It appears that Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant is projected to bat leadoff for Chicago, and while it may seem a bit odd for traditionalists to see him there at first, it really isn’t. And that’s especially clear when one sees the problems the Cubs had at the leadoff position in 2019.
Cubs Leadoff Hitters in 2019
Teams rely on their leadoff hitter to consistently get on base for the middle of their lineup. That doesn’t really need to be stated, but it’s important to point this out, considering that leadoff hitters for the Cubs in 2019 failed to do so consistently. Last season, Cubs hitters who batted in the leadoff hole had a lowly on-base percentage of .294. That figure was not only the worst in all of MLB in 2019, but Chicago was the only team to have an OBP of less than .300 in that spot of the lineup. To juxtapose the Cubs against other teams in their division, the Cardinals had an OBP of .308 (29th in MLB), while Milwaukee (.324-22nd) and Cincinnati (.329-19th) both had OBP north of .320.
In addition to those poor on-base numbers, Chicago’s batting average (.212-30th), wOBA (.290-29th), wRC (77-30th) were also among the worst in the league in 2019. Now the Cubs did finish in the top 10 last season in runs scored (814-10th), but Chicago also missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Entering 2020, they look to change that, but they did need to address the leadoff slot, a spot that’s had questions around it since the end of 2016.
The bulk of the Cubs’ problems at the leadoff spot could be attributed to the departure of Dexter Fowler after the 2016 season. Since Fowler left to join the rival Cardinals, the team has struggled with finding a consistent leadoff hitter, and new manager David Ross admitted that Fowler’s departure created a problem for the Cubs. “That leadoff spot has been a real thing around here since Dexter’s left.” Now, the Cubs look to a new man to solve their issues there: Kris Bryant
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Bryant Now Leadoff Hitter of Cubs
The Cubs hope that Bryant can permanently solve the Cubs’ issues at the leadoff position. On the move, Ross said, The way [Bryant] has handled all the situations he’s been in over his career, and risen to the occasion a lot of the times, he can handle that.” On whether Bryant was willing to bat first, Ross later added, “He’s [Bryant] on board. I’m on board. It’s something I’ve been thinking about long and hard. I’m excited about it. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m super excited about it. I would hate to be on the other side and look at that big boy step in the box to lead things off and what he can do.” (h/t MLB.com)
Bryant last season had a BB% rate of 11.7% in 2019, which was higher than the BB% rates of Anthony Rizzo (11.6%), Jason Heyward (11.5%) and Kyle Schwarber (11.5%). All three of those players spent some time at the leadoff position in 2019, and while Bryant’s walk rate wasn’t significantly higher than either of those three, Bryant did finish 2019 in the top 20 in OBP (.382) last season (among qualified players). Bryant also has a career OBP of .385, and if he can put up a figure like that in 2020, it would be a huge boost for Chicago and the hitters in the middle of their lineup.
Considering the struggles the Cubs had in the leadoff position, this move has the chance to pay off in a big way. And even though the Cubs are moving Bryant out of the two slot, where he’s had success in the past, Chicago needs someone to get on base consistently from the leadoff slot. Otherwise, the Cubs will continue to cost themselves more opportunities to score runs.
The game is constantly changing, as is the perception of what a leadoff should look like in baseball. Bryant may not play like a leadoff hitter of the past, but that’s fine. Leadoff hitters need to get on base, and if Bryant can do that in 2020, the Cubs will be in better shape.
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