Kyle Schwarber and Hefty Leadoff Hitters

Yesterday, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon made some headlines by claiming he was considering making Kyle Schwarber his leadoff hitter this season. Mostly, that this was a big headline reflects the fact that this is one of the slowest times in the baseball calendar — players have been at camp for awhile now, yet games are just beginning, and in many cases the best players haven’t suited up yet. It’s a slow time. Still, it’s an interesting idea. The first thought that came to my mind was, would Kyle Schwarber be the heaviest leadoff hitter of all-time?

In this case, “all-time” is going to be defined as 1973 to the present, because we don’t have play-by-play data, and therefore don’t know who were the leadoff hitters, for the time before then. Still though, that’s 44 years of baseball history. Pretty decent sample size to work from.

Let’s take a look. How often do guys hit leadoff, anyway? We say leadoff hitter, but these days anyway (and probably in most days) teams have multiple leadoff hitters. The gulf was actually pretty wide last season. On the low side, you have the Rangers at 40 games for their most frequent hitter (Shin-Soo Choo) and 43 for the Blue Jays (Devon Travis) to 148 for the Tigers (148) and 147 for the Diamondbacks (Jean Segura). After the Blue Jays, there’s a jump up to 66 games. So, we’ll round up to 50, since most teams had a leadoff hitter who started as the leadoff hitter at least that frequently.

Schwarber’s listed weight is 235. Since 1973, there have been just eight player seasons where a player of that weight or higher batted leadoff. However, it’s here where we need to realize the limitations of our weight data. You’ll see why quickly:

Heaviest Leadoff Hitters by Weight, Single Season, 1973-Present
Name Leadoff G season Height Height 2 Weight
Marlon Byrd 79 2003 6’0″ 72″ 245
Barry Bonds 77 1986 6’2″ 74″ 240
Barry Bonds 122 1987 6’2″ 74″ 240
Barry Bonds 131 1988 6’2″ 74″ 240
Barry Bonds 110 1989 6’2″ 74″ 240
Lenny Harris 82 1990 5’10” 70″ 235
Mike Trout 138 2012 6’1″ 73″ 235
Jason Heyward 94 2014 6’4″ 76″ 235
Corey Hart 56 2007 6’6″ 78″ 230
Corey Hart 63 2011 6’6″ 78″ 230
Minimum 50 games as leadoff hitter

The weights we have listed are a player’s last listed weight. For most players, this isn’t a huge deal. Most players don’t have long enough major league careers to have dramatic weight fluctuations. Among those who do have long careers, we can guesstimate that probably half of them maintain a fairly consistent weight. But there are certainly those who don’t. Barry Bonds is one of those who didn’t. It’s unlikely that the Bonds of 1986-1989 weighed 240 lbs., but because that’s the last listed weight for Bonds, it’s how he shows up in our database. That would leave Marlon Byrd, Lenny Harris, Mike Trout, Jason Heyward and Corey Hart as leadoff hitters who weighed at least 230 lbs. Heyward and Hart and Schwarber don’t exactly have the same body type though, so let’s also sort by BMI.

Heaviest Leadoff Hitters by BMI, Single Season, 1973-Present
Name Leadoff G Season Height Height 2 Weight BMI
Lenny Harris 82 1990 5’10” 70″ 235 33.7
Marlon Byrd 79 2003 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2
Kirby Puckett 128 1984 5’8″ 68″ 210 31.9
Kirby Puckett 160 1985 5’8″ 68″ 210 31.9
Kirby Puckett 128 1986 5’8″ 68″ 210 31.9
Brett Lawrie 62 2012 5’11” 71″ 225 31.4
Ronnie Belliard 92 2000 5’9″ 69″ 211 31.2
Ronnie Belliard 82 2003 5’9″ 69″ 211 31.2
Ronnie Belliard 53 2004 5’9″ 69″ 211 31.2
Mike Trout 138 2012 6’1″ 73″ 235 31.0
Minimum 50 games as leadoff hitter
BMI = (Weight in Pounds / (Height in inches x Height in inches)) x 703

Schwarber’s BMI, for his listed height (6’0″) and weight (235), is 31.9. I realize that BMI isn’t the best measure, but since we don’t have a database of player waist measurements, it’s the best we can do. And as we can see, few have had a higher BMI than Schwarber — just Harris and Byrd. Schwarber is right there with Kirby Puckett. So, we can say pretty concretely that Schwarber would be a historical outlier. But just for the sake of completeness, let’s look at this from a career perspective:

Heaviest Leadoff Hitters by Weight & BMI, Career, 1973-Present
Name Ld PA H H2 Weight BMI Name Ld PA H H2 Weight BMI
Adam Dunn 73 6’6″ 78″ 285 32.9 Lenny Harris 822 5’10” 70″ 235 33.7
Elijah Dukes 84 6’1″ 73″ 248 32.7 Marlon Byrd 673 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2
Marlon Byrd 673 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2 Juan Uribe 280 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2
Juan Uribe 280 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2 Alberto Callaspo 93 5’9″ 69″ 225 33.2
Barry Bonds 2069 6’2″ 74″ 240 30.8 Adam Dunn 73 6’6″ 78″ 285 32.9
Josh Hamilton 122 6’4″ 76″ 240 29.2 Elijah Dukes 84 6’1″ 73″ 248 32.7
Lenny Harris 822 5’10” 70″ 235 33.7 Travis Snider 134 6’0″ 72″ 235 31.9
Travis Snider 134 6’0″ 72″ 235 31.9 Brett Lawrie 318 5’11” 71″ 225 31.4
Mike Trout 733 6’1″ 73″ 235 31.0 Adrian Beltre 108 5’11” 71″ 225 31.4
Yasiel Puig 204 6’3″ 75″ 235 29.4 Mike Trout 733 6’1″ 73″ 235 31.0
Jason Heyward 588 6’4″ 76″ 235 28.6
Minimum 50 PA as leadoff hitter
BMI = (Weight in Pounds / (Height in inches x Height in inches)) x 703

Here we’ve lowered the bar to 50 career PA as a leadoff hitter, so as to catch some players that we didn’t see before, and we do see some new faces. But the result is the same. If Scwarber was to get a decent amount of time at the leadoff spot, he’d be right up there with Harris and Byrd, and would certainly still be an outlier.

One player you don’t see on these lists is a player Maddon mentioned as a comparison in that news story — Brian Downing. On the one hand, you can see why Maddon used the 5’10”, 170 lb. Downing as an example. His career Spd was 3.1, and in 2015, Schwarber’s Spd was 4.7. On the other hand, as a 24-year-old, Downing stole 13 bases, an then at 25, he stole seven more. For his career, Downing stole 50 bases, and was green lit to run 94 times. From age 21-23, Schwarber only stole nine bases, so I’m not sure that they’ll be on the same footing.

Of course, if Schwarber hits the way he’s capable of, no one is going to care. OBP is life. Life is OBP. I do want to look at one more table before we go though, inspired by one of the new names we see on that third table above.

Heaviest Leadoff Hitters by BMI, Career, 1973-Present
Name Leadoff PA Height Height 2 Weight BMI Career K%
Lenny Harris 822 5’10” 70″ 235 33.7 7.9%
Marlon Byrd 673 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2 20.2%
Juan Uribe 280 6’0″ 72″ 245 33.2 18.2%
Alberto Callaspo 93 5’9″ 69″ 225 33.2 9.2%
Adam Dunn 73 6’6″ 78″ 285 32.9 28.6%
Elijah Dukes 84 6’1″ 73″ 248 32.7 20.3%
Travis Snider 134 6’0″ 72″ 235 31.9 25.0%
Brett Lawrie 318 5’11” 71″ 225 31.4 20.1%
Adrian Beltre 108 5’11” 71″ 225 31.4 14.1%
Mike Trout 733 6’1″ 73″ 235 31.0 22.0%
Minimum 50 PA as leadoff hitter
BMI = (Weight in Pounds / (Height in inches x Height in inches)) x 703

Look at the K%’s here. Is Schwarber the new Adam Dunn? Back in June 2003, when Dunn was also probably a little thinner (though he was always a pretty big boy), he started a block of 12 games in the leadoff spot. He did OK — for that block of games, he hit .163/.357/.442, with 11 walks (19.6% BB%) against 15 strikeouts (26.8% K%). If you look at his splits as a leadoff hitter, you’ll see he did significantly better than that, but that takes into account a few random games following this 12-game block. After June 16, the final date in the block, Dunn never got a real chance to hit leadoff again. You can understand why. Dunn did fine, but it’s not like he tore the cover off the ball.

Will Schwarber hold the leadoff job for longer than that? Only time will tell. Certainly, from a wOBA perspective, he’s projected to be one of the four best hitters in the Cubs’ lineup. But so is Ben Zobrist, one of the other players mentioned in the article as a candidate to hit leadoff. Before long, I would think that Zobrist would take the reins, if he doesn’t from day one. Dexter Fowler hit leadoff most frequently for the Cubs last season, but after him, it was Zobrist, who led off 20 games. Zobrist also hit leadoff for Maddon in Tampa Bay on a not infrequent basis — his high-water mark in fact came in their last year in Tampa together, when Zobrist led off in 47 games.

Kyle Schwarber is projected to have a good season, and certainly he should post an OBP worthy of hitting leadoff. But given his weight (and high strikeout percentage), he would be a historic outlier. It’s the sort of thing that would certainly work, but it’s probably closer to the sort of logic that allows you to bring in your closer with a five-run lead. It’s a little too cute, especially when there are better players suited for the task. Given Zobrist’s higher projected OBP and lower projected SLG, it probably makes more sense for Zobrist to leadoff, and for Schwarber to hit cleanup after Bryant and Anthony Rizzo bat in the two- and three-hole.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Joe Valdez
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Joe Valdez

Hey Paul, there’s a pretty decent article on BleedCubbieBlue (I know) from a contributor that actually makes a very solid argument for Willson Contreras as the team’s lead-off guy. You should check it out.

http://www.bleedcubbieblue.com/2017/2/24/14719274/yo-joe-willson-should-leadoff-not-kyle

dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt

Thanks for the plug. The only leadoff body type comps I could come up with (and Paul does much more thorough job than I did) are Carlos Santana and Russell Martin.

Santana was the most frequent leadoff hitter for the 2016 Indians, and while the media guide says he’s 5-11 210, I just don’t believe it, but don’t have any evidence that says otherwise. Martin led off a lot for mid 2000s Dodgers and is listed as 5-10 205. Anyway you cut it I couldn’t find a current or recent player who is as husky as Schwarber.

One final note that I found during my research that I wasn’t expecting–Schwarber’s 2015 BsR score of 2.4 was identical to that of Jaiver Baez’s 2016 BsR score!