How big of a black hole has the leadoff been since Dexter Fowler left? Let us examine.
Dexter Fowler had a huge impact in his two seasons in Chicago. Batting leadoff, he was a tough out that prompted manager Joe Maddon to remark that "when he goes, the team goes."
Dexter was a threat on multiple levels. He put up a .261 batting average, with a .367 OBP and .427 SLG for a .794 OPS slash line. He could steal a few bases, and hit a few home runs. The key was his .367 OBP. Before the Bryzzo spot in the lineup, there was a 36% chance that someone was on base in front of them. It set the tone for the offense. His extra base power and being a minor threat on the bases would just add to the stress of an opposing pitcher. He also drew a ton of pitches, between 81 walks and 130 strikeouts per year.
Sadly, Dexter Fowler became a St. Boring Cardinal in 2017, leaving the Cubs to plug a major hole in the lineup. Unorthodox manager and front office moves tried different and new ideas to fill the gap, and unfortunately it's been largely a failure.
To put it in perspective, here's a chart to show you how many games a player has spent in the leadoff spot.
Since Fowler's depature, there have been no less than 10 players tried at the leadoff spot each of the past three seasons. Now some of that is Joe Maddon being a constant tinkerer, but a lot of that is based off performance. Going forward, I want to cite the 2019 Pittsburg Pirates as an example. They were ranked 16th in OPS among overall leadoff hitters for 2019. Think middle of the road. Their slash line was .294/.343/.444 for an .787 OPS. On base percentage is key for a leadoff hitter, and their .343 was 12th. This isn't an exact science, but using that average as a standard for mediocrity, please consider the follow year by year performances.
Kyle Schwarber got first crack at leadoff. With his high walk rate and power, he's a dangerous hitter. He won't hit for a high average or steal any bags, but the on base and slugging capabilities were there. Unfortunately he put up this line: .190/.312/.381 for a .693 OPS. Everything was well below his career average. Most concerning was the massive drop in power. His approach was off, so Thed sent him to Iowa to fix what was wrong.
Ben Zobrist is up next, with 182 PAs out of the leadoff spot. He was decent, but not great: .253/.330/.438, with a .768 overall OPS. This was certainly better than Schwarber, but still notches below Fowler's production. BenZo had a rough season overall, but actually put up his best numbers at leadoff.
Jon Jay split some time with Zobrist at the leadoff spot and wasn't great. In 239 PAs: .267/.325/.350 for a .675 OPS. Unfortunately, this was kind of mediocre overall, with no power, and below average OBP. His career average OBP is .350 now. I don't get it.
With these issues, poor Joe Maddon got desperate. This was when Anthony Rizzo got his first shot at becoming the GLHOAT: In 59 PAs, he put up a .300/.373/.680 slash line for a 1.053 OPS. Boom goes the dynamite. Unfortunately he got caught stealing once out of the leadoff spot, and it's back to hitting in the middle of the order again. You are too slow Tony!
Overall, 2017 was a struggle at leadoff. As one would expect, when plans A, B and C all fell short. Zobrist held his weight, but Schwarber and Jay not producing was a terrible start. The 6 others that combined for .536 OPS can't be left unstated either.
Ian Happ, after a strong spring starts off at the leadoff spot. Despite a home run on opening day, it's a rough stretch: .222/.311/.370 with a .682 OPS. Like Schwarber, his power disappears, and his OBP becomes subpar. He only gets 61 PAs there before being yanked.
Albert Almora got 213 PAs at leadoff. He actually did pretty well, with a .333/.368/.409, .797 OPS line. Not a ton of power, but the on base was there. We all know Al is not fast, though, with 0 SBs and 1 CS, so there was not much threat on the bases.
Ben Zobrist got 140 PAs at leadoff. He was good, with an above Fowler .285/.371/.439, .810 OPS line. Awesome!
Anthony Rizzo also got another shot to add to the legend. He got 38 PAs this time, and put up a .328/.428/.552, .979 OPS effort. The power dropped, but the on base was even better. GLHOAT.
Then the Cubs traded for longtime villain Daniel Murphy. He got a shot at leadoff for 132 PAs: .317/.341/.516, .857 OPS, which was the second best OPS for a Cubs leadoff hitter that year. Good for you Daniel.
2018 was much improved for Cubs leadoff hitters. The same plug and play approach was taken, but this time there's was lot more production. No sub-.700 OPS besides Happ's small stint was a huge boost across the board. The OBP consistently being above .350 was also ideal for an offense.
Ben Zobrist started the year at leadoff. It went okay before he took a break from playing: .287/.368/.309, .676 OPS. The lack of power hurt, but he got on base plenty, and did score 15 runs in 25 games in the leadoff spot.
Daniel Descalso was then inserted into the spot for 51 PAs and it wasn't pretty: .167/.314/.262, .576 OPS. Somehow it's only the third worst OPS I'm going to cite in this article. It gets much darker friends.
To make up for Descalso's shortcomings, Albert Almora then got another chance to lead off. It's a disaster: .209/.221/.284, .504 OPS in just 68 PAs. He drew one walk in the leadoff spot all year. It was a nightmarish 2019 for Almora overall, and really disappointing after the success of 2018. It is the worst OBP and OPS for a Cubs leadoff hitter during this post-Dexter Fowler era.
Jason Heyward, having a renaissance year was also given a chance. With his traditionally solid OBP, it's a fitting choice. Unfortunately we saw him fall apart with a .147/.252/.302, .554 OPS, in 147 PAs. This is the second worst slash line we'll see in the post-Dex era. It's really puzzling, because his seasonal stat line was .251/.343/.429, .772 OPS, which is significantly better.
Kyle Schwarber then got another shot at leadoff. I had major concerns after 2017's career-altering mess. He wasn't a complete disaster this time, with a line of .229/.304/.520, .825 OPS. The power was there, but on base wasn't. He had a .339 OBP for the year, so essentially that stat was boosted greatly any time he was out of the leadoff spot. I'm not sure what changes when he leads off, but that will be another article for another day.
Finally, the Cubs turned to Anthony Rizzo, the GLHOAT, who got 46 more PAs at leadoff. He put up the best stats in that slot of his career: .410/.500/.667, 1.167 OPS. Yes friends, a Barry Bonds-like .500 OBP percentage at leadoff. Joe doesn't keep him there, so Thed cans Joe at the end of the season. (He wasn't fired, his contract simply wasn't renewed!--Cubs Semantics Twitter)
2019 wound up being a brutal year for the leadoff spot. Somehow even worse than 2017. Plug and play fell short, with confusingly worse performances out of Heyward and Schwarber in the leadoff slot then other places in the batting order. The Cubs put up a .294 overall OBP, far and away dead last in baseball--even worse than 100 loss teams.
Going forward? The Cubs need a leadoff hitter. The plug and play approach has failed two out of three years. It's messed with otherwise productive hitters production (Schwarber, Heyward, Zobrist, Happ, Jay), or someone unworthy has been a failure (Descalso). While I've enjoyed seeing Rizzo lead off, it's a waste of his power. A good leadoff hitter just has to be an offseason priority, even if it means revamping the roster and trading away a core player.