So far this season, five different players have led off games for the Cubs, with Albert Almora leading the way most often (18 games), followed Ian Happ (10), Ben Zobrist (4), and Anthony Rizzo/Willson Contreras (1 each).
Some of that was by design – i.e. semi-platooning Almora/Happ – but plenty of it was out of necessity. Rizzo and Contreras, for example, were attempts to jump-start the offense, while a hot-handed Ben Zobrist has taken over against righties more lately. But anyone who’s been paying attention knows that it’s not just the first spot in the order that’s been moved around a lot. Pretty much every spot in the lineup – including those historically reserved for guys like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo – has been tinkered with, and that’s probably not going to change any time soon.
Indeed, Cubs Manager Joe Maddon offered up a pretty simple message to the media on this topic (Chicago Sun Times, The Daily Herald, The Daily Planet, and The Athletic): he does not care about the ever-changing lineup. Period.
If you’re new to this team, you might be surprised to hear Maddon’s distaste for the entire “set lineup” conversation, but for anyone that’s been around for a while, this should come as no surprise. “Honestly, it’s such a non-sophisticated conversation,” Maddon said this week. “It really is. I don’t know how it begins. I’ve heard it from old baseball dudes. I think fathers pass it down to sons on occasion. It’s like teaching your kid how to drive a stick shift. It just gets passed along.”
There’s absolutely no question that the relative structure of a lineup on any given day is blown WAY out of proportion. Don’t get me wrong, matchups exist and getting the right guys in there matters a great deal (that’s sort of the point Maddon is making, actually). But once you’ve picked your team, the relative order they hit in matters very little on a day-to-day basis.
Although Maddon is generally considered a very progressive manager, he usually plays to both audiences (we’ve all seen that Binny’s commercial … rookie). But on this topic, he’s steadfastly against any devotion to a set lineup: “I try not to comment on it because it’s such a poor discussion. There’s no sophistication to it whatsoever. It makes zero sense. It doesn’t belong in today’s game. And actually, it never belonged in anybody’s game …. ”
And to even further strengthen Maddon’s argument, you must understand context. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that set lineups matter more than they do (which is close to not at all). This *particular* Cubs team might still be an exception. There’s way too much versatility (both offensively and defensively), and way too much extra matchup data to surrender yourself to rigidity. Even Theo Epstein agrees, explaining away Maddon’s fungible lineup by citing the desire to put every player in the best position to succeed, to protect them against bad matchups, and to rest them as much as possible (which, again, for a Cubs team, that has gone deep into October for three straight seasons, matters more than most).
But there is more to this conversation.
While Maddon does seem to have no interest in sticking with one lineup every single day, he does probably have some interest in finding at least the right combination of guys to leadoff for his team. Indeed, while the lineup moves around like crazy, two guys (Almora and Happ) have led off 82% of their overall games (and until Maddon started trying out Ben Zobrist more recently, that was much closer to 100%).
And now, a new name might be thrown into the mix. Or, rather, a new old name: Kyle Schwarber: “It’s not impossible,” Maddon told the Sun-Times about the possibility of leading off games with Kyle Schwarber. “I have thought about it. It came up a couple times recently.” But Maddon went on to explain that he does like Ben Zobrist in there against a righty, and it’s hard to argue with him.
After a down 2017 season, Ben Zobrist has turned up big time this year and has been particularly effective against righties: .298/.377/.426; 124 wRC+. Sure, Schwarber crushes righties, too (.296/.387/.617; 168 wRC+), but Zobrist leading off allows Schwarber’s big-time power to remain lower in the lineup (where he can drive in more runs (wait, is that a lineup order thing?)) without much of a tradeoff in batting average or on-base percentage.
But in case you were wondering, Maddon isn’t concerned about Schwarber returning to the leadoff role. While it may very well have contributed to his struggles last year, that’s all in the past now. This season, Schwarber has proven himself as a better overall hitter with a better approach at the plate. So, if need be, he could leadoff and probably be fine.
For his part, Schwarber is game for the top, saying that he’d do it if Maddon asked, and urging that batting leadoff last year was not what caused his offensive problems. Note, by the way, that Schwarber has already moved up and down the lineup a bit this year without an issue, even if not to that very top spot.
For now, I’d expect Almora to keep leading off against lefties and for some combination of Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ to lead off against righties. But make no mistake, the Schwarber experiment could return – especially if Happ continues to struggle, because Zobrist will still need periodic time off. And if it does, I think it would work just fine, just like the rest of the shuffling around – over time – works out just fine.