If you are ever bored a few hours before a Cubs game, you should jump on Twitter. When Joe Maddon’s lineup for the day is posted Cubs Twitterverse scents blood in the water — and the sharks erupt in a frenzy. It really is quite amusing. Everyone — and I do mean everyone — is a true expert. Maddon is an idiot, of course, who just needs to listen to that guy when he fills out the lineup card.
The majority of angst centers on the first name on the list, and for good reason. Once upon a time, the Cubs had the greatest leadoff hitter of all time (no, not that greatest leadoff hitter of all time). Dexter Fowler was a man among boys, dominating the league at will. He reached base multiple times every game, stole every bag, and scored all the runs. Or so the legend goes.
Maddon went so far as to tell Fowler before every at-bat, “You go, we go.” With Fowler leading off with a bang, the Cubs won the last game of the 2016 (post) season. Don’t misunderstand me, Dexter Fowler was, indeed, a vital cog on that legendary 2016 squad and an excellent leadoff hitter by modern standards, but he wasn’t exactly the second coming of Rickey Henderson. Still, there is no denying that his absence has been felt dramatically after he was shown the door following the World Series parade in 2016. This has never been more glaringly obvious than in 2019.
The 2019 Cubs Leadoff Nightmare
The Cubs have been really bad in the leadoff spot this season. The following numbers reflect how the Cubs rank out of 30 MLB teams. Disclaimer: the numbers you are about to see might cause you some distress and lead to loss of appetite and sleep.
- BA: 30th
- OBP: 30th
- SLG: 26th
- BB%: 10th
- K%: 23rd
- wRC+: 30th
For a chunk of games, the Cubs batted Kyle Schwarber leadoff. He walks at an elite rate and leads the team in home runs, which has boosted the walk and slugging percentage rankings. Outside of that, they are putrid. Dead last in batting average (which might not matter anymore but last place?!), on-base percentage (supposedly this roster’s hallmark), and last in wRC+.
Just to be cruel, let’s look at the how the Cubs ranked in 2016 (Fowler’s best season as a Cub).
- BA: 17th
- OBP: 1st
- SLG: 11th
- BB%: 1st
- K%: 25th
- wRC+: 4th
The Legend of the Fowler has, with time, become somewhat apocryphal, but there is no denying the impact he had on that World Series crew. He was elite at getting on base, particularly when it came to walks. Having lead off the vast majority of games that season, it’s fair to say that he is primarily responsible for those rankings. How could a team with such promising young stars fall so precipitously in the ranks in just a few seasons?
It’s not just 2019. The Cubs have been, at best, middle of the pack since Fowler left. While Twitter has consistently known, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Maddon’s daily choices are terrible, what no one has really seemed to grasp is that the leadoff spot has been an absolute black hole, destroying just about every hitter that Maddon has tried there.
Since the Cubs are in the middle of a pennant race, I’m going to focus solely on the 2019 season. Maddon, so far, has tried ten different players at leadoff this season. Only two of those ten, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, have a wRC+ above 89. Here’s how the primary 2019 leadoff hitters have fared for the Cubs (minimum forty plate appearances).
Not a great look, to say the least. Kyle Schwarber has the highest wRC+ at 106 (not including Rizzo), which is basically league average. The slugging played a key role, obviously, in boosting that number. The rest? Daniel Descalso? Albert Almora? No, thanks.
Ben Zobrist is an interesting name because he has seen some success, albeit with little slugging, and he has officially rejoined the team with September’s roster expansion. Perhaps he could give the unit a boost, though it remains to be seen just how much playing time he’ll receive down the stretch.
As fun as the topic is, this article is not another in a long line of “who should leadoff” pieces. Much digital ink has been spilled over that already. What I am more interested in is the question of why do players struggle so mightily in this role?
Exhibit A: Jason Heyward
When Maddon kept trotting out the Almora/Schwarber platoon, Twitter lost its mind. Countless tweets demanded Heyward move up. He was in the midst of a resurgent campaign that harkened back to his pre-Cubs days. JayHey finally looked like the Heyward Cubs fans had been waiting to see. Well, Maddon moved him up, and he has been absolutely dreadful. To be fair, according to the FanGraphs unofficial breakdown of wRC+, he has only been poor. Conventional wisdom says that hitting in front of really good-to-elite hitters like Nicholas Castellanos, Kris Bryant, Rizzo, and Javier Baez should lead to seeing better pitches to hit. Then again, maybe conventional wisdom no longer applies to the modern game. Whatever the reason, Heyward is not the only victim of the one-hole. Schwarber and Ian Happ both struggled so bad leading off that they eventually saw time in the minors.
There are exceptions.
Exhibit B: Ben Zobrist
Zobrist is an interesting case. His numbers in the one-hole compare somewhat favorably to Fowler’s. Granted, that is with about a third of the plate appearances. He’s been a slightly above average leadoff hitter when given the opportunity. Additionally, while his numbers are better batting 2-9, they are not dramatically so, meaning that leading off has not cratered his production.
Then there is the actual greatest leadoff hitter of all time.
Exhibit C: Anthony Rizzo
Rizzo is a true oddity for the Cubs. While others have seen their numbers dip, often expeditiously, in the top spot, Rizzo has gone off. What’s more (small sample size alert), he has actually been better in the leadoff spot than anywhere else, significantly so.
I will admit that the last time I batted leadoff was in little league, so I am entirely unqualified to speak to the challenges that it can present at the Major League level, but it is intriguing to wonder what causes accomplished hitters like Heyward to fall apart. Schwarber walks at an elite rate until Maddon asks him to do it batting first. Almora, already a subpar hitter, looks like Mario Mendoza.
Maybe it’s the outside pressure. The Cubs offense has lacked consistency throughout this contending window. A lot was forgiven (and forgotten) after they won it all, but inconsistency and high strikeout numbers have been a part of this team’s MO since 2015. Fowler did not magically erase that, but in his absence, the leadoff spot has been an easy target for Cubs fans and the media. Perhaps, the pressure to erase the “Fowler Curse” has gotten to some of the hitters.
Could it be that certain players are just better suited for specific spots in the order? Depending on who you talk to, batting order doesn’t actually matter, or it matters a great deal. It’s hard to deny, though, that some hitters (i.e., Heyward) respond better to certain spots in the lineup than others.
Perhaps it’s the spot itself. Until recently, the prototypical leadoff hitter has been a speed guy who makes a lot of contact and gets on base at a high rate. The Cubs don’t have anyone who really fits that mold. Is it possible that playing a game for twenty-five plus years that preached the “speedy, contact guy” model is impacting some of these veteran hitters? Are Heyward or Schwarber struggling to erase the years of watching Kenny Lofton and Ichiro Suzuki define the position? I can’t answer that, but I do know that every sport certainly has a psychological component to it. Perhaps that is a factor.
I don’t have the answers, but until someone finally succeeds for a prolonged period of time atop the lineup, the “Fowler Curse” will remain hanging over the team. No, it’s not because the Ricketts traded him to pay for “Miracle” or denied his pet goat entry into the stadium. The curse I am referring to is the weight of fan expectations his departure has left in its wake. In two seasons with the team, Fowler logged 1,218 plate appearances leading off. No one has come close to matching that in the three years since.
This window of contention won’t stay open much longer. It’s time for someone to step up and break the curse (here’s looking at you Anthony Rizzo aka still the greatest leadoff hitter of all time).
Follow Benjamin J. Denen on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: The Loop Sports