Just a Bit Outside: On Kyle Schwarber and the perfect lineup

by Sam Stockton | 4/10/17 1:20am

0 for 4, 0 hits, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts. That is Kyle Schwarber’s stat line from the 2016 regular season. Schwarber, an Indiana University product, played just two games last season before tearing the ACL and LCL in his left knee in a collision with Dexter Fowler in left-center field. If you don’t understand why Chicago Cubs brass is so high on Schwarber, consider the following: .412, .500, .471. That is Schwarber’s slash line from the 2016 World Series, stats the Ohio native accrued after playing no pro baseball between early April and late October. When asked before Game 1 of the Fall Classic began when he thought he might be able to return to the Cubs lineup, Schwarber responded “about six days ago.”

Schwarber’s comeback is perhaps the most impressive feat in recent baseball history. Not only did the powerful lefty come back with unprecedented expedition, he returned to the lineup as if he’d never left. With only a pair of Arizona Fall League games under his belt since the injury, Schwarber ripped a double off the wall that came just shy of being a home run and drew an impressive walk against Cleveland Indians star reliever Andrew Miller.

In the offseason, Schwarber became a topic of fascination for Cubs fans. He had spent his entire baseball career as a catcher until just before his big league debut in 2015. But the Cubs were reluctant to put him behind the plate and potentially take years off his career, a hesitance exacerbated by Schwarber’s knee injury. He has spent most of his major league career in left field, where much has been made of his perceived deficiency. Many pundits speculated that the Cubs would trade Schwarber, talks that dated back to the trade deadline last July, when he was frequently discussed as a potential trade chip as the Cubs sought to find a left-handed reliever. Ultimately, the Cubs acquired the lefty reliever they sought, Aroldis Chapman, without trading their promising youngster. Schwarber came back, and the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908.

However, questions still remained. Where would Schwarber play in the field? Was it worth it to keep him around if he appeared destined to spend his career as a sub-standard left-fielder? Wouldn’t he be more valuable to an American League team who could use him as a designated hitter and save him the trouble of the field altogether? Then, manager Joe Maddon made a surprising announcement: Schwarber was the leading candidate to take over the role of leadoff man.

The move defied traditional baseball wisdom. The archetypal leadoff man is small, a base stealer, and not much of a home run threat. With all due respect to the bag he craftily nabbed in Game 7 of the World Series, Schwarber is none of these things. At 6 feet and 235 pounds, he is by no means small. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to hit a baseball out of sight — check out the home runs he hit in the 2015 playoffs if you don’t believe me — not grinding out infield singles.

But let’s reconsider the leadoff role for a minute. Schwarber does fit many of the basic needs. He has an excellent eye at the plate, seldom chasing pitches he can’t hit and frequently drawing walks. Based solely on his ability to work counts and get on base, he is a valuable asset at the top of a lineup. His ability to hit for power is more of a bonus than a disqualification for the leadoff role.

For obvious reasons, the leadoff man inevitably gets more plate appearances than any other player on the team — he who hits first in the order will come to the plate most often. Schwarber, one of the best hitters in the league, will hit more often by virtue of batting at the top of the order than he would if he were relegated to fourth or fifth, spots that power hitters with limited speed have traditionally occupied.

This advantage becomes even greater when you consider who hits in Schwarber’s vicinity. Batting second and third for the Cubs are Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo was in the discussion for Most Valuable Player last season and is capable of delivering timely hits and home runs. Bryant, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, is the reigning National League MVP, an excellent hitter and base runner.

Each of these three hitters has a legitimate case to claim the title of “best hitter in baseball.” None of them is a prototypical leadoff man. Schwarber, though, has an elite ability to get on base in addition to his power. Thus, he is a consistent threat to be on base for Bryant and Rizzo, and because he hits leadoff, he forces opposing starting pitchers to face the Cubs’ star trifecta in order in the first inning of every single game. Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo. That’s a scary thought for a pitcher to fall asleep to the night before a playoff game and an easy way for the Cubs to strike quickly in every game they play.

Another point worth mentioning: according to statistical simulations, the order in which your nine hitters hit is far less important than who the nine hitters are. The Cubs lineup on any given day will be occupied almost exclusively by elite major league hitters. While it is fun to speculate at the possible order in which those hitters will be deployed, the reality is that order does not matter very much in the long run.

With this in mind, the most relevant conversation around Schwarber is not about his value as a leadoff man but about his ability to be a leadoff man for the 2017 Chicago Cubs. Their lineup is collectively exceptional, almost to a man, yet has no obvious leadoff man. In 2016, Fowler could hit for power, get on base, steal bases and work counts, but the centerfielder signed with St. Louis in the offseason. Perhaps the most natural fit at the leadoff spot is super-utility man Ben Zobrist. Zobrist excels on both sides of the plate, controls the strike zone with his plate development and can extend at-bats by fouling off borderline strikes. However, for these same reasons, Zobrist fits ideally behind Schwarber, Bryant and Rizzo to protect the muscle at the top of the order. Maddon, who has established that he prefers to hit Zobrist behind the Cubs top trio rather than in front of it, refers to Zobrist as the ideal “protector” in the lineup, particularly because he can switch hit so effectively.

It is also important to bear in mind the depth of the Cubs lineup. The Cubs’ Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward will often hit late in the lineup but get on base regularly. It’s not as if Schwarber will never bat with ducks on the pond. In the third game of the young 2017 season, Schwarber walloped a three-run homer to give the Cubs a lead in the rubber game of their three game opening set in St. Louis, proof that it won’t be a season of solo bombs from the Cubs’ answer to Babe Ruth.

Even if all of this makes sense, there’s one concern left: if he can’t field a fly ball in left, how much can his bat help? The primary exposure of the casual baseball fan to Schwarber in left field is the 2015 National League Championship Series. In that series, a four game sweep to send the Mets to the World Series, Schwarber misplayed a few fly balls and at times looked lost in left field.

It feels worth reiterating that Schwarber had only been playing left field for a year or so when he injured his knee. While most big league players can make defense look easy, that ease is the product of thousands of repetitions over the course of a lifetime playing baseball. Schwarber actually shows plenty of natural ability in left field, reading the ball well and taking good routes in pursuit. He just needs to develop a feel for the position by playing it more. That feel will come with time, especially because Schwarber is a better athlete than most give him credit for. Schwarber was an all-state linebacker in Ohio, receiving plenty of attention as a football recruit before opting for baseball at the IU.

To sum up a wide array of thoughts in only a few words, the Cubs may have the perfect lineup. Watch out for a full season of Kyle Schwarber.