The Athletic published a piece Thursday about whether or not the Cubs’ lack of a prototypical leadoff hitter hurt the offense in 2018. While the stats-rich piece ultimately came to same conclusion as Theo Epstein – that a prototypical leadoff hitter is a luxury – it was underpinned by a flawed definition of what an ideal leadoff hitter is.
In referencing Dexter Fowler’s absence, Sahadev Sharma wrote, “It’s easy to assume some of the Cubs’ inconsistencies stem from the lack of a traditional, everyday leadoff man…”
Let’s be clear. While Fowler did start every day at leadoff, he was far from a traditional leadoff hitter. You had to love the OBP (.393) he posted during that career year of 2016, but he was way too high-strikeout (22 percent) and no longer a major base-stealing threat to fit the ideal of a traditional leadoff hitter.
I also have a quibble with Epstein’s description of traditional leadoff hitters as “luxuries.” A luxury suggests something that is rare, superfluous, and expensive. But only one of these qualities actually applies to a true top-of-the-order hitter. So let’s consider each of these and perhaps shed a brighter light on the value of a traditional table-setter.
It’s true that high-contact, high-OBP base-stealing threats are not common commodities. Over the past three years, only seven players have posted seasons with a K-rate of 18 percent or less, an OBP over .350, and at least 30 steals. They are Whit Merrifield, Mallex Smith, Mookie Betts, Lorenzo Cain, Jose Altuve, Trea Turner and Jean Segura.
Coming close were Ender Inciarte, who fell just short with 28 steals last season, and Dee Gordon, who stole 60 with a .341 OBP in 2017. Jonathan Villar swiped 62 bags with a .369 OBP in 2016, but did so with a sky-high 26 percent K-rate. Including those three gives us 10 prototypical leadoff hitters, thus making them quite rare.
Though three of them do have World Series rings, teams can certainly win championships without such a hitter atop the lineup. That’s because the leadoff role can be filled by hitters who compensate for deficiencies in one area by excelling in others. This was the Astros in 2017 when George Springer sported the relatively low K-rate (17.6 percent) and high-OBP (.369) but substituted high slugging (34 homers) for few steals (5).
The same was true of Fowler in 2016. By posting a career-high .393 OBP, he more than outweighed having the league’s 14th highest K-rate (22.5 percent) and just 13 steals. But Fowler’s OBP was also quite a rare figure. Consider that only six leadoff-style hitters over the past three years have posted a mark of .390 or higher. That makes Fowler’s 2016 even rarer than a prototypical leadoff man.
So if you wish to cut Epstein slack for not bringing in a traditional leadoff, shouldn’t we be puzzled by his chasing after an even scarcer commodity in the high-K but extremely high OBP leadoff hitter? That’s what he and Joe Maddon tried by first miscasting Kyle Schwarber in the role and then doubling down with Ian Happ. Not surprisingly, both failed (.312 and .311 lead-off OBPs, respectively), with even their slugging dropping (.381 and .370 in leadoff, respectively).
The term luxury also encompasses the sense of something being non-essential, as in that “luxury we can do without.” But while a team can win without a model leadoff hitter, that productivity must still be replaced somehow. And given the leadoff slot gets the most plate appearances but the fewest RISP opportunities (especially in the NL), that’s why a high-contact, high-OBP, base-stealing threat makes the most sense.
This combination is about more than just the stats. A high-OBP leadoff hitter puts the opposing pitcher into the stretch for the heart of the order. The speed element not only creates additional run-scoring opportunities, it results in more fastballs and defenders out of position. The short swing of a high-contact hitter will also typically fare better against power arms – the playoff Achilles’ heel of the current Cubs lineup.
It’s this full array of value that The Athletic piece failed to grasp. For instance, it pointed out that the Cubs’ second-half leadoff hitters performed above league average, but not all “above average” is created equal.
Consider that about half of those second-half at bats came from Daniel Murphy. He did have a nice .341 OBP leading off, but given his bad knees, he’s one of the slowest hitters in baseball. Thus his .341 OBP benefited the Cubs far less than Trea Turner’s 43 steals and .344 OBP did for Washington. To match Turner’s run-creation value, Murphy actually would need to turn in an almost Fowler-like .380 to .390 OBP.
Given how much the Cubs lineup would benefit from a traditional leadoff hitter, a solid case can be made for Epstein to overpay for one. But the irony is that despite their rarity, the market largely undervalues these players.
Consider that after 2014, Los Angeles traded Gordon to Miami for a couple bench players. Last year, the Brewers signed Cain for $16 million AAV and a second-round compensation pick. And this offseason, the Mariners got Smith from the Rays for a poor-hitting, glove-first starting catcher.
Not that Epstein hasn’t attempted to trade for a prototypical leadoff hitter in the past. Before 2016 and Fowler boomeranging back on a one-year deal, the Cubs tried to get Inciarte from Arizona. But the Diamondbacks and GM Dave Stewart so undervalued Inciarte – and overvalued Shelby Miller – they shocked the industry by shipping Inciarte and No. 1 overall draft pick that year, Dansby Swanson, to Atlanta.
So what are Epstein’s leadoff options for 2019? He could sign an aging, injury-prone A.J. Pollock as a poor-man’s George Springer, though even that might be outside of his budgetary parameters. He could overpay for the Royals’ Whit Merrifield. Or he could go the musical chair route again.
Interestingly, the Cubs’ most effective leadoff hitter last year not named Anthony Rizzo (.428 OBP in 138 plate appearances) was Albert Almora Jr. In 212 plate appearances, he posted a .368 OBP and 17 percent K-rate, though no steals.
Thus Almora technically falls into that “all answers are internal” box, though he also fell off in the second half. But ’tis the holiday season. So and one can still dream for a slight overpay for Merrifield or for the Mariners to flip Smith, no matter how unlikely those scenarios may be.