The Chicago Cubs have plenty of items on their wish list this offseason, but none should carry more weight than finding a legitimate leadoff hitter.
No matter how you slice it – whether we’re talking the first batter of the game, an inning or simply the player whose name was penciled alongside the ‘1’ on Joe Maddon‘s lineup card, the Chicago Cubs had a leadoff problem in 2019.
The most frustrating part of these struggles? They’re nothing new. The Cubs offense has lacked a true table-setter since Dexter Fowler joined the rival Cardinals after the 2016 campaign. Of course, that year, Fowler played an integral role in Chicago winning its first World Series in over a century. To say the least, the team’s powerful offense reaped the benefits of his .393 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot.
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At multiple points in the last few years, Maddon turned to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a guy you’d ideally see hitting with men on base in the middle of the order, to solve the team’s leadoff woes. This year, in 46 plate appearances, the three-time All-Star put up an 1.167 OPS atop the Chicago order. It’s not hard to see why Maddon liked Rizzo’s presence atop the order.
That rings especially true when you look at how Cubs leadoff hitters performed:
- First batter of the game: .186/.272/.386 – 75 sOPS+
- First batter of the inning: .238/.307/.413 – 93 sOPS+
- Leadoff hitter in the order: .212/.294/.383 – 74 sOPS+
Meanwhile, across the league, leadoff hitters put up a .265/.335/.445 line. Needless to say, there’s work to be done. I mean, even the nine spot in the Chicago lineup (typically occupied by pitchers) managed a 71 sOPS+. The pitchers.
Maddon tried to pull all kinds of levers over the course of the 162-game grind – to no avail. Aside from Rizzo, the team lacked any kind of real answer atop the order and it showed. The Cubs ranked above league average, scoring just over five runs per game. But that’s largely due to their long-ball tendencies (Chicago’s 256 home runs ranked second in the NL and set a new franchise record).
Jason Heyward, who put up the best offensive numbers of his Cubs career, languished in the leadoff spot – torpedoing what may have otherwise been an above-average year at the dish. In 33 games, the Gold Glove right fielder mustered an unsightly .554 OPS out of the leadoff spot. When you let him settle in the sixth spot in the order? That number skyrockets 300 points – to .855.
But without better options, Maddon kept trotting him out as the leadoff hitter, hoping to find some answer. The same can be said for Kyle Schwarber, who blasted 38 home runs this year – the most in a single season by a Cubs left-handed hitter since Billy Williams.
Looking at Schwarber’s performance using OPS gives us a slightly inaccurate view of his performance as a leadoff hitter. He hit 17 of his 38 home runs atop the order – resulting in a .520 slugging percentage that, when paired with his .304 on-base percentage as the leadoff man, nets an .825 OPS.
Schwarber is at his best when he can turn that power into multiple runs – not as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. The team desperately needs a high-contact, high on-base presence atop the order. Perhaps the team brings back Ben Zobrist, who ranked fourth on the team with a .358 on-base percentage in limited action, but that’s simply putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Until the Cubs take the appropriate steps and finally address what we’ve known to be an issue for multiple years now, they’ll continue to waste the potential of guys like Rizzo, Schwarber and Kris Bryant. There’s clearly more to the old adage “Get ’em on, get ’em over, get ’em in” than we’d all like to admit.