clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Cubs leadoff hitter: It’s Happ-ening!

New, comments

The Cubs seem to have landed on their leadoff hitter for this season.

Nothing to see here, just another leadoff home run. This time against the Brewers
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

One of the great debates of the offseason and spring training for the Cubs seems to have been settled with a bang, or at least a lot of leadoff home runs in the Cactus League. Later today in Miami the first batter of the 2018 baseball season is going to be Ian Happ. It’s a bit of an unconventional choice, so I wanted to take some time to revisit the art of batting leadoff and look at how Happ fits into that role. But before we do that, it’s worth remembering how we got here:

Anthony Rizzo

Last June the Cubs were in the midst of a pretty terrible World Series hangover. It was so bad that exactly one Cub, Wade Davis, made the 2017 All Star Team. It’s probably relevant that Davis wasn’t part of the 2016 World Series run. The Cubs were clinging to a .500 record at 32-32 and so Joe Maddon did a Joe thing. It was June 13 when he decided that it was Anthony Rizzo’s turn to leadoff.

The “Anthony Rizzo: greatest leadoff hitter of all time” run was one of my favorite story lines of 2017. There was even a T-shirt. It came exactly when the Cubs needed a boost and it’s a lot of fun to revisit, this ESPN piece was one of my favorites, particularly these notes about Rizzo calling his first shot:

Kris Bryant: “In the [batting] cage, he was like, ‘I’m going to hit a homer first pitch.’ Calling his shot, basically. It wasn’t a first pitch, but it was still pretty impressive.”

There’s even visual proof of the called shot, if you know who to ask. Every morning, first base coach Brandon Hyde texts the lineup to the entire team, and according to catcher Miguel Montero, Rizzo quickly texted back to the group, “1-0 guys,” when he saw he was leading off.

Montero: ”I told him I’m going to take a picture of that text because no one will believe me. He said it, and then he did it.”

Rizzo is a pretty great hitter at any spot in the lineup, but even with his history his leadoff run was remarkable. He slashed .333/.400/.714 with four home runs and nine runs in 42 at bats. I am all for unconventional if it results in that type of production out of the leadoff spot.

Make no mistake, the Rizzo model is not the standard operating procedure for leadoff hitters. Last June I took a look at great leadoff hitters to confirm my suspicions. I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but my take away was that the idea... actually wasn’t totally crazy.

A few things jumped out at me here, Rizzo has the OBP, K% and BB% to make this work. In fact, 2017 Rizzo has been substantially better at drawing a walk and striking out less than career Rizzo. If that were to hold, and he kept his OBP right around .400, well he looks sort of like a Boggs with a higher K% and a lot more power, or a Tim Raines with more power and no steals, or Soriano-like power with half as many strikeouts and more than double the walks...

...okay, the comparisons aren’t perfect, but my point is, he does enough of these things within the band of where great leadoff hitters have done them that it isn’t totally outside of the realm of possibility that this could be a real thing.

This isn’t even all that radical — prioritizing OBP has been a trend for a while now (and Rizzo’s OBP puts him in the upper tier of leadoff hitters by that metric. This fivethirtyeight.com piece does a great job at looking at these trends in the context of the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment. What’s important to remember there isn’t that Schwarber didn’t work out at leadoff because he hit for too much power, or because he was too slow, he didn’t work out at leadoff because his K% spiked and his OBP cratered. The Rizzo experiment is essentially trying the same thing we tried before, but with a guy who’s got a lot more history of consistently getting on base...

Which leads me to our new protagonist in the grand saga of the Cubs search for a leadoff hitter in the Post Dexter Fowler Era (PDFE):

Ian Happ

I think the most impressive thing to me about Ian Happ, leadoff hitter, is that he came into spring training on a mission to bat leadoff, and he got it done. The kid is 23 years old and his steadiness and work ethic already stand out. He had an excellent spring training, slashing .321/.400/.811 with seven home runs. He also showed off some speed with three stolen bases. However, there are some causes for concern.

Last year I used the below chart to compare Anthony Rizzo to the (super unscientific Bleacher Report) “best leadoff hitters of all time.” I was trying to get an idea of if it was even in the ballpark of sane to let Rizzo lead off for an extended period of time. I decided to update that chart with Happ’s 2017 and 2018 statistics:

Leadoff comparison with Rizzo and Happ

Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Wade Boggs NR 8 .415 .443 24 6.9 13.1
Rickey Henderson 1 1 .401 .419 1406 12.7 16.4
Tim Raines 7 2 .385 .425 808 9.3 12.8
Pete Rose 2 3 .375 .409 198 7.2 9.9
Kenny Lofton 4 9 .372 .423 622 9.1 10.2
Paul Molitor NR 6 .369 .448 504 10.2 9.0
Craig Biggio 6 10 .363 .433 414 14.0 9.3
Ichiro Suzuki 3 5 .355 .404 508 6.0 10.1
Lou Brock 5 4 .343 .410 938 15.4 6.8
Juan Pierre NR 18 .343 .361 614 5.8 5.6
Maury Wills 8 11 .330 .331 586 8.2 6.6
Willie Wilson 10 13 .326 .376 668 13.8 5.1
Vince Coleman 9 19 .324 .345 752 16.1 8.0
Alfonso Soriano NR 20 .319 .500 289 21.5 5.9
Anthony Rizzo (Career) NR NR .365 .487 41 17.0 11.2
Anthony Rizzo (2017) NR NR .393 .521 5 11.3 13.8
Ian Happ (Career) NR NR .328 .514 8 31.2 9.4
Ian Happ (2018*) NR NR .400 .811 3 35.8 11.3
Leadoff hitter comparison with Happ (and Rizzo, because, why not?) Compiled by Sara Sanchez from Bleacher Report, Fangraphs and MLB

*I included Happ’s 2018 Cactus League stats because he’s just so young, I felt like I needed more data. Plus, I talked about how K and BB rate actually might be useful over small sample sizes earlier this week. However, this chart was still bugging me. It felt tremendously unfair to compare 23-year-old Ian Happ with Rizzo, let alone multiple Hall of Famers, so I decided to tweak things and look at them a bit differently.

In which I compare rookie stats

I decided to pull the “rookie” year of each player. I wish I could say it got better here. It doesn’t really, but there are some silver linings. Take a look and see for yourself.

Epic leadoff hitters as rookies, plus Rizzo and Happ

Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Wade Boggs NR 8 .406 .441 1 5.5 9.2
Rickey Henderson 1 1 .338 .336 33 9.8 8.5
Tim Raines 7 2 .391 .438 71 8.5 12.4
Pete Rose 2 3 .334 .371 13 10.4 7.9
Kenny Lofton 4 9 .362 .365 66 8.3 10.4
Paul Molitor NR 6 .301 .372 30 9.7 3.4
Craig Biggio 6 10 .336 .402 21 12.6 9.6
Ichiro Suzuki 3 5 .381 .457 56 7.2 4.1
Lou Brock 5 4 .319 .412 16 20.1 7.3
Juan Pierre NR 18 .353 .320 7 6.8 5.9
Maury Wills 8 11 .298 .298 7 10.5 5.0
Willie Wilson 10 13 .280 .278 46 14.8 7.2
Vince Coleman 9 19 .320 .335 110 16.6 7.2
Alfonso Soriano NR 20 .304 .432 43 20.4 4.7
Anthony Rizzo (Rookie) NR NR .281 .242 2 30.1 13.7
Ian Happ (2017) NR NR .328 .514 8 31.2 9.4
Ian Happ (2018*) NR NR .400 .811 3 35.8 11.3
Rookie stats at leadoff including Rizzo and Happ Compiled by Sara Sanchez from Bleacher Report, Fangraphs and MLB

A few notes here, I took the first season in which a player had 200+ plate appearances to make sure there was an adequate sample size. Additionally, Happ doesn’t need to put up Hall of Fame numbers to be an improvement over last year’s rotating cast of characters batting first. Finally, Happ had a rookie year that compares favorably (by these metrics) with Rizzo’s rookie year for the Padres. I think we’d all be happy if Rizzo was Happ’s upside.

It’s also worth nothing that higher K rates have been tolerated more in today’s game than they were in years past, and a couple of guys on this list had really high K rates when they first got to the majors, but they aren’t reflected on this table because their first year didn’t clear 200 plate appearances (I’m looking at you 22.1% K rate Biggio and 24.1% K rate Lofton. Obviously, neither of those is close to the 31.2% Happ put up in 2017).

What if we compare him to regular guys?

One of these days I’ll stop having random nagging thoughts that require me to compile lots of data into tables, but today is not that day.

I can’t help but think that it’s unfair to compare anyone to a bunch of Hall of Famers, even rookie Hall of Famers. Plus, Ben Lindbergh at the Ringer demonstrates that K rates have been spiking across the league, So let’s see how Happ compares to the mere mortals who are leading off for other teams as of Opening Day 2018.

2018 projected leadoff hitters

Team Player OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Team Player OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Orioles Chris Davis .309 .423 1 37.2 11.6
Yankees Aaron Judge .422 .627 9 30.7 18.7
Red Sox Mookie Betts .344 .459 26 11.1 10.8
Rays* Shared xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx
Blue Jays Unclear xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx
White Sox Yoan Moncada .338 .412 3 32.0 12.6
Royals Jon Jay .374 .375 6 18.5 8.5
Twins Brian Dozier .359 .498 16 20.0 11.1
Indians Francisco Lindor .337 .505 15 12.9 8.3
Tigers Leonys Martin dnq dnq dnq dnq dnq
Astros George Springer .367 .522 5 17.6 10.2
Angels Ian Kinsler .313 .412 14 14.0 9.0
As Marcus Semien .325 .398 12 22.0 9.8
Mariners Dee Gordon .341 .375 60 13.4 3.6
Rangers Delino DeShields .347 .367 29 24.8 10.0
Braves Ender Inciarte .350 .409 22 13.1 6.8
Marlins Lewis Brinson dnq dnq dnq dnq dnq
Mets Unclear xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx
Phillies Cesar Hernandez .373 .421 15 18.0 10.6
Nationals Adam Eaton dnq dnq dnq dnq dnq
Cubs Ian Happ .328 .514 8 31.2 9.4
Reds Billy Hamilton .299 .335 59 21.0 7.0
Brewers Christian Yelich .369 .439 16 19.7 11.5
Pirates Josh Harrison .339 .432 12 16.6 5.2
Cardinals Dexter Fowler? .363 .488 7 20.6 12.8
Diamondbacks David Peralta .352 .444 8 16.3 7.5
Rockies Charlie Blackmon .399 .601 14 18.6 9.0
Dodgers Chris Taylor .354 .496 17 25.0 8.8
Padres Manuel Margot .313 .409 17 20.0 6.6
Giants Shared xxx xxx xxx xxx xxx
OBP, SLG, SB, K% and BB% Fangraphs

This table includes every projected leadoff hitter I could discern within a reasonable amount of googling. If it was unclear after that, it’s marked. If the job was shared, there are no stats and it’s marked. If the projected leadoff hitter was hurt or didn’t have at least 200 plate appearances in 2017, I listed them as “dnq” on the stat line (did not qualify). This table also includes Dexter Fowler because even though there appears to be a healthy debate about who will hit leadoff for the Cardinals in 2018 I couldn’t imagine not having a Cardinals comparison here and I figured Cubs fans would be more interested in a Dexter Fowler comparison than a Matt Carpenter comparison. My apologies to Viva el Birdos.

While the Happ leadoff experiment still looks potentially risky, it doesn’t look unique. The Orioles, Yankees and White Sox look to be taking similar gambles at the top of their orders. Seven other teams are leading off with batters who struck out 20% of the time or more with varying walk rates in 2017. It looks like more than a few teams are willing to bet that a successful leadoff hitter isn’t really tied to a specific type. Even the Nationals have recently admitted that they might consider Bryce Harper at leadoff from time to time.

Takeaways

Happ had an impressive spring from a power perspective and his game is clearly improved. It resulted in him winning the leadoff lottery, at least for the time being. I’m sure there will be some awesome leadoff Vivas! as a result.

But Cubs fans should temper their excitement on this one a little bit. While Happ has all of the upside in the world, and is certainly young enough to make adjustments, a 31-35% K rate isn’t ideal at leadoff for any team, let alone a contender. For comparison, Happ currently strikes out substantially more than Alfonso Soriano did in his worst year’s with the Cubs (Soriano peaked at a 24.9% K rate with the Cubs in 2012). That didn’t play with a club that wasn’t expecting to do very much. I highly doubt a K rate over 30% will last long at leadoff for any team that hopes to play into November.

So, I guess I’m going to have to concede that it doesn’t look like Happ is starting off anywhere close to the best leadoff hitters of all time. In all likelihood, the Cubs haven’t found the next Rickey Henderson. But it also looks like with the serious work and discipline Happ’s already demonstrated, he could bring the K rate down a la Rizzo over time.

I think he’s going to have to do that if he wants to hold onto the leadoff spot. Leadoff home runs are nice, but they can’t really make up for the “You go, We go” guy striking out a third of the time.