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Cubs get a most unlikely new spark at top of order

FLUSHING, NY - JUNE 13: Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) hits a double during the Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs on June 13, 2017 at Citifield in Flushing, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
(Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Anthony Rizzo, a man with a sense of humor, quickly understood the absurdity of the question.

“Am I’m going to go 30/30 this year?” the Chicago Cubs first baseman said, repeating the question with a smile. “No. I’ll leave the stolen bases for the other guys.”

Well, Rizzo is the Cubs’ improbable leadoff hitter at present, all 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds of him. And leadoff hitters are supposed to be speedy players who can steal bases.

No manager loves constructing unconventional batting orders more than Joe Maddon. He decided to move his cleanup hitter to the leadoff spot last week to shake up the defending World Series champions’ stagnant office.

Even if the Cubs would want Rizzo to steal bases — he has just 41 in his seven-year career, though he swiped 17 in 2015 — it’s hard to do so when you’re rounding the bases so many times.

Rizzo has hit three home runs in his first five career games batting leadoff, including one to begin each of his first two games at the top of the order last Tuesday and Wednesday against the Mets’ Zack Wheeler and Matt Harvey at Citi Field in New York.

On Friday night at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, he nearly made it three in a row to tie the major league record set by Brady Anderson in 1996 for the Baltimore Orioles. The umpires originally ruled Rizzo’s towering drive to right field off the Pirates’ Trevor Williams was a home run before changing the call to a foul ball after a video review.

In addition to three homers, Rizzo is hitting .409 (9-for-22 with two doubles and eight RBI as a leadoff man).

“It’s crazy,” Rizzo said. “It’s weird. It’s funny. But it’s great.  If we win ballgames, I’ll be the leadoff hitter for the rest of my career. It’s all about winning. I’ll just say it’s different.”

The Cubs are 3-2 since Rizzo began batting cleanup but still just 34-34 overall, second in the National League Central, 2.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

FLUSHING, NY - JUNE 13:  Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) high fives his teammates in the dugout after hitting a homerun during the first inning of the Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs on June 13, 2017 at Citifield in Flushing, NY.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

FLUSHING, NY – JUNE 13: Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) high fives his teammates in the dugout after hitting a homerun during the first inning of the Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs on June 13, 2017 at Citifield in Flushing, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Cubs leadoff hitters’ .306 on-base percentage at the time of the switch ranked 24th among the 30 major league teams. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber has been the Cubs’ primary No. 1 this year, making 36 starts but compiling a .304 OBP.

Maddon’s rationale in making the move to Rizzo is that it made sense to put the team’s best overall hitter this season at the top of the order so he would get more plate appearances.

The eight RBI have been a happy byproduct.

“It’s been amazing how many times the lineup has turned over there have been runners on base for him,” Maddon said.

Maddon originally planned for Rizzo to be the temporary leadoff hitter. However, with the Cubs averaging 7.4 runs a game since the switch, there is a hesitancy to mess with a good thing, especially since their 4.75 average is just 14th in the majors.

“Gosh, the way he’s getting the momentum rolling, it would be hard to move him,” Maddon said. “I think he likes doing it. He likes the idea of getting that extra at-bat.”

While Rizzo doesn’t plan on spending the rest of his career as the leadoff hitter, he is indeed having some fun with it.

“I am the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time,” he said with a grin. “At least, statistically.”

He then paused and became more serious.

“It’s not something I ever expected,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will last but it’s working now so I’m just going with the flow.”

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