The advice Cubs teammates have given Kris Bryant in his transition to leadoff
MESA, Ariz. – It’s been over a week now since manager David Ross announced his plans to utilize Kris Bryant as the Cubs’ everyday leadoff hitter in 2020 and while it’s still a big storyline, the fanfare has died down and the new reality has certainly settled in around camp.
This is how it’s going to be in 2020, just like it was with Ian Happ tabbed as the team’s leadoff hitter in spring of 2018 and Kyle Schwarber getting the same title in 2017. But how will Bryant avoid the same fate as those two, who struggled in the top spot and were eventually moved down in the order?
For starters, Bryant is more established in his career than either of those two guys were back then. Both Schwarber (2017) and Happ (2018) were entering their first full big-league season when they were asked to fill the leadoff role, while Bryant is about to kick off his sixth MLB season in 2020.
He also has a career .385 on-base percentage and has finished first or second on the team in OBP three times. Plus, teammates believe he’s the Cubs’ best baserunner, even over Javier Báez.
The idea is obviously that Bryant would bring that skillset to the top of the order, but the trick will be how he adjusts to a role he’s never really done with much regularity. He has only 7 career starts in the No. 1 spot (all in 2018), though he also led off some in college.
“I think for someone that hasn’t done it, who doesn’t have the experience of just going through and doing it, feeling yourself come up there and feel like you gotta get a hit every at-bat to be productive,” Jason Heyward said. “That’s something you gotta turn off in your brain from that [leadoff] spot.
“But at the same time, you want to be productive, you want to help your team, you want to get hits. So just gotta find that balance. You gotta stay even more balanced, I would say, than any other position in the lineup.”
The best thing Bryant has going for him is that he’s spent most of his MLB career hitting in the 2-hole, with 84 more starts there than any other position in the batting order. So he’s used to hitting early in games and in front of the traditional heart of the order.
However, it is a sizable jump in approach from No. 2 to No. 1, especially in the first innings of games.
To combat the change in roles, Bryant plans on keeping his approach simple and not trying to put too much pressure on himself or the situation.
That’s exactly the way to go about it, say his teammates who have been in that spot before.
Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Daniel Descalso combined to lead off 111 of the Cubs’ 162 games last season and they all preached the need for Bryant to stay true to who he already is as an offensive player.
“Just don’t try to do anything differently,” Descalso said. “I mean, Kris Bryant’s one of the best hitters in the league. You don’t want him altering the way he takes an at-bat.”
Schwarber believes Bryant is well suited for the leadoff role because the former MVP already grinds out every at-bat to work counts and see pitches.
That’s essentially what a leadoff hitter’s role in today’s game with stolen bases plummeting: Get on base, drive the pitch count up and run the bases well.
“I think every players’ gotta figure it out for themselves and what they want to do,” Schwarber said. “Hearing him talk, he’s gonna be himself and that’s the biggest thing. You want to be yourself there at the top and not feel like you have the ‘leadoff man’ label, but to feel like, hey, I’m gonna take my at-bats and get on base and hit homers, hit some doubles, whatever it is.”
The only advantage to having Bryant hit leadoff is it ensures he’ll come up to the plate more than any other hitter in the lineup. And with Rizzo hitting second, it’s never a bad thing to have your two best hitters – and two best on-base threats – tallying the most at-bats.
However, with that frequency can sometimes come a rushed feeling, Rizzo said.
“I think the biggest mental adjustment [hitting leadoff] is you’re hitting every other inning, like fast,” Rizzo said. “So when you’re not used to it, for me, I hit and I’m all excited and then it’s like, ‘oh my gosh, I’m in the hole already, I gotta go run and get my stuff and lock in again.’
“So that happens fast. Other than that, when you’re at home and you’re on the field [in the first inning] and you sprint in to get your stuff so you can time that pitcher right, just a little bit more rushed. So just a little more slowing down may be [helpful].”