Fans and sportswriters alike have lamented the lack of a leadoff hitter ever since Dexter Fowler left the Chicago Cubs. With the departure of Ben Zobrist, this grumble has grown even louder.
So this year at spring training new Chicago Cubs manager David Ross announced that he’d like to try Kris Bryant at the leadoff spot. Bryant indicated he was open to the idea. Cubs fandom split along two lines. Some loved it, but an equal number, citing Bryant’s power, wondered why the Cubs would take Bryant out of his number two spot.
At first, it does strain a bit to think of a guy who could hit 30 to 35 dingers a season hitting in the one spot. The conventional thinking about the leadoff spot is a fast player, makes contact, takes walks, and steals bases.
Chicago Cubs: That thinking has changed
Looking around MLB, this thinking isn’t as strange as some might think. Perhaps the most prolific leadoff hitter in baseball, Mookie Betts, has averaged 30 home runs a game the past two seasons in the one spot. Charlie Blackmon is another hitter with power who earned one spot starts last year. Other notable one spot hitters with power Brian Dozier, Matt Carpenter, and I’ll mention George Springer with an asterisk.
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So why is it becoming more common to see hitters with power in that leadoff spot? What is driving the move away from the small, speedy, base stealer? The answer is analytics.
Logic tells us the one-spot in the order will come up to bat more frequently than any other spot in the order. Analytics tells us that a team wants its best hitters to hit as often as possible—the confluence results in more power in the one spot than has traditionally been the case.
As Alfonso Soriano, a prolific home run hitter and at one time, 40 stolen base threat, once said, “I only leadoff once.” Very true, the leadoff hitter only leads off once. After that, he’s just another spot in the order.
But what about the table-setter? The high OBP guy who can run bases and go first to third? Bryant checks all those boxes. He is an excellent baserunner, possesses both good speed and judgment on the base paths. While his power has fluctuated, his career .385 OBP is outstanding for the one spot. His worst OBP year? 2015, his rookie year, at .369, still a high OBP.
Chicago Cubs: A Deadly Duo
A one-two tandem of Bryant and Rizzo., facing them five, six times a game, is as frightening a thought as one can conjure. The issue for me isn’t Bryant leading off as much as it is the bottom of the order. I wrote last year that the Cubs’ bottom of the order was not feeding the beasts at the top of the order. Mostly what we need there is for guys to get on base. I’m looking at you, Albert Almora, Ian Happ, and David Bote. If that happens, then look for Kris to have a banner year.
Bryant doesn’t have much time at the one spot. Just seven games since he came up in 2015. Nonetheless, I expect given the paucity of performance in that spot since Dexter Fowler in 2016 that the new “You go, we go” guy will be Kris Bryant in 2020.