Kris Bryant is among the best hitters in baseball, with a Rookie of the Year award and Most Valuable Player title to his name at a prime age of 27 years old. Even with the creative Joe Maddon as his manager for the duration of his career, Bryant has settled into hitting in the second spot in the Cubs lineup, especially this season. This has statistically been found as the ideal spot in the lineup for a team’s best hitter: he may maximize his total plate appearances, but also have more opportunities to drive in the leadoff hitter when he reaches base. There’s just one issue: excluding his rookie season, Bryant has had one of the largest gaps in the league between his performance with and without runners in scoring position when he steps to the plate. With that in mind, it’s time to consider a new spot in the lineup for Bryant when he returns from his third All-Star appearance: leading off.
Following the departure of Dexter Fowler after the 2016 season, the Cubs haven’t had a leadoff hitter, with many different players taking on the role temporarily as Maddon shuffled his lineup and often used the spot to jumpstart a struggling hitter. That 2016 offense was among the most potent in history, but has appeared to have lost some elusive spark since then, especially since the second half of the 2018 season. The Cubs inability to drive in runs last year was well-documented, and it hasn’t improved considerably since. Bryant is among the main culprits of being a mysteriously worse hitter with a runner on second and/or third; pair this with his speed, which is among the best on the team, and his ability to get on base at a better rate than any of his regular teammates, and you’re left with a very strong case to experiment with Bryant as the leadoff hitter to attempt to boost the offense in a crucial second half of the season.
First, there’s the most glaring concern: Bryant, for some reason, has been a significantly worse hitter with runners in scoring position. This is been an impression made on many Cubs fans, but it’s more than just a hunch: in his 2016 MVP campaign, Bryant posted a 148 wRC+, indicating that he was roughly 50% better than a league average hitter. In 164 plate appearances with runners in scoring position during that season, though, Bryant’s wRC+ dropped to 118, much closer to league average than you’d expect from an MVP. And in Bryant’s 60 plate appearances that Fangraphs classified as High Leverage from his MVP season? He posted a measly 49 wRC+, making him over 50% worse than the league average hitter in the plate appearances that mattered most. This season, he’s hitting just as well as in that MVP campaign, with an identical 148 wRC+ through the first half. His High Leverage mark is up to a respectable 116, but his production with runners in scoring position has gotten worse: with a 107 wRC+ with runners on second and/or third, Bryant is hardly above a league average hitter when he has the best opportunities to drive in runs, despite being the tenth best hitter in MLB by overall wRC+. There are several potential explanations for the difference this season: Bryant’s strikeout rate is 2% higher with runners in scoring position than without; he exchanges 5% of his hard contact for soft contact with runners in scoring position; he pulls the ball 12% less with RISP than without; and his fly ball rate jumps up over 12% while his line drive rate drops 4% with runners in scoring position. It’s hard to believe that there isn’t an underlying factor causing this, but the data is there to prove that Bryant makes less contact with runners in scoring position, and the contact that he does make is of a lower quality than when second and third are empty. With a plate appearance to begin each game with the bases empty, Bryant would have more opportunities to hit free of the bind which he seems to encounter with runners in scoring position, accruing more chances to spark a Cubs offense that is filled with weapons.
Even completely ignoring Bryant’s relative struggles when he bats with runners in scoring position, he is the best leadoff candidate in the Cubs lineup. There are two trademark qualities of a leadoff hitter: the ability to get on base and speed to utilize once you get there. Bryant’s .403 on base percentage this season is the highest among regular Cubs and seventh among all qualified hitters. Bryant’s elite on base skills fit the first quality to a T. The other quality of a leadoff hitter is speed and acumen on the basepaths, and Bryant is well above average in both of these regards as well. His 28.1 ft/sec sprint speed is 112th in baseball, squarely in the top 25% of all sprinters. Additionally, with the exception of his injury-ridden 2018 season, Bryant has been well above average in Fangraphs’ baserunning metric, indicating that he applies his speed to take the right risks on the basepaths to provide net positive value for the Cubs when he reaches base as well. This season, Bryant is third on the Cubs in Statcast sprint speed and first in Fangraphs’ baserunning metric; exactly the baserunner you want on base to start games, and the player who will get on base with the greatest frequency on top of that.
Finally, Bryant hitting leadoff would allow for many other opportunities to shuffle up the Cubs lineup and provide other hitters with high leverage at bats. Javier Baez would slot into the second spot in the order very well, and his 154 wRC+ with runners in scoring position this season would play very well with Bryant to get on base in front of him on a regular basis. Beyond Baez, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras are posting 127 and 148 respectively for their wRC+ with RISP, and even Jason Heyward would be no worse than Bryant with his 107 mark in a somewhat resurgent season. With many other players who have proven themselves to be as capable or even better than Bryant at driving in runs, it’s potentially even better to bring them up to the plate in the same situations where the Cubs are threatening to score. The shifting of the lineup is something that Maddon has a lot of faith in as a means of getting the most out of his players, and putting Bryant in a leadoff spot where he has only 31 career plate appearances is certainly another way to do that.
Hitting Kris Bryant leadoff to come out of the All-Star break would be a new idea for the Cubs, but data suggests it may be a welcome change for an underperforming offense. With the potential to maximize both Bryant’s value and the value of his teammates, the leadoff spot may enable Bryant to be a whole new weapon for the Cubs. With nearly anything on the table after another frustrating stretch, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and it could open the door for Bryant to shine even brighter.