Cubs

The Cubs' leadoff woes are even worse than you imagined

/ by Tony Andracki
Presented By Cubs Insiders
Cubs

Anybody who's watched a Cubs game this season could tell you the leadoff spot has been a major hole on this roster.

In the midst of a brutally honest interview Thursday morning, that production — or lack thereof — was a big topic of conversation with Theo Epstein.

Epstein hopped on 670 The Score with Mike Mulligan and David Haugh on 670 The Score and at the end of a 19-minute session where he kept it real and spoke passionately about the state of the team, he addressed the leadoff woes:

"I feel really, honestly embarrassed by the on-base numbers we've had in the leadoff spot," he said. "That's not the way at all to build an offense. To the point where you roll it back again, you might just want to consider taking any one of your best hitters and just throwing them up in the leadoff spot. The No. 1 rule of lineup construction is get your best hitters up top, bunch them together, get them up top in the lineup and let them do some damage. 

"With the on-base production we've been getting out of the leadoff spot this year, it's been certainly a detriment to our lineup. No, I don't begrudge people making a big deal out of it. It certainly is."

 

Entering play Thursday, here's what the Cubs have gotten out of their leadoff spot this season and where they rank out of 30 MLB teams:

.202 AVG (30th)
.283 OBP (30th)
.368 SLG (28th)
.651 OPS (29th)
122 hits (30th)

And the thing is, it's not like the Cubs are narrowly in last place. They have far and away the worst production out of the leadoff spot, so far back that they will likely end the season last in average and on-base percentage.

Coincidentally, the division-leading St Louis Cardinals have the next-worst mark in production out of the leadoff spot, but they're way ahead of the Cubs in both categories — 18 points in batting average and 21 points in OBP.

The leadoff spot has been a huge point of contention surrounding this team ever since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 championship season. 

The Cubs did not have one stable person atop the order in 2018, but that didn't stop them from churning out the best leadoff production in the NL. Only the 108-win Boston Red Sox had a higher OBP from their leadoff batters than the Cubs (.366) and Maddon's squad also led the NL with a .302 average in the spot. 

That's right — the 2018 Cubs had a batting average a full 100 points better than the 2019 Cubs with two-and-a-half weeks to play.

Ben Zobrist coming back was supposed to help alleviate some of the concern, but after a hot start atop the Cubs order, he has since slumped (2-for-16, 0 BB over his last four games leading off). 

Anthony Rizzo got the call to retain his role as Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time Thursday and immediately responded with a walk and run in the first inning of the Cubs 4-1 win over the Padres. He now has a .462 on-base percentage hitting first.

It was only Rizzo's third start leading off, as he's mostly found himself in the middle of the Cubs order, where they've needed to rely on him to drive in runs and be one of their big boppers.

But with the season on the line over these next two-plus weeks, maybe Maddon will have no choice but to keep Rizzo atop the order on days Zobrist does not play.

Even despite Zobrist's recent struggles, he's hitting .293 with a .370 OBP in 20 starts at leadoff. Thursday was Rizzo's third start atop the order and Javy Baez has also made a couple starts and posted a .375 OBP at leadoff.

But apart from those three guys, the rest of the Cubs leadoff options have combined to hit .185 with a .263 OBP. 

That's 56 starts from Kyle Schwarber (.304 OBP), 32 from Jason Heyward (.252), 15 from Albert Almora Jr. (.221), 11 from Daniel Descalso (.314) and then 3 starts from Robel Garcia, 2 from Tony Kemp and 1 each from Ian Happ and Willson Contreras. 

"Right now, I think the struggles you're seeing in the leadoff spot are also just because we're struggling to get on base as a team," Epstein said on 670. "If we had a lot of different options on guys that were having good years who had the ability to get on base, you just throw one of them up in the leadoff spot without having to take away from your guys who are driving in runs — your two, three, four hitters. 

 

"I think the struggles we have at leadoff are reflective of the fact that we're struggling to get on base this year as a whole. It's awesome to have that prototypical leadoff guy — it is an important part of building an effective offense — but if you have a deep roster of guys who are all getting on base at a high clip, it's easy. You just mix-and-match. You can play matchups up there and where you lack in the one tone-setter at the top of the lineup, I think you make up for it by having good on-base guys get on base. 

"That's the single most important job of the leadoff hitter — just get on base. And we don't have that. It's been honestly a worst-case scenario this year out of the leadoff spot in that everyone that we throw up there goes through their period of not getting on base at all. So the numbers that we've had, it's shocking to me."