When Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and MCL in a collision with Dexter Fowler during the third game of the 2016 season, the first thought through my mind was “why was he in left field to begin with?”
Now, with the success of Willson Contreras, the question becomes: will we ever see Schwarber behind the plate again? Furthermore, is it necessary for him to play the position for the Chicago Cubs at all?
The Cubs will be in a very curious conundrum with their catchers following the 2016 season. Veteran David Ross announced his retirement prior to the season, and all reports suggest that he is holding firm to that statement, though he admits that his future in the game is uncertain, and Miguel Montero (.194/.322/.645) is set to be a free agent following the 2017 season.
Contreras has proved to be a valuable addition to the lineup, and Schwarber’s contributions are uncontestable—so how should the Cubs balance playing time for these three players on the 40-man roster?
More from Chicago Cubs News
- Cubs: It’s time to start thinking about potential September call-ups
- Cubs: P.J. Higgins deserves to be in the lineup on a daily basis
- Cubs might start to limit Justin Steele’s workload soon
- Cubs: Adrian Sampson is forcing his way into the conversation
- Projecting the Chicago Cubs bullpen to open the 2023 season
Both Ross and Montero aren’t expected to contribute much offensively; their purpose on the team is to mentor and develop the younger catchers. Their veteran experience will be much more fruitful in the playoffs, so any slumps and lumps between them are forgivable during the regular season. With Ross retiring, it will be up to Montero to carry that flame in 2017.
Montero is a master of framing pitches, something that Cubs fans hope can be passed on to Contreras and Schwarber. Montero is third among qualified catchers in total pitch framing ratings. He is second to Jonathan Lucroy in average calls per game average at 2.1, and is third in total calls added with 97.
The opportunity to play alongside the duo will prove to be invaluable over the course of both Schwarber and Contreras’ careers and in the eyes of Cubs management. In this case, it’s answered whether or not Schwarber is still considered the catcher of the future. Schwarber seems destined to play back-up at best, given the overall successes of Contreras.
Contreras ranks towards the middle of the pack among qualified pitch framers. He gets 14% of applicable pitches called balls and only 8% called for strikes. Montero gets 11% and 10% of those calls respectively. The balance in Montero’s numbers implies how crisp his glove work is on the edge of the strike zone in comparison to Contreras’. If Contreras had Montero’s framing numbers, he would be irreplaceable in the lineup, and we may have seen Montero packaged-up before the trade deadline.
Schwarber’s framing numbers are even worse than Contreras’. During the 2015 campaign, he gave up an average of -.75 calls per game, and finished the year with a -1.5 frame rating. That’s why Coach Joe Maddon felt compelled to give the young slugger a chance in left field. There, Schwarber’s -0.2 DWAR was second highest on the team, behind Austin Jackson (0.6), even though Cubs fans are quicker remember the blunders he made in the playoffs. Some are quick to criticize Schwarber’s size for his injury, but fail to consider that he hadn’t played another position except catcher in the minors.
It’s hard to imagine that the average MLB player (5’10 ½”, 210 lbs) is about the same size as Schwarber (6’0”, 235 lbs), considering how advanced his power is. Schwarber led all Cubs players at both catcher and left field in total offense for 2015, batting .346/.362/.808 in 40 regular season games. He was second to Jorge Soler in total offense during the playoffs (.333/.889/1.302) among qualified batters on the team, capping off his season with a home run that sits encased below the Budweiser sign looming over Wrigley Field’s right field wall.
Schwarber’s bat provides his irreplaceability that would easily bolster an already lethal Cubs lineup whereas Contreras is playing amongst a platoon of good players and needs to add something to his game to make him standout other than his youthful athleticism.
Maddon hopes that both Contreras and Schwarber will handle catching Jon Lester and Jason Hammel next season, but in all likelihood, Schwarber will see a majority of his time in the outfield to preserve the left-handed slugger and “not injure his ability to hit the top of scoreboards”, as Maddon put it.