Does Ian Happ Really Need to Cut Strikeouts to Be a Successful Leadoff Hitter?

While strikeouts don’t bear near the stigma they once did, there’s still a great deal of logic telling us it’s not ideal to have a leadoff hitter who whiffs frequently. An out is an out, but opening the game without even making contact is what the smart kids might call suboptimal. That said, it might seem a little odd that Ian Happ is one of four Cubs hitters in contention for the No. 1 spot in the order despite a 31.9 percent strikeout rate last season.

We could say the same for Kyle Schwarber, who put up a 30.9 percent K-rate and whose name is in the leadoff mix again as well. Except that Schwarber’s 72.4 percent contact and 12.2 percent swinging-strike rates were significantly better than Happ’s 67.3 and 16 percent rates. For what it’s worth, Albert Almora Jr.’s numbers were 76.6 and 12 percent. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t remind you that we’d be foolish to assume those numbers will remain the same moving forward, especially given the relative youth and inexperience of the players involved. Kris Bryant has dropped his K-rate from 30.6 to 19.2 percent in three seasons, a product of cutting his whiffs from 16.5 to 10 percent in that time. Of course, Bryant should never be used as an example because he’s a complete freak show when it comes to his ability to improve rapidly.

So while we can’t reasonably expect the same kind of exponential improvements on display in Bryant’s learning curve, it’s very possible that Happ makes strides at the plate. Schwarber too, but I singled Happ out in the title, so we’re going to stick with that for the purposes of this post. But even with somewhat significant improvement that sees him dip below a 30 percent K-rate, can Happ be an effective leadoff hitter?

The only way to answer that for sure is to let him hit there and see what the results are, though we could also look at what other successful leadoff hitters have done. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to define “successful” as posting a wRC+ of 100 or better, which is really just league average. But since only 42 of the 89 big leaguers who accumulated at least 50 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter last season reached a triple-digit wRC+, I think it’s fair to say that’s a decent measuring stick.

Of those 42 successful leadoff hitters, only 13 had strikeout rates of 20 percent or greate and only three of them had rates of 25 percent or greater. As cool as it’d be for Happ to produce like Logan Forsythe (101 wRC+ on 26.4% K-rate in 121 PAs), Teoscar Hernandez (130, 44.6%, 56), or Michael Conforto (149, 26.8%, 317), he’s no Catniss Everdeen. Which is to say the odds are not really in his favor. Other than Hernandez, we’re looking at marked drops in K-rate. There’s also the matter viewing this in an even larger historical context.

Looking back over the last 10 years, there are 53 players who have posted a 25 percent strikeout rate while also accumulating at least 50 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter. Only six of them boast a wRC+ north of 100 and only nine others have put up 90 or better. So that means 38 of them generated offense at a rate that is/was roughly 10 percent worse than the average player. Not great, Bob.

In fact, the average wRC+ of those players in that decade-long sample was a mere 84.57, nearly 12 points lower than league average for that stretch and more than 28 points below Happ’s rookie-year mark (113). Now, since a huge part a leadoff hitter’s goal is simply reaching base, we would be wise to point to wOBA here as well.

Using the same 53-man sample, we see that only nine batters put up a wOBA of .323 or better (2017 league average was .321). And the overall average wOBA for the group was .2997, which is almost 19 points below league average for the last 10 years. Probably not ideal for your leadoff hitter to be reaching base with less frequency and efficacy than the average hitter.

Now that I’ve provided a thoroughly convincing and decidedly waterproof argument, I suppose I should note that these numbers are based on exporting FanGraphs stats and then simply weighing a player’s production based on the number of plate appearances he had. As such, there’s a little noise in the results and my conclusions should probably not be taken as gospel. Actually, I’d be happy with them just being considered apocryphal.

Even with that in mind, I think it’s fair to conclude that, while a high strikeout rate does not preclude a hitter from producing at a high level in general, it’s less than ideal from a leadoff hitter. Which is to say that, despite his notable strengths, Ian Happ is probably not the guy you want to see at the top of the order on a daily basis. Unless, of course, he’s going to take MadBum deep to open every game.

Of course, the same is true of Schwarber, though his other traits as a hitter afford him a little more leeway than Happ. The moral of the story here is that Happ’s profile as a hitter, at least at this point, puts some pretty long odds on his ability to succeed at the top of the order. However, moving him around and playing mix-and-match with different hitters based on the given pitching matchup and the lineup for that day could shorten those odds significantly.

At the end of the day, I find this whole exercise fascinating and I’m somewhat anxious to see how it all plays out. My suspicion is that Joe Maddon will once again use several different hitters in the top spot, utilizing four of them with much greater frequency — exclusivity, even — to start out. As the season goes on, the options will be whittled as performance and availability dictate.

Make sense? Good, I’m glad I was able to answer this question for you.

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