The 2017 Leadoff Experiment and the Backdrop of Cubs Leadoff History

“Anthony loves batting leadoff!”

Anthony Rizzo, upon homering for the second day in a row

There are a lot of skills that go into becoming the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. And it’s comforting to know Rizzo has already mastered referring to himself in the third person.

Until the big first baseman took over this week, the leadoff spot had been an offensive black hole for the Cubs. There have been myriad debates all over this site about what lay behind this trouble, but it turns out that the cause was remarkably simple:

In every single game this year, the team has filled the leadoff spot with a hitter wearing a Cubs uniform. And in 2017, that’s just not a good idea. Cubs leadoff batters had amassed a WRC+ of 92 until Joe Maddon threw up his hands and placed Rizzo at the top of the order. It’s far from the only problem with the offense this year, but it is definitely one of the most prominent ones.

Like a band auditioning new lead singers before hitting the road, the Cubs have gone through several players hoping that they could find someone on their roster who could adequately replace Dexter Fowler’s most impressive 2016 production. But no matter who Maddon has penciled into the top spot, he might as well have written “Sammy Hagar.”

And unfortunately, this is part of a Cubs tradition dating back more than 30 years. Because when you look at all of the disappointing Cub teams that followed playoff runs in our lifetime, one of the things they all have in common is a massive dropoff in performance from the leadoff spot.

This most unwelcome heritage had its origin on the heels of Bob Dernier’s exceptional 1984 season—a year in which he amassed a career high 2.1 WARP thanks to a .356 OBP, 63 walks, and 45 stolen bases in 62 attempts. Dernier was enough of a game changer for the Division Champs to earn the sobriquet “White Lightning”—the first time in baseball history a player had been nicknamed after a bottle of Axe Body Spray.

Unfortunately, Dernier got off to a much slower start in 1985. He was only hitting .263/.324/.320 on June 8 of that year when a foot injury landed him on the disabled list for a month. The only consolation was that he got to miss his team’s 13 game losing streak as by the time he got back on the field; what had been a first place team found itself languishing 7 1/2 games back. Like his team, Dernier would not threaten again, finishing at .254/.315/.316 and 0.9 WARP.

If 1984 was the year where the Cubs leadoff man was one half of the Daily Double, 1985 was like watching that same horse after its owner refused to cast Don Corleone’s godson in his new movie.

That same story played out in 1989 and 1990 with a surprise Rookie of the Year season from Jerome Walton at the top of the order helping to spark the Boys of Zimmer to the most improbable playoff berth in Cubs history. Thanks to a .293 batting average, 24 stolen bases, and a 30 game hitting streak, Walton served as a catalyst for the Cubs offense and helped to set the table for Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, and Andre Dawson behind him.

Unfortunately, a look into the advanced statistics showed that Walton’s 1989 wasn’t really the dominant performance that its reputation suggested. Walton only walked 27 times that season, so his somewhat pedestrian .335 OBP was mostly driven by that batting average. Which in itself was propped up by an unsustainable .337 BABIP. Nonetheless, Walton certainly contributed his share to the Division Champs, putting up 1.8 WARP on the year.

With that in mind, it was imperative for Walton to keep his dream season in perspective so that he could put in the effort to hone his skills and get even more production out of his considerable talent in 1990. So how did that work out?

“I thought I’d own Chicago, you know, me and Michael.”

Now, that was probably a bit of hyperbole. I mean, sure, Mike Bielecki also had a good year in ’89 but I wouldn’t say that he owned Chicago…

…wait, that’s not the Michael he was comparing himself to? You mean he thought he was…?


Hoo boy.

During that offseason, Walton apparently embarked on his mission to co-own the city with Michael by eating nothing but McJordan Specials. He showed up to Spring Training overweight and became upset when the front office renewed his contract after negotiations broke down. At this point, Walton wasn’t just a candidate for regression-=-he was running unopposed.

Sure enough, he was a shell of himself in 1990, falling back to the pack with 0.9 WARP and a .263 BA. Most frustrating of all, he’d actually showed growth with his batting eye, walking 50 times to boost his OBP to .350. It was not enough to save him from an 83 OPS+ as the Cubs sank to fourth place.

To this day, there are no plans for a Jerome Walton statue in front of the United Center.

In terms of leadoff disappointments, the 2004 Cubs were probably the closest comp to the current team. (Congratulations! You’ve just read the most depressing sentence I’ve ever written.) As you remember, the 2003 NL Central Champs were sparked by the trade deadline acquisition of Kenny Lofton who gave them two months of Fowler-like production (.327/.381/.471).

Following Lofton’s free agent departure, the 2004 Cubs decided to take an unconventional approach to the leadoff spot, much like the current team. And it was marked by that rarest of all baseball sightings: a Dusty Baker good idea. (Or rather, half of one. But since we were still paying full price for “In Dusty We Trusty” shirts at the time, we decided to round up.) Baker decided to open the season with a platoon in the leadoff spot. He chose Todd Walker (yay!) and Mark Grudzielanek (meh).

Unfortunately, an achilles tendon injury to Grudzielanek prevented the platoon from being completely effective. By the end of July, Walker was holding up his end of things with a .357 OBP while Grudzielanek was scuffling along at .309. And then the Cubs made their move by acquiring Nomar Garciaparra at the trade deadline. The team was going all in to complete their push for the wildcard playoff berth. All they had to do was fix one half of their leadoff spot, and Dusty decided the best way to accomplish this was by giving the full time job to…

Corey Patterson.

*Insert .gif of audience watching Springtime for Hitler*

I honestly have no idea. Maybe Baker had a good explanation

“A leadoff hitter is exactly what it means: lead off.”

OK, that’ll clear it up. Thanks.

Perhaps that means it was a zen thing. Like “If the pitcher doesn’t throw the ball but Patterson swings at it anyway, does it make a sound?”

Because this was baseball, Dusty’s insane move worked for a little while. In August, Patterson batted .336/.388/.605. Chicago sportswriters were singing his praises. Could he sustain it for another month and propel a disappointing team into the playoffs? Dare I take another look at his August BABIP…?

.386? Yeah, this was gonna end real well.

Patterson’s 2004 ended so badly, it should’ve been directed by M. Night Shyamalan. He cratered in the last month, slashing .190/.250/.373 as the team gagged away its playoff spot. The 2004 Cubs never had an ideal leadoff hitter and in their attempt to find an acceptable substitute, they settled on the worst choice possible. Hopefully, that’s where the similarities to 2017 end.

Finally, later in that decade, the Cubs were looking to continue a run of consecutive division titles in 2007 and ’08. In both years, Alfonso Soriano’s performance in the leadoff spot played a big part of the winning effort as the marquee free agent signing put up sterling WARPs of 6.2 and 3.7 respectively.

Yet from the moment Soriano signed his eight year $136 million contract, it was like a clock had started counting down the minutes until Cub fans started complaining about it. And that clock reached 0:00 almost as soon as 2009 began.

After a good April when Soriano put up a .955 OPS, the rest of the season was like watching the air slowly leak out of a balloon in the shape of hope. He proceeded to put up a paltry .203/.261/.347 line through July 3. At that point, an exhausted Lou Piniella finally dropped him out of the leadoff spot in favor of Kosuke Fukudome–the equivalent of waving a white flag made out of a racist t-shirt.

Soriano finally admitted he had been playing all year with a sore knee and his season ended on September 3 as he opted for surgery with a disappointing 0.8 WARP. The division title streak came to an end as the Cubs finished second with 83 wins. The only positive development of the season was that somehow Jim Hendry miraculously restrained himself from awarding Soriano a five year extension.

So if the leadoff misadventures of Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, and Jon Jay have sounded disconcertingly familiar, there’s a good reason for that. There is a lot of precedent in recent Cub history of jarring regression from that spot in the order.

Which is why it’s been so refreshing to see Rizzo’s Rickey impression over the past week. If nothing else, it’s broken up that pattern for a few days and allowed Joe Maddon to ensure that one of the team’s best hitters has been able to get a maximum number of plate appearances during a hot streak.

This is probably not going to last long term. But given all of the previous examples of leadoff hitters falling off a cliff, if Rizzo wants to start framing uncashed paychecks and telling John Olerud about this one teammate he had who also wore a helmet in the field, it’d be fine with all of us.

Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports

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