Chicago Cubs: Should Maddon have Jason Heyward lead-off over Ben Zobrist?

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Lineup optimization is an important, and unique, part of baseball because it allows a manager to potentially add extra runs, at no cost to the team.  Most personal moves in baseball come with costs. Trades cost players, free agents cost money, and in-game substitutions cost the further use of the substituted player.

Lineup construction, however, comes without cost. Once a manager has chosen his nine starting players he must assign them a batting order. This order can affect the number of runs team scores.

This effect may be small, perhaps only a few runs a season. Yet it would be foolish to throw these runs away. With that thought in mind, I thought about how to assemble the optimal 2016 Chicago Cubs lineup.

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The most obvious, and yet overlooked, element in lineup construction is extra at-bats. Every spot higher in a lineup yields 18 extra plate appearances over the course of a full season.

A leadoff hitter will, therefore, have 125 more at bats than an eight-hitter. That’s nearly 20% of a season’s at-bats. Simple logic dictates those extra plate appearances should go to the most productive hitters. Based on that guiding principle, the ideal Cubs’ lineup would be:

  1. Jason Heyward (L)
  2. Anthony Rizzo (L)
  3. Kris Bryant (R)
  4. Kyle Schwarber (L)
  5. Jorge Soler (R)
  6. Ben Zobrist (S)
  7. Addison Russell (R)
  8. Miguel Montero (L)
  9. Pitcher

I chose Jason Heyward to lead off. The desired traits in a hitter change based on circumstance. Power (i.e. slugging pct.) is highly desired with runners on base. But the benefits of power are muted without base runners. On-base percentage (OBP) and to a lesser extent speed are far more useful traits in empty base situations.

Leadoff hitters, by definition, have at least one plate appearance with empty bases. They also usually bat after the pitcher, who is more likely to end an inning than any other player (think of all the times teams intentionally walk an eight-hitter with two outs). So an ideal leadoff hitter has a high OBP and speed; but not excessive power, which would be wasted.

My colleague, Ryan Dunn, recently noted that the Cubs have two such leadoff candidates: Heyward and Zobrist. Zobrist edges Heyward in OBP (.364 for Zobrist & .359 for Heyward). But the 26-year-old Heyward is more likely to maintain his production while the 35-year-old Zobrist is more likely to regress in 2016. Heyward also has much better speed, with over 20 stolen bases in each of the past two years.

As an added bonus, Heyward hits well at Wrigley; his career numbers at Wrigley are the best of any ballpark, so he might be in line for a career year.  Thus, Heyward is the best leadoff candidate.

Batting Rizzo second is a no-brainer. Rizzo is currently the Cubs most productive hitter. He led the team in average, OBP, and slugging in 2015. Traditionally, a team’s best hitter bats third because the third spot allegedly leads off innings less often, thereby minimizing empty base situations.

But this “evidence” is scant and pales before the quantifiable number of plate appearances that Rizzo loses by batting third, instead of second.  Batting Rizzo second is probably the most valuable move Joe Maddon can make, lineup wise.

Bryant in the three spot is another easy choice. Bryant was the Cubs best hitter after Rizzo last year and likely will improve. I expect Bryant to launch 35+ HRs in 2016 and slash around .285/.370/.530. His right-handed bat between Rizzo and Schwarber will play havoc on opposing relief corps, as it did late last year. With the extra OBP in front of him, Bryant should have 120 RBI by season’s end.

I chose Kyle Schwarber’s to bat fourth not only on his production (which I expect to be high) but also on the assumption that he will often be replaced defensively. That, in turn, makes him a likely double-switch candidate. So placing him well away from the pitcher’s spot is important. His power obviously plays in the clean-up spot, as does his left-handed bat after Bryant.

Choosing between Zobrist and Jorge Soler for the fifth spot was a tough decision. Zobrist was clearly the better hitter in 2015. Yet I chose Soler over Zobrist because exit velocity data from 2015 suggests Soler is due for a breakout year. In only 101 games Soler managed to hit more baseballs exceeding 110mph than every other Cubs regular…combined.

Only seven players exceeded Soler’s ‘crushed ball’ total in all of baseball and everyone was an all-star.  These numbers suggest Soler is due for a monster 2016. And that is worthy of 18 extra at bats. Zobrist remains a better hitter than Russell and Montero, and thus gets the sixth spot by default.

I did not place Russell seventh, so much as I placed Montero eighth. Russell is not suited for hitting in front of a pitcher. Opposing pitchers rarely offer quality pitchers to an eight-hitter, knowing that the weak hitting pitcher is following.

Montero has a much better track record of pitch selectivity, as evidenced by his K/BB ratio, than Russell. A slow catcher is also a better choice to bunt over (with the pitcher) than a fast shortstop over the course of a season as well.

Next: MM: Time to focus on Cubs baseball

Finally, I placed the pitcher in the nine spot, rather than the eight spot that Joe Maddon used most of last year. While I respect Maddon for not being a slave to convention, I think moving the pitcher up is not a good decision. First, it adds 18 at-bats to the pitcher’s spot, which is not a good outcome.

Second, pitchers often bunt over players resulting in runners in scoring position.

The most desired trait in such situations is a high contact rate, as even outs can bring in runs (i.e. sac flies). Jason Heyward has one of the highest contact rates on the Cubs while Addison Russell (who batted ninth most of last season) has a far lower contact rate.

The Cubs had one of the lowest conversion rates at bringing in players on third with under two outs, a likely scenario after a pitcher bunt. So having Heyward follow the pitcher just makes more sense.

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