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Kris Bryant, leadoff hitter extraordinaire

The Cubs are being extremely smart by making Kris Bryant their lead-off hitter.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Chicago Cubs Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

Last Wednesday new Chicago Cubs manager David Ross let loose one of his ideas for the upcoming 2020 season: batting Kris Bryant leadoff. The following day Bryant confirmed that the plan was for him to take on the leadoff role for the Cubs in 2020. Bryant offered that he was looking forward to the challenge and from there the pundits were off and running.

The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal is still the biggest story going and Bryant hitting leadoff isn’t about to rise above that particular din. I guess we have the Astros to thank for sparing us from even sillier Bryant as leadoff takes than some of the more prominent ones posited last Thursday and Friday.

There’s no real reason for this to be a story, other than a further indictment of Joe Maddon’s inability to adapt and grow as a manager during his tenure with the Cubs. In 2019 Maddon gave a huge chunk of leadoff at-bats to Albert Almora Jr., Daniel Descalso, and Jason Heyward. It’s not surprising then that the Cubs were abysmal at getting on base from the leadoff spot last year. A .294 OBP at the lineup spot that gets the most plate apperances simply doesn’t cut it for any serious playoff contender. Maddon’s gone, 2020 is a new year with a new manager, and that’s where the bulk of this story needs to be centered.

Ross is looking at a lineup full of talented hitters and wondering why they struggled to put runs on the board last year. The inability of the 2019 Cubs to get runners across the plate usually came down to problems making contact and not having runners on base when quality contact was made. That’s not always the story, but it happened more than enough that the moment Heyward showed life in his bat he was shuffled into the leadoff spot to try and provide some table setting for an otherwise lackadaisical offense.

Heyward was never the answer, but to my previous Maddon point, that wasn’t really Heyward’s fault. Ross seems to realize something that Maddon only realized fleetingly: the Cubs have a pair of great hitters who are excellent at getting on base. Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who moonlight in the boy band Bryzzo, have been great at getting on base their whole careers. Bryant sits at a career OBP mark of .385 while Rizzo isn’t that far behind at .373. Either man could be penciled in as the Cubs number one in the batting order and the Cubs offense would improve.

Ross went with Bryant over Rizzo because though both are similar in their ability to get on base Bryant is much better once on the basepaths. BRR is Baseball Prospectus’ baserunning metric. I tend to favor it over others because it incorporates enough elements of baserunning to be more complete than the other baserunning metrics. For his career, Bryant has an average BRR of 1.5 compared to Rizzo’s -2.5. What that basically means is that Bryant is a good baserunner and Rizzo is well below average. All things being relatively equal when it comes to getting on base it only makes sense for the better baserunner to get the leadoff nod.

That doesn’t mean that Rizzo will not find his way near the top of the order. The day after his Bryant as leadoff hitter announcement Ross revealed that he had Rizzo penciled in as the number two in his Cubs lineup. Ross is going the crazy and zany route of taking the two best Cubs players at getting on base and putting them at the top of the order. It’s a novel concept I know, but if the top of your order features two players who can get on base at a good clip then chances are you will score more runs.

As of right now, the most likely Cubs lineup looks like this,

  1. Kris Bryant, 3B
  2. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
  3. Javier Báez, SS
  4. Kyle Schwarber, LF
  5. Willson Contreras, C
  6. Ian Happ, CF
  7. Jason Heyward, RF
  8. David Bote/Jason Kipnis/Nico Hoerner, 2B
  9. Pitcher slot

That’s a damn fine lineup and shows why even though they did little the past two offseasons to improve the club, the Cubs are still a team that can make noise in the National League. If Bryant and Rizzo keep getting on base like they always do and the 3-6 hitters produce like they have the past couple of years then you can deal with “we’ll see what we can get” offense from the bottom of your order. There’s no reason whatsoever for Bryant batting leadoff and Rizzo batting second to be the big news story it’s been portrayed as being. Constructing your lineup so that your best hitters get the most at-bats isn’t a noteworthy concept, it’s simply how things should be.