By Cat Garcia
The so-called “rules” of the lead-off role in baseball have been vastly fluid over the last few seasons or so — and even just as of the last few days — on both sides of Chicago.
On the North Side, for the first time in his career, Anthony Rizzo led off for the Cubs this week. Rizzo hit two home runs in back-to-back games while leading off.
On the South Side of town, White Sox manager Rick Renteria decided to shakes things up a bit too — batting left fielder Melky Cabrera, a resident of the two spot (or lower), as his lead-off batter for just the fifth time this season.
“We’ve done it this year. We’ve done it maybe four or five times,” Renteria said pre-game about having Cabrera lead off. “Just moving him up in the lineup a little bit let him give us the spark today.”
In his career, Cabrera has batted lead off in 141 games and put up a line of .282/.344/.401 with 10 home runs — one of which came this season. In his time batting at the top of the order, Cabrera has the lowest strikeout percentage of any other spot in the lineup in which he’s hit, sitting at just 10.7 percent, while maintaining his third highest walk rate in the lead off spot at 8.4 percent.
“I think a Ricky Henderson type would be my ideal lead-off guy,” Renteria quipped pre-game. “But there aren’t too many of those guys around.”
Cabrera, who last was in the lead-off spot for the White Sox on May 11th, seemed to take well to the new role. Cabrera went 3-5 with two singles on Thursday against Baltimore, including a two RBI single with the bases loaded.
“His at-bats are obviously very good. I know we’ve talked about it before. Earlier in his career, the lead-off role didn’t show very well for him,” Renteria said. “Over the last three or four years, though, he has lead off and has shown an ability to master that slot in the times that he’s been there.”
Cabrera is batting lead-off for the first time in a White Sox uniform this year… and for the first time since 2014, when he was in Toronto — a season in which he put up a career best average of .338 at the top of the order.
“Wherever the manager slots me in the lineup, I’m going to try to do my job,” Cabrera said post game. “For me it’s just [about having] a good team; it doesn’t matter what position in the lineup I’m in. I am confident and I know that they are counting on me for help and to win games and I’m trying to win games too.”
But despite the fact that Cabrera had a successful game today in the lead-off spot, and has been batting a relatively healthy line there this season, don’t expect to see Cabrera getting too cozy at the top of the order. “This is an occasional thing, this is not a trend for me.” Renteria said.
Cabrera is having success in 2017 — despite that not being reflected in his stat line, which sits at .274/.328/.378 currently. His plate approach is maturing with age. The 32-year old is currently walking in 7.5% of his plate appearances — his best rate since 2010 — while striking out just at just 12.1%. His strikeout rate is currently second best on the team, just behind catcher Omar Narvaez. Cabrera is also swinging at pitches outside the zone at a clip that’s 3 percentage points lower than 2016, while swinging the bat overall just a tad less. Patience is a virtue, and it’s paying off for Cabrera.
Cabrera is not likely to be moved at the trade deadline unless he sees some sort of solid and consistent surge in his offensive profile. His contract is up at the end of the season, and, therefore, he would simply be a “rental” — and would not likely merit a proper return value. For now, Cabrera is best suited just as he wishes — anywhere in the lineup that Renteria slots him. This gives him a chance to help his team win — something he certainly did in Thursday’s series finale against the Orioles.