David Ross wasted no time in naming Kris Bryant the Cubs’ leadoff hitter for 2020, a decision that was as much about timing as it was talent. Knowing how badly the team had struggled to squeeze even mediocre production from the top spot in recent seasons, Ross wanted to put a capable hitter there. But having seen how several otherwise capable hitters had previously failed, the manager wanted to give Bryant plenty of time to adjust to the role.
For a sport that is rooted in the quantifiable certainty of statistics, with new and more accurate numbers added every day, baseball remains a mental game. The yips are as real as fielding percentage or DRS, just as a hitter’s entire plate approach can crumble like a stale doughnut when he thinks he’s got to do more because he’s up first in the order.
The real secret to a leadoff hitter’s success, then, is simply to be the same hitter no matter when he digs in. That’s another part of the reason Ross went with Bryant. In addition to elite on-base and baserunning skills, he’s a very grounded person who’s not prone to big emotional swings in matters that don’t involve becoming a dad.
“I feel like for a lot of the guys that didn’t do what they wanted to do in the leadoff spot, anxiety is a big factor,” Bryant told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “You feel like you have to do more, just because you’re the first at-bat of the game or you’re the one getting five at-bats a game, stuff like that.
“Where it’s like, for me, I’m really trying not to think that way. It’s just, I’m trying to embrace this as me just moving up one spot in the batting order and that’s all I’m really treating this as.”
In some ways, Bryant might actually feel less pressure batting in the top spot. As bad as Cubs leadoff hitters have been over the past few years, he was usually coming up with no one on base and one out already in the books. At least now he gets to open games with a clean slate. Of course, there could be another decidedly off-putting factor at play if MLB opts to push forward with its schedule sans fans.
“It wouldn’t be the same at all,” Bryant said about playing in empty ballparks. “We feed off the fans, we feed off their energy. And being at home, Wrigley Field is such a home-field advantage for us.”
While the most likely option at this point is that MLB will postpone the season and assess the situation from a distance, the possibility exists that baseball will essentially become a series of live scrimmages. At that point, it’s literally a whole new ballgame for everyone other than players who’ve been with the Marlins for a few seasons.
For now, however, it’s business as usual for Bryant and the Cubs. How long that lasts may be revealed soon, but you can count on the leadoff hitter being the same at the plate no matter what.