Cubs

The Cubs' leadoff woes are even worse than you imagined

The Cubs' leadoff woes are even worse than you imagined

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."

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Jason Kipnis' concerns about the quality of baseball upon return

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USA Today

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Jason Kipnis' concerns about the quality of baseball upon return

David Haugh, Charlie Roumeliotis and Adam Hoge join Kap on the panel.

0:45 - Nick Foles is officially a Chicago Bear. Over/under 10.5 starts for him next season.

3:36 - The Cubs' Jason Kipnis takes to Instagram to talk about the quality of baseball if it returns this season. Do fans care what the game looks like or do they just want to watch sports no matter what?

6:37 - ESPN's fan vote crowned Michael Jordan as the greatest college basketball player of all-time. He beat Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kap says MJ is the GOAT but he may not be college hoops' all-time top 5.

8:20 - The guys debate which dunk on Patrick Ewing was the best in Bulls history: Scottie's or Michael's. And they preview the next installment of Bulls Classics- Game 1 of the 1996 East Finals against Shaq and the Magic.

12:08- NBC Sports' national NBA insider Tom Haberstroh joins Kap. Could the NBA resume with teams playing neutral-site games? Tom also explains how the league's social significance will affect its decision when to return and he discusses his favorite era in history.

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Fast or furious? Rush to play in 2020 not worth the risk for Cubs, MLB

Fast or furious? Rush to play in 2020 not worth the risk for Cubs, MLB

Dammit, we want answers. Now.

That might be one of the toughest and ugliest truths in our notoriously impatient country during the coronavirus pandemic, at least for many of us with the luxury of good health as we shelter in place.

Especially for those keeping an eye on any signal or clue from the sports world.

Even before this attention-devoid age of iPhones and binge-viewing on demand, nobody was built more for impatience than sports fans who always have demanded the gratification — if not always quite immediate — of the thrills and agonies of definitive outcomes.

Dammit, we want a final score. Now.

Or at least a schedule. 

The uncertainty and moving timelines are enough to make you throw the Kapman’s MyPillow at the TV.

It’s also what makes this moment so precarious, and the natural rush for answers and a return to live sports so potentially costly.

Even within the initial confusion and hand-wringing Tuesday over whether Toronto’s ban on public events through June specifically included professional sports events (it does not), the news that three players for Japan’s Hanshin Tigers tested positive for COVID-19 seemed almost a footnote.

But, of course, that should be the screaming headline on this whole thing. 

The pro leagues in Japan were pointing toward a delayed start to their season later this month and were back to training for it after “flattening the curve” on the coronavirus cases in that country.

Now it’s all in flux again, and nobody knows when they’ll start that season.

We’re far behind Japan in containing the spread of the virus in this country.

And we’re still talking about starting the baseball season in May or June? Or maybe July at the latest and try to play into October, and push the postseason well into November (maybe at warm-weather, neutral sites)? Into the teeth of the next flu season?

And 40,000 fans at the games? Come on. Playing without fans already is being discussed and is a near certainty for any restart that involves the 2020 calendar. 

By Wednesday nobody was surprised when the Cubs’ London series against the Cardinals in June was officially canceled by MLB. 

Should we be surprised if the entire season meets the same end?

Dammit.

Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis, in an Instagram post Tuesday night, expressed respect for the depth and real-life seriousness of the crisis while also suggesting a far less serious concern about injury risk if baseball rushes players back to the field after a long layoff.

“Not to mention if we start back up and someone (asymptomatic or not) tests positive,” he wrote. “Shut it down again? I don’t know how we’re supposed to have that many tests provided! I really do hope things get better for everyone and there’s baseball this year, but these are just some of the worries creeping into my head that make me think otherwise.”

Ask the Hanshin Tigers and the rest of the Central League in Japan what they think about that right now.

And then consider the risk again.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is a cancer survivor who underwent chemotherapy to recover early in his professional career. Does he bear a greater risk than other players if he contracts the virus?

“I don’t think so. I’m at full strength,” Rizzo said. “All my blood work — it’s not like I’m low on any levels. All my lungs and liver and everything functions like it should be functioning, as it should be functioning as a 30-year-old athlete. So I’m not worried about it.”

Maybe he’s right

On the other hand, healthy people in the teens and 20s with no underlying high-risk conditions reportedly have died because of this virus.

And what about players who do have underlying higher risks, such as asthma, diabetes or blood-pressure issues?

Cubs reliever Brandon Morrow has Type 1 diabetes, as does former Cub Sam Fuld, a Phillies analyst and strategist based in the clubhouse.

Managers Joe Maddon (66) of the Angels and Dusty Baker (70) of the Astros are in the high-risk age range, as are many team support and medical staff who work in and around clubhouses in the majors.

“It’s scary,” Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward said during an interview on WMVP 1000 radio the week after MLB shut down spring training camps. “You don’t prepare for stuff like this.”

Players handle flu bugs, nagging injuries, off-the-field pressures, and often play through those, Heyward said. 

“You can’t really fight this one,” he said. “The best thing to do and the best way to fight is be smart and distance yourself from people and be ready to resume when it is time to resume. It goes without saying we hope it happens sooner than later, but more than anything you just want to hope they get it right and careful.”

But we want answers. Now.

Dammit.

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