The Cubs need to find a leadoff hitter for 2018, and Kris Bryant deserves the job
Here's a case for Bryant to be the Cubs' leadoff man in 2018
The Cubs are smack in the middle of a run of success the franchise has rarely before seen. They just went to the NLCS for the third straight season, which is a franchise first. They won their first World Series since 1908 in 2016, and this past season marked the first time they were in three straight postseason since 1906-08. They also won their division in back-to-back seasons for just the second time (2007-08).
The offense for much of last season, however, was inconsistent. Overall, they were second in the NL in runs, third in home runs and first in on-base percentage, so it's not like we could say it was bad or even just average. It was a very good offense. It just went through occasional -- and sometimes even extended -- lulls, such as hitting .215/.309/.392 as a team in May.
One thing they couldn't seem to get straight was who to hit leadoff. After Dexter Fowler was a mainstay in the spot in 2015-16, they had to find a replacement once he signed with St. Louis. The Kyle Schwarber experiment to start the season didn't work. Spells with Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras weren't intended to last, and the Cubs ended up starting 11 different players on the season atop the order.
Since the Cubs haven't altered their position-player roster much this offseason, the question now lingers into 2018. Who will hit leadoff?
I'm here to advocate for Kris Bryant, who, funnily enough, was not one of the 11 players Joe Maddon employed at the top last season at all. Let's go over why.
There are no (other) great fits
Traditional leadoff guys come from up the middle. Javier Baez does not have the skill set to lead off, and we don't even really need to delve further into his case to prove that. Every baseball fan knows it. Addison Russell also doesn't fit at the top. He's a career .240 hitter with a .312 on-base percentage.
Albert Almora hit .298 with a .338 OBP last season. I'd rather see a guy take a lot more walks to get more separation between the average and OBP, but I can see a case for him leading off, especially against lefties (he hit .342/.411/.486 against southpaws last season). I'd still rather see a much higher OBP than .338 at the top of an offense that should be high-powered, however.
As such, I'm looking elsewhere.
Anthony Rizzo had a .392 OBP last season and walked (91) more than he struck out (90), but he feels like he needs to be more a middle-of-the-order guy. Willson Contreras had a .356 OBP, but I again love him in the middle. The Cubs should not revisit Schwarber at the top, as it didn't work. Ben Zobrist hit .232 with a .318 OBP last season. Heading into his age-37 season, he should be done as an everyday starter. Ian Happ hit .253 with a .328 OBP and strikes out at a high percentage (129 K in 364 at-bats). I've given up hope that Jason Heyward should be anywhere near the top of a batting order.
That's pretty much everyone who should merit consideration as a regular starter except Bryant.
The most important thing a leadoff man can do is get on base. He's the -- as they called Fowler -- "you go, we go" guy. Bryant was fourth in the NL (and first on the Cubs) with a .409 OBP last year, and he's trending up. He's gone from .369 to .385 to the .409 mark in his career, thanks in part to walking 95 times last season, compared to 75 in his 2016 MVP campaign.
Heading into 2018, Bryant figures to lead the Cubs in OBP again, perhaps even by a big margin.
Check the strikeout trend
Maligned in some corners of the internet during his rookie season for his penchant to strike out too much, Bryant has been making significant strides on this front. Take a look:
Bryant went from leading the NL in strikeouts in 2015 to being better than average in the category last season. He struck out in 19.2 percent of his plate appearances, whereas the MLB average was 21.6 percent.
Again, he's now above average in terms of making contact. Imagine that.
Given the strides he's made in OBP, walks and strikeouts in just three seasons, we have plenty of evidence that Bryant is going to continue to improve his game or at the very least just stay similar to what he was in 2017.
His willingness to be flexible
In order to do something that appears out of the ordinary, the player generally needs to be OK with it. What we've seen in just three years from Bryant is that pretty much nothing bothers him. In fact, I can't really remember a time he complained about anything, other than a strike-three call once or twice. He's a third baseman who has started 42 games in left field, 23 in right field, one in center field and eight at first base. He's also appeared at shortstop. He's hit second, third, fourth and fifth in the starting lineup at various points. He's never complained or let it affect his high level of play.
There's nothing here that leads me to believe Bryant would be unhappy or unable to succeed at the leadoff spot.
He's not slow
While every team would love their leadoff man to flash Billy Hamilton wheels, it ultimately doesn't matter much if the guy steals many bases or not in this power-heavy era. Still, every time I bring up a non-traditional leadoff man idea, I can hear screaming from the hills about said player's lack of speed.
The thing is, Bryant isn't slow by any stretch. In fact, he's remarkably fast for his size. He's stolen 28 bases in three years and is one of the hardest players in baseball to get on a ground-ball double play (only eight times in 665 plate appearances last season).
Or, you know, we could go with the eye test:
That guy can run, folks.
It fits with the rest of the personnel
If you're gonna make the case for a leadoff man, the rest of the batting order has to make sense as well. Let's go with a quick sketch to see.
- Bryant (R)
- Rizzo (L)
- Contreras (R)
- Schwarber (L)
- Russell (R)
- Almora (R)
- Baez (R)
- Heyward (L)
There's also room to play in there in the 5-7 spots with others like Happ and Zobrist, but this general outline shows a pretty well-rounded order. I especially like Heyward's decent-ish OBP and great baserunning sitting ninth, in front of Bryant and then Rizzo. You're also getting your overall two best hitters the most plate appearances. Unquestionably the best three, actually, as Contreras has morphed into a bona fide offensive force in his own right.
There's my case. I believe Bryant is the best man for the job, and the lineup fills out very well behind him. I'm not sure if Joe Maddon would listen even if he somehow ever stumbled upon my rationale, but I'd very much like to see Kris Bryant as the Cubs' leadoff man in 2018.
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