"I do like Schwarber leading off," Maddon said Wednesday evening from his annual Thanksmas event where he cooked and served dinner to Chicagoans. "I do like it."
The Cubs have intimated all winter that Schwarber could be their leadoff hitter, as Maddon simply likes Ben Zobrist -- the more natural candidate for the top spot -- batting fourth. Zobrist drove in 76 runs while walking 96 times hitting cleanup last season before winning World Series MVP. Maddon's unconventional-looking lineup would then feature three very dangerous hitters in the first inning of each game.
"I still like KB [Kris Bryant] two," Maddon said. "After all, he was the MVP [of the National League batting second]. Think he was OK. If you ask Anthony [Rizzo], he likes hitting third. Then Zobrist. Everyone wanted Zo out of the 4-hole until it came to the seventh game of the World Series."
Of course, the first rule of lineup construction is that lineups change. In the case of the Cubs, while Zobrist seems like the more conventional leadoff option with Schwarber and his power lower in the lineup, the emergence of Javier Baez as the likely starter at second base means Zobrist doesn't even have a regular position. Plus, remember that last year Bryant and Rizzo spent the first half hitting third and fourth, moving up only after Jason Heyward was taken out of the 2-hole in early July.
I love the idea of unconventional leadoff hitters. As Joe Sheehan wrote a couple of weeks ago, the traditional speedy leadoff hitter is less valuable in today's game, where a higher percentage of runs are scored via the home run:
- Speed, which for so long was seen as the essential element for a leadoff man, is actually less valuable in the leadoff spot than in other places. Leadoff men have less reason to steal in front of good power hitters, who can drive them around on their own, and the risk/reward of stolen-base attempts is worst in front of good hitters. It's a secondary, even tertiary trait, in an era when singles are more rare than at any time in MLB history, and homers at nearly an all-time high.
There's another advantage to simply putting a good hitter in the leadoff spot: He gets to bat more often. Look at the plate appearances from the Cubs' top five lineup spots in 2016:
If Schwarber plays 162 games and bats leadoff every day as opposed to fifth, he's going to get 70 or so more plate appearances. FanGraphs projects Schwarber with a .264/.353/.490 line, although I would suggest there's a wide variance in that depending on his ability to hit left-handers (and how much he actually plays against them). Zobrist's projection is .270/.365/.426. While Schwarber may lose a couple of runs due to a lack of speed, he'll gain a few more back with home runs. The other advantage to hitting Zobrist cleanup is that it gives Maddon a switch-hitter behind Rizzo, as opposed to two lefties in a row if Rizzo and Schwarber hit third and fourth.
Anyway, we're starting to see more teams think outside the box on their leadoff hitters, or so it seems. Some examples from 2016:
Terry Francona, without a conventional leadoff guy, used Carlos Santana there in 86 games, usually starting him against right-handers. He posted a .385 OBP and .502 slugging percentage from the leadoff spot. He actually runs well for a former catcher and took the extra base 39 percent of the time, compared with a league average of 40 percent.
Brian Dozier hit 42 home runs for the Twins, 27 from the leadoff spot (he hit leadoff most of the second half, when he went on his home run binge).
The Astros started the season with Jose Altuve in the leadoff spot and George Springer batting second, but eventually shifted to Springer hitting leadoff and Altuve third. Springer can run, but he also hit 20 home runs in 116 games as the leadoff hitter. Altuve's improved power to go with his high batting average allowed manager A.J. Hinch to make the changes, and the Astros scored 129 runs from the leadoff position, most in the majors.
Matt Carpenter has 12 stolen bases the past four seasons but has spent much of that time in the leadoff spot for the Cardinals. He hit there in 114 of his 129 games in 2016, producing a .276/.386/.527 line. With his high OBP and power, he's third in the majors in runs over those four years. The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler, however, probably moving Carpenter to the No. 2 or 3 spot in 2017.
The Orioles stole just 19 bases, so Buck Showalter started Adam Jones leadoff in 108 games, and Jones hit .282/.320/.471 with 24 home runs, much better than he hit anywhere else in the lineup. That's not a great OBP, but the power gave the Orioles decent overall production from the leadoff spot.
Of course, there also were your failed traditional types. Dee Gordon posted a .306 OBP for the Marlins. Dusty Baker hit Ben Revere leadoff 56 times despite a .276 OBP (Trea Turner came up and solved that problem). Alcides Escobar hit leadoff 82 times with a .269 OBP; the Royals scored the fewest leadoff runs in the majors.
Which teams could benefit from an unconventional leadoff guy in 2017? A few ideas:
Oakland Athletics: Matt Joyce. The A's scored just 71 runs from the No. 1 spot, easily fewest in the majors. They signed Rajai Davis, who led the AL in steals, but he's a low-OBP guy. Joyce ran a .403 OBP with the Pirates in 2016.
San Francisco Giants: Brandon Belt. The Giants were 27th in leadoff runs, as Denard Span is no longer a high-OBP guy and lacks power. Belt drew 104 walks while posting a .394 OBP. Belt spent much of the season hitting fifth and sixth before manager Bruce Bochy finally moved him up to the third spot. That works, but he'd be a terrific leadoff guy as well.
Los Angeles Angels: Kole Calhoun. His OBPs have been all over the place -- .348 in 2016, .308 in 2015 -- and manager Mike Scioscia did try him a bit in the leadoff spot in 2016, but putting him in front of Mike Trout on a permanent basis may help him to be more selective and focus on getting on base.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Joc Pederson. At least against right-handers, against whom he posted a .269/.371/.547 line. He hit there a lot as a rookie, but manager Dave Roberts seemed intent on protecting him last year with a lower spot in the lineup. Move him back up.