The Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions.
That factual statement really has nothing to do with the rest of this post, I just wanted it to be the first sentence I wrote here. I can’t say anything about it that hasn’t already been written (I’m not that good of a writer), but I will say that as a lifelong Cubs fan, the month-long rollercoaster of the 2016 playoffs was the most rewarding, and exhausting, sports thing I’ve ever experienced.
As promised, the rest of this will not have anything to do with the World Series. It does, however, have to do with the Cubs. In particular, one player that was almost alarmingly vital to their offense over the past two seasons: Dexter Fowler. He has now officially left via free agency, creating a void in the outfield and at the top of the batting order. The defense, while improved in 2016, is replaceable. In fact, it may even be in line for an upgrade depending on how many innings are given to Jason Heyward or Albert Almora. More concerning is the leadoff spot in the batting order.
Fowler’s approach – patient and balanced, with enough pop to do some damage – set the tone for the rest of the offense. Using FanGraph’s leaderboard tool, I collected some stats from the 2016 season that I thought best embodied that approach. They are shown in the table below, along with where they ranked amongst the rest of Cubs. Most importantly, he led the team in pitches per plate appearance, on-base percentage, and O-Swing% (which measures how frequently a player swung at pitches out of the strike zone). He was in the middle of the pack by most other measures, but that represents the “balanced” part of his approach. He wasn’t particularly prone to ground balls compared to fly balls; he wasn’t excessively pull-happy; and his soft, medium, and hard contact rates paint a picture of a consistent ball-striking profile.
That approach led off 118 games for the Cubs last season, and is now likely headed elsewhere. Based on previous statements from the front office referring to “waves and waves” of prospects, my guess is that they would prefer to fill the spot from within.
So how do the potential replacements on the current roster compare? To find out, I collected the same stats for each of them and scored them against Fowler’s. Essentially, I calculated a percentage difference between each player’s numbers and Dexter’s numbers. Then, I added all of those differences together to create a You Go We Go score (YGWG) for each potential replacement (if you don’t understand why I called it that, here).
In the table below, the smallest values (i.e. closest to Fowler’s) in each category are shaded varying degrees of blue. Darker blue means a smaller difference. Each player’s YGWG is listed in the far right column. For comparison, Fowler’s score in every column would be exactly zero.
Interesting results; apparently Tommy La Stella is the answer. In reality, there are not many good, realistic options on the current roster. La Stella may have produced a reasonable approximation of Fowler’s patience and balance in 2016, but it was in only 169 at bats and it wouldn’t be fair to expect the same production over a full season. Soler, Montero, and Rizzo are not going to bat leadoff. Addison Russell could be an option, but I suspect that the Cubs would rather see him grow into a middle-of-the-order type hitter.
Ben Zobrist is sixth on the list, but also has most dark-blue shading in his row. This suggests that his approach has the most in common with Fowler’s. Joe Maddon might agree; Zobrist was his favorite Fowler-fill-in last season, batting leadoff 20 times (La Stella actually led off 9 times, with Coghlan, Szczur, Baez, and Heyward combining for the remaining 15). The easy answer is to plug him into the leadoff spot, but it may not be that simple. The value of having him further down in the lineup to protect Rizzo is obvious (go re-watch the 10th inning of Game 7 if you don’t agree). Assuming Kyle Schwarber bats second in this arrangement, they would be forced to rely on improvement from Russell or Contreras to fill that role.
Unfortunately, the most logical replacement defensively, Almora, has the worst YGWG of them all. He may ultimately become the everyday center-fielder, but don’t expect to see him batting leadoff next season. The aforementioned Schwarber has also been mentioned as a leadoff candidate. Looking at his entire major league career, his YGWG is 2.54. He does, however, come closer than anyone to matching Dexter's pitches per plate appearance. So, if patience is the virtue the Cubs value the most in their leadoff hitter, he may be the answer.
No matter what they do, losing Fowler will hurt. There is nobody quite like him on the current roster, and that’s what made him the perfect fit at the top of the lineup the past two seasons. This represents the first opportunity for Theo and Co. to replace a key member of the team. It will undoubtedly occur again in the future, and how they proceed now sets the stage for how sustainable this thing really is. The makeup of the lineup will certainly change and Joe Maddon will have to get creative once again in order to optimize it.