During the Chicago Cubs’ World Series run in 2016, one of the pieces to the puzzle was great production from their lead-off hitters. That year, Dexter Fowler was the top man in the Cubs’ lineup as he slashed .277/.393/.449 in 119 games atop the order. Perhaps the most important lead-off at-bat for Fowler in 2016 was his solo home run to kick-off Game 7 of the World Series, a game the Cubs won nine innings later.
Overall, the Cubs’ lead-off men slashed .267/.381/.434 in 2016 and went 81-38 when Fowler led-off games two years ago.
Fowler’s success headlining the Cubs’ lineup in 2016 earned him a five-year deal in St. Louis following the conclusion of the 2016 season, leaving the Cubs to use Kyle Schwarber in that role on Opening Day 2017. That experiment quickly fizzled out as Schwarber was slashing .209/.339/.352 by the end of April.
Schwarber’s slow start was rectified, in part, thanks to Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist taking over the lead-off duties by mid-May. In total, 2017 was a down year for the Cubs’ top spot as a host of players combined to slash .246/.324/.422. To go along with that, the Cubs’ best record came when Zobrist led-off as they went 25-15 in his 40 game atop the order. For perspective, the Cubs finished 17-20 in games with Schwarber leading-off and 31-22 when Jay drew the assignment.
The Emergence of Anthony Rizzo as Lead-off Hitter
While the Cubs struggled as a whole in the lead-off spot, Anthony Rizzo thrived. In 2017, Rizzo earned the fourth most playing time in the lead-off role, logging 59 plate appearances across 14 games.
All but one of those games came in June of 2017 when the Cubs were still searching for a fix atop the order. That month, Rizzo led the team in time at the top of order and slashed .306/.379/.694. Perhaps the most impressive statistic, however, was Rizzo’s five home runs in 58 plate appearances, only one less than Schwarber hit in his first two month in that same role.
Despite the Cubs’ 6-8 record with Rizzo leading-off in 2017, his performance spawned a new nickname for the slugger, “Greatest Lead-off Hitter of All-Time.” Obviously, 59 plate appearances is way too small of a sample size to start comparing Rizzo to the best to ever fill the role, but with more practice in 2018, that nickname could start to gain some traction.
Like last season, the Cubs started the 2018 campaign with a failed experiment atop the order. This time, it was Ian Happ, who tore up Spring Training and broke camp as the Cubs’ starting center-fielder and lead-off hitter.
A first pitch home run on Opening Day proved to be the bulk of success Happ found at the top of the order. His 1-for-9 performance in two March games spilled over into April as the switch-hitter slashed .206/.270/.265 in 37 plate appearances in the same role.
While Almora’s and Ben Zobrist’s success atop the lineup since mid-April has rivaled Folwer’s in 2016, Maddon has used the lead-off position in the batting order as a confidence booster for struggling players. That is why Cubs’ fans have seen Willson Contreras, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant take swings in the lead-off role this season. More importantly, that is why the Cubs have once again turned to the “Greatest Lead-off Hitter of All-Time.”
Through the end of April, Rizzo was slashing .149/.259/.189 with just four walks and 15 strikeouts. That career-worst stretch was halted in May and June as Rizzo hit .303 and .270 respectively with a combined 11 home runs and 46 RBI. While that solid play went a long way to get Rizzo back on track, the slugger once again fell into a cold spell to begin the month of July. Through July 11, Rizzo was 4-for-32 (.125) including a stretch that saw him go 0-for-14, bringing his season batting average back down to .236.
It was after Rizzo’s 0-for-5 performance on July 11 that Maddon decided to plug Rizzo into the lead-off spot once again. What was supposed to be a one or two game stretch to get Rizzo going again has turned into something the Cubs could ride the rest of the season.
In Rizzo’s first game atop the order, July 13, the slugger went 3-for-5 with two doubles, his second and third extra base hits of the month.
Rizzo’s performance on that day would only be continued as he logged back-to-back multi-hit games on July 15 and 19. That has been followed by a 7-for-10 stretch spanning the Cubs’ last three games that has Maddon in an “if it isn’t broke don’t fix it” mind-set with Rizzo.
Overall, Rizzo has picked up right where he left-off in 2017. Through eight games atop the order this year, Rizzo is slashing .556/.658/.815/1.473 and is currently riding a nine-game on-base streak dating back to July 11. That is the second longest active streak for the Cubs as Rizzo is slashing .469/.591/.688 in those games.
While Rizzo has not hit a home run leading-off this year, he has logged five doubles and a triple with eight walks and five strikeouts.
Unlike last season, the Cubs own a winning record with Rizzo leading-off, a 6-2 mark. In those games, the North Sider’s have scored 54 runs or 6.75 per game. That run has allowed the Cubs to build a 3.5 game lead on the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central, the largest such lead for the Cubs this season.
Rizzo Needs to Stay Atop the Order
If 2016 proved anything, it was the importance of a good lead-off hitter. In Almora, the Cubs seem to have their lead-off man of the future as the youngster has hit .339 in that role so far this season.
Despite that, Rizzo has moved to a whole other level right now, one the Cubs need to ride as long as possible. Just look what this stretch has done to Rizzo’s numbers: .262/.365/.428 after he started this run with a .236/.333/.393 slash.
While it’s unlikely Rizzo will continue to hit north of .500 in the lead-off role, it would be foolish to pull him out of that spot until he cools off. Who knows, the Cubs could use Rizzo’s spark to win 20 games this month and run away from the Brewers. At the very least, Rizzo uses this to get back on track and continues to produce when he returns to the middle of the order.
With that being said, it’s safe to say Maddon’s idea of using the lead-off role to spark a player’s performance is not far-fetched. The only question remaining is how long Rizzo can keep this up.
My guess, a while.
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