While addressing questions at his annual Thanksmas event in Chicago on Wednesday, Joe Maddon reiterated his affinity for the idea of batting Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot against right-handed pitchers. While it’s still way too early to be making any firm conclusions, the fact that we’ve been hearing about this for a while now from different people lends it some credence to the matter.
Maddon: "I do like Schwarbs batting leadoff right now."
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) January 11, 2017
If you recall, Jed Hoyer discussed Schwarber-as-leadoff-hitter in an appearance on 670 The Score in December. It’s an interesting topic, to be sure, putting a potential monster of a slugger at the top of the order. On one hand, you’re ensuring that one of your best hitters hits more often. On the other, you’re guaranteeing that a higher number of his at-bats occur with no runners on base.
It’s the “you only lead off once” argument versus the aggregated weight of individual events, which in this case would be a power hitter with RBI opportunities. Schwarber hitting leadoff in a single game doesn’t have much impact, but his prolonged presence there could make a real difference. We saw in the World Series that he’s got the kind of plate discipline you covet as a table setter. But we saw in the 2015 playoffs that he’s got the kind of elite power that can carry a team from the heart of the order.
When you look at the results the Cubs got last year, it’s easy to see why they’d be searching for a way to replace Dexter Fowler. The new Cardinal wasn’t their only leadoff hitter, but he was the biggest driver of their .351/.455/.596 slash line (which works out to a 1.051 OPS and 182 wRC+, both third in MLB) to open games against 112 righty starters last season. Is Schwarber the right guy to maintain that level of production?
He’s posted a .272/.392/.544 career slash against righties, though that’s from only 180 at-bats. And his .375 batting average when leading off comes from only 8 at-bats. So, yeah, not really a lot to draw from. Ben Zobrist, the other leading candidate for the top spot in the order, is a switch-hitter with a .255/.353/.423 career slash as a lefty versus righties and a .245/.321/.378 line when leading off as such. Doesn’t look nearly as good as War Bear’s numbers, but we’re still only talking about 109 plate appearances here.
But maybe it’s about more than just stats. Zobrist’s plate approach and general professionalism have long been praised and he’s the kind of hitter who sets a tone for those behind him in the order. His ability to hit from both sides of the plate means that Maddon can keep him at leadoff no matter who’s pitching, thus creating a little more stability. So that’s cool.
All that said, I still want to hear Bone Thugs-n-Harmony or Blackstreet bumping through Wrigley’s PA system to open the bottom of the 1st inning. We could (no) dig(gity) further into the numbers, but the reason for my preference is simple: The team that scores first usually wins.
Using Greg Stoll’s historical win expectancy model, we find that a visiting team that hits a leadoff home run will win 56.25 percent of the time. When the home team opens the scoring with a bomb to start the bottom of the 1st, they win 69.95 percent of the time. That’s nice, but it’s about more than that single tally. Scoring with no outs and the heart of the order coming up increases the likelihood that even more runs will score in the inning, so Schwarber’s propensity for power could tip the scales in the Cubs’ favor right off the jump.
It goes without saying, though, that not even the immortal War Bear can lead off every game with a homer. Besides, the odds of winning are still very high — within three or four percentage points — when scoring early with one or two outs. Is it really worthwhile, then, to have Schwarber leading off?
Well, remember that whole thing about aggregating individual events? Even the smallest incremental differences can carry significant weight when extrapolated out over a whole season, like a ton of feathers. Though the increments might be measured in bricks where Schwarber’s concerned, the ultimate goal is to put the team in the best possible position to win games.
Keep in mind that we’re only talking about games against right-handed starters, which, admittedly, is still a majority of the season. You have to figure we’d see Schwarber/Bryant/Rizzo/Zobrist at the top of those lineups. With a southpaw on the mound, I’d envision Zobrist/Schwarber/Bryant/Rizzo, with the possibility of a platoon swap for War Bear and a bump in those other spots. Either way, you’d be alternating the handedness of your hitters.
We’ve got another month before Spring Training starts and nearly three months before Opening Day, so a lot can change between now and that first trip to St. Louis. But Joe Maddon seems to believe that batting Schwarber first against righties gives the Cubs the best chance to win and I’m inclined to agree with him.