For years, the Chicago Cubs have searched for an answer atop the lineup. For the next two weeks, they have an answer in first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
It’s nothing short of a miracle the Chicago Cubs find themselves in the postseason hunt given their offensive inconsistencies and shortcomings this year – namely out of the leadoff spot where, entering Thursday’s finale in San Diego, the team carried a .202/.283/.368 line.
Joe Maddon turned to the world’s greatest leadoff hitter, though, and he immediately reached in the first and scored an early run – setting the tone for starter Yu Darvish. The right-hander twirled an absolute masterpiece, striking out 14 over six innings of work and the Cubs came away with a 4-1 win to salvage a series split.
"“I’m all-in on winning,” Rizzo told MLB.com. “We’ve got to win, so whatever it takes.”"
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The Cubs now return home, where they’ve looked like a totally different team. But one thing that won’t change? Rizzo setting the tone atop the order. Maddon said his three-time All-Star will bat first in the opener against Pittsburgh – and potentially more as the season winds down.
It’s not that Rizzo is your ideal choice as a leadoff hitter. You want him in the middle of the order, driving in runs. But when the leadoff man is serving as a semi-guaranteed out most of the time, you have to do something.
"“Honestly, it’s been a worst-case scenario out of the leadoff spot,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told 670 The Score Thursday morning. “Everybody we throw up there goes through his period of not getting on base. It’s shocking to me. I feel, honestly, embarrassed by the leadoff numbers we’ve had. That’s not at all the way to build an offense.”"
On Wednesday, when Maddon trotted out Tony Kemp in the one-spot, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. We’re talking about a guy who’s been a near-non-factor with the stick since coming to the team – and while I love the versatility and energy he brings, he’s not a leadoff hitter. It was pointed out to me that Chicago lacked other options (obviously). But I had one guy in mind: Rizzo.
In his career, the Cubs slugger has a 1.242 OPS as the first batter of a game. Leading off an inning (regardless of where he’s hitting in the order) – he carries a .913 OPS (including a .376 on-base percentage). As the actual leadoff hitter? He gets on base at a .410 clip.
That’s your answer.
Again, you’d love to have him hitting home runs in the middle of the order, but Rizzo has long demonstrated he’s probably the most effective guy on the roster when it comes to adjusting at the dish and shortening up when he’s behind in the count. With the season hanging in the balance, you have to play your best hand – and this is it.