He never led the league: hitters

It happens that in early February, Joe Posnanski wrote a column in honor of Hank Aaron‘s birthday. As a result, I spent some time staring at Aaron’s stats, something I’m sure you can all understand.

While I was staring at his stats, I noticed something. Aaron had a .374 career on-base percentage, but he never led the league in OBP. That seemed like an awfully high number never to have led the league, so I started looking, and that kind of spiraled, and I ended up with a list of the (modern) all-time and active players with the highest career ranking in a stat without ever having led the league.

This fun stuff is now presented to you. I’ll follow up with an article on pitchers in a week or two.

Batting average: Joe Jackson (3rd) – .356, Joey Votto – .316 (6th)

Neither of these guys is especially surprising. Jackson, of course, had his career cut short, and the only thing that stopped Votto last year was a knee injury. In his abbreviated career, Jackson never finished lower than eighth in the batting race. That second-place finish in 1911, when he hit .408, had to really hurt, but that’s what you get for playing in the same league as Ty Cobb. Votto has finished in the top five in batting each of the last four seasons.

On-base percentage: Eddie Collins – .424 (11th), Lance Berkman .409 (4th)

From 1911 until 1926, Eddie Collins finished in the top 10 in OBP every year. But again, there was this guy Cobb and this other guy Babe Ruth. And, well, I’m sure you can see how it went. Berkman has suffered a similar fate. Plenty of high finishes, but during an offensive era, you really need to distinguish yourself to lead the league in something like OBP.

Slugging: Vladimir Guerrero – .553 (25th), Ryan Howard .551 (7th)

Slugging was the category that required me to travel farthest down the list for both career and active players. I’m not sure what to make of that except perhaps that sluggers slug. Both of these guys are, to an extent, products of the era. Guerrero slugged .664 in 2000 and only finished third behind a Coors-aided Todd Helton and Barry Bonds. Howard came close in 2006, but given his current decline, his career slugging percentage is likely headed down, and he won’t be leading the league anytime soon.

Hits: Eddie Collins – 3315 (9th), Bobby Abreu – 2437 (4th)

Collins shows up on our list for the second time. Abreu, as far as I can tell, is still looking for a job, but we’ll give him credit since he hasn’t given up looking. The answer for both is simple: walks. If you take a lot of walks, it’s hard to lead the league in hits.

Doubles: Barry Bonds – 601 (14th), Derek Jeter – 524 (3rd)

This is an interesting pairing. Perhaps the most hated living player with the most loved by any one city. Either way, these ranks are both the results of long careers. Neither Bonds nor Jeter ever has come especially close (Jeter has only one top-10 finish in doubles when he was fourth in 2004) to leading the league in this category.

Triples: Tris Speaker – 222 (5th), Ichiro Suzuki – 80 (5th)

I find triples really fascinating because of how much less common they are than they used to be, something that can be seen in the wide gap between our career leader and our active leader. Speaker’s 22 were just one off Sam Crawford‘s pace in 1913, but otherwise, he was a compiler much like Bonds and Jeter. Ichiro finished second in 2005 with 12 (Carl Crawford led this time, with 15), but he’s never had really notable triple totals.

Home runs: Rafael Palmiero 569 (12th), Jason Giambi – 429 (5th)

Here’s another interesting pairing. Palmeiro, among other things, is known as a good-never-great player, and his presence here confirms that as much as it confirms his presence in an era of inflated home run totals. In 1999, he did fall just one homer short (47 to Ken Griffey‘s 48) of leading the league. Giambi is, of course, a product of the same era. He’s just a little younger and hasn’t been given his walking papers quite yet.

Runs: Tris Speaker – 1882 (11th), Jim Thome – 1583 (3rd)

Speaker’s name is becoming common on this list, as he simply falls victim to playing at the same time as other great players. He managed three second-place finishes but was twice beaten out by Babe Ruth and once by our old friend Eddie Collins. Thome never has been really competitive in this category, but he has had a bunch of very good run-scoring seasons, and he’s played for a long time.

RBI: Willie Mays – 1903 (10th), Jim Thome – 1699 (2nd)

Am I really telling you that Willie-freaking-Mays never lead the league in RBI? Yes, yes I am. And talk about a fluke. He finished a second to legit star Duke Snider in 1955, but in1962 he finished second to, of all people, Tommy Davis, whose 153 RBI were a career high by, get this, 64. That’s right, his next-highest total was 89. Baseball is a funny game. Thome’s presence here (and the fact that he hasn’t been among the leaders very often) has to do with his checkered injury history.

Walks: Pete Rose – 1566 (14th), Bobby Abreu – 1456 (2nd)

Any time you can come up with a new statistical fact about Pete Rose—one he might not even have noted—it’s a little exciting. Rose, of course, was the ultimate compiler, and given that he played for about a million years, his presence isn’t surprising. Abreu is here by an accident of fate. In 2006, his 124 walks led all of baseball, but as he was traded from the NL to the AL midseason, he led neither league.

Stolen bases: Joe Morgan – 689 (11th), Bobby Abreu – 399 (7th)

Lou Brock, ever heard of him? Joe Morgan finished second to him in steals not once, not twice, but five different times. Then, later in his career, he finished second to Davey Lopes twice. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Still, I hear Morgan is doing just fine as a skilled analytical announcer. And yes, Abreu, again. He has a solid group of top-10 finishes, but he never managed to lead the league. I wonder how long it will take us to forget that Abreu was a really good player.

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  1. bucdaddy said...

    Tommy Davis’ numbers should perhaps be taken in context. Tommy was on his way to a GREAT career. He put up a terrific season in 1962, especially for a 23-year-old, especially for a 23-year-old whose home park went from being the Coliseum to Dodger Stadium. Tommy hit 346/374/535 that year, and somehow hit BETTER at home: 352/392/562. In Dodger Stadium.

    And THEN, when that failed to deter him, MLB expanded the strike zone, initiating the second deadball era.

    In 1963, playing in Dodger Stadium with a whopping big strike zone, Tommy still hit 326/359/457, and at home 319/351/411. In Dodger Stadium.

    He DID have remarkably high BAbip those two seasons (.349 and .338) and then cooled off to something approaching normal, but in that building, in that era, you’d still take a Tommy Davis hitting .275.

    And then in 1965 it appears he got hurt or something, for almost the entire season, and the next year (1966) he lost half a season. In 1967 he played with the woeful Mets, which I doubt offered him many opportunities to drive in runs, and later his home park was the Astrodome, and then the Oakland Coliseum, two notable offensive hellholes. He STILL put up a 125 OPS+ with the Mets and had a 121 season with the A’s, in 1971.

    They released him just before the 1972 season started so he missed being part of the Oakland juggernaut from 1972-74. He played for several more seasons while his career petered out.

    Guy had some bad luck. And that’s even before we get to the fact that if he’s remembered much at all today, it’s probably for his nightmarish fifth inning of Game 2 of the 1966 World Series.

    Them’s the breaks, of course. I’m not making apologies for Tommy. Just pointing out that a lot of circumstances went against him and he still came close to being one of the great hitters of the era. His 1962-63, given the context, are amazing seasons anyway.

    Career ///: 294/329/405

  2. nope said...

    So, Basically…A love letter to how underrated Bobby Abreu was?

    Here’s to wishing he stays relevent long enough to reach 300-400 HR/Steals so that more people realize he’s a better Hall of Fame candidate than some of the players that have got in recently.

  3. HP3 said...

    “Morgan is doing just fine as a skilled analytical announcer.”

    PUH-LEEEZE!!!! I hope your tongue was planted firmly in your cheek.

    The only “analyst” that may be worse than Morgan is Harold Reynolds.

  4. billdoe said...

    davis snapped an ankle on a play at first base, and the injury affected him over the course of the rest of his career.

    unfortunate, because he was a hell of a young player before the injury…and a pretty damn fine hitter for years after…

  5. TomH said...

    The best hitter to never lead the league in ANY major category? I assume this one is known well-enough not to make another article about it, but it still astounds me that a guy could win 10 silver slugger awards, finish 7 times in top 10 of MVP voting, consistently finish near the top is most major categories, and somehow achieve ZERO ‘black ink’ in his career.

  6. Don, the Rebel without a Blog said...

    Bucdaddy, it was Willie Davis, not Tommy, who had the bad fifth inning in Game 2 of the ‘66 World Series.

  7. bucdaddy said...

    Annnnd Don, the Rebel nails me.

    Damn, I had like a 50 percent chance of picking the right Davis and still got it wrong.

    * waves hand in air like basketball players used to have to do when they got called for a foul *

    Yep, that was on me.

  8. Marc Schneider said...

    Unfortunately, Tommy Davis may be better known for being a Jim Bouton favorite in “Ball Four” than for his career.

  9. northern rebel said...

    Good reading by both the author, and the replies!

    The sixties definitely took it’s toll on a lot of great players, Carl Yastrzemski being one who comes to my mind, as he was a boyhood favorite.

    From 1961-66, he finished in the top 5 in the Encyclopedia listed offensive categories 13 times. He led the league in hitting, slugging, hits and walks once, and doubles 3 times, averaging 38 a year.

    Yet despite a .294 BA, and an outstanding .373 OBA, his slugging Pct. was only .444 in that time period.

    He scored 497 runs, and drove in 461, not bad for the crappy team he played on, but only averaged 16 dingers. How many of those doubles would’ve been HR’s in the 90’s?

    Granted, his offseason regiment after ‘66, and his changed hitting philosophy may have resulted in one of the greatest seasons in history, and surely his totals would have been much higher, if not for a terrible wrist injury that caused him to go without a homer for a calender year, in the early ‘70’s.

    But one can only wonder what his numbers would have looked like, if those pitcher’s mounds were lowered sooner.

    P.S. Willie Davis would have been a sure HOF’er, had he not had to play in the hitter’s hell that was Chavez Ravine. (that, and if he hadn’t gone weird.)

  10. TomH said...

    yes, Piazza. The best hitting (MLB) catcher ever. Tiued in career offensive WAR with Tony Gwynn, who had, well, a LOT of black ink.

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