Chicago Cubs: Kyle Schwarber quietly off to a strong start at the dish

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

Other Chicago Cubs have garnered most of the attention here in April, but former first-rounder Kyle Schwarber has looked like a true offensive threat.

When the Chicago Cubs drafted Kyle Schwarber with the fourth overall pick four years ago, more than a few people scratched their heads. But the brain trust on the North Side believed in what this kid could do – and he did not disappoint.

After tearing through the farm system, he made his big league debut in 2015, putting up a 130 OPS+ in his first taste of Major League action. His 16 home runs in just 69 games didn’t hurt matters – and once October came, he started writing his legend.

Of course, the team’s seemingly improbable postseason run drew to a close in the NLCS. But heading into 2016, expectations were off-the-charts in Wrigleyville – for both the team and Schwarber. Just a couple games into the campaign, the catcher-turned-outfielder blew out his knee and his season ended just like that.

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Or so we thought.

As Chicago cruised to a division crown and an MLB-best 103 wins, Schwarber ground through his rehab process. While the Cubs battled the Dodgers in the NLCS, he faced live pitching in Arizona. With a World Series on the line, he returned and hit .412 – helping lead the Cubs to their first championship in 108 years.

A big step forward, an even bigger one back

That seemed to be the top of the mountain – and a leaping off point, if you will, for many of these young, albeit talented players. But instead of building on their historic run, more than a few of them took steps in the wrong direction last year. Schwarber, perhaps, regressed more than anyone else.

He looked lost at the dish. His plate discipline and ability to drive the ball to all fields seemingly vanished. In the first half, he hit just .178 – eventually going from leadoff man to being demoted to Triple-A Iowa.

When he returned, he looked a bit better. Comparing his pre and post-ASG splits, he raised his OPS by 200 points and hit 17 of his 30 homers after the Midsummer Classic. Still, with shoddy defense and a tumultuous performance, a great many people wrote him off as a defensive liability with swing-and-miss tendencies.

He took that to heart, attacking his body in the best way imaginable this winter, dropping a tremendous amount of weight in hopes of getting more athletic. And, three weeks into the 2018 season, all that work is paying off.

Patient, but lethal so far in 2018

Schwarber enters Tuesday’s opener against Cleveland batting just a tick under .300 (.293) across his first 70 plate appearances. He struck out 18 times to-date, but drew a dozen walks to help offset that number, giving him a staggering .414 on-base percentage.

It’s early, but so far he’s been more than 1 1/2 times better than the average offensive player (based on his 162 OPS+). With the team’s depth, Joe Maddon usually keeps Schwarber out of the lineup against lefties, but that’s not a concern really. Why? Because he’s making the most of his PA’s against right-handers, hitting .348 against them.

Continuing his career-long trends, he’s hit better at Wrigley Field than away from it – with an 87-point split between his home and road batting average. Batting sixth (his second-most popular spot in the order this year), he’s hitting nearly .600. Granted, that’s hardly sustainable, but letting him hit lower in the lineup certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

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With Albert Almora and Javier Baez seemingly cemented atop the lineup (at least for now), Schwarber can just focus on doing the little things right. And if recent trends continue, we’ll see what the Cubs hoped for four years ago when they bet on a kid from Indiana University.

A professional hitter capable of changing the game in so many ways.