Dexter Fowler has signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.
There will be no surprise Spring Training return, no classic smile, and no more “You go, we go,” leading off for the North Side in 2016.
To that end, the Cubs will be forced to find a new leadoff hitter for their lineup, and one unorthodox suggestion is left fielder Kyle Schwarber.
We recently discussed the attractiveness of a Kyle Schwarber-led offense here at Bleacher Nation, but this idea has been growing some legs. Most recently, Jed Hoyer offered his praise for the idea of Schwarber leading off on the Spiegel and Goff Show. Let’s discuss.
Although Hoyer maintains that all lineup decisions are Joe Maddon’s and his alone, he does add that he “loves that idea” of Schwarber leading off. He understands that it may seem unconventional, but adds that there are only really a handful of guys in the entire league that fit that prototypical mold of a leadoff hitter who can get on base, see a lot of pitches, and steal a base or two. If the Cubs don’t have that guy, they’ll have to choose a leadoff hitter in other ways.
Instead, Hoyer suggests that the Bill James-championed philosophy (learned during his time in Boston with the Red Sox) of getting your best hitters the most opportunities to hit – period – is the most crucial consideration.
“You’re only guaranteed to lead off once a game, and the most important thing is having the right guys at the plate the most often,” Hoyer told Spiegel and Goff. “To me, it’s pretty terrifying to think of Schwarber, (Kris Bryant), (Anthony) Rizzo to start the game. That pitcher’s coming out for that first inning, and he knows he’s in trouble right away.”
Yeah, that’s about as solid as a 1-2-3 can get.
When it comes to setting the tone and making the opposing starter work right out of the gate, Dexter Fowler finished second best in baseball with 4.41 pitches seen per plate appearance in 2016. The year prior (2015), Fowler finished 16th overall with 4.09 pitches seen per plate appearance. In that same year, Kyle Schwarber finished fourth overall with 4.26 pitches seen per plate appearance (just one spot behind Joey Votto!).
In addition to seeing so many pitches, Kyle Schwarber has so much more of what you look for in a leadoff hitter:
In his rookie season (2015), for example, Schwarber carried a .355 OBP, despite a .246 batting average, because he walked over 13.0% of the time. That year … Schwarber also had one of the better O-swing rates (30.2%) for players under 25, and, considering what he did in the World Series, it doesn’t look like any of those skills have eroded in the wake of the knee injury that cost him most of the 2016 season.
At the Athletic, Sahadev Sharma tackles the same subject, and adds that Schwarber’s biggest competition for leadoff, Ben Zobrist, may continue to make more sense in the cleanup spot: “For much of last season, Maddon talked about utilizing Zobrist’s contact skills in the middle of the lineup behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, raising the chances of a ball in play with men on base. So perhaps the suggestion of Schwarber hitting leadoff makes more sense.”
If you’re a slightly risk-averse person, promising the lead-off role to Schwarber – a 23-year-old sophomore-ish coming off an entirely missed season – might be a bit scary. Totally understandable. But I will remind you that Schwarber’s hitting ability is thought – by rival executives, mind you – to be right there with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
According to Sharma, in fact, one rival assistant GM believes Schwarber’s hitting ability exceeds that of Bryant, while another front office member said he’d take Schwarber over Rizzo if the toss up was hitting skills only. That’s about as high as offensive praise comes, and I do think you should take that strongly into consideration.
Joe Maddon has plenty of time before he has to turn a lineup card in St. Louis on Opening Night, but chances are increasing that Schwarber’s name will be listed right there at the top. That could be a lot of fun.