Kyle Schwarber underwent successful knee surgery this week and is expected to make a full recovery, but obviously it’s a setback for the 2016 Chicago Cubs. It was not only a setback for the Cubs’ everyday lineup and Schwarber’s development as a catcher, but it also changed the team’s ability to keep its primary catchers fresh for the stretch run of the 162-game marathon.
Coming into the season, the Cubs seemed to put themselves in a position to ease Miguel Montero’s work load in an attempt to keep him fresh throughout 2016 by allowing Schwarber to catch certain starters during the regular season.
Montero was an innings-eating receiver in his last four years in Arizona as he caught 4,518 innings in the last four years with the Diamondbacks prior to being dealt to the Cubs. That number was the most innings for any catcher between 2011 and 2014 — or 159 more innings than Yadier Molina and 437 more than Russell Martin.
Logging innings behind the plate catches up with catchers. At minimum, there was value in using Schwarber in a role that benefited him as well as his fellow backstops.
In February, there was talk of Schwarber catching Kyle Hendricks. Then in March, it seemed like a lock that Schwarber would be teamed with Jason Hammel. Either scenario would aid Schwarber’s development behind the plate while keeping the 32-year-old Montero and 39-year-old David Ross as fresh as possible.
But losing Schwarber this early in the season means there are anywhere between 25 to 32 starts (or somewhere between 15-20 percent of catching innings) that will now be split between a catcher in his age 32 season and one in his age 39 year. Instead of having Montero catching anywhere from 60-65 percent of games, he projects to be bumped to approximately 70-74 percent of games. That also means Ross will likely see more playing time, up to approximately 30 percent.
This is a scenario the Cubs seemingly wanted to avoid and looked prepared to do so by using Schwarber as a catcher on occasion.
The blueprint for 2016 could be found in 2015, where Montero caught only 825 innings, his fewest since 658.1 innings in 2010. Additionally, 2015 marked the end of a four-year stretch in which Montero caught at least 1,000 innings.
Spot starting Schwarber could have given the Cubs an extended look at him in a different light. The Cubs only saw glimpses of Schwarber in what was an emergency role in 2015 as he caught only 136 innings in 21 games (15 starts).
The Cubs carried three catchers early in 2015, but not by choice, as the team was unable to find a suitable deal for Welington Castillo prior to the start of the season. It wasn’t an ideal situation for Castillo or the team, but it allowed manager Joe Maddon to rest two veteran catchers early in the season.
Montero made 30 starts in the first 50 games of the season before Castillo was traded to the Mariners on June 3. While starting in only 60 percent of the games, Montero posted a very solid .244/.361/.403/.764 slash line in 144 plate appearances. However, he slumped in June and then suffered a thumb injury in July prior to the All-Star Break. For what it’s worth, Montero’s struggles coincided with a decrease in rest. In 111 plate appearances after the Castillo trade, Montero started in 73.5 percent of the team’s games and slashed .214/.406/.378/.684 with a rather unfortunate .262 BABIP. That doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship there, mind you, so don’t go too far with that data.
Montero returned August 8, but his playing time was slightly scaled back as he started in only 66.7 percent of the team’s final games of the regular season, which was a lower percentage than what prior to the thumb injury. Yet, his offense picked up in the final 36 games after his return with a .277/.358/.438/.796 slash line in 148 plate appearances.
Montero is a workhorse who averaged 133 games played in his last four years with the Diamondbacks. Ross is a vet with more than 5,500 innings caught under his belt. And yet, both could stand to be better rested in 2016. It will be interesting to see if and how the Cubs try to eat some of those innings that previously seemed destined to be caught by Schwarber.