Cubs

/ by Tony Andracki
Presented By Cubs Insiders
Cubs

Tuesday night at Wrigley Field was the culmination of a storyline four months in the making: Ben Zobrist returning to man the leadoff spot in the Cubs order.

He didn't wait long to announce his presence in the 6-1 victory, working the count full in each of his first two plate appearances, drawing a walk the second time. He also bunted for a hit to start a rally, stirring up memories of when he did the same thing in L.A. in the 2016 NLCS.

"It's nice to see that at-bat at the top of the batting order — the patience and the accepting of the walk, etc.," Joe Maddon said. "He just sets a great example. That's the at-bat he works. There are times where you'll think, 'Gosh, Zo's in a real slump,' but you look up and he's on base two times a night. And he was tonight. That's just who he is."

The 38-year-old veteran made 14 starts at the top of the lineup before he went on personal leave in early-May and in those games, he posted a .300 batting average and .373 on-base percentage. 

The rest of the Cubs leadoff hitters have a combined .191 average and .266 OBP in 571 plate appearances this season.

As a team (including Zobrist's numbers), the Cubs entered play Tuesday night with far and away the worst OBP out of the top spot — .282, a full 17 points below the Detroit Tigers, who have the worst offense and record in baseball.

It's no wonder everybody's been waiting for Zobrist to come back.

 

"Believe me, we've missed him a lot this year," Maddon said the day before Zobrist returned. "It's been pretty obvious. [Patience] is the one thing he's always been able to do for any batting order. Even when he's not hitting, he's always going to be on base at least one, maybe two times a game just based on his eye."

Despite not playing for so long, Maddon had no qualms about throwing Zobrist right back into the fire and leading him off in his first start. Maddon felt confident leaning on the veteran's batting eye and ability to set a good example for the rest of the lineup with his professional approach.

Zobrist was also part of the leadoff equation last season, making 27 starts in the spot with a .371 OBP and .810 OPS. But he hit all over the lineup because the 2018 Cubs didn't have as much trouble getting production from their leadoff hitters — they finished second in MLB with a .366 OBP atop the order, behind only the 108-win Boston Red Sox.

This season, there has been no right mix.

Kyle Schwarber has spent more time than any other Cub in the top spot this year and while he hit for power, he posted just a .304 OBP in 56 games (253 plate appearances). 

Jason Heyward has been the leadoff man lately, but he's sporting just a .554 OPS in those 32 games (147 plate appearances) and is hitless in his last 28 at-bats.

Albert Almora Jr. (14 games) and Daniel Descalso (11 games) have also seen extended time up there as Maddon has tried to mix-and-match with just about everybody else at one point or another — Robel Garcia, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Tony Kemp, Willson Contreras.

"Last year, it was a source of conversation and we didn't have a typical guy," Maddon said. "But if you looked at our numbers at the end of the year, they were actually pretty good. I don't think we're rivaling that moment yet this year. It is nice when the guy on top is definitely stirring it up a little bit. 

"You can't underestimate when you get guys on at the top that are consistently on base, what that does for the rest of the group."

Of course, the leadoff spot has been a source of constant debate surrounding this team since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 championship season. 

In July, Maddon asked the veteran Heyward to step up and try to fill the role and has commended the way he embraced the role, even if the results weren't always there. When he was first moved into the leadoff spot, Heyward asked his manager to be patient with him up there, but the Cubs can't afford to be too patient right now with a 3.0-game deficit in the NL Central standings and only 24 games left to play after Tuesday.

Heyward has hit just .147 with a .252 OBP in the top spot, but the Cubs are 22-10 when he leads off.

 

"He's been great," Maddon said of Heyward, while also acknowledging Zobrist presents the team with different options in lineup construction. "He understands and he's battled really hard and our record with him hitting leadoff has been pretty darn good. Listen, he's such an important part of us winning. 

"[Moving him to leadoff] was out of necessity as much as anything else and he knew that, but I have so much respect for him as a player. His intent is to play the game properly every day and win. That's his intent. It's not about him so much. It's about everything else, and that's what I really appreciate about him."

Zobrist won't play every day, but when he does, expect to see a lot of him in the leadoff spot as the Cubs work to optimize their lineup in search of some offensive consistency. 

"My body feels pretty good right now," he said. "I'm a little fatigued, probably just the mental fatigue of getting back into it. But we got an off-day tomorrow and I'll feel pretty good on Thursday is my guess. I feel great physically, still kinda getting into the swing of routine mentally."

Asked about his workload down the stretch, he joked it should be obvious when he'll need a break:

"I think probably if I get fatigued, it'll probably show in the numbers, so they'll know when to sit me."

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