Cubs Report Cards: Kyle Schwarber Forced His Way Into Lineup, Forced to Get Comfortable in New Role
Graceful, he was not. Well, not in the traditional sense. But even though Kyle Schwarber was more bull in a china shop than ballerina, the bombs he blasted more than made up for the exiguity of his elegance. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a huge Schwarber honk. Then again, who isn’t? Though if you are among the minority who isn’t fully bought-in on this young man, you may want to keep it to yourself, lest I get mad online and this thing devolves rapidly.
Seriously though, if I was still into the whole “favorite player” thing — not that I’m against that or feel like I’m above it, just that I’ve sort of morphed into a more general appreciation for the team as a whole — I’d have to label Schwarber as such. I’m an Indiana University fan and had been cheering for their powerful sophomore backstop as he led the Hoosiers to the College World Series in 2013, the first time a Big Ten team had made it to Omaha since Barry Larkin’s Michigan squad in 1984.
If this kid could make baseball relevant at IU, I reasoned, he would be a great part of a rebuilding Cubs organization. I was a little disappointed when Schwarber elected to enter the MLB draft following his junior season though, mainly because I knew he wouldn’t be available to the Cubs when they made their second-round selection. But as the draft neared, his stock began to rise and rumors circulated that if Carlos Rodon was off the board, the Cubs intended to take War Bear with the 4th pick. Sure enough, the White Sox took the power pitcher from NC State and the Cubs got the Hammerin’ Hoosier.
Fast forward 16 months and there was Kyle Schwarber, patrolling left field for the Cubs in the NLCS and raising all kinds of questions about his viability there as he did so. It wasn’t just that the miscues he had made were costly, it’s that he looked all kinds of lost out there, and in front of a national audience to boot. Schwarber had actually missed some time toward the end of the regular season following a hard landing while diving for a pop-up and there was that time he almost took out the brick wall with his head prior to making a heads-up relay to Dexter Fowler.
While he made the play in that latter instance, it was clear that the converted catcher was not always comfortable in the outfield. Can you really blame him though? I mean, the kid had played a grand total of zero innings there in the minors in 2015. Sure, he got some reps in the low levels of the organization after being drafted, but not nearly enough to have achieved any true measure of adequacy, let alone mastery. The fact is that the Cubs had wanted him to make it as a catcher — though since, as rumor has it, IU didn’t think that was a possibility, Schwarber didn’t get much work on the finer points of the craft in college — and had kept him behind the plate at AA Tennessee to start the season.
From the start, the conversation about Schwarber had centered around his bat and how the Cubs could get the most value out of it. Getting really high offensive output from a catcher is huge, but honing all the nuanced skills required to be even a passable major-league backstop takes a lot of time. Conversely, the fastest path to the Bigs is via the outfield, though the value to the team might not be quite as high. Either way, the Cubs probably hadn’t planned on calling Schwarber up when they did. A mid-June stretch against AL opponents meant a handful of games with a DH, but the prevailing thought at the time was that Javy Baez would get a shot. A headfirst slide a broken finger later, and the temp role went to Schwarber.
While his first at-bat came late in a game at Wrigley after entering as a defensive replacement, Schwarber’s first full game came on June 17th in Cleveland. As luck would have it, I was there for that game and saw the rookie got 4-for-5 with a triple, 3 runs scored, and 2 RBI. The power and the sound of the ball off of his bat…woah. Unfazed by his rapid ascent, Schwarber just seemed at ease with everything. He only lasted 6 games in that first stint, after which he went to Iowa and then won MVP of the All-Star Futures Game before coming back to Chicago for good on July 17th. The Cubs had just seen too much potential in the bat to keep it off the major-league roster much longer.
They did try to make of go of it with Schwarber at catcher, but once Miguel Montero and David Ross were at full strength, Joe Maddon knew he had to find a way to get his young slugger at-bats. Thus began Schwarber’s career as a left fielder. Many who saw only the bad plays against the Mets in the playoffs may not have known how little time the rookie had spent there on the season. They may not have known about his work ethic and desire to get better, whether that’s as a catcher or left fielder or hitter. When it’s all said and done, I believe Schwarber can be a decent defensive player regardless of where that is on the field. I believe in his desire and ability. But if we’re being honest, this guy’s probably not going to be defined by his defense.
After all, it wasn’t just errors that defined Schwarber’s post-season performance. Just ask Pirates fans how they felt when he crushed their souls as surely as he crushed Gerrit Cole breaking ball. Or maybe you could see what Cardinals fans thought about the Kevin Siegrist pitch he deposited atop Wrigley’s right field video board. That’s like some newfangled kind of light-tower power. But to focus on the playoffs is to take too narrow of view of just how good this kid was for the Cubs.
Only six rookies hit more more than Schwarber’s 16 home runs, though every member of that sextet at least 62 more at-bats than him. While Schwarber ranked 17th among rookies in fWAR with 1.9, only two of the players ranked above him had fewer at-bats. And remember, he did all that while trying to acclimate to a new position only a year after being drafted. That kind of rapid ascent and change of scenery would be difficult for many players to handle.
Schwarber certainly wasn’t without his struggles though, as he hit only .143 against lefties and saw his overall batting average plummet over the course of his time in Chicago. After coming out blazing with a .364 avg in June, Schwarber hit .302 in July, .221 in August, and .208 in September/October. It’s interesting to note that while he hit around .330 as a catcher/DH, Scwharber’s average as an outfielder was only .210.
So was it a matter of pitcher’s getting a book on him or of a young player letting his lack of comfort with a new position impact his offense? I’m sure both are factors, but I tend to lean pretty heavily on the latter. Schwarber’s playoff numbers seem to bear that out, as he was fully entrenched in his role by that point. And while 9 games isn’t exactly a sample size from which to draw serious conclusions, I’d say slashing .333/.419/.889 with 5 homers is a pretty decent performance.
I know it’s considered a bit gauche in the more analytical circles to call a guy clutch, but I think that’s exactly what Kyle Schwarber is. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that I think he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t let the big stage intimidate him. In fact, I’d be willing to go so far as to say he relishes that stuff. War Bear strikes me as a fun-loving guy, the kind of player who feeds off of the energy around him and who is then able to put that back out. But while he seems totally chill in the aftermath of his own exploits, he’s the most fired up guy in the dugout when his teammates do something great. That’s the kind of guy I want on my team.
Schwarber is far from perfect and he’s got a lot of room to grow yet. He’s a man whose future in the field is still perhaps in a bit of flux (will they still try him at catcher?) and who must improve against lefties. And you’d really like to see the contact numbers come up, as his numbers are well below league-average when it comes to contact both in and out of the zone. Having a swinging-strike percentage that’s 44% higher than his peers isn’t going to play well either. Ah, but here’s the thing: he’s just a rookie.
If this kid can make some adjustments and continue to grow as a hitter while getting more used to his role — whatever that may be — I can’t imagine too many pitchers being comfortable facing him.
Final grade: A-