In 2137 minor league plate appearances, Chicago Cubs outfielder Matt Szczur has hit 18 home runs. That’s 1 homer every 119 plate appearances. A power hitter, Szczur has not been.
But that’s generally OK, because that wasn’t ever really projected to be a big part of his game. Sure, a guy like Szczur needs to have enough power to keep defenses honest, but his potential was as a high-contact, high-speed, great defense guy. For the most part, he’s been that, and he could carve out a big league bench job at some point on that basis.
Last year, though, Szczur’s power dipped substantially once he reached AAA (from an already-dicey .086 at AA in 2013 to just .051 at AAA in 2014), which, together with a drop in walk rate and an uptick in strikeout rate, put his big league future in question. It’s not like Szczur needs to hit a bunch of homers to be a big league player, but without any power whatsoever, big league pitchers will confidently challenge a guy (increasing strikeouts and decreasing walks) and defenses will cheat in (decreasing singles and some extra-base hits). Follow Tony Campana’s career trajectory to see what can happen to a guy with this kind of skill set (it is only Campana’s truly elite speed that kept him as a fringe big leaguer).
That’s still a risk for Szczur if he doesn’t add just a little bit of pop. At 25, it’s getting a little late in the game for Szczur to make a substantial change, but he had something of a unique development path, only choosing baseball over football late in the game, and dedicating himself full-time to the sport just four years ago.*
*(Because the Cubs signed Szczur to a second contract to get him out of playing football, he was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft immediately in December 2011, and he’s been on the 40-man roster ever since.)
But maybe the pop is coming? Already, in just 24 plate appearances this Spring, Szczur has 3 homers. Check out his latest from this weekend:
That didn’t just barely clear the 365′ sign, either. That was a serious shot.
It’s not just the homers that are carrying Szczur, either. On the Spring, Szczur’s .381/.458/.952 line gives him the sixth best OPS in baseball among players with at least 20 plate appearances. The sample is tiny, of course, but he’s killing it. He’s also got just three strikeouts to go with his three walks.
Szczur’s manager, Joe Maddon, is taking note, saying many complimentary things here about the outfielder.
The realistic hope for Szczur remains “quality, versatile fourth outfielder and speed bench piece,” but it’ll be interesting to see if there are any marked changes in his power this year. Don’t read too much into Spring Training, obviously, but Szczur’s profile and backstory are that of a guy who *could* be a surprising, late-bloomer with the bat.
I doubt he breaks camp with the big team, given the roster crunch and his available minor league option, but seeing Szczur at some point this year as a contributor off of the bench wouldn’t surprise me. And him being a very useful piece for several years thereafter wouldn’t surprise me, either, especially if his power improves just a touch.