We’ve all met someone who isn’t authentic. Even if you don’t know who they really are, you can tell right away that what you’re getting is most definitely who they really aren’t. The same is true for leadoff hitters, or at least that’s true in some cases.
Kyle Schwarber is the perfect example of what I’m talking about, a guy who appeared to have changed his approach when he hit at the top of the order. He’d watch good pitches go by in an effort to be that high on-base guy, but then he’d get into a two-strike count and would start flailing away. Schwarber just seemed fake, like he was trying to be the hitter he thought he needed to be rather than the hitter he really was.
That’s far too simplistic a view, but it provides a rudimentary framework for the topic at hand. While I tend to believe Schwarber would have struggled early in 2017 regardless of his spot in the order, changing his approach and being more passive — whether it was conscious or not — didn’t help matters.
When guys suddenly try to see more pitches, when they try to get on base more, I don’t think that’s a positive. Jed Hoyer
And that’s exactly why I think Ian Happ could actually beat the odds to secure the role as the Cubs’ primary leadoff hitter this season. No, not because Schwarber struggled, but because of why he struggled. What I mean is that Happ doesn’t seem like a guy who’s going to change his approach much regardless of his spot in the order, which is something Jed Hoyer said is vital in a leadoff hitter.
“When it comes to leadoff, I think it’s gonna be about comfort,” Hoyer told 670 The Score’s Spiegel and Parkins (full interview below). “I think some guys are comfortable leading off and some guys aren’t. Some guys embrace that challenge and some guys don’t.
“But the honest answer is, whether it’s Ian or Ben or Albert, those guys have expressed a desire, an interest, a willingness to do it. But I think the proof will really be during the season when they can show that they’re not going to change their approach. You really want guys to have natural, good at-bats.”
Hoyer praised Dexter Fowler, who he said looked the same for the Cardinals last year batting in the middle of the order as he had in his time with the Cubs. Rather than suggesting that any current Cubs mimic a particular aspect of Fowler’s patience or keen eye, Hoyer focused on consistency.
“When guys suddenly try to see more pitches, when they try to get on base more, I don’t think that’s a positive,” Hoyer said. “I think now all of a sudden they’re trying to be something they’re not. I think what you really need is a guy who can lead off and not impact the way they play.”
I think what you really need is a guy who can lead off and not impact the way they play.
He obviously didn’t mention Schwarber by name, but it sure seems like that’s who he’s talking about here. Come to think of it, Hoyer didn’t mention Schwarber by name when he discussed the hitters vying for the leadoff role. And though the decision will be Joe Maddon’s to make on a daily basis, you can guarantee the front office will have some input on the matter.
It’s far too early at this point to make definitive statements, and Hoyer even admitted that they probably won’t know anything for certain until the real games start, but Happ has certainly acquitted himself well thus far. And while Zobrist will no doubt have a chance to lead off once his aging back loosens up, and Almora makes sense against lefties, Happ really seems to embody what Hoyer is describing above.
What’s really impressive, though, is Happ’s ability to stick with his approach even in those situations when you would expect a young hitter to get ahead of himself.
Rather than stand up there looking to see as many pitches as possible, Happ’s stepping in with the desire to get his hacks in on the first good pitch he sees. There’s some wisdom in that, given a starter’s desire to throw strikes out of the gate. We’ve seen that firsthand this spring as Happ has homered from both sides of the plate to lead off two separate games.
What’s really impressive, though, is Happ’s ability to stick with his approach even in those situations when you would expect a young hitter to get ahead of himself. One need look no further than his third MLB game to see what I mean.
Batting cleanup for the Cubs, Happ walked on five pitches in his first plate appearance and struck out on four pitches in his second. He opened his third trip with a swinging strike and followed that with a home run against a 74 mph Bronson Arroyo changeup. Waiting back on that pitch showed me something, but what Happ did his next time up really opened my eyes.
Blake Wood came on in relief of Arroyo in the 6th inning and promptly sandwiched a strikeout of Javy Baez around singles by Tommy La Stella and Kyle Schwarber, followed by an RBI double from Kris Bryant. An intentional walk to Anthony Rizzo loaded the bases for Happ, who stepped to the plate with only one out and a chance to break the game wide open. So what did he do?
Happ swung and missed at the first pitch he saw, a 96 mph fastball over the heart of the plate. Then he took three pitches before fouling off a slider to run the count full. Wood’s next pitch ended up in the dirt and Happ trotted to first with an RBI base on balls.
Perhaps more than any other plate appearance all year, that told me who Happ was as a hitter. He was going to be aggressive, yes, but selectively so. And he wasn’t going to try to do either too much or too little based on the situation.
So even though he’s by no means a prototypical leadoff hitter, he might be exactly what this Cubs team needs at the top of the order.