Is Kris Bryant Really Cubs’ Best Leadoff Option?

We’re still seven weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting and the Cubs aren’t done making moves, so it should be too early for a discussion on the batting order for the 2018 season. Except that there’s nothing else to talk about at this point. Unless you’re into translating Yu Darvish’s tweets or dissecting the latest in Manny Machado talks. And since I’ve already sent both of those old nags to the glue factory, I went in search of a new topic upon which to cast my steely gaze.

And that’s when I found Matt Snyder’s case for Kris Bryant to serve as the Cubs’ leadoff man in 2018. I enjoy and respect Matt’s work and I’ve actually espoused similar thoughts on this topic as recently as September, but I thought it worthwhile to revisit and perhaps reevaluate my stance as we sit mired in winter’s icy grip. Before we proceed, I’d like you to go check out Snyder’s piece to establish some context and save us from rehashing the same points.

No, seriously, go read it. I’m not going to continue with this until you do.

C’mon, we both know you couldn’t have done more than skim it in that amount of time. Alright, fine, but know that I expect you to go check it out again once we’re through here.

The first thing we need to do is dispense with the traditional idea of a leadoff hitter as a slap-hitting speedster who’s trying to steal all kinds of bases. If the evolution of how the game as a whole is quantified hasn’t already changed your view, it’s obvious that Joe Maddon doesn’t really stick to the archaic tropes of bygone days. As stubborn as he may be, tied to the past Maddon is not.

There is, however, one thing that has and will always hold true of a leadoff man, which is that he needs to be on base a lot. More runners on base means more chances to score runs, and scoring more runs than your opponent is a pretty good way to win ballgames. What’s more, the team that scores first goes on to win a vast majority of the time.

But a team’s No. 1 hitter is only guaranteed to lead off once each game, so there’s more to it than simply reaching base that first time up. Displaying a solid plate approach and seeing a lot of pitches sets a tone for the game by making a pitcher work early and giving the batters to follow an idea of what they’re going to face. Those things are important throughout the game, not just the 1st inning.

And if you happen to find a guy who can reach base at a solid clip and who sees a lot of pitches, adding a little speed to the mix certainly doesn’t hurt. That’s not really a matter of stealing bases so much as it is running them well and going first to third or scoring from second on a single.

So let’s see: high OBP, good plate approach, speed. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that sounds like a description of Bryant. A really accurate one, even. Since he debuted in 2015, Bryant ranks among the top 11 players in MLB in terms of BsR* (19.2 – 5th) OBP (.388 – 6th), wOBA (.389 – 9th), and wRC+ (143 – 11th). And he’s been remarkably consistent across all three seasons, though his increasing walks and decreasing strikeouts have led to massive leaps in OBP.

That all makes for a pretty compelling argument for Bryant to be penciled in at the top of the order, huh? It gets even stronger when you factor in his power, which, with all apologies to 1996 Brady Anderson, would be nigh unprecedented in a leadoff hitter. Consider that a home run to open a game gives the visiting team a 56.3 percent chance to win. A dinger that leads off the bottom of the 1st inning gives the home team a 70 percent chance to win.

If you would like to play around with other scenarios, check out this super fun and easy win expectancy finder.

Wow, so this idea is sounding better all the time. Bryant obviously can’t hit a home run in his first at-bat every game, but the fear of him doing so puts pressure on the opposing starter right out of the gate. That could lead to Bryant reaching base at an even higher clip, which ratchets up the leverage that much more. Such was the case during his college days in San Diego, when he terrorized prep pitchers from atop the lineup.

Whether you prefer the traditional or contemporary measures, Kris Bryant embodies everything you could ever hope for in a leadoff hitter. So why am I having such a hard time convincing myself that it’s a good idea for the Cubs to put him there? When I was advocating for it back in September, the team was slumping offensively and couldn’t seem to get anyone on base in front of him. Barring a continuation of that trend, Bryant is more valuable batting lower in the order.

While most hitters perform better with runners on base, Bryant’s situational increase in production far outstrips his peers. And I’m talking by roughly twice as much in most of the applicable categories. But don’t just take my word for it, check out the incredibly rudimentary chart I put together to illustrate the facts.

I don’t think there’s any question that Bryant would be the Cubs’ best option at leadoff, but that’s because…wait for it…he’s their best hitter, period. He’s pretty much the best option at any spot in the lineup. And because of that, it’d be downright irresponsible to intentionally put him in a position to bat with no runners on base any more often than is necessary. Not only would he have the bases empty at least once a game, but he’d be following the pitcher every subsequent time up.

That wasn’t a concern in college because the DH rendered it moot and allowed for a bit more liberty in lineup construction. It’s possible that Maddon could bat the pitcher in the eight hole and have a legit batter at nine, which we’ve seen plenty of times before, but that seems like an imperfect solution.

The best option would be to find someone, anyone, to lead off and give Bryant more opportunities to do damage. Maybe Ben Zobrist regains a pulse and can be that guy. Maybe Albert Almora Jr. continues to improve his walk rate and can put his contact skills to good work. Maybe there’s still a move to be made via trade or free agency.

However they choose to make it happen, the Cubs would do well to establish a little consistency at the top of the order so that they don’t have to turn to Bryant to do it. He’d be great there, no doubt, but he can create more runs and provide more overall value to the team batting second or third.

Now let’s just hope we don’t have to revisit this conversation once the season gets underway.

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9 Comments

  1. The rationale is the same as what it was for Schwarb last year, except KB is quicker. I suggested this move last year, after Kyle struggled, and was surprised Joe led off with Rizzo later in the year. With Rizzo’s success those two days, I am shocked his name has not been mentioned for lead off.

      1. Bryant is the 2nd-fastest Cub and one of the faster players in MLB.

        That said, I want him nowhere nearer leadoff than 2 spots away.

          1. Not the point. He will continue to have fewer opportunities to do max damage. See Brendan Miller’s article: 100 fewer PA with runners on for Cub leadoff hitters last year despite 27 more PA overall.

            This is unsurprising: odds are great that bottom of order ends an inning. Imagine Heyward batting 8th (if he plays at all) and coming up with 2 outs…very likely Inning over, P leads off next inning…and most likely makes an out as well.

            On the off miracle that Heyward gets on, now P up. Highly likely P now makes last out.

            Either way, in 2 extremely likely scenarios, leadoff comes up with no one on, and perhaps with 1 out.

            In turn, lead off with no one on is trying to get on any way he can as a team player, and is less likely to go fir max damage (HR) due to risk/reward.

            That, too, militates vs Bryant—or Rizzo—or Schwarber—or Happ. We want them pulverizing balls.

          2. If there is a slugger leading off, Joe would go back to batting the pitcher 8th. Last year, KB had fewer opportunities and less success driving in runs. That was the major reason I thought about leading off with him.

  2. So the question is: which combination of the top two or three lead-off & #2 hitter prospects is the best? Sure, Bryant may be the best in any spot of the order. Question is: is _________ followed by Bryant better, even with Bryant’s ability to hit with men on, better than Bryant followed but Rizzo?

    There’s also other things to consider too:
    • Bryant getting more ABs out of the lead-off spot.
    • Bryant is only going to lead off once a game.

    How many pitches per AB does Bryant usually see?

  3. I think you summed it up perfectly with this line: “He’s pretty much the best option at any spot in the lineup.”

    I’d prefer to have Bryant hit lower and lead off with Almora, then mix in Zobrist/Haap when Almora sits.

  4. Bryant always made more sense at leadoff than Schwarber: more contact, better OBP, more speed, better hitter—and I think that covers it. Joe going unconventional last year with Schwarber was even worse cuz Joe didn’t take his crazy scheme to its logical conclusion.

    That said, I’m really tired of natural-born sluggers being neutered at the top of the order. Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber were born to hit 3-4-5. Unfortunately, Joe has had the bad idea of putting each of them, at different points, in the 2-hole—and Schwarbs and Rizz at leadoff. Now Bryant?

    Forget it. These guys were made to attack and drive pitches. They were meant to drive in runs, not do Ps favors by grabbing less-impactful walks. Enough working the BB or the count. I presume that’s why Chili’s here.

    Take a look at KB’s OPS in 2016, generates evenly between the 3-hole (where he belonged) and the 2-hole (where he went when Fowler went on DL, then Joe never readjusted): the OPS remained nearly exactly the same, but was SP-heavy at 3 and OBP-heavy at 2.

    Team player that he was, Bryant started looking at setting the table from the 2-hole (and more often coming up with no one on), and less at driving the ball (and runners in). It’s one answer to the riddle how you take a near-.300 hitter with 39 HR, 35 2B, in a world-class lineup, and turn him into a sub-100 RBI guy.

    Unfortunately, Joe didn’t learn his lesson, and kept KB in the 2-hole this year, with even worse team results. Bryant’s BA went up, his OPS again remained almost identical, but it was, again, “softer”—built on more on-basing but less slugging. It’s a reason he knocked in all of 75 R, and why his HR total was a relatively paltry 29 in a juiced-ball year.

    Lesser power guys need to set the table, regardless if the top power guys can also set the table even better; keep Bryant and Rizzi in the 3-4 holes where they belong. Schwarber is best suited at 5 or 6–no more stupid experimenting.

    And for God’s sake, always—always-bat your worst hitter last. In the Cub lineup, that’s the P. Make it great by also refedicating yo the principle that your worst-hitting position played also needs to bat 8th—ALWAYS.

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