In today’s BCB After Dark, Josh asked you who you thought would get the most at-bats for the Cubs as the leadoff hitter this year. (Go vote if you haven’t yet!)
Given that, I thought I’d elaborate a bit about the leadoff spot dilemma the Cubs face this year.
With the recent retirement announcement by former Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler, we were all reminded of how good a job Fowler did as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter in 2015 and 2016 and how the team has struggled to find someone to fill that spot since Fowler departed as a free agent after 2016.
In fact, the importance of having Fowler in the leadoff spot showed even during his great 2016 season. Fowler posted a .392 OBP in the leadoff spot that year as a starter, and when he wasn’t starting, the team didn’t play as well. The 2016 Cubs were 80-38 with Fowler starting, just 23-20 when he didn’t. When Fowler missed 28 straight games in late June and early July 2016, the Cubs used Ben Zobrist (16 games), Tommy La Stella (four games), Chris Coghlan (three games), Javier Báez (three games) and Jason Heyward (twice) in the leadoff spot and perhaps not coincidentally, the team went 11-17 in those games.
So while the importance of lineup construction as a whole is perhaps a bit overrated, it does seem important to have a hitter in the leadoff spot who can get on base frequently. Joe Maddon’s “You go, we go” statement about Fowler’s leadoff abilities was absolutely correct. The 2016 Cubs scored 808 runs. That was just the second time since 1935 that any Cubs team had scored 800 runs (1970, 806 and 1998, 831). The Cubs got just a .307 OBP from the leadoff spot in 2022 and that could use quite a bit of improvement.
Here are some of the current Cubs who might be useful leadoff hitters. There isn’t an obvious choice.
From 2017-19, Bellinger posted a .369 OBP and in his MVP year of 2019, that OBP went up to .406. He drew 95 walks that year.
Of course, you know what happened next. Injuries and other poor performance dropped Bellinger’s OBP to just .272 over the last three seasons.
It might be worth trying him at leadoff once in a while, though.
Happ has a career .339 on-base percentage, which is a bit lower than you might want for a leadoff hitter. He did post a .342 OBP in 2022, but had only two plate appearances in the leadoff spot. Over his career Happ has posted a .331 OBP hitting leadoff.
Nico didn’t lead off at all in 2022 and has just three career games in the leadoff spot in the batting order.
One reason to consider him for this spot is that he doesn’t strike out much and has good contact skills. His career OBP is .333, but he doesn’t turn 26 until May and I think he could still improve on that.
Swanson hit in the leadoff spot in 18 games for Atlanta in 2022 and posted a .266 OBP, which is not very good. The same is true for his career numbers in the leadoff spot: 40 games, .290 OBP.
Overall last year Swanson had a .329 on-base percentage, and as you know, he does strike out a fair amount. He is probably better served in a different spot in the batting order.
Suzuki posted a .402 OBP in nine seasons in Japan, along with a .309 BA, in over 4,100 plate appearances.
NPB numbers generally decline a bit in MLB, and Suzuki’s .261 BA and .336 OBP for the Cubs last year are along those lines.
But Suzuki also missed a lot of time with injuries in 2022 and it was in large part a year for him to become acclimated to major league pitching. If he’s healthy in 2023 I could see him post an OBP of .360 or better, which would work pretty well at leadoff.
Those are the only choices, I’d think, for the Cubs’ leadoff spot in the batting order. Of those hitters, Bellinger is lefthanded, Happ a switch-hitter, the other three hit righthanded. David Ross might wind up mixing and matching depending on who the opponent’s starting pitcher is.
What do you think?
Who should the Cubs use in the leadoff spot in the batting order in 2023?
This poll is closed
Someone else (leave in comments)