While Anthony Rizzo’s production could be key to the Chicago Cubs’ turnaround, the leadoff mystery still needs to be solved. However, two months into the 2018 season the answer might lie with Albert Almora Jr.
Almora is having a very productive start of the year, slashing .324/.374/.451 with 12 walks, 27 strikeouts and an .825 OPS in 156 plate appearances. In his 99 plate appearances when batting first, he has a .333/.388/.411 slash line with 8 walks, 20 strikeouts and a .799 OPS.
At the end of spring training, Joe Maddon envisioned Ian Happ and Almora platooning at leadoff. While Happ has an edge in terms of power, his high penchant for strikeouts quickly knocked him out as an option at the top of the order.
Through 44 games and 146 plate appearances, he has a 40 percent strikeout rate. But when leading off in 52 of those plate appearances, his strikeout rate has jumped up to 44 percent. In comparison, Almora has just a 20 percent strikeout rate when leading off.
The rest of Happ’s leadoff numbers were dismal as well, slashing .174/.269/.283 with a .552 OPS. In recent weeks, he’s shown to be a much better option toward the bottom of the order. In fact, Happ has found a sweet spot batting eighth, boasting a .344/.432/.781 slash line with a 1.214 OPS, 3 home runs and 7 RBI from that position.
The argument against playing Almora regularly at the leadoff spot was to shield him against right-handed pitchers. However, his splits so far this season have shown that he’s been more than serviceable against righties.
|Almora vs. lefties (through May 27)||Almora vs. righties (through May 27)|
Dexter Fowler, the Cubs’ leadoff hitter during the 2016 World Series campaign, proved to be a stable force at the top of the order. In 546 plate appearances during 119 games that season, Fowler slashed .277/.393/.449 with 124 strikeouts, 79 walks and an .842 OPS.
His replacements in 2017 collectively couldn’t stack up, slashing .246/.324/.422 with 162 strikeouts, 74 walks and a .745 OPS. Five different Cubs hitters tried their hand at the top of the order with at least 30 plate appearances last year, and none wlong-termterm solutions.
|2017 Cubs with Leadoff Hitters with 30+ Plate Appearances|
|John Jay||Ben Zobrist||Kyle Schwarber||Anthony Rizzo||Ian Happ|
Rizzo’s stat line might have been the best at leadoff, but he’s much more useful batting in the heart of the order. The 2017 season showed how inconsistency at the top of the order can disrupt the flow of an entire lineup.
So far, Almora has given the Cubs some much-needed consistency when batting first in the order. While he might not be flashy or generate the consistent number of walks you want to see from a leadoff hitter, he can provide the steadiness the lineup needs in 2018.
Not to mention, he also brings a high-quality glove defensively. The 24-year-old outfielder covers a lot of ground in both center and right field. This season he’s registered 89 putouts without an error in just over 275 innings of work.
Of course, Almora isn’t going to play every single day. Ben Zobrist is the best candidate to fill in on rest days. He’ll probably get the call to leadoff against starters who he boasts great career splits against.
But until Almora shows otherwise, the leadoff spot should be his to lose from here on out.