What went wrong with Cubs leadoff spot in 2019 and where they go from here

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Can the Cubs get back to the postseason in 2020 without a conventional leadoff hitter? Of course.

But is bringing one aboard a necessity? Well, that’s a different conversation.

A big talking point around the Cubs this season was their struggles out of the leadoff spot. Eleven players led off at least once, though quantity didn’t translate into quality. Combined, Cubs leadoff men hit .212 (last in MLB), holding a .294 on-base percentage (also last in MLB).

“That’s an area where we can clearly do a lot better,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. “Those are unacceptable numbers that we got out of leadoff this year.”

The Cubs haven’t had a true leadoff man since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 World Series. Since then, 17 different Cubs players have led off at least one game:

Jon Jay, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., Javier Báez, Willson Contreras, Matt Szczur, Leonys Martín, Daniel Murphy, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp and Robel Garcia.

The rotating cast delivered at a low rate in 2019, but 2017 and 2018 were a different story. Consider these numbers — with their league ranks included — from the past three seasons.

2017: .246 AVG (24th), .324 OBP (18th).
2018: .302 AVG (fourth), .366 OBP (second)
2019: .212 (last), .294 OBP (last)

As 2018 proved, the method the Cubs have used post-Fowler can work (and at a high-level, at that). And, while the 2017 numbers don’t jump off the page, they’re several steps above those from 2019.

Which then brings forth the question: what went wrong in 2019? The answer to that lies with those who led off most for the Cubs this season: Schwarber (56 games), Heyward (33) and Zobrist (25).

Schwarber notoriously struggled as the Cubs’ leadoff man in 2017, which resulted in a demotion to Triple-A that June. However, the Cubs went back to him in 2019 due to his patience at the plate, ability to get on base and, most importantly, the lack of a better option.

The 26-year-old said in June that he felt better equipped to lead off this time around. And, while he got off to a solid start — hitting .258 with a .349 OBP in his first 23 games — those numbers eventually dipped. Schwarber finished the season with a .229 average and .304 OBP when hitting first.

Like Schwarber, Heyward has hit better elsewhere in the lineup opposed to leadoff in his career. In 169 games, he’s hitting .245 with a .330 OBP, with only his production from the seventh spot (.244 average, .326 OBP in 188 games) being lower.

Heyward asked for patience when manager Joe Maddon inserted him into the leadoff spot on July 31. Whether fans like it or not, there is a mental adjustment to hitting first. Not only do hitters get pitched to differently, but they're tasked with working a count and getting on base, setting the table for the rest of the lineup.

In 33 games leading off, Heyward hit just .147 with a .252 OBP, putting a dent in what was turning into an extremely productive offensive season.

“There were certainly guys who, it affected their performance throughout the course of the year,” Epstein said.

Why stick with Schwarber and Heyward for so long, then? Anthony Rizzo is the self-proclaimed "greatest leadoff hitter of all-time," — and his .335/.426/.602 slash line in 58 games defends this notion — but he’s more valuable to the Cubs hitting third or fourth. Thus, it comes down to the Cubs not having their best leadoff option for much of 2019 in Zobrist.

Zobrist spent four months this season on the restricted list tending to a personal matter. When he returned to the team in September, the veteran switch-hitter became a fixture atop the Cubs’ lineup. He finished the season with a .287 average and .368 OBP in 25 games leading off.

Zobrist wasn't a full-time leadoff hitter in 2018, but the Cubs' production there would've been much better in 2019 with him around. It cannot be understated how important he has been to the Cubs due to his eye for the strike zone and ability to put together a “professional at-bat.”

Zobrist’s status for 2020 is unclear right now. He’ll enter free agency after the World Series, but he very well may hang up his spikes, too. Regardless of his status, the leadoff spot will be a focal point for the Cubs this offseason.

“There are a couple of different ways to go,” Epstein said. “If we can acquire a prototypical leadoff hitter, that’d be fantastic and make everybody’s life easier going forward.”

That doesn't mean the Cubs will trade someone like Schwarber just to get a leadoff man, such as Royals second baseman/outfielder Whit Merrifield, though.

“I’ve always felt that if you could get one guy to hold down the position, that was a huge asset for a team,” Epstein said. “If you have to do that at the expense of having a hitter who drives the ball, knocks in runs, gets on base and slugs, and therefore you’re not comfortable putting him in the leadoff spot, [then] it’s not worth it."

The numbers have to improve next season, but 2018 proved that the Cubs can be successful without a true leadoff hitter. If they don't like the available options, they could improve their roster in other ways instead.

“You have to find as many outstanding offensive players as possible," Epstein said. "As a rule, the teams I’ve built have always placed a huge priority on getting on base. We’ve usually had lots of options. If you set out as a goal to lead the league in on-base percentage, you’re usually not gonna be wanting in the leadoff spot.

“So, I’d rather keep that goal, 1-through-8, find guys who get on base and it should take care of itself. But the best outcome by far is to get someone who’s comfortable in that spot, thrives in that spot, provides energy and takes the onus off everybody else.”

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