Zo Goes, We Go? The Case for Ben Zobrist as the Cubs’ Leadoff Man
“You go, we go.”
The phrase heard throughout the 2016 Cubs season from skipper Joe Maddon when describing the impact of leadoff hitter and ex-Cub Dexter Fowler, raises a question many would like answered sooner rather than later as the second half of the 2017 season opens: Who is the new, permanent “you”?
Kyle Schwarber? Nope.
Anthony Rizzo? No, but wasn’t it fun while it lasted.
Ian Happ? Considering his advanced stats, it’s a stretch.
What was of little concern a year ago has become a rotating door, as 12 different Cubs have sat atop the lineup as the team’s leadoff hitter to a tune of a mediocre .233/.323/.467 line.
Who should the new “you” be? None other than 36-year-old Ben Zobrist.
It’s very easy to call out the underwhelming first half of 2017 that Zobrist has gone through. A .214 batting average to go along with an on-base percentage just north of .300 with only 7 homers and 23 runs batted in doesn’t scream leadoff hitter whatsoever.
It can also be said the experiment with the World Series MVP at the top of the lineup has already been done as he’s slotted into the #1 slot in 14 games this season with a .241/.317/.500 line.
Again, not a glamorous set of numbers but now that we have the negatives out of the way, here’s why the elder of the lineup is due for an improved second half.
It’s all about the averages.
Zobrist has struck out in less at bats (14.9% vs 19%), walked more (11.3% vs 8.3%) and hit more balls into play (70% vs 68%) against league averages through the first half of 2017. That last stat is most telling in what may be to come for Zo’ in this second half.
While putting far more balls in play than his teammates who have been considered to sit atop the batting order, his batting average for those balls in play is due for an uptick.
Despite 70% of his at bats resulting in a ball hit into play, the 36-year-old is batting only .216 in those scenarios. You might think to yourself that he’s getting up there in age and his ability to drive the ball is beginning to fall but that isn’t the case either.
His line drive percentage is still above league and career average (24% vs 21%), more of his fly balls are home runs (9.5% – his best in 8 years) and the number of fly balls staying on the infield has stayed at his career average of 12%.
With all of that being said, and his ability to drive the ball still alive and well, it’s a fair guarantee that his batting average will see a respectable increase as 2017 continues.
Zobrist wasn’t the leadoff answer for many Cubs fans as the year began. The first half of the season was the time to tinker with the lineup, but now that the club is 5.5 games back of Milwaukee as the second half opens?
It’s time to go all in with Zobrist — and if Friday night’s line vs the Orioles is any indication (2-for-4, HR, 2 RBIs, 2 R, BB), don’t fix it until it breaks.