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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