Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

news

MLB News

Batting Bryant leadoff makes sense for Cubs

Slugger has skills that would prove beneficial from top of lineup
MLB.com @AndrewSimonMLB

Cubs manager Joe Maddon carries a reputation for outside-the-box thinking, and it shows up in his lineup construction.

Following the departure of Dexter Fowler, the Cubs' leadoff hitter in 2015 and '16, Maddon started 11 different players in the top spot in '17. Current free agent Jon Jay led the way with 51 starts, but the eclectic group also included plenty of players who go decidedly against the traditional prototype, including Kyle Schwarber (36), Anthony Rizzo (14) and Willson Contreras (2).

Cubs manager Joe Maddon carries a reputation for outside-the-box thinking, and it shows up in his lineup construction.

Following the departure of Dexter Fowler, the Cubs' leadoff hitter in 2015 and '16, Maddon started 11 different players in the top spot in '17. Current free agent Jon Jay led the way with 51 starts, but the eclectic group also included plenty of players who go decidedly against the traditional prototype, including Kyle Schwarber (36), Anthony Rizzo (14) and Willson Contreras (2).

Not included on that list was Kris Bryant -- but it's possible that could change in 2018.

Speaking over the weekend at Cubs Convention, Maddon was noncommittal about who will fill that role, saying that the club will "go to camp and sit down and try to evaluate everybody." For his part, Bryant volunteered for the gig, citing his experience as a leadoff hitter at the University of San Diego. "I'd love to," he recently told the Chicago Tribune.

Should this idea take hold, it wouldn't be a dramatic change for Bryant and the Cubs. After all, in 149 starts in 2017, he batted second 110 times and third 38 times.

Video: CHC@ARI: Bryant knocks three hits in big day at plate

Installing Bryant atop his lineup would be a sensible course of action for Maddon this season, with no obvious alternative in place. Here are three reasons why:

1. It would maximize his plate appearances
Obviously, the higher a batter is placed in the lineup, the more chances he will get. Cubs leadoff hitters, for example, got 15 more plate appearances than their No. 2 hitters in 2017, 27 more than their No. 3 hitters and 39 more than their cleanup men. Those aren't major differences, but you still would prefer those extra opportunities go to a hitter of Bryant's caliber.

The 2015 National League Rookie of the Year and '16 NL MVP -- who just turned 26 on Jan. 4 -- has been one of the 10 or so best hitters in the Majors since his arrival. His 146 weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) last season roughly matched the previous year's output and ranked sixth in the NL, solidly ahead of Rizzo (133).

2. He's an on-base machine
While Bryant's homer total dropped from 39 to 29 last year, he increased his walks from 75 to 95 and his on-base percentage from .385 to .409. That OBP ranked fourth among NL qualifiers, and again, Rizzo (.392) was the only Cubs hitter to come close.

In contrast, the Cubs' collection of leadoff men combined for a mediocre .325 OBP last year to rank 18th in MLB. Apply a .400 OBP to those plate appearances instead, and that's nearly 60 extra times on base at the top of the lineup over the course of a season. If Rizzo then slotted in behind Bryant, it would give the Cubs two excellent on-base threats atop their lineup.

The tradeoff, of course, would be fewer opportunities for Bryant to bat in RBI situations. On the other hand, Maddon has no qualms about putting his pitcher eighth and a position player ninth, having pulled off that maneuver 55 times last season. Such a setup would perhaps help alleviate the issue, and having Bryant bat first would provide Rizzo and other capable Cubs with more of those juicy chances.

Video: CHC@BOS: Statcast™ analyzes Bryant's sprint on double

3. He's a multi-dimensional offensive player
The above reasons could apply to Rizzo nearly as well as they apply to Bryant, and Rizzo actually thrived in the leadoff spot last season, with a 1.053 OPS and five home runs in his 14 starts there. But there is one significant difference between the two.

According to Statcast™, Bryant's average baserunning sprint speed of 28.2 feet per second on "max-effort" plays was third on the Cubs in 2017, just behind Ian Happ (28.5) and Javier Baez (28.3). Rizzo trailed far behind at 25.7 feet per second, well below the MLB average of 27 feet/second.

And while Bryant stole only seven bases, his speed manifests itself in other ways when combined with his instincts and reads. Bryant took an extra base (first to third on a single, for example) on a team-high 60 percent of his chances last year to tie for fourth among all players with at least 500 plate appearances. His mark of plus-4.8 runs via FanGraphs' Ultimate Base Running (UBR) metric -- which focuses on plays other than steal attempts -- tied for fifth in MLB.

In other words, Bryant is an asset on the basepaths, especially compared with sluggers such as Rizzo and Schwarber. That makes him a solid compromise as a leadoff hitter, with the patience to get on base, the power to do damage and the wheels to carry himself home.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant