The leadoff spot for the Cubs has been an overhyped black hole for a few years now. It was never that hard, but the Cubs kept making it so. And they made it so by sticking hitters that are either bad altogether (Almora, Descalso, whatever other idiot you can think of) or were struggling at the time that only made it worse thanks to the attention it got (Schwarber, Heyward, Happ). It also didn’t help that Dexter Fowler is a distinctively cool and handsome man whom we all loved and quite frankly no one was going to compare. You can’t really have Dex’s swag in the leadoff spot if you never get on base.
Still, the recent trends in baseball have been to move your best hitter in the #2 spot, because they get more ABs over a season that way. So it stands to reason that if you put your best hitter in the leadoff spot, he’ll get just many ABs and perhaps even more. The Red Sox won 108 games with their best hitter in the #1 spot in 2018. The Dodgers are going to bat that same guy in their leadoff spot this year. It’s not that revolutionary of a move.
Now you may say, “Hey there Fels, you stupid weak baby, Kris Bryant isn’t Mookie Betts!” And I would say, check this out, chumley:
.284/.385/.516 139 wRC+
.301/.374/..519 135 wRC+
I’m not going to tell you which is which, because as you can see, it doesn’t really matter. You might say that Betts has four seasons of 20 steals or more where Bryant only has one with more than 10, but are we really going to worry about stolen bases at this point in our lives? We are not, dear reader. Especially given that Bryant is a great baserunner without the steals.
Sure, if you only have a couple big time hitters, you probably don’t want to waste one at the top of the lineup and hope he can just hit a bunch of solo home runs before the next three guys make outs. That’s not the case for the Cubs. If we take Kris Bryant out of the equation because he’s leading off now, there’s still Rizzo, Baez, Schwarber, Contreras behind him, and all of them have been run producers at various times in their careers. And again, if Happ can come good and Heyward is restricted to the #6 or #7 spot and never see a left-handed pitcher, the lineup extends.
The case for Bryant at leadoff is easy. One, he gets on base (cue gif of Moneyball scouting table and pointing at Pete). He had the second-highest OBP last year even with the injury problems at .382. His career-mark is .385. That’s better than Rizzo’s .373, in case you wanted to see Rizzo up there (which would have been fine with me as well). Second, he’s fast. Probably the second-fastest player on the team behind Baez. That doesn’t mean he’s stealing 30 bases or something, but you can see a lot of innings starting with no one out and 1st and 3rd after Rizzo singles. Or scoring from second for Baez or Schwarber. Third, it plunges the pitcher right into it. Not time to “find it.” You have to be ready from the off. There’s going to be a fair amount of leadoff walks here.
Mostly, it gets someone else out of the spotlight. I think Schwarber is a decent solution up there too, given his OBP skills, but we’ve seen that movie and it’s the question he has to answer all the time. Let him be in the middle, and his only concern is to smash the shit out of the ball. That’s all he should worry about. It’s all he should have worried about batting leadoff, but here we are. It doesn’t add something to Ian Happ’s burden of trying to cement himself in the majors for good. Same goes for Hoerner if he’s actually here.
Bryant won’t care about that. One, he just doesn’t care about any of it, probably because not much sticks in that beautiful head of his (and he will match Fowler for handsomeness in the leadoff spot, which apparently is important). And also he’s got a track record. And it’s something the rest of the team doesn’t have to worry about.
This was an easy decision, but it was at least a departure from Joe Maddon for David Ross, as the former kept trying to crowbar anyone else but the guy it made the most sense to put up there. Ross will face bigger hurdles than this, but at least he’s getting this one right by quite simply, not getting too cute about it. And too cute was Maddon’s mantra basically.