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Does the Math Support Having an Atypical Leadoff Hitter Like Kyle Schwarber?

Analysis and Commentary

When the 2017 season finally gets underway, the Cubs are likely to kick off their first inning at the dish like this:

  1. Kyle Schwarber, LF
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  4. Ben Zobrist, 2B

In fact, this is likely the way the Cubs will start most of their games this season.

Of course, as everyone in the world knows, Kyle Schwarber isn’t your typical lead-off hitter. Even before his season-long knee injury/rehab last season, Schwarber was never considered much of a “burner,” and might not even be a “contact” guy either. Instead, he excels with power, discipline, and getting on base.

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And while we think we know that those particular skills should play fine out of the leadoff spot, it’s always important to check our math. Fortunately, Dan Szymborski did it for us.

Asking, “Is Kyle Schwarber the New Face of Leadoff Hitters?” Szymborski decided to look into just how unusual his placement atop the Cubs’ lineup is, and whether it’s actually a good idea.

Historically, Szymborski’s data confirms, a prototypical leadoff hitter is most closely linked to stolen base attempts and contact rate – exactly what you would suspect. On-base percentage, not unexpectedly, was not a huge component. Obviously, that thinking has changed quite a bit in recent years.

One of the biggest negative historical indicators of whether a player would be used as a leadoff hitter was isolated power (ISO). In other words, when a player’s two biggest skills are power and getting on base, he’s not typically used in the leadoff role. Furthermore, if you were given two statistically identical players – one who played a corner position and one who played up the middle – the center fielder/shortstop/second baseman were far more likely to be a team’s leadoff hitter, despite no other meaningful differences.


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So obviously, the Cubs’ left fielder is in very rare company indeed.

But I’m not sure you’ll guess just how unusual it’ll be.

Once Schwarber reaches 300 plate appearances out of the leadoff role this season, he’ll be the third most unusual leadoff hitter since the dead-ball era. Seriously. He’ll be the third least like every other leadoff hitter in about 100 years. But, okay, the Cubs like to do things differently. We already knew that. The real question is … is it any better?

Of course, we’ve long known that the order of any given lineup hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. Over the course of an entire season it MIGHT amount to a little over a win. In reality, the only significant rule/lesson is getting your best hitters as many chances as possible. But still, we and Szymborski want a little more than that. So he took a closer look.

When comparing every team by their overall leadoff situations (from most typical to least typical) he found that “the best way to maximize team scoring is to maximize overall team on-base percentage and slugging percentage.” What that really means, however, is something we already know: get your best players more chances. The more PAs taken by your best hitters, the more the team’s overall on-base and slugging percentages will increase.


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Well it just so happens that the Cubs’ four best projected hitters in 2017 (according to ZiPS) happen to be Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist. That means that those four batters should, in any order, get the most opportunities as often as possible.

Well:

  1. Kyle Schwarber, LF
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  4. Ben Zobrist, 2B

Now you can very much make the argument that Schwarber at the top isn’t necessarily the best spot for him in particular, but the working theory is that not moving the other hitters around from where they normally batted last year adds more value than trying to squeeze out any of the remaining, marginal benefits of, say, hitting Zobrist first. (And, there will be some days when Schwarber will not lead off (against a tough lefty, or when he sits), and Zobrist figures to lead off on those days.)


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The Cubs don’t do things according to tradition. They do what they believe puts them in the best possible position to succeed. Batting Kyle Schwarber leadoff this season may not by typical, but according to the math …

 


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Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami is a Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @Michael_Cerami.

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