Three players have started a game atop the Cubs batting order this season: Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome, and Marlon Byrd.

Theriot has led off 38 times, Fukudome 10 times, and Byrd once heading into Saturday’s game against the Cardinals.

Among those who follow the Cubs, the choice between Theriot and Fukudome is a contentious one. Neither is the ideal choice for a leadoff hitter, but for a team without any better candidates, they have their own advantages.

Looking at this year’s numbers, Fukudome is clearly better at drawing walks. While Theriot walks in only 3.4 percent of his plate appearances, Fukudome boasts a 13.6 percent walk rate.

That ability presents itself in his .392 on-base percentage, 72 points higher than Theriot’s, and good for the 18th-best mark in the major leagues.

He’s also hitting for greater power, putting up an ISO of .215 that ranks 35th in the majors and is 184 points higher than Theriot’s major league-worst .031.

On the other hand, Theriot is the greater threat on the basepaths, stealing nine bases to Fukudome’s three with only one caught stealing apiece.

He’s also less likely to strikeout, boasting the 28th-best strikeout rate at 12.9 percent. Fukudome’s strikeout rate is 19.2 percent.

To truly understand these numbers, however, we need to understand each player’s approach and the way pitchers approach them.

Fukudome swings at only 39.2 percent (27th fewest) of pitches he’s thrown while Theriot swings at 45.8 percent (74th most) of his. But only 44.9 percent (39th fewest) of the pitches thrown to Fukudome are strikes, while Theriot sees strikes 54.6 percent (second most) of the time.

Getting more specific, 66.3 percent (ninth most) of the first pitches thrown to Theriot are strikes while only 59.1 percent (60th most) of Fukudome’s are in the strike zone.

In addition to swinging more often, Theriot also makes more contact. His 89.4 percent contact rate is the 19th highest in the big leagues while Fukudome’s 79.7 percent is the 62nd lowest.

Breaking that down further, Theriot makes contact on 94.1 percent (25th highest) of the strikes he swings at and 74.0 percent (47th highest) of the balls.

Fukudome, on the other hand, makes contact with 87.6 percent (65th lowest) of strikes and 60.6 percent (44th lowest) of balls.

Theriot is getting thrown more strikes than almost any hitter in the majors, is taking a very aggressive approach as a result, and is still making contact at a very high rate.

Meanwhile, Fukudome is seeing fewer strikes than most hitters, is taking a very patient approach as a result, and is making contact at a rate that’s below average.

Although he’s only seeing slightly more strikes than in past years, the huge increase in strikes thrown early in the count, coupled with a very impressive contact rate, is likely to blame for Theriot’s huge dip in walks from his 2007-09 rates of 8.2 percent, 11.0 percent, and 7.5 percent.

In contrast, Fukudome has been one of the stingiest swingers in baseball for three years and is seeing the highest rate of first-pitch strikes, but he is seeing a career low of strikes thrown overall despite his career-low contact rate.

For some reason, pitchers are feeling the need to pitch around him late in the count despite the fact that they would likely benefit from pounding the zone.

What does all this mean going forward?

Well, to answer that, I’m going to assume that the scouting reports on each player reflect the numbers I’ve gone over so far.

When it comes to Ryan Theriot, consider the fact that most of the players who see the lowest percentage of strikes either swing at a high rate or make contact at a high rate and that Theriot does both.

Pitchers will most likely adjust by throwing him fewer strikes and the walks should eventually come, although his batting average might take a dip.

For Kosuke Fukudome, it likely means that pitchers will throw more strikes to exploit his poor contact rate. His walk rate will dip and necessitate a change to a more aggressive approach that could cause a drop in his batting average and ISO.

At this point, the differences in the ability to draw walks is smaller and Theriot likely holds the edge in hitting for average.

This is when speed and power come into play.

Theriot is easily the bigger threat on the basepaths, stealing an average of 24 bases over the span of 2007-09 compared to Fukudome’s totals of 12 and six the past two seasons.

While Fukudome might still hold the advantage in getting on base, the fact that he isn’t much of a threat to steal takes away a lot of potential impact on the game.

Meanwhile, Theriot is enough of a threat to force pitchers to throw more fastballs to the hitters behind him and increase the likelihood that they get a hit.

Fukudome would also almost certainly hold the advantage in terms of power, but power from your leadoff hitter means nothing in the National League with the pitcher hitting ninth unless you’re hitting home runs at a much higher rate than the 10 and 11 that he hit the past two seasons.

Then, of course, there’s one last consideration: Fukudome’s annual regression that’s already started.

After the best April of his career (.344/.443/.641), he’s had the worst May of his career (.258/.338/.394) to date. The fact that his career slash-line for June through October is .232/.336/.366 doesn’t inspire much confidence going forward, either.

Considering that the Cubs have Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano, and Tyler Colvin having very good seasons at the plate and that Xavier Nady is starting to heat up, there’s absolutely no guarantee that Fukudome will even be worthy of starting everyday.

Given the choice between two nearly even players, one who will remain a starter for the foreseeable future and one who will be riding the pine before too long, I will always take the former over the latter.

If nothing else, it allows the lineup to develop a sense of continuity that might help the team later in the season.

Perhaps Theriot’s detractors should just calm down and let “The Riot” do his thing.

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