 (sOPS+ measures a player’s performance against the league in a particular split, so in this case it’s set against everyone else batting first in the order). Again though, 1990 was in a shortened season for Henderson. The second best here is Pete Rose’s 170 sOPS+, which he produced in 1969. That one was a full season from the leadoff spot, as Rose had 710 leadoff plate appearances in 151 games.
Through Saturday’s game, Blackmon posted a 169 OPS+ from the leadoff spot. He’s right on Rose’s heels, and Henderson is within spitting distance. If you’re unsatisfied with “one of the best” and want the best, 177 is the target. It’s reasonable, still, to reward Blackmon for more playing time. If we set the minimum of games played at 150, Henderson’s 1990 no longer counts. With that minimum, Chuck Knoblauch’s .966 OPS in 1996 becomes the highest OPS from the leadoff spot, and Rose’s 170 sOPS+ remains the highest adjusted mark. Blackmon would have to have an extremely rough final six weeks to fall below Knoblauch, but he’ll have to keep up the production to overtake Rose and stake his claim as having the best leadoff season in baseball history.
It’s fun to have an all-time season, and a batting order split leaves us with just one qualifier, so it’s a legitimate fun fact. The lie of it is that the type of player who hits leadoff has changed over the years, so Blackmon represents a distinct era of the leadoff hitter that has more power. Still, this view of Blackmon’s season raises a necessary question: Who cares? Would we go through all this Baseball-Reference play indexing for other spots in the batting order? Other than clean up, no other spot in the batting order has as much narrative purchase as the leadoff spot.
Maybe the narrative is why we should care, and maybe that’s enough. “Batting leadoff” still means something, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean what it used to. It no longer means slap happy speed guy to get on base with the intent to steal, but it still means the first guy to come to the plate and set the tone for the game. Chuck’s done it with the type of flair that doesn’t come along often. That’s why I’ll be cheering for 1.000 and 170.