You Zo, We Zo: Why Ben Zobrist Should Bat Leadoff Next Season
Dexter Fowler is officially a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ll pause for you to control your gorge. I’ll join the others in saying I’m happy Dex got paid, but it won’t be fun seeing him in Cardinals gear. On to more important things: With Fowler gone, the Cubs are going to need a new leadoff hitter. The sexy choice to fill the role at the top of the order is Kyle Schwarber, but I’m here to argue that the right choice to be that number one hitter is Ben Zobrist.
Before we get to Zobrist, I have to admit that the idea of Schwarber leading off is interesting. War Bear posted an on-base percentage of .355 during his rookie campaign in 2015 and would bring an element of power to the top of the order. The Cubs are no strangers to having a little pop at the top, as Fowler averaged 15 homers in his two years in Chicago. Alfonso Soriano also provided tremendous power from the leadoff position while at Wrigley.
As many — including Cubs Den’s Jared Wyllys — have noted, the idea of a first-inning order of Schwarber, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo would make any pitcher think twice. Even so, I think Schwarber is better utilized elsewhere in the lineup. Hitting him behind Rizzo would force pitchers to actually pitch to the All-Star first baseman more often. Zobrist did an admirable job providing protection, but the intimidation factor of Babe Schwarber could work even better.
Now, as soon as I say that, I must also admit that I like the idea of Schwarber in the two-hole of a Cubs order. That allows Bryant to move down to the three spot and Rizzo to bat cleanup. It would also give Joe Maddon the left-right-left balance he loves in his lineups. Hitting Willson Contreras or Addison Russell fifth would further lengthen the potency, and a bounce-back from Jason Heyward in the sixth spot would add to the intimidation.
That means that the leadoff spot in this lineup would be occupied by Ben Zobrist. Zo’s case for the top spot is a very strong one. He had an OBP of .386 in 2016, only 7 points lower than what Fowler put up. Perhaps the most remarkable stat Zorilla posted during the Cubs’ championship season was his walk total. The infielder/outfielder walked 96 times in 631 plate appearances for a 15 percent walk rate, good for 8th in all of baseball.
That alone makes an excellent case for Zo as the leadoff man, but the walks tell only half of the story. Zobrist struck out only 82 times in 2016, which, if my math is right, is 14 fewer times than he walked. The only player with close to that performance in last season was the Indians’ Carlos Santana, another switch-hitter who finished with 99 walks and 99 strikeouts. Oh, and that thing about power bat at the top of the order? Zobrist hit 18 home runs with an .831 OPS that was the second highest of his career.
As I see it, a batting order of Zobrist-Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo gives the Cubs the longest and most balanced lineup. Especially with right-handed power bats like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras below them. This is how I would address the leadoff spot. Of course, with Joe Maddon it’s best to expect the unexpected lineup-wise.