It has been the Cubs’ MO since the departure of Dexter Fowler: if you don’t have a guy on the roster who checks all those traditional leadoff hitter boxes, just go with good hitters or good match-ups, and let the chips fall where they may.
On paper, it’s a good strategy. Everyone wants a leadoff hitter who sees a lot of pitches, gets on base a ton, and runs the bases supremely well. The prototypical leadoff hitter. But the reality is that there are exceedingly few guys like that.
Here’s the list of players in 2019 who averaged 4.0 pitches per plate appearance (top 45 in baseball), got on base at a .360 clip (top 47 in baseball), and had a baserunning score of at least 2.5 (top 48 in baseball):
- Mike Trout
- Mookie Betts
- Max Muncy
- Ronald Acuña, Jr.
- Trevor Story
- Shin-Soo Choo
- Adam Eaton
That’s it. That’s the entire list.
In other words, your dream leadoff hitter doesn’t exist, because he’s currently a star raking in the middle of someone else’s lineup (also Shin-Soo Choo and Adam Eaton). You’re already going to have to compromise on what you get at the top of the order, so mixing and matching starts to make sense for most teams.
But here’s the thing: those three traditional leadoff “skills” are not created equal. Getting on base is by far the most important and valuable skill to park atop the lineup, and the Cubs were utterly dreadful at it in 2019. The team’s leadoff OBP? .294, some 25% worse than the league average in the spot. Hell, the number isn’t that much better than the 9 spot (.231), and that’s where a pitcher hit most of the time!
I’ve been thinking a lot about this chart since I saw it last night, and thinking about why it’s so important for the guy(s) atop the lineup to get on base, even in the current Juiced Ball Era:
7/8 teams that hit home runs are good. pic.twitter.com/G4WZ6GykD5
— Grant Evans: Braves Fan (@GrantEvans0) October 3, 2019
Guess which one of those teams is the 1 in 8?
You’ve got seven playoff teams and one team that went home, and let me suggest that’s not entirely a coincidence, or unrelated to the leadoff problems. When most of your dingers are coming from the middle of your lineup, you’re leaving a ton of potential runs on the board if the guys ahead of them are never getting on base.
Of the Cubs’ 256 homers, 57% were of the solo variety – pretty comparable to the teams elsewhere on the list, a touch higher than a few – so maybe I’m poking at a dead end here in suggesting the Cubs were uniquely afflicted by their homers not translating to runs at an appropriate clip. But when you widen the scope a bit, and you see how much damage the middle of the order was doing this for the Cubs, you wonder if maybe they could have done a bunch more run-scoring with those homers.
Just look at the spots that were most frequently coming to bat before the Cubs’ behemoths in the middle, the 1 and 9 spot (via baseball-reference):
The Cubs were literally above average relative to the league at every single spot in the order except for 1 and 9. And at those two spots? They were almost HILARIOUSLY worse than average (look at the normalized rates at the end of the chart).
The mind goes to dark, dark places thinking about what might have been if the Cubs had merely had an average hitter leading off most of the year.
It’s not like the Cubs didn’t have an OBP guy available – one who was also in the top 40 in pitches per plate appearance – right there all along to hit leadoff. Anthony Rizzo finished the year 6TH IN ALL OF BASEBALL IN OBP (.405), but for some reason it took them five and a half months to realize he was the guy for the job, when it was already too late to actually get enough value from it. Maybe we did the Cubs a disservice by joking about Rizzo being “The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time,” because it is not only statistically true, it’s also a reality that he was the clear best option the Cubs had.
Alternatively, if the Cubs had made a significant offensive addition, perhaps that would have recalibrated things just enough to get average production out of the top spot. I’m not even talking about targeting a mythical “leadoff hitter;” I’m just saying if another competent bat had been brought into the fold, maybe the whole lineup gets sorted out differently.
I’d say that, “in hindsight,” the Cubs should’ve added a hitter this offseason, but we said that before the season. And I’d say that, “in hindsight,” Joe Maddon should’ve had Rizzo leading off most of the year, but we said that midseason.
When you see just how stark the problem at the leadoff spot was – and how much damage it wrought – and you realize this was a known issue before the season, made profoundly worse by in-season choices? Yeah, the front office and Joe Maddon deserve a lot of heat for such a catastrophic failing.
Now, the Cubs head into the offseason with a pretty obvious charge. Never make the same mistake twice and all that. Given the presence of Rizzo, I’m not sure they have to pull out all stops to get a “leadoff guy,” but Theo Epstein wasn’t shy about the issue in his season-ending presser. He knows the problem, and he knows the possible ways to address it
“That’s an area where clearly we can do a lot better,” Epstein said of the leadoff spot on Monday in his press conference. “Those are unacceptable numbers that we got out of the leadoff spot this year. I think there are a couple ways to go. If we can acquire that prototypical leadoff hitter, that would be fantastic and make everyone’s life easier going forward. If we can’t, the best solution is get as many players as we can who get on base as much as possible, and have a lot of different options of guys you can throw up based on match-up situations into that spot.”
Epstein conceded that there were some guys up top who let the role impact their performance, which was very clear from the outside (indeed, it was fairly obvious that it could be an issue as early as last year, when Kyle Schwarber stopped being himself).
The clear emphasis from Epstein is less about finding a ONE leadoff hitter, but instead is about focusing on getting on base – and then whoever is up top on any given day can be a satisfactory leadoff man. Again, I’m fine with that in theory, though the Cubs will have to be MUCH MORE reactive next year if it becomes clear that a guy just isn’t able to be himself in the leadoff spot. And obviously there’s probably a little bit of a coaching angle there, too.
Given the dramatic numbers, I don’t think it’ll be unreasonable or reactionary to really push this topic throughout the offseason. The Cubs need to have a very good idea of what they’re going to do out of the leadoff spot next year, and also make sure the player(s) and the coaching staff are fully on board.
Of course, if they want to go out and find that magical, prototypical leadoff hitter – whoever he is – that’d be swell, too.