There was something different about the Chicago Cubs in 2017. The team that won 103 games and a World Series the previous year, just never seemed to hit their stride. The obvious answers to the struggles took place on the mound. Both the rotation and the bullpen experienced stark downward trends. But offensive efficiency was not on par with the World Series team either.
The Cubs were still near the top of the pack in all major offensive statistics. However, there were many times where the lineup just could not put men on base. This was amplified more in the Postseason when Stephen Strasburg, and Max Scherzer baffled the Cubs and the entirety of the Dodgers’ bullpen mystified Cub hitters.
Whenever a World Series Champion struggles during the subsequent season, the hangover effect is typically credited as the culprit. But was there more to the Cubs regression than just simply an offseason party 108 years in the making?
During the free-agency period following the 2016 World Series, one of the bigger disappointments was Dexter Fowler signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the rival St. Louis Cardinals. Cubs fans grew to love Fowler during his two-year stint in Chicago. He was simply a joy to watch in all facets.
Fowler had a penchant for exciting plays and the personality to match. His lead-off homer in Game 7 of the World Series against two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, is one of the most iconic moments any player in a Cubs uniform has ever produced.
The way “Dex” motioned to the Cubs dugout as the ball fell over Rajai Davis’s glove is something fans will never forget. He had immediately created a spark. It set the tone for Cubs hitters the rest of the game, as they made quick work of high end pitchers like Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Bryan Shaw.
When the Cardinals signing broke, Cubs fans were saddened to lose Fowler’s joyful presence, but concerns on how the team would be affected were minimal. With the likes of Albert Almora, Kyle Schwarber, and Jason Heyward still manning the outfield, this reaction was not totally without merit.
However, fast forward to 2018, and the Cubs still have not found a bonafide lead-off man to set the table in front of heavy hitters like Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Schwarber was a disaster in the 1-spot, and Zobrist was not much better. Jon Jay was respectable, but was never considered an everyday player.
There was a saying that circulated the Cubs’ locker room during the World Series season in reference to Dexter Fowler. “You go. We go.” Meaning, when Fowler was doing his job, the Cubs were winning games.
That quickly proved true. In games where the Cubs were ultimately victorious Fowler slashed to the tune of .310/.433/.494. Conversely, when opponents got the better of the Cubs squad, Fowler slashed a minuscule .205/.299/.349.
What was it about Fowler that made him so valuable to the 2016 Cub’s lineup? Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers to identify just what “You go. We go.” meant to the 2016 World Champions.
Fowler’s Understated Value
The Cubs lost their lead-off man for about a month during the dog days of the 2016 season. While Fowler was undergoing treatment for a hamstring injury, the Cubs went 12-17 during his absence. Easily their worst stretch of the campaign. Upon Fowler’s return, the Cubs went 21-8 over the same time-frame, which included an 11-game win streak. Easily their best stretch of the season.
Clearly the Cubs were just simply a different team with him in the lineup. But again, why was this the case?
Fowler’s standard metrics are impressive, but they are not necessarily remarkable. His 2016 slash line was .276/.393/.447. His strikeout numbers were probably higher than you would like from the lead-off spot, but the number that jumps out is his OBP.
Fowler’s ability to get on base a whopping 39 percent of the time had invaluable effects. With Fowler on the base paths, pitchers were forced to put pitches in the zone against Bryant, Rizzo, & Co. causing more opportunities for the best hitters in the lineup to hit in run scoring situations. Rizzo & Bryant still had monster season without Fowler in 2017, but slight changes to their numbers showed the effect missing an elite lead-off man can have.
Rizzo increased his walks by 18% percent in 2017, normally a positive occurrence, but with a .20 point drop in batting average and a .37 point drop in slugging, Rizzo was not seeing as many pitches that he could drive.
Bryant’s numbers are even more concerning. Without Fowler leading off, the former MVP dropped nearly 30 percent in both homeruns and RBIs while increasing his walk rate by 26 percent. Again, more evidence showing that without a solid on-base machine, pitchers were avoiding Bryant & Rizzo.
Additionally, Fowler’s contributions were not always obvious. He was an advanced stat darling in 2016, trailing only Rizzo and Bryant in an array of categories. In terms of scoring, Fowler was strong in RAA (Runs produced better than league average player) & oRAR (Runs provided through offense as compared to league average player).
In terms of winning, Fowler was fantastic in WAA (Wins provided as compared to league average player), 162W/L% (Win/Loss percentage for an average team when this player is in the lineup), and oWAR (Wins provided through offense as compared to league average).
When sorting through the advanced metrics from the 2016 season, it is obvious that aside from Bryant and Rizzo, Fowler was the most valuable offensive member of the World Champions.
The Cubs have been fairly mum on the lead-off spot going into Spring Training. Even appearing apathetic to the conundrum the team is facing in filling the void.
Maddon: leadoff spot remains “rotational”
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) February 13, 2018
Who will lead off for #Cubs? Almora: "We were sitting right here and I was like, 'Hey, I may lead off this year. You have to teach me.' [Rizzo] goes, 'I am the best leadoff hitter in the world.' I said, 'All right, you do it then.'"
— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 14, 2018
But the lead off situation should be considered more serious than the likes of Theo, Maddon, & Co. are letting on. The splits from this 2016 to 2017 show staggering differences in what Dexter Fowler was able to produce, and what his replacements produced.
In 121 AB’s to lead off a ball game, Fowler slashed an outrageous .382/.479/.706. He regularly set the tone for a ballgame by getting starting pitchers uncomfortable very early on. In 2017 the Cubs slashed a meager .246/.324/.422 from the lead off position. And with the inability for Cubs starting pitchers to produce clean first innings, the team was regularly chasing runs early.
The 2017 Cubs lineup installed several lead-off options that would hopefully create a spark for the team. However, after much of the season the only player to produce any kind of lead-off excitement was Anthony Rizzo during another Joe Maddon experiment.
The problem here is that you cannot sustain your power hitting first-baseman as the lead-off man for a majority of the season. Thankfully, this experiment only lasted a handful of games, and Rizzo was placed back where he belongs in the middle of the lineup.
As mentioned, the bulk of lead-off at bats came from Schwarber, Zobrist, & Jay. None of which even sniffed the output of Dexter Fowler. In 36 games from the lead-off spot, Schwarber slashed a non-existent .190/.312/.381. And for a guy that would never be considered fleet of foot, this move remains a head-scratcher nearly a year later.
Zobrist and Jay were a bit better, slashing .253/.330/.438 & .267/.325/.350 respectively in 91 games combined. However, the two utility players simply seemed to be band-aids for a team with no clear cut lead-off option.
As we approach Spring Training, the lead-off spot remains low on the list of talking points for the Cubs. Focus remains heavily on newly acquired Yu Darvish. Even Kyle Schwarber’s weight loss and Wilson Contreras’ thoughts on pace of play are taking precedence.
The question still has to be asked though. Who is the Cubs’ lead-off hitter in 2018, and will he be effective? Joe Maddon’s strategy to mix and match players in the top spot looks like it will be leveraged yet again. Meaning Cubs fans can expect to see a combination of players at the top of the order.
Personally, I like the idea of platooning Albert Almora and Ben Zobrist in the lead-off spot. Almora killed lefties last year to the tune of a .342/.411/.486. And once on base, Almora has shown his speed and instincts. Zobrist, on the other hand, did not have a good season last year no matter how you slice it. But with a career .355 OBP, and the ability to hit for high average from both sides, he is still a quality option to lead-off ballgames.
Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ will receive consideration as well. But Happ seems like a stretch to take over this spot due to a high proclivity for strikeouts and an average OBP.
Schwarber is even more of a concern. A disastrous performance in 2017 has made 2018 largely a make or break year for the slugger. He struggled mightily in the lead-off spot last season, and seemed to lose confidence along the way. The Cubs simply cannot afford to put Schwarber in this position again.
The Cubs remain one of the most talented offensive teams in the league. They improved their pitching with key acquisitions like Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow. Motivation has returned after an embarrassing NLCS performance.
Will this be enough to get them back to the World Series in 2018? Or will the Cubs sputter without their motor from the lead-off spot?
Dexter Fowler’s “You go. We go” motto was a fun saying that players and fans alike got behind during the World Series year. But did it ring more accurate than many thought? Will his disappearance from the lineup for a second straight season finally cause the Cubs offense to halt? Only time will tell.