Position: Greatest DH in Cubs history
2016 Stats: .000/.200/.000, -0.1 WARP
Year in Review: A number four overall draft pick with a -39 OPS+?! #FireTheo
Kyle Schwarber might have just played the most unique season in baseball history. As you no doubt recall, his regular season ended on April 7 when he left Chase Field on a cart after colliding with Dexter Fowler while chasing a ball in the gap. And when that happened, I’m sure you were thinking the same thing I was:
There’s our eventual World Series hero.
Once he was removed from the game, the Cubs fanbase waited uncomfortably for the diagnosis. And the news was just as bad as it looked. Schwarber had fully torn his ACL and LCL. The only thing keeping him from injuring himself further was that the human body has a maximum number of cruciate ligaments.
Four days later, Schwarber took the field for Opening Night introductions with a crutch under his right arm, as if he was auditioning for “Metaphor For the Last 108 Years.” He received the biggest ovation of the night, which certainly must have felt good, but it did nothing to heal his injury. This proving once and for all that Kyle Schwarber is not Tinkerbell.
He then began a lengthy rehab process and immediately earned the respect of his teammates by choosing to be a visible locker room presence throughout the ordeal. Periodically, the Cubs would provide an update on his progress and several waggish fans would take to Twitter imagining scenarios like Joe Buck announcing Game 7 of the World Series and suddenly yelling “Bah Gawd, that’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony!”
It turns out that these guys should get Ken Rosenthal’s job.
After two and a half regular season games, six full months without competitive baseball, a 1-for-6 performance in the Arizona Fall League, and a day spent doing nothing but watching pitches from a machine, Kyle Schwarber stepped to the plate in Game 1 of the World Series and proceeded to go 1-for-3 with a walk and a ringing double. Off of Corey Goddamn Kluber. So apparently the latest market inefficiency the Cubs front office has discovered is this:
Knees are overrated.
And he only got better. How much so? After a 2-for-4, 2 RBI performance made him the hero of Game 2, fans began advocating for the Cubs to find a way for Schwarber to play defense. Which is like finding out that during the Game 7 rain delay, Jason Heyward consulted a bracelet asking “What Would Milton Bradley Do?”
Sadly, Schwarber’s knee had not healed enough to make playing left field possible, so he had to content himself with pinch hitting appearances as the series shifted to Wrigley. Once it returned to Cleveland, though, he resumed his role of miracle worker. Overall, Schwarber laid waste to Cleveland pitching to the tune of a .412/.500/.471 slashline. Literally every single hit he got during 2016 turned out to be one of the most important hits of the year.
And, of course, none moreso than his single leading off the greatest 10th inning ever. At 23 years old, Kyle Schwarber is already a genuine Cub folk hero. Just imagine what he could do if he ever plays a full season.
Looking Ahead: The thing about missing an entire year is that the questions that everyone has about Schwarber going in to 2017 are the same as the ones that followed him into 2016.
On defense, Schwarber calls two images to mind: his fruitless dive for a ball that got past him in the 2015 NLCS and the collision with Fowler. Because of this, when baseball analysts talk of Schwarber’s defense, they speak as if every play in left field ended up this way. MLB writers and fans depict Kyle Schwarber in the field as some bizarre hybrid of Adam Dunn and Matt Foley, motivational speaker.
So how bad is Schwarber’s defense in reality? Well, in 2015, Schwarber rated a -4.6 FRAA. That’s pretty bad. Fangraphs wasn’t much kinder to him, anointing him with -3 DRS in left field and -2 at catcher. It’s probably not a good thing when a player’s defensive statistics notably improve thanks to a season ending injury.
But the Cubs are banking on being able to put up with Schwarber’s glove by surrounding him with the genuine defensive badassery of Albert Almora and Heyward to his left and Addison Russell directly in front of him. And nothing will help them endure Schwarber’s fielding adventures better than watching him pound the holy hell out of the ball.
There is still a bit of occasional talk about trying Schwarber at catcher as well. That doesn’t seem particularly prudent coming off of the kind of knee injury he sustained. But then again, we saw what happened when everyone doubted him last October. If the Cubs still want to try going this route, they will probably look to match up Schwarber with one starter in Spring Training to put him in a comfort zone.
The other issue to remember is that Schwarber still has to show that he can hit left handed pitching over a large enough sample at the big league level. Remember that in 2015, Schwarber slashed .143/.213/.268 against lefties, compared to .278/.396/.557 versus right handers. Basically, a left handed pitcher was the equivalent of the opposing manager inventing, patenting, and hitting Schwarber with a Gary Scott ray.
Chances are, though, that if Schwarber can turn into Miguel Cabrera in the World Series after missing the entire regular season, he’s probably also got the talent to figure out how to hit Tony Cingrani.
These are legitimate questions that will follow Schwarber into next year. But they shouldn’t distract us from all the amazing things he’s accomplished up to this point in his very young career. With good health, we will have the privilege of watching him do amazing things with the bat in 2017. And–maybe if we ask nicely–with the Chicago Chamber Choir too…
Lead photo courtesy of Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports