MESA, Ariz. – If Theo Epstein’s front office didn’t have an Ivy League pedigree and a research-and-development wing, the Twitter experts would laugh at the Cubs for calling Ben Zobrist a winning ballplayer.
But the Cubs are a blend of analytics and the eye test, striking the balance between numbers geeks and old-school scouts and putting Joe Maddon in the middle of it all.
The manager will keep experimenting with the lineup throughout the season. But get used to seeing this Cactus League look with Zobrist as the No. 3 hitter in front of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.
Maddon pointed out how the Cubs used a Zobrist Light in the second half of last season. Beginning July 30, the Cubs won 12 straight games with Chris Coghlan batting third. So many factors went into that hot streak, but the Cubs did go 27-9 with Coghlan as their unconventional No. 3 hitter.
“I would imagine that nobody wanted us to do that,” Maddon said Wednesday at Sloan Park. “But it played pretty well.”
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Zobrist is a Maddon favorite after their time together with the data-driven Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs felt comfortable enough to give a supporting player a four-year, $56 million contract heading into his age-35 season. And Zobrist turned down bigger guarantees elsewhere because he wanted to play for Maddon again.
“I’m getting all this different information,” Maddon said. “The human component (is) in this whole thing. Because it’s easy to say: ‘Oh yeah, you want Bryant to get more at-bats, you want Rizzo (to get more at-bats).’ Of course, that’s an easy thought. But I like to feed these guys, too, and you like to protect them.
“And then you don’t always know that KB is going to feel good. Or what state of mind is Rizzo in right now? And where’s Zobrist at? And if Zobrist is hitting behind Rizzo, how does that effect the other team’s approach?
“All this stuff matters. I don’t care what anybody says – it matters. And if you can’t quantify it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s there. It’s in the dugout on both sides. When the lineup’s presented before the game, it’s there. It’s absolutely there.”
Zobrist has been there before, putting up a .751 OPS in 148 postseason plate appearances and helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year. The switch-hitter lengthened a Kansas City lineup that beat the New York Mets and the power pitching that shut down the Cubs in the National League Championship Series.
The Cubs have two leadoff-type guys in Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward. Maddon says he’s leaning toward hitting the pitcher ninth and bumping up Addison Russell. An optimistic ZiPS projection has Zobrist batting .273 with 14 homers and 56 RBI this season.
“And then the theory of hitting your best hitter third,” Maddon said. “The one thing that I do believe in – and what I’m finding out a lot about – is the third-hole hitter comes up a lot with two outs and nobody on. So why would you want to put your best hitter there?
“And then the supposed best hitter’s going to complain about hitting fourth because he comes up a lot with nobody on base leading off an inning. What would you rather have?
“These are the kind of conversations where people just sit and talk about where to place somebody in a batting order and ‘Well, so-and-so wants to hit…’ He has no idea why he wants to hit there: ‘I’m the best hitter in the lineup, so I want to hit third.’ Big deal. That’s not going to benefit us.”
The Cubs want Zobrist in the middle of everything, as a clubhouse leader-by-example, a second baseman with the ability to play all over the field and, perhaps, their No. 3 hitter.