Anthony Rizzo: Leadoff Experiment Should Be More Than That

In search of a spark for what has been a relatively stagnant offense for the majority of 2017, Joe Maddon made waves last week when he inserted his slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo into the top spot in the batting order against the New York Mets. What has ensued has been an offense that, while still imperfect, has been jumpstarted by one of baseball’s hottest hitters, and has us wondering just how long we could and should see Anthony Rizzo serving as the team’s no. 1 hitter in the batting order.

Since inserting Rizzo into the leadoff spot, the Cubs have won five of seven games, with four of those five wins coming by at least four runs. While there’s still room for growth, in at least a few different spots, recent production is far more indicative of the dominant offense we expected when the year began, continued struggles with runners in scoring position be damned.

Heading into Tuesday night’s game against the San Diego Padres, Anthony Rizzo had reached base to start each game that he’s been in the top spot. His first two starts there produced leadoff home runs, with a potential third being undone after an official review. Instead, he walked to lead off his third game there. The following three appearances to leadoff a ballgame featured a single, a double, and then a bunt single against the shift in Monday night’s action. On Tuesday night, he went back to the long ball, with a centerfield shot in the win over the Padres.

Unsustainable, sure, but there’s nothing wrong with an on-base presence like Rizzo continuing to see action out of the number one spot in the batting order, no matter what his skill set says he should be. If we’re going by the book of the prototypical first baseman, Rizzo should be a no. 3 or a no. 4 guy, always. But the prospect of him remaining in that spot for the remainder of 2017, at the very least, may be too enticing an idea for Joe Maddon to pass up.

Across 32 plate appearances since being moved there, Rizzo has been white hot, with 12 hits and five walks, good for a .436 average and .471 on-base clip. His ISO over that span is a cool .581, with FanGraphs tagging him with a wRC+ of about 261. We’re talking about a six-game sample, obviously, but the way Rizzo has been hitting the ball lately is no accident, and as the Cubs’ most consistent hitter at this point in the season, why shouldn’t he be the player receiving the most plate appearances?

Of course, it remains to be seen what Joe Maddon sees as the long-term solution to the leadoff spot. However, given the outcome of the first two-and-a-half months of the season, it’s hard to picture a more sound option at the top of the Cubs’ lineup than Anthony Rizzo.

Such a suggestion obviously screams recency bias. However, without Dexter Fowler in the mix, the Cubs have lacked a true leadoff option all year. Joe Maddon’s early insistence on getting Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot indicates that he isn’t shy about putting a power hitter in that spot if the OBP ability is there. Rizzo has turned those OBP skills into something far more tangible than Schwarber could atop the batting order. Other options have been used sparingly, but at this point, who presents a better option in that role than Anthony Rizzo?

It’s already been established that the prototypical leadoff hitter isn’t necessarily something that exists in a general sense anymore. You don’t need the slap-hitting, high-speed type out of the no. 1 spot, unless you have the personnel to do it. The Cubs do not and they do not run a lot anyway. You want a guy with a quality approach who can demonstrate a consistent ability to reach base. We’ve also seen teams throughout the league gravitate toward a leadoff hitter with power. Look at the Houston Astros with George Springer.

Rizzo, a guy who has seen 3.87 pitches per plate appearance (and a 45.7% swing rate) and has reached base at a .365 clip for his Major League career, including figures of .386, .385, .387, and .397 in the last four years, respectively, seems like an ideal player to insert in that type of role beyond an experimental phase. It makes a whole lot of sense long-term.

The simplest argument against Rizzo in the top spot isn’t about his (lack of) speed or his baserunning ability, but rather his opportunity to knock runs in. Can a team that has struggled so mightily with runners in scoring position afford to put one of their most consistent hitters in a spot where he isn’t afforded those RBI opportunities as often? It is true that Rizzo is one of the Cubs’ primary run producers, as a career .282 hitter with runners on, and a .270 guy with RISP. However, theoretically, if you’re putting quality approach/quality OBP guys in the bottom half of the order, Rizzo should be able to see consistent opportunities to drive those runs in.

On paper, the Cubs have enough approach/on-base guys that they should be able to disperse throughout their entire lineup. A guy like Jon Jay in the ninth spot is an ideal player in that regard. He’s showcased as good an ability to reach base as any Cub this year. Throw Miguel Montero & Willson Contreras with their combined .340 OBP, as well as maybe someone like Jason Heyward, who should see an increase from his current .315 OBP if he can find more luck in the BABIP game, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Rizzo will have opportunities to knock guys in at the leadoff, the obstacle of the pitcher’s spot notwithstanding. Lineup construction will become paramount in continuing to allow Rizzo to utilize his ability to knock in baserunners in that spot.

Additionally, I tend to think that there’s a less quantifiable “momentum” factor. Momentum, as a general concept, doesn’t always have a ton of merit, but there’s been some visible body language issues when this particular Cubs team goes down early. With Anthony Rizzo having the opportunity to put the team up early, that issue can become somewhat mitigated. It’s a small, albeit potentially essential element of all of this.

Ultimately, Joe Maddon has played to his lineups strengths and struggles throughout the season. It’s largely why Jon Jay has been so good, because he’s been placed in spots where he has the greatest chance of success. And that’ll continue as the season wears on, which definitely leaves Rizzo’s status as leadoff man up in the air. He’ll cool off, other guys will get hot. But it’s not as if recent events have changed what Rizzo is and what his skill set is. He’s an on-base force, and with the Cubs continuing to demonstrate the trend established last year of showing how essential success in the top spot is, it’s extremely hard to argue in favor of another leadoff option at this point over that of Anthony Rizzo.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports

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