No answer at leadoff, Cubs drop 5th straight

April 29th, 2021

Cubs manager David Ross is looking for ways to breathe a little life into his ballclub. Along those lines, Ross asked ahead of Wednesday's game in Atlanta if the first baseman would be willing to take a turn as Chicago's leadoff man.

"I just want to win," Rizzo said. "I just want to win ballgames -- that's it."

In a 10-0 loss to the Braves, Rizzo's cameo in the lineup's top slot essentially became a moot point. The goal was to possibly jumpstart Chicago's stalled offense, but that became a tall task due to a troubling abbreviated start by Kyle Hendricks.

Atlanta launched three homers off Hendricks -- including two in a four-run first inning -- to create a steep hill in the early going for the Cubs' lineup. Complicating matters was a strong performance by Atlanta righty Huascar Ynoa, who struck out nine and generated 18 whiffs.

Even with some Rizzo heroics -- the first baseman made his second career pitching appearance in the seventh and struck out reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman -- he alone could not save the Cubs from dropping a fifth game in a row.

The reality remains, however, that the Cubs need to find the right formula atop their order to ignite the lineup again. Heading into Wednesday's game, Chicago's leadoff men were batting a collective .181/.333/.265 on the season.

"It sets the tone," Rizzo said. "When you get those first couple guys on, and you put pressure on the pitcher, good things happen. In the National League, it's even more important."

The Cubs' issues in the No. 1 spot since Dexter Fowler's strong tone-setting season in 2016 are well-documented. Following Fowler's exit, Chicago cycled through 17 leadoff men (in terms of starts) across the '17-19 seasons.

Here is a look at the year-by-year results over the past five years:

2016: .267/.381/.434, 123 wRC+
2017: .246/.324/.422, 94 wRC+
2018: .302/.366/.454, 121 wRC+
2019: .212/.294/.383, 77 wRC+
2020: .211/.307/.418, 96 wRC+

Last season, Ross initially named Kris Bryant his leadoff man due to the star's blend of power and on-base ability. As last year's strange, shortened season progressed, it was Ian Happ who enjoyed a breakout showing (.866 OPS) and took over as the table-setter.

Happ has labored to find his offensive rhythm so far this season, hitting .135 with a .473 OPS on the young campaign. With Happ in a rut, Ross also gave Nico Hoerner a look as the leadoff man for a couple games earlier this week.

"It's something I've done before," Hoerner said. "I want to impact this team and help in any way I can. If that's something I can do to help us, obviously that's a great opportunity. We'll go day by day with that. But, yeah, I feel ready to do that whenever asked."

Ross' ultimate goal is to have Happ reprise that role.

"Yeah, that's the hope. That is," Ross said. "I think in my vision, Happer leads off for us and gets on base and sets the tone. I think he just hasn't been that version of himself quite yet. He's still trying to get going on this season.

"When he does, he's a real threat at the top and gets on base a lot for those guys behind him. And he's got some slug up there that, when he's right, I really like him at the top."

Rizzo once famously quipped that he was the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Statistically, the first baseman actually ranked second all-time (min. 200 plate appearances) with a 1.005 OPS out of the No. 1 spot, entering Wednesday. Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.016 OPS in 453 plate appearances) ranked first.

While Rizzo has had success when called upon for that role -- he went 1-for-4 in Wednesday's loss -- he prefers to stay in the third or fourth slot. Rizzo did not hesitate Wednesday when asked if he ever wondered how he would fare over a full season as a leadoff man.

"Nope. I never wonder that, and I hope it never happens," Rizzo said. "It's not really something I enjoy that much -- leading off. It's fun for a little bit."

Rizzo said leading off can be a "psychologically weird thing" for some players. Truth be told, there have been challenges up and down the lineup this season for the Cubs, who saw their scoreless streak reach a season-high 20 innings in the loss.

That is why Rizzo was willing to take his turn at the top.

"Whatever helps and whatever it takes," he said.