By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is the greatest lead-off history in baseball history, or so he has proclaimed — over and over again.
Cubs teammates have heard Rizzo’s jokes ever since manager Joe Maddon plugged him atop the order last week. While he’s on pace to become the first ever hitter to post a 1.000 on-base percentage in leading off the game, the Cubs view this as just a temporary fix. Of course, Rizzo homered to lead off a game for a third time Tuesday in seven games atop the order.
With the defending champion Cubs struggling to find their form, Maddon has resorted to a simple, smart rule in lineup construction: bat your best hitters at the top of the order.
“The prominent theory right now is the fact that you want to get your best three hitters in the top three spots and have them hit as often as possible,” Maddon said before Tuesday’s tilt with the Padres.
So, Maddon worked his lineup with Rizzo leading off for a seventh straight game, followed by Kris Bryant in the No. 2 hole and Willson Contreras batting third. The Cubs are dealing with injuries to Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward while Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell deal with struggles at the plate. The lineup has looked different as of late.
In essence, the Cubs opened Tuesday’s game with a 39.7 percent chance of Rizzo reaching base and a 39 percent chance of Bryant reaching. The rest of the lineup mixes left- and right-handed hitters to allow versatility for in-game decisions.
Maddon has always been at the cutting edge of theories when it comes to the makeup of a lineup on any given day. Uniqueness comes in batting Rizzo atop the order to lining the Tommy Tutone lineup of 867-5309, an homage to the hit ’80s song. He often hits the pitcher eighth and bridges the lead-off hitter with a stronger on-base presence in the ninth slot.
There are the basic principles that make up Maddon’s batting order with each game. Before baseball became younger and wiser, managers would slot speed atop the batting order and put a contact hitter in the second spot. The idea was to move the lead-off man over to second, often by conceding an out with a sacrifice bunt. The new age knows that it’s not a prudent strategy.
Now, managers know their best chance at success at the top of the order is by prioritizing on-base percentage in those first three spots. In fact, the second slot in the lineup is considered the most valuable place by many managers. Mike Trout bats second, as do Giancarlo Stanton, Josh Donaldson and Eric Thames. It has been Bryant more often than not for the Cubs.
Sure, it’s not traditional or aesthetically pleasing to a baseball purist. The game is changing.
“It’s the most influential or consequential spot in the batting order now,” Padres manager Andy Green said.
Added Bryant: “With Riz leading off and myself hitting second, if you can get both of us on base early to get pressure on the other team in the first inning — from the very get-go — I think that’s the ideal situation. Really, just get on base.”
Baseball is constantly evolving, with new-age managers like Maddon and young minds like Green at the helm. Green admitted that lineup construction is valuable only to a small degree. He’s right in that the players are the ones who make managers look like a genius or idiot each game.
But the particular strategies implemented can make a difference. Games have been lost in the past because of an out-of-place two-hitter and a traditional style of baseball that deserved to be killed off.
Sacrifice bunts make a team more likely to lose than win, according to just about every win-probability chart. Giving up outs at the top of the order is bad managing.
“The days of that method of baseball are pretty much far gone,” Maddon said. “The two-hole hitter used to bunt; a really good hit-and-run guy; move the runner up. The games were 3-2, 4-1, 2-1 often; it wasn’t just once in a while.”
“I do like having a more prominent hitter in the two hole. I do like your better hitters coming up more often. I just think it makes sense further with the understanding of the on-base percentage and what it means for the rest of the group.
“Why would you put somebody up there just because he’s a good bunter? Or that he might make some contact, but it’s weak contact or it doesn’t really do anything? And while you’re doing that, you’re preventing one of your better hitters from coming up to the plate. I just think it’s logically the right thing to do. Why did it take so long? Because that was the method.”
Managers like Maddon have changed the game in many respects, backed by unconventional thinking and new-age evolutions. During his days in Tampa, it was Maddon who first utilized shifts to a great degree. Now, it’s commonplace around the league.
The game will continue to adjust around concepts like those from Maddon. Lineups will dare to be different across baseball as convention is bucked.
Maybe there will even be more like Rizzo leading off the game.