I have very much enjoyed Michael’s two recent pieces on the possibility of Kyle Schwarber batting leadoff for the Cubs in 2016. Each of Joe Maddon and Jed Hoyer have suggested it’s legitimately under consideration. It would be perfectly fine with me, but I do want to talk through a little something about that calculus.
Where the Cubs do not have a more obvious option (they do not), I’m inclined to go with the guy who (1) is the closest approximation in skill set to a leadoff hitter (for example, lacks speed, but has excellent discipline, gets on base at a high rate, can put self in scoring position), and (2) is also just a really good hitter. In this lineup, that’s Kyle Schwarber. As already identified by Joe Maddon, the other guy who might fit there is Ben Zobrist.
The reason for Schwarber (or Zobrist) at the top is even stronger when you consider that Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo should be locked in at 2 and 3 in the lineup, and those two absolutely need to be clustered together with Schwarber (clustering your best hitters together in succession is, to me, the single most important thing you can do in lineup construction). That means Schwarber has to be 1 or 4, and, given the lefty-lefty of Rizzo and Schwarber, I’d rather go with Schwarber up top. You could invert Bryant and Rizzo at 2 and 3, and then pop Zobrist up top and bat Schwarber 4th, though, and I wouldn’t complain.
All that said, none of which conflicts with the idea that Schwarber should be leading off for the Cubs, I do want to point out one thing that points in the other direction: extreme shifts.
Because it is easiest to pull of an extreme shift on a guy when the bases are empty, Schwarber leading off could lead to him facing more extreme shifts than anyone in baseball. Maybe it wouldn’t be an issue for him given how dang hard he hits the ball (and maybe he would improve his all fields approach – in a teeny tiny sample so far, Schwarber has hit just fine against the shift)), but it’s worth noting that, in 2015, Schwarber was a very strong pull guy – he pulled the ball 46.8% of the time, against a 39.1% league average. Given the ability to shift comfortably on Schwarber with the bases empty, then, you’d think he would lose quite a few hits that he might otherwise net if there were runners on base.
Is this enough to change your mind entirely on Schwarber leading off? Probably not. At least not entirely. But it should be in the consideration, especially when I’m not sure how much the Cubs lose by going Zobrist, Rizzo, Bryant, Schwarber in the one through four, as opposed to Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist.
It looks good to me either way.
But, hey, here’s the thing: in 2016, Zobrist was even more pull-oriented than Schwarber was in 2015! You don’t think of Zobrist as a guy facing the extreme shift all the time, but, when batting as a lefty, he pulled the ball 48.2% of the time. Zobrist pulls the ball a ton as a righty, too (his overall pull rate in 2016 was 11th highest in baseball), but utilizing the extreme shift on the left side of the field doesn’t work as well – having an extra short left fielder doesn’t make the throw to first base any easier. Instead, you typically only see a more traditional shift.
So, then, might you be inclined to see Zobrist leading off against lefties, and Schwarber leading off against righties? The thinking here is supported further when you consider splits (Schwarber has a 31 wRC+ in his young career against lefties – though I’m inclined to believe Schwarber is going to improve against lefties with more exposure).
I think I’ve talked myself into it for now: when facing a lefty starter, let’s see the Cubs go Zobrist-Rizzo-Bryant-Schwarber one through four, and when facing a righty starter, let’s see the Cubs go Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo-Zobrist.