Last night, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras each made successful returns to the Cubs starting lineup – albeit, from very different types of absences.
Contreras, of course, had been out since injuring his hamstring on August 9 in San Francisco. While Schwarber, before last night, started just once in the past six Cubs games, despite no indication of injury or other reasonably limiting factors (other than the fact that the Cubs were facing reverse split righties, which, OK).
Given how little we’ve seen of each player lately, how important their success is to the Cubs (both in the present and long-term), and how well each player performed last night, it’s time to show them a little love.
Let’s get at it – starting with Contreras.
The young catcher grabbed a pinch-hit appearance on Sunday night, his first day back with the Cubs, but drew his first start since the beginning of August yesterday at Wrigley Field. And although we thought he’d play only about 4 or 5 innings total (to play it safe in his first start), he actually managed to stay in the game through the seventh, working four full plate appearances in the process.
His final line may not seem too sexy (0-1, 3BBs), but there’s so much in there to like. For one, taking three walks in a night is always impressive, regardless of who you are and who you’re facing. But for Contreras to do it against guys like Robert Gsellman and Tommy Milone (both of whom are stingy on the free passes) on his first night back shows an impressive amount of discipline/restraint.
To be sure, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Mets game plan against Contreras featured a purposefully heavy diet of pitches out-of-the-zone (in the hopes that he’d be overly aggressive in his first start back), but that doesn’t really take away from the fact that he showed brilliant discipline during his plate appearances. I mean, anyone who’s watched Contreras play can imagine how much he must’ve been dying to get ahold of one last night, right?
Contreras grounded out softly in his final plate appearance of the night, but he still managed to earn an average of 5.5 pitches per plate appearance across all four chances. If you can’t quite contextualize how impressive that is, consider that the 2017 league leader in pitches per plate appearance, Curtis Granderson, has seen 4.52 PPA this season and Kris Bryant currently leads the Cubs with 4.00 PPA.
I don’t expect this to be his game from now on, but again, his patience was uniquely impressive for his first game back. Contreras is now slashing .273/.346/.516 (122 wRC+) with 21 home runs this season. Awesome.
And then there was Kyle Schwarber.
I’ll be honest, given how loudly I was banging the Schwarber-should-start drum over the last week or so, I was a bit nervous about his return to the starting lineup. But those nerves quickly disappeared when he absolutely laced a screeching line drive single to leadoff the bottom of the second inning.
According to Statcast, that ball left his bat at 109 MPH and traveled 320 feet. Needless to say, it was a laser. But it was also far from the highlight of his evening. Leading off for the second time in the bottom of the fourth inning, Schwarber took a four-pitch walk, before going first to third on Jason Heyward’s single into right.
And that bit of excellent base running set up the Cubs first run of the game, when Schwarber and Quintana combined for a perfectly executed safety squeeze:
Now THAT is how you execute the safety squeeze!
— Cubs Talk (@CSNCubs) September 13, 2017
Given how hard that bunt was and how well/quickly the first baseman fielded it (bare-handed) and got it in, Schwarber should’ve been out by a mile. But, fortunately, an OK jump, some quick running, and a good slide really made the difference.
One inning after all of that base-running fun, Schwarber launched his 26th home run of the season, tying him with Kris Bryant for second most on the Cubs despite 156 fewer plate appearances.
After going 2-2, with a homer and a walk, Schwarber added one final line drive single on the night, before being lifted for a defensive replacement in the eighth. His final line, then, was awfully pretty: 3-3, BB, HR, RBI. For the season, Schwarber is now officially above average (101 wRC+), with a to-date slash line of .207/.318/.457, 26 HRs. He’s got an excellent 12.9% walk rate and an almost under the mark 30.2% strikeout rate.
But we can have a little bit more fun than that, right? After all, the guy did go down to Triple-A Iowa to work on some things earlier this year, so let’s check out his production since he’s returned.
Stats Since July 6:
Slash Line: .258/.352/.566; 14 HRs
Advanced: .383 wOBA, 136 wRC+
Hard-hit Rate: 43.0%
Soft-hit Rate: 19.0%
Fly-ball Rate: 44.4%
Ground-ball Rate: 36.4%
The slash line is stellar and the advanced catch-all statistics both reflect a well-above average offensive contributor. But it’s those peripherals that are really catching my eye. For one, Schwarber is working with an absolutely brilliant 43.0% hard-hit rate, which would rank among the top ten in all of baseball, while maintaining a league average soft-hit rate. And on top of that, he’s putting the ball in the air WAY more than average, while avoiding hitting it on the ground.
Given that most are fully behind the current fly-ball revolution by now (especially in this current home run environment) there’s not much else you can ask for from Schwarber. Those are excellent numbers for a relatively long period of time (182 plate appearances) and suggest more good things in the future.
And if that still wasn’t enough to be excited about, the Cubs have you covered with one more great fact:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 13, 2017
It really was a wonderful night for these two Cubs and I expect to see a lot more of both going forward (including, as it stands, tonight).