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Bryant on leading off: 'I'm capable of doing it'

@MLBastian
February 20, 2020

MESA, Ariz. -- Kris Bryant was not all that surprised when Cubs manager David Ross approached him earlier this spring about the idea of assuming leadoff duties. Bryant has hit near the top throughout his career and modern baseball thinking has reimagined how certain lineup spots are treated.

MESA, Ariz. -- Kris Bryant was not all that surprised when Cubs manager David Ross approached him earlier this spring about the idea of assuming leadoff duties. Bryant has hit near the top throughout his career and modern baseball thinking has reimagined how certain lineup spots are treated.

Bryant said it was more shocking to him in college, when University of San Diego head coach Rich Hill had the budding slugger move to the top of the Toreros' order. Bryant had spent his youth years as a middle-order hitter and now -- even with all that power housed in his bat -- he was being asked to lead off.

"I was used to hitting third my whole life," Bryant said. "And he was saying there, 'All right, we're going to hit you first.' It was way different there."

Bryant at the top will be way different for the Cubs, who have experimented with a long list of leadoff men in the three years since Dexter Fowler left Chicago. Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward are three of the 17 players used in the No. 1 slot in that span. They discussed the various layers to the Bryant decision on Thursday morning.

The Fowler effect
A few seasons ago, Rizzo jokingly claimed to be "the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time" in an interview with reporters. That line has continued to have an amusing shelf life, especially in light of the first baseman's incredible production out of the No. 1 spot.

Rizzo's 1.028 OPS as a leadoff man is the highest in MLB history among players with at least 200 plate appearances in that role. While he boasts great on-base ability and power, though, Rizzo is not the kind of all-around threat teams want at the top.

"I'm a big speedy guy," Bryant said. "Rizz is not -- not. He's high-stepping to first base. I always give him crap about that."

During the Cubs' magical 2016 season, Fowler was that prototypical leadoff weapon. Not only did he get on base (.393 OBP and 79 walks), but he collected extra-base hits (13 homers, 25 doubles and seven triples) and was a great baserunner (6.1 Baserunning Runs above average).

The leadoff replacements needed to realize it was not necessary to be Fowler.

"Now, you're trying to get guys to do it for the first time," Schwarber said. "And you see how Dexter did it beforehand, but you need to be the own version of yourself up there at the plate."

The mental side
Schwarber did not want to call it a mental barrier, but he did say that a player asked to bat leadoff needs to avoid getting hung up on the label. If a player viewed more as a middle-order bat starts altering his approach because he is the leadoff man, then that could lead to a downward spiral.

"Like, 'OK, you know what? I'm the leadoff man. I want to get on base for the guys behind me,'" Schwarber said. "At the end of the day, you need to take your same at-bat. That's what it is. You're going up there, you're hitting and then you're done. Now, you're out of the leadoff spot. You can be hitting fourth the next time you come around, or whatever it is."

Hitting leadoff is not for everyone.

Schwarber was leaned on as the No. 1 man in both 2017 and '19, and he has posted a .215/.310/.462 slash line at the top. After being removed from that role in late July last year, he hit at a .299 clip with a 1.041 OPS the rest of the way. Similarly, Heyward was batting .280 (.816 OPS) when he was installed as the leadoff hitter in August last year, and he was batting .255 (.769 OPS) by the end of the month.

"For someone who doesn't have the experience of just going through and doing it," Heyward said, "you're feeling like you need to get a hit every at-bat to be productive. That's something you've got to turn off in the dugout from that spot.

"But also, at the same time, you want to be productive. you want to help your team. you want to get hits. So, you've just got to find that balance. You've got to stay even more balanced, I would say, than any other position in the lineup."

The potential impact
Ross has pointed to Bryant's mental makeup as a factor in the decision. The star third baseman has handled being a highly-touted prospect, a 2013 first-round pick, the '15 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner, the '16 NL MVP Award winner and a '16 World Series champion, and he has weathered trade rumors and plenty else that comes with being in the spotlight.

"I feel like my skill set," Bryant said, "and what I've done the last five years kind of show that I'm capable of doing it -- getting on base, working counts, seeing pitches, just stuff like that -- kind of make me see that, 'Hey, I'll be able to do this.'"

Rizzo agreed and said he is looking forward to being the No. 2 hitter behind Bryant. Last year, Rizzo posted a .405 OBP and Bryant was not far behind at .382. Bryant's offensive abilities and baserunning (team-high 3.8 Baserunning Runs in '19) -- combined with Rizzo's keen eye, power and contact skills -- should set things up well for Javier Báez, Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Heyward.

"I love hitting behind Kris," Rizzo said. "We've kind of been three and four, or two and three, for pretty much our whole time together. Being able to protect him and be protected by Javy and Schwarber or Contreras -- however it lines up -- is exciting."

Maybe that will be the key to unlocking the offensive puzzle that the Cubs struggled to solve last year.

"Best leadoff hitter I know," said outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who is Bryant's locker neighbor this spring.

"Rizzo's still here," Bryant quipped.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.