When Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon announced early in spring training he was toying with the idea of having slugger Kyle Schwarber as a leadoff man, everyone thought Papa Joe was off his rocker.
After going 2-for-3 with a double in his inaugural game as leadoff hitter, Kyle Schwarber showed Chicago Cubs fans, what the next top-of-the-order guys will look like in the very near future. They won’t all be 6’0″ and 235 lbs., or have the vocal chords of a cherub, but they will have Schwarber’s offensive repertoire, or a semblance of it.
First and foremost, a leadoff hitter must be patient at the plate. Whether a manager chooses a standard or optimized lineup, the first batter must be able to get on base. Otherwise, it stifles the rhythm of the offense. Maddon typically elects to use an optimized lineup which necessitates having two of the teams top three batters in the one and two-hole.
Fortunately for the Cubs, they don’t really need to choose who’s the “best” hitter because any one of their position players has the potential to get hot quickly.
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In Schwarber’s first year, he made contact with 67.8 percent of the pitches he saw, and nearly 75 percent of pitches in the strikezone. This translated to a .842 OPS, and a 130 OPS+ in 2015. He also swung at less than 45 percent of the pitches he saw, though he struck out in 28.2 percent of his at-bats.
The young slugger proved this spring that he hasn’t lost a step in his offensive game since returning from ACL surgery. He slashed .293/.638/.997 in 20 games, recording five home runs, 15 RBI and six walks.
With protection, Schwarber could thrive
The biggest difference between a leadoff hitter in a standard lineup and an optimized one is their usage. Managers who use standard lineups typically need speedy batters to get on and steal bases. Think of players like Rafael Furcal with the Atlanta Braves back in the day.
Bryant is the reigning National League MVP and his 13.6 WAR in his first two seasons is the highest in baseball history. He’s spent the past two seasons on the league’s top-10 list for runs batted in, runs created, situational wins added, and oWAR.
Last season, Bryant slashed .292/.554/.939 with 39 home runs and 102 RBIs. When he hit second in the order, his numbers jumped to .304/.739/1.134. He’s the perfect cover for Schwarber at leadoff.
Rizzo has been one of the most consistent and clutch performers on the Cubs since landing an everyday job in 2013. He’s slowly reworked his swing and two-strike approach, making him one of the best deep-count hitters in baseball. With two strikes, Rizzo slashed .243/.417/.727 with 48 RBI and 26 walks.
What makes Rizzo’s approach so lethal are his numbers with runners on and in scoring position.
Last season, the first baseman hit .310 with 25 doubles and 91 RBI in 144 plate appearances with a runners on base. With RISP, those numbers spiked to .341/.618/1.087 with a .359 BAbip and 11 home runs.
Chicago’s offensive production is evenly dispersed throughout the lineup, as well. Players such as Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Javier Baez offer no remorse for an opposing pitcher grinding through a tough inning.
Take a play off, Cubs will make you pay
Having the ability to take away an opposing pitcher’s get-me-over pitch is something Schwarber can brag about. If you throw him a center-cut pitch to begin the game, there’s a good chance he’ll put it on the moon.
Schwarber slashed .280/.800/1.108 against the first pitches he saw from opposing pitchers with four home runs and seven RBI in 2015.
Schwarber’s slashed .242/.487/.842 with 16 home runs and 42 RBI in 69 regular season games, batting second for most of his appearances. In both wins and losses, Schwarber hit for a nearly equal average, OPS and slugging percentage, but his power numbers were significantly better in victories. Schwarber hit 11 home runs in wins versus five in losses.