Putting Kyle Schwarber in the Leadoff Spot Makes a Lot of Sense

The Chicago Cubs are leaning toward putting the slugging left-hander at the top of their order. Here's why that's a good idea.

It has become a daily tradition during the baseball season. In the afternoon, when the manager releases their starting lineups for that night's game, the world of Twitter will invariably find something wrong with it.

That's what Twitter does, after all.

People pick at it, fuss about it, and try to move players around, as if the average fan has a better notion of who to bat second than the manager. Sometimes, fans are right. Sometimes, managers get lineup construction wrong.

But at the end of the day, lineup construction is largely unimportant. There's really only one thing that matters when it comes to putting a lineup together, and that is to make sure your best hitters get the opportunity to hit as often as possible, while your worst hitters get the fewest chances.

That is why what the Chicago Cubs and manager Joe Maddon are planning to do with Kyle Schwarber is so interesting.

Schwarber is certainly not your traditional leadoff man. He is no Rickey Henderson or Vince Coleman or Ichiro Suzuki. In days of old, leadoff hitters were among the speediest players on the team, table-setters who managers hoped would be able to swipe a bag, go from first-to-third, and create havoc on the bases with their legs.

But times have changed.

Breaking The Mold

Thirty years ago, teams were running all over the place, stealing bags like crazy. Take a look at the stolen base rates in baseball from 1986 until now.

Year Steals Steals Per Game
1986 3311 0.78
1996 3240 0.66
2016 2537 0.52

The home run wasn't as prominent, and bag swipers like Henderson and Coleman were huge stars. There were 774 more bags swiped in 1986 than last year, and that is when there were only 26 MLB teams. Since then, the league has added four more teams, each playing 162-game schedules, and stolen base totals have cratered.

Teams are more reluctant to risk giving away outs on the bases. Instead, everyone now waits for the three-run homer.

It's a different game.

Schwarber's On-Base Skills

In 71 MLB games, Schwarber has a total of three stolen bases. He had six steals in his entire minor league career (149 games). He's not incapable of stealing a bag, as evidenced below.

But he is a big, lumbering dude who is known for his power, not his wheels.

Maddon is a new-school manager, which means he isn't a slave to tradition. MLB skippers have typically wanted those high batting average, low-power slap-hitters to hit first so they can run around the bases in front of the big boppers. Today, teams are focused on getting their high on-base percentage guys at the top of the lineup, specifically in the leadoff spot.

If it is all about avoiding outs, Schwarber does that as well as anyone on the team. We only have one half-season of numbers from which to glance, but so far in his brief career, Schwarber has proven to be adept at getting on and taking the walks when they come.

In 2015, he swung at 30.2% of pitches outside the strike zone, right around league average (29.8% that year), but a very good rate for a rookie who was just 22 at the time. He also had a walk rate of 13.2%, which ranked 16th out of 311 players with at least 250 plate appearances that season.

No Better Options

With the loss of Dexter Fowler, Chicago doesn't have the type of traditional leadoff hitter that one could argue should get the gig. Ben Zobrist is perhaps the closest thing to a "logical" option, but he stole just six bases last year and hasn't reached 20 swipes since 2010. Jon Jay can also lead off if necessary, but again, he isn't your typical choice.

The focus is getting on base, and Schwarber appears to be a good choice. He posted a batting average of just .246 two years ago, but had a .355 on-base percentage thanks to that 13.2% walk-rate, numbers which should only improve with more playing time this year.

Chicago will likely to limit his playing time this season as he recovers from knee surgery, with Zobrist likely batting leadoff on Schwarber's days off. But a 140-game seasons isn't an unreasonable expectation for him, and if that's the case, Schwarber is going to pile up a ton of plate appearances in 2017 hitting atop what should be a loaded lineup.

And that is bad news for National League pitchers.