As is often the case with Spring Training, news and rumors trickle out of team camps at the dawn of the upcoming baseball season. A fascinating revelation out of Arizona on Wednesday indicated that new Cubs manager David Ross intended to commit to 2016 NL MVP Kris Bryant as the club’s leadoff hitter, at least to start the season.
To place a lineup’s most feared slugger in the first spot in the order certainly, at the very least, goes against the grain of an old-fashioned baseball mindset.
Historically, a hypothetically ideal Major League lineup would look something like this:
- Speed-man, capable of bunting, contact hitter – usually at the expense of on-base-percentage and slugging. Oftentimes a centerfielder with a skillset similar to that of the Cubs’ Albert Almora Jr. More on that later.
- One of the lineup’s best hitters – but usually not the best. Capable of getting on base with the idea of getting driven in by the following hitters. Derek Jeter would be a perfect example.
- A lineup’s premier bat would most likely be found in the three-hole. Power, “RBI ability”, etc. Think Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera, who have each occupied this niche for much of their careers, especially during their heydays.
- The cleanup role. Baseball analysts would refer to this player as one who “has a knack for driving in runs”; whatever that means. Powerful bat, capable of mashing homers, but not the best all-around hitter in the order. Think of someone like Mike Napoli, who exemplifies the first-baseman/DH type.
- Very similar to the cleanup hitter. Almost the same, in fact.
- The six-hole is one of the weirder spots in a lineup, as struggling hitters who usually are slated to occupy the upper part of the lineup can be sent to the purgatory of the sixth-spot in order to take some pressure off of the player and help them find their groove.
- Can be used in a manner alike to that of the sixth spot, but can also be an awkward place to stash a younger or weaker hitter.
- The eighth-spot is one of the most difficult roles to fill in a lineup, because opposing pitchers always have the option of pitching around this player in order to instead face the pitcher on deck. Usually reserved for the “worst” hitter in the order.
- Conventional wisdom would leave the last spot in the lineup for the pitcher, without a doubt.
This hypothetical lineup is a generalization of what baseball managers historically would aim for, but it is fairly accurate in terms of what teams actually trotted out onto the field for much of baseball’s history. These outdated ideas were evident far too often in Joe Maddon’s lineup decisions during his time as manager of the Cubs, as light-hitting Albert Almora was given the nod as the team’s leadoff hitter for various stretches of the last few seasons. The team has not had the luxury of an everyday set-in-stone leadoff man since the departure of Dexter Fowler after the Cubs’ World Series championship in 2016, and has been searching for answers ever since.
Maddon’s stubborn mindset and refusal to give up on Albert Almora as a leadoff option was simply unacceptable in the climate of today’s game. The Cubs were a team with playoff expectations, which were not lived up to in 2019 in large part due to Maddon’s ineffective lineups. The Cubs’ .294 on-base percentage and 77 wRC+ from the first spot in the lineup were the worst marks of any Major League club.
Yet, the surprising truth of this matter was that Maddon also formulated some excellent lineup theories as well. Kris Bryant has hit second in the order regularly, as the trend of Major League teams slotting their best hitter second became more popular. Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, and Aaron Judge are a few of the superstars who have predominantly occupied the two-hole in recent seasons.
Maddon also looked to Anthony Rizzo as his leadoff bat during stretches of time that the team struggled and craved a spark. Maddon was absolutely on the right track with this thought process; the problem was that he did not fully commit to it. Maddon viewed Rizzo (and occasionally Bryant) as temporary stopgaps to shoot their team in the arm with a boost of energy when they needed it most. The goal was for these star players to push the Cubs in the right direction, after which time they would move back down the lineup.
This is where Maddon’s methodology was fundamentally flawed. Rizzo and Bryant as leadoff men should not have been considered a fad; on the contrary, Maddon should have identified that this format had to become the new norm.
Signs of sluggers residing at the very top of lineups can be found across all of baseball, as the aforementioned studs who bat second are not the only examples. Young star Ronald Acuña Jr. has cemented himself as the Braves’ leadoff hitter, and has posted a .945 OPS and 53 homers in this role since his career began in 2018. Francisco Lindor, who is arguably the best shortstop in the game, has flourished as the Indians’ leadoff man as well with an .870 OPS and 89 homers in the top spot since 2015. Some other examples exist throughout baseball, including George Springer – despite the Astros’ cheating scandal.
This all boils down to the central philosophy of the Moneyball Theory, which essentially hypothesises that the sole strategy of every MLB team must be to get as many men on base as possible, which is statistically proven to result in a higher output of runs. If a club’s leadoff hitter has power, that would be a bonus – all that matters is that this player must have the best on base skills of anyone on the club.
This is where Kris Bryant and the Cubs’ situation comes into focus. Bryant is the team’s most proficient on-base man, as his career .385 OBP suggests. Anthony Rizzo is not far behind, as his career mark stands at .373 – and topped out at .405 last season. It quite frankly does not make a difference which of Bryant or Rizzo are leading off, but it absolutely must be one of the two, with the other batting right behind him in the second spot. By all indications, employing this formula is exactly what the Cubs plan on doing in 2020. Albert Almora’s .323 OBP and .709 OPS in his career as a leadoff hitter simply will not be permissible in the future.
It is clear as day, and just plain common sense, that a team’s premier bats should be the first that an opposing pitcher faces. Basic statistics state that the top of a lineup is more likely to receive more plate appearances than the lower parts of the order.
The burning question for the Cubs and new manager David Ross (which they seem to have already answered) is if they wish to award these extra at bats to a three time all-star and former MVP, or to a below average platoon player with a career OPS+ of 85.