It’s hard to argue with results, right?
Anthony Rizzo’s first game in the leadoff spot was a smashing success. The first baseman — more accustomed to batting third or fourth throughout his career — crushed a leadoff home run, forced in a run with a bases-loaded walk in the second inning and doubled in a run in the third, right in the middle of the action in the Cubs’ 14-3 mauling of the New York Mets on Tuesday night.
Rizzo was the successful unconventional leadoff man Joe Maddon was hoping Kyle Schwarber would be when he put the young(er) slugger in the No. 1 spot coming out of spring training. It’s a mighty small sample size, of course, just one game, and Rizzo himself said as much after the Cubs’ bats looked far more like what they have been expected to look like all season.
There’s no reason to break up a good thing, and that’s why Rizzo will surely be batting leadoff again Wednesday night against Matt Harvey. It will probably continue as long as it works for a Cubs offense that has struggled to find consistency in the team’s quest to repeat as World Series champions.
If Rizzo keeps doing wonders at the top of the Cubs’ order, then there you go, problem solved.
But whether Rizzo succeeds or struggles in the leadoff spot, won’t the team’s performance as a whole dictate where he’s needed the most? What if Tuesday’s five-homer, 14-run outburst was just a blip instead of a return to perceived normalcy? Will the Cubs still be in need of an orthodox leadoff man?
On the 2017 roller coaster, there never seems to be a shortage of questions.
Dexter Fowler’s offseason defection to St. Louis is the reason Maddon is throwing leadoff men against the wall and hoping one of them sticks. Fowler posted a career-high .393 on-base percentage last season as the team’s leadoff man, the best of the seven qualified Cubs hitters in that category (Ben Zobrist, Rizzo and National League MVP Kris Bryant weren’t far behind).
This season, the offensive numbers have obviously been nowhere near as impressive as they were for the 2016 world champs. That being said, Bryant and Rizzo currently have on-base percentages higher than Fowler’s was at the end of last season, Bryant at .403 and Rizzo at .394. Next best on the team? Albert Almora Jr. at .341.
The same, by the way, goes for Fowler. His you-go-we-go-ness in 2016 has given way to just a .329 on-base percentage this season with the Cardinals. And he had his own struggles during his Cubs tenure, too, posting a .308 on-base percentage during the first half of the 2015 season. But obviously, consistency came, and he was a huge part of what made the Cubs’ offense so good during the championship season.
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Conventional wisdom is that the guy at the top of a batting order should be getting on base ahead of the big boppers in the middle of the order. To put the highest on-base percentages at the top of the lineup makes an awful lot of sense. But when the only guys getting on base at a high percentage are your big boppers, who’s going to drive them in?
The Cubs rank dead last in baseball in hitting with runners in scoring position, doing so at a nasty .222 clip. Rizzo in the leadoff spot might mean more opportunities to score runs with his high on-base percentage, but when you take his bat out of the middle of the order, it becomes even more difficult to score if the rest of the lineup continues its struggles.
Such a fragile ecosystem, isn’t it?
Now, Maddon is an unconventional manager, so the optics of a run producer in the leadoff role won’t bother him too much. But outside perception is another thing, and Cubs fans could need calming should frustrations arise from having Rizzo lead off if the runs aren’t as plentiful as they were Tuesday.
The best sedative? Realizing that this is hardly unprecedented for a successful team on the North Side.
The last time the Cubs strung back-to-back playoff appearances together before last season, the 2007 and 2008 Central Division champs, the leadoff man was Alfonso Soriano. He hit a combined 62 homers out of the leadoff spot in those two seasons. In 2008, the Cubs led the NL in runs scored, hardly hindered by a slugger at the top of the lineup.
So do the Cubs need a stereotypical leadoff man? No. With the offensive talent on the roster, they’re perfectly capable of succeeding regardless of who hits where in the order.
The more important need is for the lineup as a whole to come to life on a consistent basis. The Cubs have found clicking on all cylinders to be far more elusive in 2017 than 2016.
If 14-run nights become the norm with Rizzo at the top, he could stay there the rest of the season. But very little has stuck so far for the 2017 Cubs. We’ll just have to wait and see.