The leadoff spot has been in flux ever since Dexter Fowler left after the 2016 season and it’s something Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have openly admitted to being vexed by. Trial and error has resulted in a whole lot of error, and the failure to address the issue with personnel moves means going with an in-house option for 2020. As anyone who’s watched the Cubs over the last three years can attest, that isn’t as simple as you’d think.
Kyle Schwarber has struggled in his stints atop the order, noticeably altering his approach and falling into bad habits that haven’t been easy to break. Jason Heyward crumbled over the course of a month in the No. 1 spot, batting .147 with a .245 wOBA and 47 wRC+ to harm what was otherwise his best offensive season in Chicago. Take away those plate appearances as the leadoff hitter and J-Hey hit .286 with a 119 wRC+ and .355 wOBA.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal because you only do it once each game, but being a successful leadoff hitter requires a certain mindset. Whether it’s the anxiety of expectations both internal and external or simply the change in routine, some hitters can’t maintain the approach that made them successful in other spots in the order. That’s why it’s important to have a leadoff hitter who legitimately wants to be there.
For the 2020 Cubs, it sounds like that hitter is Kris Bryant. This is a concept we’ve discussed at CI as far back as 2018, touching on it more recently as well (here and here), but Bryant is now ready to embrace the role. While he didn’t request it outright, he told manager David Ross he’s willing to take a shot at the top spot.
“The past the years we haven’t really had someone that was stuck in the leadoff hole and stayed there,” Bryant told reporters Wednesday morning. “I think we totally took Dexter for granted while he was here. I certainly did, because he was up there working great at-bats. He was always on base.”
This isn’t just a matter of being selfless, since Bryant admitted that it would be nice to get that extra at-bat every game, but it’s in keeping with his willingness to do whatever he can to help the team. Not the kind of stuff you’d expect from a player who has mistakenly been labeled as a malcontent. As you are surely aware by now, though, Bryant is extremely gruntled and has made it very clear that he expects to remain a Cub.
He’s only accrued 31 career plate appearances in the leadoff spot, so it’d be foolish to put much weight on his .321 average, .387 OBP, or any other split stats. However, that OBP is only two points lower than his overall career average and can probably be trusted to a significant degree. It’s also 20 points higher than the .367 OBP Fowler compiled over two years in Chicago, not to mention the increased pop Bryant has to go with it.
For a slightly more viable sample, perhaps we can look to the 548 plate appearances in which he has led off an inning. Over nearly a full season’s worth of data, he’s batted .291 with a .916 OPS, 24 homers, and 34 doubles. Bryant’s walk and strikeout rates in that sample are slightly worse than his career averages, but his 11.9% walk rate and 21.8% strikeout rate over the past four seasons are comparable to Fowler’s respective 13.1% and 22.4% marks as Chicago’s leadoff man.
Among the other internal options, only Anthony Rizzo stands out as having both the on-base skills and previous success to challenge Bryant for the role. But given Rizzo’s penchant for driving in runs and the significant reduction in baserunning talent from a guy who goes first to third with the best of them, you’d rather go with Bryant in an either-or situation. As nice as it would be for Nico Hoerner to step in and be that guy, he’s got some work to do on his approach before he’s ready to assume the leadoff spot in Chicago.
Ian Happ started 2018 off with a bang and could get a little consideration if he can prove that last year’s adjustments are permanent. Then there’s Albert Almora Jr., who…yeah, never mind.
Based on the available players Ross has before him, it certainly appears as though Bryant is the best choice at this point. He’s essentially been leading off for the past couple seasons out of the No. 2 spot anyway, what with the poor production the Cubs have gotten from leadoff. Now he’ll just have the legit designation and better cover for the low RBI totals his detractors love to cite when panning his production.
“I think we have so much turnover, just trying certain guys out, you don’t get that consistency,” Bryant said. “If I need to be the guy that’s up there that’s going to be consistent and get on base, I’ll be that guy.”