Since we have another three long days before the Cubs kick things off in Washington D.C., let’s take a microscopic look at one potentially frustrating wrench in the Cubs postseason lineups: Kyle Schwarber.
As we all know, Schwarber’s season numbers are far from ideal (102 wRC+), even if they’re technically above average overall. Of course, I hope also you know by now that those numbers improved DRAMATICALLY as the season went on:
Since April 1: .211/.315/.467 (102 wRC+)
Since May 1: .213/.309/.502 (108 wRC+)
Since June 1: .244/.336/.557 (128 wRC+)
Since July 1: .255/.338/.565 (131 wRC+)
Since Aug 1: .257/.340/.549 (128 wRC+)
Since Sep 1: .283/.338/.600 (140 wRC+)
For context, a league average bat has a 100 wRC+, and Anthony Rizzo finished the 2017 season with a 133 wRC+.
So, yes, since June 1 (280 plate appearances), Schwarber has basically been just slightly below what you’ve come to expect from Anthony Rizzo this season – and in the last month of the year, his production was actually even better. In other words, you want that bat in the lineup, particularly against righties, whom he has historically handled especially well.
But let’s consider what happens if you start Kyle Schwarber in the NLDS.
If you are Joe Maddon and you are determined to put Schwarber’s name on the lineup card in a particular game, you’re almost certainly going to drop him in left field. He’s not going to be playing center field, and right field will probably be owned by Jason Heyward for the majority of the postseason (especially in games where you’d already want Schwarber in left field because of a right-handed opposing starter).
With those positions locked in place (along with first base, third base, and catcher), if you’re starting Schwarber, you have just three remaining spots – center field, second base, and shortstop – to accommodate each of Jon Jay, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Javier Baez. Overload.
If last postseason was any indication, Russell and Baez will start 90+% of the games up the middle, because the combination of their defense in a short series is too impactful to pass up. With only center field vacant, and only Jay and Happ capable of playing that particularly spot, that leaves Ben Zobrist sidelined against righties most of the time if you’re starting Schwarber.
And given his ugly, ugly numbers against lefties this season, there’s not much of an obvious other time for Zobrist to start.
… yet, we know he’s going to start plenty. He just will. Joe Maddon likes Ben Zobrist’s bat in the lineup, and, to an extent, I can understand why his patient and collected approach at the plate would be welcomed against some of the power pitchers the Cubs are scheduled to face in an environment as tense as October baseball.
And here’s the other thing: like Zobrist, we know Joe Maddon is going to start Jon Jay in center field a lot, too, so that he can lead off most games. If it were up to me, of course, that might be limited to starts against lefties (given Jay’s reverse splits and Happ’s struggles against southpaws), but it’ll probably be quite more than that.
Point being, if Maddon wants to start Schwarber in left, but he’s already planning on starting Jon Jay in center and Ben Zobrist somewhere, that means that Ian Happ and Javy Baez would be on the bench.
Given Happ’s 118 wRC+ against righties this season and Baez’s ability to affect the game in so many ways, benching both in the same game is not exactly a desirable outcome either. So, again, this really all comes back to Kyle Schwarber.
Where does that leave us? Well, here’s what I’m thinking for the Nationals, specifically.
Against Max Scherzer (who has EXTREME lefty/right splits this year), Kyle Schwarber should almost definitely be starting in left field while Jon Jay is in center. As for second base … although I fully expect Baez to start a majority of the Cubs postseason games, it’s conceivable he might sit in this one so that Maddon can plug one of Happ or Zobrist, and their lefty bats, in the lineup (with Russell at shortstop). My personal preference would be Happ, because stringing hits together against Scherzer will be challenging, but runs can come off homers at any time (… and Happ hits homers).
However, against Stephen Strasburg, who actually has reverse splits this season thanks in part to a killer changeup, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Baez back at second base, Jay out in center and one of Happ or Zobrist (whoever didn’t start against Scherzer, potentially) in left field.
But unfortunately, no matter which way you slice it, the Cubs are going to leave talent on the bench this postseason, and the lineup dance become challenging when Schwarber is starting.