“Optimizing Your Lineup By The Book” still remains one of the most popular articles ever written on Beyond The Box Score. In it, Sky Kalkman writes about the ideal hitter in each batting order slot, from leadoff to the No. 8 hole.
Here’s what Kalkman said about a team’s leadoff hitter:
The old-school book says to put a speedy guy up top. Power isn't important, and OBP is nice, but comes second to speed.
The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they're not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him.
Having your best OBP player at the top of your lineup is an interesting (and sensible) concept, although it still is rarely used across the Major Leagues. But, the Chicago Cubs may finally be bringing this philosophy mainstream.
You’re probably living under a rock if you didn’t know the Cubs are struggling this season, but at 36-34, they are not living up to the expectations that many have had for the reigning World Series champions. They are currently second in the NL Central to the Milwaukee Brewers, and are a half game out of a playoff spot. This team has faced many up-and-down stretches without truly getting into a groove.
Last Tuesday, manager Joe Maddon decided to make a truly drastic lineup switch. Maddon hit first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who had made 53 starts in the number-three hole this year, leadoff. Since reaching the Majors, Rizzo had never made a start in that spot, appearing there just once in 2011 when he was a member of the San Diego Padres.
In theory, Rizzo would almost make the perfect leadoff hitter. At the very least, he should be better than Kyle Schwarber, who Maddon used in his top spot in a team-high 36 games this season. Schwarber has struggled, posting just a .296 OBP and a .680 OPS through 257 plate appearances. That won’t cut it as a leadoff hitter.
Rizzo’s .398 on-base percentage is second among all Cubs hitters, minimum 100 plate appearances. And while he isn’t a burner on the bases, he is still a good enough runner (0.9 base running runs above average) to justify putting him at No. 1. Rizzo is better than Schwarber (-0.4 BsR) in that respect, too.
On paper, Rizzo’s skill-set made him one of the most viable candidates to hit leadoff. Of course, it’s not easy to shuffle your star player from a spot that he’s comfortable with. As much as we would like to think otherwise, these players are people, too. So, Rizzo needed to make an adjustment on his end as well.
And while it has only been seven games, Rizzo has hit .429/.469/1.000 in his 32 plate appearances, swatting four home runs and driving in ten. He’s posted a 259 wRC+ in that time frame. About 58 percent of his batted balls have been hard hit, and zero percent have been considered to be softly hit.
Rizzo already has three leadoff home runs this year, too, which ties him for fourth in the Major Leagues. Rizzo has only been the Cubs’ leadoff man for seven games. If not impressive enough, Rizzo has yet to make an out when leading off the game (6-for-6 with a walk).
It would be fun to assume that Rizzo’s dominance at the plate was sparked by his move up in the order, but a quick look at the 10 games preceding the move negates this theory. He was slashing .353/.488/.559 over those 43 plate appearances (179 wRC+). Yes, Rizzo has gotten better since the move, but it wasn’t a flip-of-the-switch from cold to hot, either.
How has Rizzo compared to other leadoff hitters in this short stint?
Minimum 20 plate appearances in that spot, he is second in the Majors in wRC+ (Matt Carpenter is higher) since June 13. He has the fourth-highest OBP.
Rizzo probably won’t keep this up. He has a .400 BABIP since the move, something that will surely come down no matter how “locked in” he appears to be. However, there is no reason to believe that Maddon won’t keep Rizzo at No. 1 for at least the near future, if not the rest of the season. He has been the spark that the Cubs have needed at the top of the order, and nothing has suggested that he is uncomfortable up there.
How have the Cubs responded? In his seven games there, the team is 5-2. They have scored fourteen, four, nine, three, seven, three and four runs in those games. Baseball is a team effort, and Rizzo batting two spots higher won’t make a ton of difference, but the Cubs could be starting to string together a good stretch of wins. It’s just too early to tell.
With all that said about the leadoff spot, there is one other factor that could be playing into Rizzo’s hot stretch: his engagement.
Since becoming an engaged man, Rizzo is hitting .397/.507/.778 with five home runs and 17 runs batted in over 79 plate appearances. In the 77 plate appearances before being engaged, Rizzo was hitting .246/.403/.557.
I don’t know what that means, either. I guess getting engaged and batting leadoff have similar effects.
All stats current through games played on June 20, 2017.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.