Jen Mac Ramos of Wrigleyville Baseball Prospectus analyzed the Chicago Cubs 2016 leadoff options earlier this month. Will infield utility man Ben Zobrist or outfield superstar Jason Heyward make a bigger difference in the Cubs’ top spot?
In some respects, a case can be made for Zobrist to be the leadoff man. He’s a veteran, he’s the utility infielder who adds value to any team he’s on. And sure, he can hit leadoff if you want him to, but he may not be the best candidate for the job. One place you can look for the argument against is his splits: batting first, he’s hit .241/.329/.372 over his career, although there’s limited predictive value in lineup position splits. The strong case is actually one of negation: he’s probably a better fit hitting down the order, maybe in the seventh or eighth spot, where he can get on base and drive runs in. Zobrist also has a 31 percent run scoring percentage with a 73 percent stolen base rate, which is useful when you have talent scattered throughout the lineup.
Heyward, on the other hand, is a natural candidate to be the leadoff man for the Cubs this year. He’s got speed, he’s got some pop in his bat, he’s got above-average baserunning skills that frame him to be a good leadoff guy. He has a 6.1 BRR in 2015 and is projected to have at least a 2.5 BRR in 2016, compared to Zobrist’s 1.2 BRR in 2015 with the Kansas City Royals and projected 0.4 BRR in 2016. BRR can tell you a player’s ability to steal bases and go from first to third on a base hit or advance on a fly ball—which can be a good indicator of who a leadoff man should be. Heyward’s BRR number and projection shows that he is more than capable of being in the leadoff spot.
Jason Heyward is the better fit to lead off for the Cubs this season–Ramos is right. Especially for a team run by Joe Maddon, a manager that often slots his pitcher in the eight hole to turn over the lineup faster. Heyward will get on base plenty and have enough opportunities to drive home Addison Russell or whoever bats in the ninth spot. The Cubs prize free agent should lead a lineup that sprays the ball all over Wrigley Field this coming summer.