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Anthony Rizzo is a good leadoff hitter. Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber aren’t. Why?

The leadoff spot was a disaster for the Cubs in 2019. How can they fix it?

Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Anthony Rizzo is a great hitter. On this, you likely agree.

He’s been asked to bat leadoff occasionally in several different seasons. And in doing that, he’s hit even better than his career averages. Here are Rizzo’s lines batting leadoff:

2017: 14 games, 59 PA, .300/.373/.680, five home runs
2018: 31 games, 138 PA, 328/.428/.552, six home runs
2019: 12 games, 46 PA, .410/.500/.667, three home runs

Those numbers are all far better than his career norms, and with 57 games there and 243 plate appearances, it’s not really a small sample size anymore. Overall in those 243 plate appearances: .337/.428/.605 with 14 home runs. Of the 14 homers, four of them led off games. A .428 OBP would be excellent for a full-time leadoff hitter. The Cubs had trouble at leadoff all year — their .294 OBP out of that spot was the worst in MLB in 2019. (MLB's overall leadoff OBP was .335 in 2019.)

Kyle Schwarber had almost the same number of games leading off (56) and plate appearances (253) in 2019 as Rizzo has had in his career, but was a lousy leadoff hitter: .229/.304/.520, though with 17 home runs (five leading off games). He’s shown power batting first, but a .304 OBP doesn’t cut it out of the leadoff spot. Schwarber had a .359 OBP while NOT leading off in 2019.

Jason Heyward was having a pretty good 2019 season through July 30: .278/.355/.458 in 394 PA, with 15 home runs. That stretch included seven games in which Joe Maddon asked him to lead off and he hit terribly: 3-for-31 (!) with one home run.

And yet, after July 30 Maddon installed Heyward in the leadoff spot for 26 games, and he was just plain awful: .163/.284/.316 (16-for-98) with three home runs and 23 strikeouts. The lack of hitting from Heyward in the leadoff spot did not affect the Cubs’ record, as they went 17-9 in those 26 games.

But after Heyward was taken out of the leadoff spot and dropped back down to sixth or seventh, he resumed hitting pretty much the way he had previously: .250/.372/.453 (16-for-64) with three home runs. Heyward had a .373 OBP while NOT leading off in 2019.

That seems counterintuitive. Both Heyward and Schwarber have good batting eyes and plate discipline. Why does this not translate into better performance out of the leadoff spot? J-Hey had a pretty good year with the bat, with 21 home runs and his best OPS (.772) as a Cub, but it could have been better if he hadn’t been asked to hit leadoff.

If you’ve read this far, I’m simply going to tell you that I don’t have a good answer for this question. It makes no logical sense. The only thing I can surmise — and it’s really just speculation — is that there’s something psychological about “OMG I’m leading off!” that makes these two good hitters fail when they are placed in the No. 1 spot in the batting order.

On the other hand, Rizzo succeeds, and spectacularly so, when he leads off. He’s 30 now, and I’m sure you noticed he’s slowing down on the bases. He’s certainly not the prototypical “speedy leadoff guy,” and that sort of guy should have been removed from lineups years ago, once teams realized that getting on base was more important than what you did in terms of steals once you got there. If I were David Ross, I’d simply pencil Rizzo into the leadoff spot all year and not mess with it. Since Rizzo has power, it would probably be useful to bat the pitcher eighth and a position player ninth in such a situation, so that Rizzo might be more likely to come up to bat with a runner (or runners) on base when he hits after the first inning.

Schwarber and Heyward hit better in other batting-order spots. Fourth was best for Kyle in 2019 (.388/.446/.776 with four HR in 56 PA) and fifth was best for Jason (.343/.453/.557 with three HR in 86 PA) and this data is just as available to the front office as it is to me, and I hope they use it to optimize batting orders in 2020.

If you have any ideas as to why certain hitters thrive batting leadoff and others don’t, please share it. I’d like to know, and maybe Theo Epstein and David Ross would, too.