The ideal lineup is built around the concept of getting your best players the most plate appearances, thus maximizing the team’s run scoring capabilities.
No matter which way it’s sliced, the Chicago Cubs’ best four hitters project to be Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist. And while there has been much discussion about how atypical a lineup looks with a slugger like Schwarber at the top, we haven’t spent much time talking about the other non-traditional piece of the lineup with Zobrist hitting cleanup, as he so often has already this year.
The math suggests the Cubs will be just fine with Schwarber at the top of the order. But what about Zobrist in the cleanup spot?
Before we dive too deep into the splits (much of which were mined over at FanGraphs), we should highlight Zobrist’s strengths at the dish. He makes quality contact, limits swings-and-misses, doesn’t expand the strike zone often, and keeps the line moving with a high on-base percentage. And as the data suggests, being an atypical cleanup hitter doesn’t mean you can’t be productive.
Here are Zobrist’s ranks among the 29 hitters who made at least 240 plate appearances batting fourth in 2016.
- Batting average: .267 (18th)
- On-base percentage: .382 (6th)
- Slugging percentage: .427 (24th)
- On-base plus slugging: .817 (18th)
- Isolated slugging: .170 (25th)
- Walk rate: 14.9% (1st)
- Strikeout rate: 13.3% (24th)
- wOBA: .355 (14th)
- wRC+: 121 (T-14th)
There are a bunch of middle-of-the-road numbers here, but that is to be expected because of Zobrist’s profile. On the other hand, you’ve come to expect the high walk rate and low strikeout percentage that comes with Zobrist. What he lacks in power is made up with the likelihood of keeping the line moving than stranding base runners as a result of an empty plate appearance. And even though Zobrist’s 54.3 percent ground ball rate was the second highest among regular cleanup men, he only grounded into a double play seven times in 94 ground balls put in play.
In fact, Zobrist (who made 248 PA in the cleanup role) put the ball in play 180 times in that role in 2016. That is to be expected from a player who made contact at an 88.3 percent clip, only Daniel Murphy (88.8%) had a higher contact rate among cleanup hitters. In the end, only 3.9 percent of the balls in play off Zobrist’s bat when hitting fourth resulted in a double play. That seems valuable.
Zobrist’s contact skills were on display at the most opportune times during the 2016 postseason. And it’s worth debating how valuable his ability to put the ball in play and keep the line moving can be in a lineup with high on-base guys ahead of him and budding sluggers behind him.
Could the Cubs do better than Zobrist in the fourth spot? Possibly. Even in his age 35 season, Zobrist graded out as the seventh best base runner by FanGraphs’ Ultimate Base Running (UBR) metric. So, flipping him and Schwarber would put another good base runner on for the middle of the order, but we’ll see how sustainable that is at age 36.
A Schwarber-for-Zobrist swap sacrifices some of Zobrist’s contact and plate discipline for the upside of Schwarber’s power. In either case, the Cubs are well-equipped to score runs in any environment as long as the first four hitters are (in any order) Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo, and Zobrist.
For now, though, that’s the order they seem content to continue.