One of the things Dexter Fowler left in his wake with his departure to West East St. Louis, along with a shortage in the “handsome” and “really cute kid” department, is a question of who the Cubs bat leadoff on a day-to-day basis. We’ve all been part of debates on whether your leadoff hitter is really that important, because he actually only does it once per game, and the rest of the game could see him bat anywhere in an inning. Still, it’s always going to feel like whoever is hitting directly in front of Bryant and Rizzo is somewhat vital. We also know that the Cubs take it pretty seriously, and as we’ve seen over the past two seasons, when Fowler has either been hurt or bad (remember the first half of 2015), the Cubs’ offense tends to make a strange clanking noise.
When the Cubs come up against right-handed pitchers, there are plenty of options. Kyle Schwarber has been mentioned, which would be all kinds of awesome for practical and impractical reasons. I’m always about using your most fun toys in the most interesting ways. Ben Zobrist is another good option, given his on-base ways and that fact he’s done it before. Jon Jay has done it in the past.
Some of the time, the opposing pitcher throws from the other side. Again, Zobrist would be the first name you’d probably think of. Schwarber probably won’t play against lefties, at least not to start, simply because the Cubs have to open up more options to get everyone in the lineup. Jay probably wouldn’t either. You might even see Heyward sit at times.
I’m going to suggest something that will sound stupid, and might even be stupid, because that’s just my way. Javy Baez should get a look.
On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense. We still think of Baez as The Tasmanian Devil at the plate, waving at anything that breaks when a pitcher decides not to throw him a fastball (something the Giants and Dodgers never concluded, thank god). And there are certainly kinks to be ironed out. But working with what little sample we have, it isn’t as stupid as it first sounds. So it’s kinda stupid. It’s stupid-adjacent, hopefully moving to logical-adjacent in time.
We only have 136 plate appearances from last season to look at with Baez last year. We could throw in his 20 PA from 2015 against them, when he was nuclear against them, but that would be a stretch, and I didn’t go to yoga today, and I really don’t want to pull anything. It’s kind of eerie how similar Baez’s and Zobrist’s numbers are against lefties last year. Both hit .311. Baez had an OBP of .375, and Zobrist one of .405. Baez slugged .475 against them, Zobrist .455. Both hit four homers. Zobrist walked at a 12.4 percent rate, and Baez at 8.1 percent which is miles better than he did against righties (1.3 percent). We know the Cubs value a good at-bat right at the top of any game, not giving any pitcher time to breathe.
The major advantage Baez would have is on the bases, or so you’d think. He stole 12 bases in limited time last year, and Zobrist would need Wile E. Coyote’s rocket pack to steal a base. Baez was one short of Fowler’s total in way less time. But we know that stolen bases aren’t that important, especially to a team like the Cubs, who would rather depend on balls being hit into someone’s beer beyond the walls for their offense.
Overall in base-running, Zobrist is actually the better baserunner. When measuring how he did on the paths, Zobrist’s base-running runs last year was 3.9, while Baez was -0.7. Given Baez’s hair-on-fire style at times, this probably isn’t a huge shock. And the Cubs would probably value how you get from first to third or second to home on a hit, or tagging up on fly balls, more than they would steals. Still, given Baez’s instincts everywhere else on the field and in every situation, you would have to imagine this is something that improves with time, and possibly greatly.
The one advantage of having Baez leadoff is it would keep Zobrist in the cleanup spot, which we know is where Maddon likes to have him. If he’s not there, it leaves a hole. Sure, Contreras could probably do it. Russell would be another candidate. It probably comes too early for Almora’s experience level or Heyward’s swing adjustment phase.
The other thing is Baez is just better with no one on base. Leading off the game, or coming right after the pitcher, he would see that the most in the #1 spot. His slugging, on-base, and everything else is at its highest mark when no one’s on base. Maybe he feels less pressure, maybe it’s just a quirk, and maybe not…(insert joke from Mark Wahlberg in “The Departed here).
Honestly, with the lineup the Cubs will have, with a healthy Schwarber and hopefully an improved Heyward, Maddon could toss these guys out in any order, and I’d feel fine. Which is why I think he might try this, because he likes fun.
Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vazquez—USA Today Sports