Acuña, Betts among best leadoff seasons ever

September 24th, 2023

and are in the midst of historic 2023 seasons at the plate.

The pair of NL outfielders -- who are almost certain to finish 1-2 in some order in National League MVP voting this fall -- are tearing it up from a spot in the batting order that, until recently, rarely saw this type of production.

Since 1906, leadoff hitters are hitting .269 (fifth among the nine lineup positions) and slugging just .380 (sixth). But those numbers include recent surges as teams have changed their approach to lineup construction, often putting their best hitters in the top two spots. Leadoff hitters are slugging .431 in 2023, tied with 2021 for the second-highest mark in AL/NL history -- behind only 2019. The top nine seasons in that category have all come since 2004.

Acuña and Betts have led off in every game they’ve started this season, and they’ve put up some of the best-ever numbers out of the No. 1 spot. But how do their 2023 seasons compare to some of the best leadoff campaigns of all time?

To determine that, we came up with a few key criteria.

  1. Many of these players have multiple seasons worthy of inclusion, but we limited it to one standout season apiece.
  2. The player must have played at least 100 games in the leadoff spot to be considered.
  3. This list only considers and includes statistics compiled from the No. 1 spot in the batting order.

Here are the top 15 leadoff seasons in AL/NL history, plus 10 honorable mentions. All 2023 stats are through Friday's games.

1. , Athletics, 1990
At leadoff: 132 G, 1.018 OPS, 28 HR, 63 SB

It wasn’t easy to pick the best season of a Hall of Fame career for Henderson, likely the best leadoff hitter in AL/NL history. The fact that we didn’t view his 1982 campaign -- featuring a record of 130 stolen bases that may never be broken -- as his best is a testament to Henderson’s talent and longevity. But it’s hard to go wrong with his 1990 season, his first full year back with the A’s after a midseason trade from the Yankees in 1989. Henderson led off in all 132 of his starts, tying a career-high with 28 homers while succeeding on 63 of his 73 stolen-base attempts. Henderson won the 1990 AL MVP Award -- somehow the only MVP of his 25-year career.

2. Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves, 2023
At leadoff: 152 G, 1.013 OPS, 40 HR, 68 SB

An unparalleled power-speed season has catapulted Acuña to near the very top of this list. The young Braves outfielder has put it all together for his best year to date, propelling Atlanta to the top of the National League standings. Acuña created the 30/60 club on Aug. 31, became the first player to 200 hits on Sept. 15 and made more history with his 40th home run on Sept. 22. MLB’s stolen base leader is among the league's elite hitters, and every ounce of Acuña’s production in 2023 has come out of the leadoff spot -- he hasn’t appeared anywhere else in a game this season.

3. Mookie Betts, Dodgers, 2023
At leadoff: 143 G, .997 OPS, 39 HR, 103 RBI

Except for stolen bases -- he only has 13 -- Betts has put together a season to rival Acuña in pretty much every category. The Dodgers outfielder has 39 homers, a .407 on-base percentage and an OPS near 1.000. Betts has also crossed the century mark in RBIs; on Sept. 23, he passed Charlie Blackmon (2017) for the most by a leadoff hitter in AL/NL history. With one more leadoff homer, he’d tie Alfonso Soriano (2003) for the single-season record. Betts’ 2018 AL MVP season with the Red Sox, featuring 32 homers, 30 steals and a 1.083 OPS from the leadoff spot, was also heavily considered for this list.

4. , Nationals, 2006
At leadoff: 131 G, .956 OPS, 39 HR, 38 SB

Before Acuña, Soriano was the most recent member of the 40-40 club, a fraternity so rare it has only five members. He accomplished the feat in 2006, his only season with the Nationals. Twenty-eight of Soriano’s games (and seven of his homers) came away from the leadoff spot, but he still managed to put together a fantastic campaign when only factoring in the No. 1 position in the order: 38 doubles, 39 homers and 38 steals.

5. , Brewers, 1987
At leadoff: 105 G, 1.037 OPS, 43 SB, .365 AVG

Molitor had the fourth-highest average and second-highest OPS of any season considered for this list. He still slugged .588 despite just 15 homers, hitting 40 doubles for the Brewers and finishing fifth in 1987 AL MVP voting -- his second-best MVP finish ever. Molitor played just 118 total games and 105 in the leadoff spot, but his 1987 campaign was still one of the finest ever for a leadoff man. That season included a 39-game hitting streak, the seventh longest ever.

6. , Angels, 2012
At leadoff: 138 G, .963 OPS, 30 HR, 49 SB

A 30-30 season (and then some) as a rookie? The 2012 season was Trout’s true coming-out party after he appeared in 40 games in 2011. In 138 games out of the leadoff spot, Trout showed the talent that has earned him three AL MVP Awards and 11 All-Star appearances in 11 full seasons. He batted .326 with 30 homers, 49 steals and a .963 OPS, winning the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing second in MVP voting. It was just the beginning of what has been a standout career for the Angels outfielder.

7. , Giants, 1973
At leadoff: 139 G, .909 OPS, 35 HR, 42 SB

The 30-30 club had just three members before Bonds first joined it in 1969: Ken Williams, Willie Mays (twice) and Hank Aaron. He proved himself worthy of such elite company, repeating the feat three more times -- including in 1973, his career-best season. Despite a considerably tougher offensive environment, Bonds missed out on being the first player to 40-40 by a single home run; 35 of his 39 homers came out of the No. 1 spot. Before 1970, no leadoff hitter had ever hit more than 24 homers in one year; Bonds was part of a new era of leadoff men that continues to this day.

8. , Marlins, 2007
At leadoff: 112 G, 1.001 OPS, 22 HR, 41 SB, .345 BA

The year after his 2006 NL Rookie of the Year campaign, Ramirez put together an even better season for the Marlins. While 42 of his 154 games on the season came away from the No. 1 spot, he dominated from the leadoff position all year. Ramirez hit .345 with 22 homers and 41 steals, surpassing a 1.000 OPS as the leadoff hitter. His 2008 season, featuring 32 homers and 31 steals out of the No. 1 spot, was also a contender for this list.

9. , Twins, 1996
At leadoff: 151 G, .966 OPS, 14 3B, 45 SB, .341 BA

Knoblauch, a four-time World Series champion, reached the peak of his career in his age-27 season. In 1996, he hit .341 with a .966 OPS for Minnesota, filling up the box score in nearly every category. Knoblauch hit 35 doubles and an AL-best 14 triples, slugged 13 home runs and stole 45 bases. He reached career-highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, triples, RBIs and walks in one of the best offensive seasons by a second baseman since the days of .

10. , Rockies, 2017
At leadoff: 156 G, .999 OPS, 37 HR, 14 3B, 103 RBI

Blackmon practically put up elite cleanup hitter numbers during his 2017 season, slashing .329/.397/.602 with 37 homers and driving in 103 runs out of the leadoff spot -- second to only Betts in 2023 for the most RBIs as a leadoff man in AL/NL history. He certainly benefited from playing his home games at Coors Field, batting .391 with a 1.239 OPS there, but Blackmon’s production can't be written off.

11. , Astros, 1997
At leadoff: 156 G, .923 OPS, 22 HR, 47 SB

It’s hard to dream up a more dependable leadoff man than Biggio in 1997. He played in all 162 games, starting 156 of them in the No. 1 spot. Biggio provided average, power and speed as a table-setter, hitting .311 with 22 homers and 47 steals for the Astros. He also showed off his batting eye, walking at a solid 11.3% rate and getting on base at a .418 clip. Biggio scored an MLB-high 146 runs in 1997; 145 came out of the leadoff spot, tied with Henderson in 1985 for the most by a leadoff man in AL/NL history.

12. Brady Anderson, Orioles, 1996
At leadoff: 102 G, 1.029 OPS, 35 HR, 17 SB

In 1996, Anderson put together one of the most surprising seasons in history. He’d never hit more than 21 homers in a season before, but sure enough, he slugged 50 that year -- and never topped 24 again for the rest of his career. Thirty-five of those homers came out of the leadoff spot, where he spent 102 of his 149 games; he hit four leadoff homers in a row at one point, a Modern Era record. Anderson posted an impressive 1.029 OPS as the leadoff man for the O’s, stealing 17 bases as well.

13. , Angels, 2000
At leadoff: 156 G, .949 OPS, 25 HR, 28 SB

As the Angels’ reliable leadoff man in 2000, Erstad batted .354 with a strong combination of power and speed: 25 homers and 28 stolen bases. Part of that was volume: Thanks to his durability, Erstad was able to accrue 747 plate appearances and 676 at-bats -- both of which led the Majors. He also led MLB in hits with 240, a total only one player has surpassed since the turn of the millennium -- and that player is next on our list.

14. , Mariners, 2004
At leadoff: 150 G, .877 OPS, .377 AVG, 33 SB

Since Erstad’s 240-hit 2000 campaign, only Suzuki has had more hits in a season. He racked up 242 hits as a rookie the very next season before blowing even that total away with a whopping 262 hits in 2004 -- the AL/NL record. All but 11 of those hits came out of the No. 1 spot in the order, with Ichiro batting .377 from the leadoff spot -- the highest average as a leadoff man with at least 100 games played in AL/NL history. Ichiro was also a threat on the basepaths, swiping 33 bases from the leadoff spot in 2004 and finishing his career with more than 500 steals.

15. , Expos, 1985
At leadoff: 143 G, .888 OPS, 13 3B, 11 HR, 69 SB

Only eight players in AL/NL history have stolen more bases than Raines did with 90 in 1983, but it was two years later when he had his best leadoff campaign. Raines hit .323 with 69 stolen bases as a leadoff man for the Expos, contributing all around with 30 doubles, 13 triples and 11 homers. The 1985 season marked the fifth of seven straight All-Star appearances for Raines.

Honorable mentions

George Springer, Astros, 2019
At leadoff: 119 G, .981 OPS, 39 HR, 96 RBI

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox, 2011
At leadoff: 144 G, .944 OPS, 29 HR, 37 SB, 97 RBI

Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, 2007
At leadoff: 139 G, .903 OPS, 30 HR, 17 3B, 33 SB

Grady Sizemore, Cleveland, 2006
At leadoff: 160 G, .907 OPS, 28 HR, 22 SB

Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox, 1997
At leadoff: 152 G, .876 OPS, 30 HR, 98 RBI, 22 SB

Kenny Lofton, Cleveland, 1996
At leadoff: 153 G, .817 OPS, 14 HR, 75 SB

Lou Brock, Cardinals, 1974
At leadoff: 150 G, .751 OPS, 117 SB, .306 BA

Tommy Harper, Brewers, 1970
At leadoff: 146 G, .915 OPS, 31 HR, 38 SB

Earle Combs, Yankees, 1930
At leadoff: 129 G, .957 OPS, 22 3B, .348 BA

Jesse Burkett, Cardinals, 1901
At leadoff: 142 G, .950 OPS, 15 3B, 27 SB, .376 BA