The Chicago Cubs’ biggest loss this offseason was Dexter Fowler. They have depth and can replace him and they’ll still be good, but the biggest question for them now is who is going to be their leadoff hitter? Joe Maddon recently said it could be Kyle Schwarber, a power hitter with a high on-base percentage, following in the footsteps of what Terry Francona does with Carlos Santana in Cleveland. Is that really the way the Cubs should go, though? They also have another option in Ben Zobrist and possibly Jason Heyward. Let’s take a closer look.
Obviously, the most important thing when it comes to a leadoff hitter is on-base percentage. You’re going to score more often if your first hitters get on base, especially when Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the two main guys hitting behind you. This pretty much eliminates guys like the unproven Albert Almora and Heyward, who only had a .306 on-base percentage last year. That leaves the main options of Schwarber and Zobrist.
Schwarber had an on-base percentage of .355 despite hitting just .246 his rookie season. He will probably be better than a .246 hitter, especially as he gains experience. His on-base percentage will likely sit around .370-.380 this year, which means he will be getting on about 37 percent of the time for those big boppers. Schwarber is also very powerful, though, and will hit a lot of home runs. I think this is where it’s an advantage to use him as a number-four hitter behind Bryant and Rizzo. Then more of his home runs will drive in runs. I remember Brian Kenny said on his MLB Now show last year that players hitting second through ninth get roughly 10 percent more RBI chances when you factor out all of the innings they lead off with nobody on base. A leadoff home run does swing a road team’s win expectancy 10 percent, according to Greg Stoll’s Win Expectancy tool. It helps a home team increase their chances of winning by 11 percent, assuming that the game is tied going into the bottom of the first. If the home team is down by one run, a home run swings win expectancy by 11 percent, too. There is an advantage to having a guy who hits leadoff homers, but the record for a season is 13 by Alfonso Soriano. That’s only eight percent of games, so it’s a slippery slope. It’s also important to note that hitting a three-run homer as a cleanup hitter puts your win expectancy for the game at over 80 percent and a road team at 75 percent. To counter that, Schwarber would likely get more plate appearances on the season if he hit first, too. Schwarber would make a fine leadoff hitter — that’s not the question. The question is whether hitting him leadoff would hurt the Cubs.
According to “The Book” by Tom Tango, the leadoff hitter gets .34 more plate appearances per game than the number-four hitter on average. The number-four hitter sees 15 percent more plate appearances with men on base than the leadoff guy. This would hurt the value of Schwarber’s homers because they’d be worth fewer runs over the course of the season. The number-four hitter usually bats with about one more runner on base per game than the number-one hitter, too. Run values, which are just the average amount of runs an event is worth for a hitter, don’t actually vary a ton. Schwarber’s home runs hitting fourth are worth on average .05 more runs than when he’s hitting leadoff. Depending on how many homers Schwarber hits, hitting him leadoff could cost the Cubs a few runs each season, which could cost the Cubs a win or two over the course of the season (but we know the season often comes down to that). The data supports Schwarber hitting fourth if he is ready to be a guy who pushes 40 homers, despite the fact he has a high on-base percentage.
Our other option is Zobrist, another high on-base percentage player with more of a track record. Zobrist has less power than Schwarber but also hits a lot of doubles and could probably steal 10 bases in a season, which means he’d be in scoring position for Rizzo and Bryant a lot of the time. In 705 plate appearances as a leadoff man in his career, Zobrist hits just .238/.330/.376. That’s well below his numbers. It’s a relatively high sample size and it’s spread across many seasons, but I just don’t think Zobrist would hit that bad over a full year. I think it would be fair to say there’s some pressure that might be added to Zobrist when he hits leadoff and it may negatively affect his production, but I think if he hit leadoff for a full season he would hit higher than the slash line above. Zobrist has had an OBP of at least .350 in every season that he has played since 2011. There’s upsides and downsides to Zobrist hitting leadoff, but how much really depends on how much you value the splits.
At first glance, I’d rather have Zobrist hitting leadoff because he’s an experienced hitter who you know will get on base and you won’t lose many runs on his homers that could be more than solo shots. Schwarber is probably the better overall player at this point, even though we don’t really know after he only really played in the World Series last year, so you’d want him to get more plate appearances. The most logical option seems to be to try it out in spring training and during April and see what works. If Schwarber proves to be more of a 40-homer guy and hits for a lower average, affecting his OBP, the best thing to do would be to hit him fourth; if he seems more like a 30-homer guy and a much better version of Carlos Santana, it would probably make more sense to keep him in the leadoff slot. If he’s something in between those, you’re probably good any way you spin it. The most important thing for Cubs fans to realize is that this is a really good problem to have and as long as you have Bryant, Rizzo, Zobrist, and Schwarber hitting somewhere in the top four spots, you’re likely to be in very good shape.