If early reports are any indication, the Chicago Cubs and manager Joe Maddon may once again be employing another round of leadoff hitter roulette in 2019.
Perhaps the most persistent fan gripe about the Chicago Cubs the last two seasons has been the lack of or unwillingness to acquire an everyday leadoff hitter. Since former fan favorite outfielder Dexter Fowler left for St. Louis via free agency, the Cubs have had a merry-go-round of players at the leadoff spot.
In 2017 five different players including, Jon Jay, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and Ian Happ all saw time in the leadoff spot for the Cubs. Last time around, it seemed Ian Happ, hitter of the first home run of the season, could be that guy. He wasn’t.
Why the leadoff hitter?
Heading into 2019 it remains an open question of who will lead off for the Cubs. But perhaps the better question is, does it matter? It’s an important question because the way the game is played has changed. The days of speedy base stealers atop the order seem to have bitten the sabermetric dust.
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The old school taught that having a speedy player lead off was an advantage in terms of stealing bases and seemingly creating scoring opportunities. But sabermetrics has disfavored the stolen base for over a decade, and for good reason. It generates a second chance at an out without significant improving scoring opportunity.
Well, but isn’t a runner on second statistically more likely to score than a runner on first? Yes, but as the era of slugging dawned, it wasn’t advantageous to steal. Not when two balls in play could generate the same result with statistically less risk.
A new look at lineups
Analytics also showed that teams should put their best hitters at the top of the lineup. A weak hitting speedster, even one with a high OBP was no longer ideal in the one spot. Why? Because your top three hitters have more plate appearances in a season than players further down the order. A team should win more games with their best hitters at the top of the order.
Sure, if you had a Rickey Henderson type of player, who had a career OPS+ of 127, and stole 1,406 bases with an 80 percent success rate, it might be an advantage to steal bases. But Henderson’s real value, like with Javier Baez, was the chaos he caused on the base paths, the stolen bases were just a part of that chaos. And Henderson was a solid hitter. He hit for average and slugged most of his career.
Production is key
The Cubs do need to get more production out of their leadoff spot. Any number of Cubs could fill that spot. Both Zobrist and Baez come to mind. Fowler was ideal in the role, not because he stole bases but because he was, in 2015 and 2016, one of the most consistent hitters on the team. You go; we go.
Some fans lament the decision to let Fowler leave. Maybe we should be focusing more on how the Cubs hitters perform in that role regardless of which player leads off any particular game. As Alfonso Soriano was fond of saying, “I only lead off once.”