Chicago Cubs preparing for another Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment?
By Jake Misener
After last year’s disastrous run as the Chicago Cubs’ leadoff hitter, could a new-look Kyle Schwarber be ready to take another crack at it in 2018?
Chicago Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber missed virtually the entire 2016 regular season. He came back heroically in the World Series and, thus, we expected an MVP-caliber season in 2017. What we got, instead, was a train wreck of a calamity.
In the first half, the former first-rounder batted .178 with a .694 OPS. Things got so bad, the Cubs demoted him to Triple-A Iowa to try to get his head – and swing – right. Those adjustments seemed to pay off down the stretch. After the All-Star Break, Schwarber slashed .253/.335/.559 – raising his OPS by an even 200 points.
But that also coincided with taking him out of the leadoff spot. But this week, manager Joe Maddon said batting Schwarber atop the Cubs’ order wasn’t an issue last year.
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"“I really am eager to watch him play,” Maddon told The Athletic earlier this week. “I’m not going to say any more than that, because last year I said all that crazy stuff and I said stupid things in the beginning of the year that probably negatively impacted him and his progress. But Kyle is a solid human being and he’s going to have a great year.”"
Leadoff role wasn’t the problem
Are you buying what Maddon’s selling here? That Schwarber bought into the hype and that’s why he struggled so much last year? I mean, maybe? But if that’s the case, I’d say the hype is just as high heading into 2018. Schwarber attacked his body and looks better than we’ve ever seen him – leaner, faster and more athletic.
These things may also make him quicker – a quality a lot of baseball folks like to see atop a lineup. Especially one as loaded in the heart of the order as Chicago’s. Maddon certainly didn’t rule that out at his annual Thanksmas event.
"“He could hit anywhere in the lineup,” Maddon said. “Everybody kind of got kind of wrapped up in that moment. It kind of amuses me, honestly. When things are interpreted in a manner that has nothing to do with the outcome. He just had a tough year. When Kyle’s right, he can hit anyone.”"
But here’s the thing. Schwarber did hit last year. But he did it in the middle of the order, following the likes of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. As Sahadev Sharma points out in the above The Athletic piece, there was a difference in OPS of more than 300 points when you compared him out of the leadoff spot to the five-hole.
I don’t want a leadoff hitter who sprays line drives. I’d much rather have a guy who works counts, see pitches and grinds. Schwarber’s approach is so much better-suited for a heavy-hitter spot in the order, where he can attack the pitches he likes and drive the ball all over the diamond.
Keeping options open
Recently, a friend suggested Schwarber could blast 45 homers in 2017. While I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility, I’d much rather see 25 homers and a .280 average with a .350 on-base percentage. If he does that, the Cubs’ lineup ascends to a whole different level.
Both Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein refused to tie the leadoff experiment to Schwarber’s struggles, as well.
"“There’s zero way to prove why he struggled last year,” Hoyer said. “It could have been leadoff, it could’ve been something that would have happened if he was batting fifth. So you don’t really know if that was in his head or not.”"
What does all this mean?
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It means the Cubs aren’t ruling anything out and they’re definitely keeping an open mind. If Kyle Schwarber tears up Cactus League pitching – I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him atop Maddon’s lineup card on Opening Day in Miami.
Will this time around be a different story? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure. Schwarber is doing everything he can to move past 2017 and rewrite his M.O. across the league.