Leading off to hit in a baseball game is an under-appreciated art form. There’s many nuances about it that even your standard formulas might not catch. With the additions of Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward to the Cubs’ roster, picking a leadoff man just got complicated on the North Side.
What the Cubs need from their leadoff man—as is the case with most teams—is a tablesetter. That’s someone who can get on base and run well, and someone who can hit when their spot in the lineup comes around again and there’s a guy on base. A good leadoff hitter is agile and can hit above .280 while OBPing above .370. And, in an ideal world, he should have a knack for smart and “heads up” baserunning. The greatest example of a leadoff hitter would probably be Rickey Henderson, but his success and talent cannot be replicated so easily, so a grocery store brand Rickey could also work as long as he can be smart on the base paths.
And that’s a key: being a strong baserunner can help put the Cubs in a position to win ballgames, because it allows the Cubs to execute hit-and-runs if necessary and take third from first on a base hit if the timing is right. It’s also about getting on base—think of that scene from Moneyball where OBP is king and also wins ballgames. It’s the walks, the hits, every opportunity to find a way to get on base. You get on base, you can score runs. That’s what the Cubs need out of a leadoff guy.
In some respects, a case can be made for Zobrist to be the leadoff man. He’s a veteran, he’s the utility infielder who adds value to any team he’s on. And sure, he can hit leadoff if you want him to, but he may not be the best candidate for the job. One place you can look for the argument against is his splits: batting first, he’s hit .241/.329/.372 over his career, although there’s limited predictive value in lineup position splits. The strong case is actually one of negation: he’s probably a better fit hitting down the order, maybe in the seventh or eighth spot, where he can get on base and drive runs in. Zobrist also has a 31 percent run scoring percentage with a 73 percent stolen base rate, which is useful when you have talent scattered throughout the lineup.
Heyward, on the other hand, is a natural candidate to be the leadoff man for the Cubs this year. He’s got speed, he’s got some pop in his bat, he’s got above-average baserunning skills that frame him to be a good leadoff guy. He has a 6.1 BRR in 2015 and is projected to have at least a 2.5 BRR in 2016, compared to Zobrist’s 1.2 BRR in 2015 with the Kansas City Royals and projected 0.4 BRR in 2016. BRR can tell you a player’s ability to steal bases and go from first to third on a base hit or advance on a fly ball—which can be a good indicator of who a leadoff man should be. Heyward’s BRR number and projection shows that he is more than capable of being in the leadoff spot.
At the same time, it could be beneficial to have neither of them in the leadoff spot. Like I said about Zobrist, having him bat lower in the order is useful for the team if they want to get production out of the bottom third of the lineup, and the same is true of Heyward. Having him down the order doesn’t mean he’s a bad hitter by any means, but it would show that Joe Maddon wants some versatility down the lineup and that it shouldn’t just be automatic outs.
Having Heyward hitting somewhere between the second and fifth spots also produces more baserunning opportunities for the Cubs while still having the big producers hitting behind him. Heyward could have Addison Russell hitting in front of him, driving Russell in if he should get on base, and then have Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo bat behind him. Ah, the joys of a flexible and deep roster.
The Cubs don’t have to adhere to the tried-and-true method of determining a leadoff guy, or using the same formula that leadoff guys are typically made out of. The Cubs have room to experiment due to the depth they have and, unless they go with Heyward in the one-spot, could find that their leadoff guy is not someone they would’ve expected.
Lead photo courtesy Ken Blaze—USA Today Sports.