The wheel man
As tempted as I am to write a long, pithy post about the numerous talents of Jake Peavy and why he is worth the first born of every Cubs fan, I thought I would instead address another area of need by the Chicago Cubs - the leadoff hitter, aka The Wheel Man. (Note: the leadoff hitter is not in fact called The Wheel Man. I just made that up. If you see it used elsewhere, they stole it from here.)
We all know that the Cubs do not have a wheel man. They don't have a guy who will lead off a game by working 10 pitches before finally drawing the 4th ball, trotting to first, and then stealing second before the Cubs #2 hitter can smack a soft shot into the outfield porch and drive him home. What they have instead is an uber-rich star slugger, a left fielder with great bat speed who also has the ability to steal bases and prefers to bat leadoff despite being better suited to bat 5th. Phew. Long sentences so far in this one.
The cry to let Fonzie be Fonzie is not only plagiarism, it's also wrong. I don't believe he's as flaky as some think he might be, so treating him with kid gloves is unnecessary. After all, we have now seen Soriano bat leadoff for the Cubs through two post season appearances, and in both cases he appeared lost and inadequate. Coincidentally or not, so did the rest of the Cubs lineup and we the fans had to put up with watching our team get blown out by a collective score of 36 to 12. That's 12 runs in 6 games. Do the math. Wait, on second thought don't, because if you're anything like me it will end in a pit of depression, a drinking binge, and waking up in a seedy Detroit hotel with what appears to be a nude transvestite. The transvestite I could deal with, but Detroit? Oh no, my friends, you do not want to do the math.
Rob has already expressed his views that the Cubs need a Real Leadoff Hitter. He believes that it should be a top off-season priority and has suggested that, for a second winter in a row, Jim Hendry pursue Brian Roberts, who is presently wasting away in Baltimore for a perpetually crappy team (thereby proving that a leadoff hitter alone is not enough). However, I thought I'd put the anal back in baseball analysis and take a closer look at the players we already have. After all, surely the Cubs must have somebody who'd be a good leadoff hitter, right? Let's take a look.
Alfonso Soriano - 443 AB, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 19 SB, 3 CS, .287 AVG, 100 SO, 42 BB, .350 OBP, .894 OPS
In his second season as a Cub, Soriano put up those numbers while batting in the #1 spot of the lineup. Pretend he doesn't have a power game, and 19 steals in 22 tries plus a .287 AVG plus a .350 OBP puts him right in line to be a good leadoff guy. But the fact is this - Soriano is a free swinger. His actual numbers leading off an inning - as opposed to batting #1 in the batting order - are not great.
Leading off an inning: 168 AB, .286 AVG, .318 OBP, 36 SO
Leading off an inning '06-'08: 648 AB, 39 HR, .299 AVG, .335 OBP, 135 SO.
Some people are afraid that the Fonz would be too much of a headcase to succeed elsewhere in the lineup. I disagree. He may be one of those sensitive types who needs to know his jorb in order to feel comfortable, but he'd adjust. Quite frankly, he has expressed a willingness to bat elsewhere in the past, but after a shiz-itty start to the '07 season, the Cubs returned him to his comfort zone. He then had an equally crappy start to the '08 season, which leads me to believe the more likely scenario that he's just a slow starter in cold weather. So, relax already and move on. The Fonz is not the solution, nor should he be a problem if he gets relocated to 5th.
Kosuke Fukudome - 58 AB, 3 2B, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 3 SB, 1 CS, 8 BB, .276 AVG, .373 OBP, .804 OPS
Ah, Fukkie. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that, back in March, our own Rob predicted that Fukudome would put up exactly the numbers he actually put up. Rob, heed your own advice: When asked who would be the biggest turd of the '08 season, you said "People are gonna say FukU because he is NOT going to hit for a high average in 2008... probably around .250. His OBP will still be over .350, though." (You also predicted he would hit 13 homers, by the way.)
The 'dome did not spend a lot of time batting leadoff, and in the second half he also didn't spend a lot of time hitting the ball. But he is above all else a professional hitter, and I am convinced that he'll have a decent 2009. Considering that he has respectable speed - he could probably do better than 12 steals in 16 tries, and I suspect he will next year - and especially considering that he has epic patience at the plate, then Fukudome might be a sensible in-house leadoff guy. However, I am intentionally ignoring his "lead off inning" numbers, because although he has a better OBP in those situations (.336 to Soriano's .318) he otherwise sucks.
Leading off an inning: 104 AB, 4 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 14 BB, 24 SO, .240 AVG, .336 OBP, .663 OPS
Reed Johnson - 77 AB, 4 2B, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB, 2 CS, .234 AVG, .302 OBP, .666 OPS
If I was trying to talk myself into Reed Johnson as a leadoff choice, I promptly talked myself out of it when I looked at that line. However, taking it a step further, in the past 3 seasons as a leadoff hitter Johnson has had 724 AB, and he has a .290 AVG, a .360 OBP, and a .784 OPS. In other words, he's not an unreasonable option.
By the way, his "lead off inning" numbers also sucked last year, but doing the 3 year split thing, Johnson has had 377 at bats leading off an inning, and he's batting .281 with a .342 OBP in that situation. Here's the full splits:
Leading off an inning: 93 AB, 6 2B, 0 HR, 2 BB, 18 SO, .226 AVG, .265 OBP, .555 OPS
Leading off an inning '06-'08: 377 AB, 25 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 19 BB, 71 SO, .281 AVG, .342 OBP, .740 OPS
Ryan Theriot - 68 AB, 3 2B, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 6 BB, 1 SB, 1 CS, .368 AVG, .419 OBP, .831 OPS
I've argued for the past season that Theriot is either a #1 hitter or a #8 hitter. He doesn't have the slugging ability to bat anywhere else in the lineup, and Colin very well might disagree with me even on that premise. Theriot's numbers obviously benefit from limited at bats, but in terms of hitting, getting on base, and stealing, Theriot had a respectable '08. The one concern I'd have with him offensively as a leadoff guy is that he was caught stealing way, way, way too often this past season. His EOBP* was .364 last season, roughly 20 points lower than his OBP of .387.
(*EOBP = Essential On Base Percentage. Basically H+BB-CS divided by AB+BB = EOBP, or the number of times a player was actually a factor on the base paths for his team. It's a stat I invented a few years back that, I swear to Gawd, will someday catch on)
If Theriot can cut down on the basepath blunders, he might be a good choice to bat leadoff. Although, in reality, I believe that like Rich Hill before him, Theriot should be Trade Bait this off season.
Leading off an inning: 129 AB, 5 2B, 1 3B, 18 BB, 20 SO, .287 AVG, .374 OBP, .715 OPS
Leading off an inning '06-'08: 301 AB, 21 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 31 BB, 31 SO, .276 AVG, .343 OBP, .758 OPS
Mark DeRosa - Did Not Bat Leadoff in 2008, nope, not once
Ah, DeRosa, the dark horse. On a team where steals don't matter, DeRosa is a possible leadoff man, although he remains in my mind the best #2 hitter on the Cubs. Just consider even only his career line - .279 AVG, .348 OBP, and he actually was 6 for 6 in steals in '08. If DeRosa returns to the mean and puts up a .350ish OBP next season, he'd still be a fine choice to bat near the top of the lineup. (Sidebar - what's actually most impressive is that DeRo batted 6th last year 243 times and he batted 7th another 150 times, and he still managed to score more than 100 runs for the Cubs. Christ, that was a Complete Offense.)
Also, any way you cut it, DeRosa is one of the best when it comes to actually batting first in any inning. I can't believe this guy isn't batting second in the lineup at the very least.
Lead off an inning: 115 AB, 9 2B, 5 HR, 11 BB, 14 SO, .330 AVG, .394 OBP, .933 OPS
Lead off an inning '06-'08: 331 AB, 28 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR, 34 BB, 54 SO, .299 AVG, .370 OBP, .820 OPS
And now, just for crits and grins, let's take a look at Rob's Coveted:
Brian Roberts - 609 AB, 51 2B, 8 3B, 9 HR, 57 RBI, 82 BB, 104 SO, 40 SB, 10 CS, .297 AVG, .379 OBP, .831 OPS
Roberts is clearly a pro when it comes to this gig. In all ways, he's better than any Cub out there - but how much better? If I guessed, I'd say that were Colin to crunch the numbers, Roberts might account for a win difference of perhaps 2 or 3 games if the Cubs shuffled their lineup to bat Roberts leadoff.
But the place where Roberts might make a difference is when those 2 or 3 games would count the most - the DS, the CS, and the WS. There are so many little factors that go into playoff success, and I truly believe that the best team rarely wins. It often has a lot to do with luck, and who's hot. Roberts could easily enter the NLDS and tank. Soriano could enter the NLDS and light the park on fire with his bat. We really never know, but any advantage gets put under a microscope in October, and Roberts would be a good one to have. Although I would argue that, realistically, the Cubs do have a few options to bat leadoff who could get the job done, and perhaps their best option would be to find a more potent #3 hitter/RFer. Just a thought, assuming they can't do both.
Lead off an inning: 256 AB, 22 2B, 3 3B, 5 HR, 26 BB, 40 SO, .301 AVG, .365 OBP, .834 OPS
Lead off an inning '06-'08: 728 AB, 58 2B, 4 3B, 13 HR, 79 BB, 99 SO, .291 AVG, .361 OBP, .796 OPS
Incidentally, over the past 3 seasons leading off an inning, I would argue that the only difference between Roberts and DeRosa is pure speed. DeRo looks surprisingly comparable to Roberts otherwise.
So, who will be the Cubs wheel man? It's a tough call. If the team plays it in-house, the easy prediction is Theriot or Fukudome if he regains his stroke. If the team plays the free agent market and ponies up the cash, the best option may be Furcal. But if the Cubs are looking for their best option for scoring runs in the playoffs, then they need to reshuffle their lineup and pursue another big stick to play right field. A pure leadoff man of Robertsesque quality would be great - great - to have, but this is where I disagree with the Sloth. As great as it would be, it's probably not the end-all be-all move the Cubs can make.