It’s official, Anthony Rizzo is the best lead-off hitter in the history of Major League Baseball.
Alright, that may be a bit of a stretch, but Rizzo has certainly taken to the leadoff spot as shown by his two homers in his first at-bats as the Cubs’ table setter. While Rizzo’s success at the top has been a breath of fresh air for a consistently inconsistent lineup, the lack of a consistent, reliable catalyst has been a real problem for the Cubs this season.
Besides Rizzo, the Cubs have used a total of seven different lead-off hitters this season including Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Jon Jay, Kyle Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist. Of those seven, Baez has had the most success, hitting .500 in a very small sample size. Schwarber has had the most at-bats in the lead-off spot, and as we’ve seen thus far, it hasn’t been good as he’s hitting just .185 out of the top spot.
The Cubs’ belief in Schwarber has never wavered even through his season-long struggle. Last Sunday, prior to the Cubs victory over the Colorado Rockies, I asked Maddon if he liked the at-bats he’s gotten out of his lead-off spot. He gave his hitters a vote of confidence and while he never said when, don’t be surprised if you see Schwarber back at the top of the lineup soon.
“It’s been inconsistent, there’s no question about that. The difference with Schwarbs is that he’s just not getting his hits,” Maddon said. “I think he’s still 100 points over his batting average as far as on-base. Happ is the same way. He still has a good on-base percentage over his batting average. Right now it doesn’t look as good because they’re not hitting like they’re capable of.”
“Javy against a lefty isn’t a bad bet. He hits lefties well, but Schwarber and Happ among the guys we have right now or even like a Jon Jay are probably best suited for that. Happ and Schwarber based on their ability, historically, to draw walks are probably the best candidates.”
Many believe that since the leadoff hitter only truly “leads off” once in the first inning, it isn’t as important it’s been made out to be. The fact of the matter is that the Cubs offense can’t function at full capacity without a consistent catalyst at the top of the order, and since that spot in the order comes up more times than any other, it would be nice to have guy there who could at least get on base for the middle of the order.
Kris Bryant, who has been the Cubs’ most consistent hitter in 2017, has 15 home runs so far this season. Of those 15 home runs, 13 of them have been solo shots. If Bryant and Rizzo don’t have runners on base when their hitting, the Cubs are simply going to have a harder time winning ballgames.
So what do you do?
Here’s the good news: it can’t get any worse, at least when it comes to the Cubs leadoff hitters. Rizzo is a nice change of pace, and while it has been fun to watch and Maddon isn’t one for doing thing the traditional way, I imagine he would prefer not to have his slugger leading off for an extended period. Which turns our attention back to Schwarber.
Maddon already alluded to the fact that he would get another shot; the only thing to do now is wait and see if it goes better the next time around. He’s hit the ball better in the last week, but he’s going to have to start putting together a few solid weeks at a time as opposed to a few games in a row. This lineup needs to start answering questions and make adjustments. The division hasn’t gotten away from them, I get it. But you can’t use that as an excuse forever. A consistent presence at the top of the order could help them get on the roll all of baseball expects them to get on.
Lead photo courtesy Brad Penner—USA Today Sports