Bryant becomes Cubs' newest leadoff hitter

February 19th, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- After wrapped up his opening press conference of the spring, a discussion that lasted more than a half-hour with Chicago media on Saturday morning, the slugger headed back into the clubhouse.

Bryant was then greeted by manager David Ross.

"I said, 'Step into my office, please,'" Ross said on Wednesday.

The goal of that initial closed-door conversation for Ross was to see how open-minded Bryant would be about being the Cubs' leadoff hitter in 2020. That crucial slot in the lineup has been a revolving door for Chicago in the three seasons since Dexter Fowler's departure and Ross is seeking a more solidified solution.

Bryant, who has spent the bulk of his career as a No. 2 hitter, was on board. Ross gave the third baseman the opportunity to sleep on the idea and return for a follow-up chat. Bryant said he did not need it. Consider it decided. Bryant will be the Cubs' new leadoff man and Ross is committed to the plan, rather than classifying it as an experiment.

"That's my job, is to commit to things," Ross said. "He's 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."

Over the 2017-19 seasons, the Cubs cycled through 17 leadoff men (in terms of games started), including at least 10 in each campaign. Last year, and tried to fill that role during Ben Zobrist's absence from the team. By season's end, the Cubs ranked last in the Majors in average, on-base percentage and wRC+ out of the leadoff spot.

During the Cubs' World Series-winning 2016 season, Fowler started 118 games at the top and produced a .277/.393/.449 slash line. Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon famously said Fowler had a "you go, we go" impact on the lineup. The Cubs had success with a group of leadoff men in '18, but overall the production has been sporadic.

2016 (7 players): .267/.381/.434, 123 wRC+

2017 (11 players): .246/.324/.422, 94 wRC+

2018 (10 players): .302/.366/.454, 121 wRC+

2019 (11 players): .212/.294/.383, 77 wRC+

"That leadoff spot has been a real thing around here since Dexter's left," 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."

Bryant echoed that sentiment to a handful of reporters on Wednesday morning.

"I think we have so much turnover, just trying certain guys out, you don't get that consistency,” Bryant told the group. "If I need to be the guy that's up there that's going to be consistent and get on base, I'll be that guy."

In MLB as a whole in '19, all leadoff hitters combined for a .265/.335/.445 slash line with a 20.2 percent strikeout rate and 8.6 percent walk rate. Bryant hit .282/.382/.521 in '19 with a 22.9 percent strikeout rate and a 11.7 percent walk rate. In 548 career plate appearances to lead off an inning, Bryant has hit .291/.385/.531 with 24 homers, 34 doubles and 144 strikeouts (26.3 percent) against 59 walks (10.8 percent).

Ross did not delve into the details of his full lineup after Bryant, but did say that he believes Bryant and would form a nice "one-two punch." The manager noted that Bryant is one of the Cubs' best baserunners (he led the team with 3.8 Baserunning Runs above average in '19) and Rizzo is skilled at finding the gaps or moving runners.

So, is Rizzo the No. 2 hitter?

"Maybe," Ross said with a laugh.

The manager also said he values alternating the handedness of his hitters, if possible. So, reading between the lines, that means Bryant, Rizzo, , Schwarber, and Heyward could form the Nos. 1-6 portion of the batting order. Ross reminded that he has a number of ways he could go with the lineup.

"You want to put those at-bats as close to the top," Ross said of Bryant and Rizzo. "And then you start to think about some sluggers behind those two at the top. ... If we start talking about it and thinking about it, we've got that set. You know what I mean? It just feels like a dynamic lineup as it starts playing out."

Ross said another factor behind this decision is the reality that the Cubs' offense did not get the most out of a slew of great individual seasons in '19. The manager wanted to "do something different" to maybe breathe some life into the lineup, and the fact that Bryant was all-in with the concept made it easy on Ross.

"Kris Bryant is a really good at-bat, gets on base," Ross said. "His baseball IQ is extremely high. So, when you talk about putting the best players in baseball at the top of the order, I think that's our best player, and I want to put him at the top."