For the Chicago Cubs, Maybe Ben Zobrist Should Bat Ninth

In ‘Batting (Dis)Order,’ the chapter of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball that deals with optimizing lineups, the authors hit the nail on the head in the introduction: “To understand the impact of your possible choices,” they write, “you have to understand the environment in which you are working. Context.” That’s true, of course, and it’s a vital premise  of all attempts to optimize a batting order. There are obvious and eternal contexts to consider, like the ones the chapter enumerates (the batting order is a loop, the various spots within it see a different distribution of opportunities, and the arrangement of the players within the order affects the way they interact with one another), and then there are era- and/or league-specific contexts, like the necessity of working around the black hole that is the pitcher’s spot, or the times through the order progression, in an era of shorter appearances by starting pitchers.

The last one is the one I want to dig into today. The start of spring training has brought with it some speculation about how the Cubs’ batting order will take shape, now that Kyle Schwarber is a permanent, season-long member thereof, and with the additions of Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. Specifically, Joe Maddon was asked (though did not answer) whether Addison Russell will continue to bat ninth in the Cubs’ new lineup. He said he was going to wait to hear from the Cubs’ analytical staff, to determine the optimal lineup, especially as regarded the question of whether to keep batting the pitcher eighth.

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: the Cubs won’t have one, set lineup this season. No team really does, anymore, and given their depth and their many interlocking parts, the Cubs are one offense that should rearrange itself almost daily. Jason Heyward is the clearly optimal choice to lead off against righties, but Maddon should look to move him down when lefties start. Kyle Schwarber will occasionally slide from left field to catcher, bumping Miguel Montero out of the lineup, and Chris Coghlan, who will replace Schwarber in left field on those days, shouldn’t bat in the same place as Montero. There are lots of permutations of these personnel that could work, and Maddon should and will mix and match often.

When it comes to the question of using a second leadoff hitter, though, it’s worth considering a hypothetical, set lineup. So let’s do so.

As some of you no doubt know, I’ve written at length about Addison Russell’s adventures (or misadventures) in the ninth slot as a rookie. His production was cannibalized by that of his teammates, in that he helped facilitate success for the club the second and third time through the order, but the team very often knocked out the opposing starter before Russell himself (batting last) could get a third shot at that guy. Thus, Russell faced 219 different pitchers in 523 rookie plate appearances, not only rarely getting to see opposing starters at their weakest, but having to deal with a huge number of different pitchers he had never seen before. It’s an extreme contrast, but White Sox leadoff hitter Adam Eaton took 166 more plate appearances than Russell, and faced 17 fewer pitchers over the course of the season.

The second leadoff hitter is a sound, value-additive concept, as the very chapter of The Book I referenced above proved: “[T]he cost of having the pitcher get more PA is indeed more than balanced by having a half-way decent hitter set the table for the top of the order,” the authors wrote, showing a seasonal gain of a few runs. It’s marginal, but it’s helpful. Unfortunately, in the Cubs’ case, I’m not sure they got extra runs from it in 2015. That’s both because Russell posted relatively good power numbers and poor on-base ones (the opposite of what you’d like for that role), and because of the difficulty he had working through the challenges presented by seeing so many different arms so few times each.

Russell will be more familiar with NL hurlers in 2016, of course, but for my money, he still shouldn’t be the ninth hitter. Whoever does bat ninth will continue to miss out on what are almost universally advantageous opportunities: the chance to hit against a tiring starter for a third time. The ever-falling league average for batters faced per start has fallen to 25, meaning that as often as not, not even the eighth hitter will get a third crack at opposing starters. In the Cubs’ case, with their combination of patience, peskiness and power, you can bet there will be even fewer such chances for the bottom of the order, because a lot of opponents will hit the showers early.

Thus, the ideal person for the job of second leadoff hitter is one that almost doesn’t exist: a batter who actually does better when seeing pitchers for the first or second time. In a truly perfect world, I suppose, that batter would even be better against relievers than against starters, though there are very few such hitters in the modern game.

Heyward isn’t a candidate. He has an .882 career OPS against starters when he faces them for a third time in a game. That’s 12.5 percent better than his overall line. By contrast, he has just  a.736 career OPS against relievers. Miguel Montero’s .823 OPS the third time through far outstrips his .749 OPS against relievers. Anthony Rizzo does the lion’s share of his damage the second time through against starters, but even so, his career OPS is higher the third time through (.796) than against relievers (.772).

Again, those splits are normal. Over the last 10 seasons, 115 batters have amassed 4,000 or more plate appearances. Only 20 of them have been better against relievers than they have been overall, led by Kevin Youkilis, who was nearly six percent better in those situations. Fifth on that list, though: Ben Zobrist. For his career, in over 1,600 plate appearances, Zobrist has tuned up relievers to the tune of .273/.371/.431, while the third time he faces starters, he’s batted just .253/.343/.411 (a line that makes him sixth-worst in those spots, relative to his overall line, among those same 115 hitters). In 2015, he hit a staggering .315/.421/.503 against relievers, walking 26 times, fanning 17 times, and cracking 16 extra-base hits in 171 plate appearances.

In every other lineup of which Ben Zobrist has ever been a part, he was far too good to bat ninth. In this one, though, he could catalyze the offense, see more situations in which (however atypically) he’s proved himself more comfortable, and still not be missed at the top of the order. Here’s how I think the Cubs might best line up, against righties:

  1. Heyward – CF – L
  2. Bryant – 3B – R
  3. Soler – RF – R
  4. Rizzo – 1B – L
  5. Schwarber – LF – L
  6. Russell – SS – R
  7. Montero – C – L
  9. Zobrist – 2B – S

Against lefties, Zobrist is probably the best actual leadoff option the team has, so he’ll have to vacate that spot. (Whoever catches whenever an opponent sends a lefty to the mound, that guy should probably bat ninth.) In 120 or more of the Cubs’ games this season, though, the clear choice to bat ninth for them should be the guy they just signed for $56 million. And that’s a good thing! Life is funny like that.

Lead photo courtesy Jim Brown—USA Today Sports.

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3 comments on “For the Chicago Cubs, Maybe Ben Zobrist Should Bat Ninth”


I hope you forward a copy of this to the Cubs stat guys!

PolitiJim (@politiJim)

Wow. thanks for the morning mind blow.

I’m wondering if Cubs actually can computer model these factors, including how they perform against expected starters – and optimize this on a game by game basis…


Awesome article. Any reason you have Soler 3rd and Rizzo 4th instead of flip flopping them and keeping the L/R intact?

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