We Really Believe in the Hitter, the Person: Theo Epstein Is Willing to Bet on Kyle Schwarber in 2018
Until yesterday, Ian Happ was the Cubs’ Spring Training offensive standout – and don’t get me wrong, he’s still killing it – but there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Kyle Schwarber.
After going 1-3 with a homer and 2 RBI against the Rangers yesterday, Schwarber is now the Cubs’ Spring OPS leader with a ridiculous .381/.471/.786 slash line, featuring three doubles, a triple, four homers, eight walks, and four stolen bases! Yeesh. Save some for the season, Schwarbs!
In fact, he’s not just leading the Cubs with that production. His 1.256 OPS is the second highest in all of baseball this spring, behind only former Cub prospect and current Seattle Mariner Dan Vogelbach.
Given the way he ended last season on a positive note, all the weight he lost over the winter, and how good he looks this spring, Schwarber has been the talk of the town lately, and the Cubs front office may finally be rewarded for their faith in him.
“He’s one of these guys who cares so much,” Epstein told Joe Posnanski at Cubs.com. “I think sometimes players who really care about the team and who take their responsibilities to contribute really seriously, the ones really don’t want to let their teammates down, it can be harder for them to come out of slumps. They carry so much weight on their shoulder. Maybe they don’t have to, and you tell them that, but they feel the responsibility so deeply that they can’t help it.”
Epstein went on to explain that Schwarber was carrying “tremendous weight around with him,” metaphorically last year, and that’s why they sent him to the Minors. The Cubs wanted him to reset mentally, become a little more selfish, and rediscover his identity as a hitter. As we all know, Schwarber’s production in the second half (131 wRC+) was much improved. (Have we mentioned that before?)
Via The Tribune, Assistant Hitting Coach Andy Haines echoed Epstein’s sentiment: “We’re proud of him, excited for him and the challenges ahead. There will be some ups and downs, but we think they will be a lot less extreme and we really see what he’s put into (it) as far as being himself.” Haines made sure to point out that Schwarber’s probably not there yet – and he’d be the first to tell you that – but he’s obviously made significant progress and is heading in the right direction.
As for Schwarber, himself, his goals for this season are not objective-oriented. He’s not angling to make the All-Star team or get more at-bats against lefties. He’s simply looking to put the barrel on the ball. Because when he does that “good things happen.” Of course, it’s not all about the offense, as Schwarber’s offseason transformation has given him more confidence in the field, too.
And although it might feel funny/cheap/cliche to credit the weight loss, we can’t just ignore it. Schwarber’s worked extremely hard to transform his body this spring, and it’s clearly paying off. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect him to be a Gold Glover in left or steal 40 bases, but Schwarber’s outfield play can easily improve with more speed and mobility, and the same goes for his base running. And in case you were wondering, the body transformation isn’t just over. At ESPN, Jesse Rogers writes that Schwarber has been bringing in his own leftovers to camp, instead of eating whatever’s provided, so he can keep up with his strict diet.
Rogers also had more on the changes to Schwarber’s approach this spring from an NL Scout: “He’s using his hands more. It’s more compact. He’ll be able to get to more fastballs. Other than that, it looks the same.” A more compact swing that’s more “handsy” should help improve Schwarber’s contact rate all around. And with his natural power, he shouldn’t lose much in terms of slugging for the change. Joe Maddon has noticed the changes, too, as we recently noted.
And that reminds me, while everyone loves Anthony Rizzo’s choke-up, maximum-contact approach with two strikes, we know that it just won’t work for everyone. You need to boast some serious power to be successful choking up that much, and not everyone has that. But Schwarber? He definitely does. I can’t say for sure we’ll see him emulate Rizzo when he gets down to two strikes, but an approach similar to that might not be out of the question. We did see him experiment with choking up in two-strike counts a couple times last year, though it was not a regular thing.
Rogers has so much more on Schwarber’s changes – including his work to lay off high fastballs, remaining calmer against lefties, and generally becoming that total-package hitter everyone thinks he can be – so you’ll definitely want to check it out.
And in the end, I’ll just leave you with this, from Epstein to Cubs.com: “It’s baseball, so you never know. I just know we really believe in the person, and we really believe in the hitter. Yes, I’ve been wrong. But I’ll bet on this guy.”