Kris Bryant: Leadoff Hitter

Assuming he doesn’t get traded, Kris Bryant appears to be David Ross‘ choice as leadoff hitter this season. It’s not a secret that the Cubs have struggled to find a leadoff man since they let Dexter Fowler walk in free agency after their 2016 championship season. Last year, the Cubs’ .294 on-base percentage and 77 wRC+ from the leadoff spot were the worst in baseball.

Over the last three seasons, nine players have taken at least 50 plate appearances from the leadoff spot.

Cubs Leadoff Hitters Since 2017
Anthony Rizzo 243 .337 .428 .605 168
Daniel Murphy 131 .312 .336 .504 125
Ian Happ 113 .232 .319 .475 108
Ben Zobrist 428 .272 .353 .406 104
Kyle Schwarber 431 .212 .309 .461 96
Albert Almora Jr. 298 .301 .330 .394 95
Jon Jay 239 .267 .325 .350 78
Daniel Descalso 51 .167 .314 .262 62
Jason Heyward 170 .142 .253 .284 44
Minimum 50 PA

Some of these are small samples, and while we know Jason Heyward isn’t a player who would put up a 44 wRC+ with more playing time, we also know he probably isn’t going to be much more than average with the bat. Given the importance of the leadoff spot, average shouldn’t be good enough for a contending team. Ian Happ was a little above average, but his .319 OBP leaves something to be desired. Even the .333 OBP he put up in limited time overall last year isn’t great. Daniel Murphy was only with the club for a few months. Kyle Schwarber’s career .339 OBP screams pretty good but not start-the-game-off great, and being below-average against lefties means he couldn’t do it every day.

Anthony Rizzo can hit anywhere in the lineup, though as a lefty, his 111 wRC+ against same-handed pitchers over the last three seasons means potentially moving him out of the leadoff spot for a quarter to a third of the games. The Cubs lineup isn’t particularly deep, and some of the good players they do have aren’t great fits for the top of the order.

Here’s a look at the projections for this year’s likely contributors.

Cubs’ Depth Chart Hitting Projections in 2020
Anthony Rizzo .284 .388 .516 134
Kris Bryant .272 .373 .507 128
Kyle Schwarber .249 .350 .518 120
Javier Báez .273 .313 .512 107
Willson Contreras .255 .342 .457 107
Ian Happ .242 .335 .445 102
Steven Souza Jr. .237 .325 .440 99
Victor Caratini .265 .336 .420 98
Jason Heyward .257 .337 .411 95
David Bote .242 .324 .408 90
Jason Kipnis .249 .317 .412 89
Nico Hoerner .271 .319 .405 88
Albert Almora Jr. .266 .304 .405 82

While I could go through the importance of lineup positions based on The Book, Sky Kalkman’s 11-year-old post on the subject is still relevant. Here were his final thoughts:

Another way to look at things is to order the batting slots by the leveraged value of the out. In plain English (sort of), we want to know how costly making an out is by each lineup position, based on the base-out situations they most often find themselves in, and then weighted by how often each lineup spot comes to the plate. Here’s how the lineup spots rank in the importance of avoiding outs:

#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9

So, you want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. Finally, stop talking like the lineup is a make-or-break decision.

The last line is important as most lineup decisions aren’t massively important even over the course of a full season. Batting a really bad hitter in the first four spots in the lineup will, but just mixing and matching your best hitters around the first four or five spots in the lineup isn’t going to make a big difference. That said, in terms of optimization, the Cubs clearly have three good hitters and a group of decent ones with Javier Báez and Willson Contreras leading the pack after Rizzo, Bryant, and Schwarber.

For the roster the Cubs have, one of their three best hitters should be hitting leadoff. All three have nearly identical slugging percentages, but of the three, Schwarber’s on-base percentage is the lowest by quite a bit, which means he should probably go in the cleanup spot. Choosing between Bryant and Rizzo is a difficult call, but choosing Bryant over Rizzo has some advantages.

  • Rizzo is a slightly better hitter overall than Bryant according to the projections, so putting him in the more important second spot makes sense.
  • Given Rizzo’s platoon issues, his abilities as a hitter go down when a lefty is on the mound. Though Bryant does hit lefties better than righties, he’s still a good hitter against righties and fits in the leadoff spot every day.
  • Bryant is a much better baserunner than Rizzo and more likely to score from second on a base hit or from first on a double.
  • Going Bryant, Rizzo, Báez, Schwarber allows the team to go right, left, right, left and help ward off potential lefty relief specialists late in games.

Teams have done a much better job over the last few seasons of making sure that one of the better hitters on the team is hitting leadoff. The Cubs have tried that on occasion over the last few years with Rizzo and Schwarber seeing time there, but nothing ever really stuck. Putting Bryant in the leadoff spot is a positive move for the team and potentially gives the club someone who can stay in that spot all season long. The Cubs might also want to bat the pitcher eighth to provide Bryant more opportunities with runners on base. Bryant alone won’t completely solve their lineup issues, however.

Against left-handed pitchers, Schwarber, Happ, and Heyward are almost unplayable, as is the newly acquired Jason Kipnis. Rizzo is still good, but no longer great. Against right-handed pitching last season (non-pitchers), the Cubs’ 111 wRC+ ranked fifth in baseball, but against lefties, their 102 wRC+ ranked 16th. The team wasn’t terrible against lefties, but they were very top-heavy with Bryant, Contreras, and Báez doing most of the damage. The Cubs have come to spring hoping for better production and results out of essentially the same group of players. Fixing their leadoff spot was a source of struggles last season and improving that should help the team. It’s a small add, but in mid-February, it represents a good start.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

For some reason I just have a gut feeling that this will not be the last Fangraphs piece of 2020 about an unconventional managerial decision from David Ross…

4 years ago
Reply to  loubrockholt

After witnessing David Ross’ playing career I have the suspicion that he’ll do better than expected. Or at least will find a way to be reasonably good. Assuming the clubhouse moral is still good.