Position: Utility Outfielder. Which, in the Joe Maddon era, means he actually plays fewer positions than the average Cub.
2016 Stats: .259/.312/.400, .265 TAv, 0.8 WARP
Year in Review: A career high 200 plate appearances. A new personal best in home runs. A World Series championship. But the greatest part of Matt Szczur’s 2016 undoubtedly is this:
He didn’t spend a single day in Iowa.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m sure Szczur has nothing against The Hawkeye State. During his time with the I-Cubs, he probably wiled away many a pleasant afternoon touring the collections of The Hobo Museum. No doubt he paid his share of homage at the Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. And surely he must have a standing challenge to cagefight anyone who dares slander the good name of the Iowa State Fair Butter Cow.
But in 2015, the Cubs sent Szczur down to Iowa enough times that he must have thought the only thing keeping him from the big leagues was his lack of knowledge about ethanol—a Villanova education can only take one so far.
Since he was out of options in 2016, Szczur spent the entire year on the big league roster. And he proved his worth to the team with defensive versatility and occasional heroics at the plate. Szczur spent a good deal of time in left field, appearing in 50 games there while making 15 appearances apiece in center and right. And it turned out to be time well spent as he compiled 1.2 FRAA and a 1.4 UZR for the season.
Oddly enough, Szczur was also one of the first players to serve notice that the Cubs would be an offensive juggernaut in 2016 with a pinch hit bases clearing three run double on Opening Night and a 2 for 4 performance with a solo home run in the season’s second game. His first two at bats of the season resulted in four RBI, putting him briefly on pace to scare the ghost of Hack Wilson more than the bar at a Mormon wedding.
That home run came on the first pitch of the at bat, which proved to be something of a trend for Szczur. He made contact on 22 first pitches during 2016, connecting for a .318 average with two homers. Szczur did so well against first pitches that Joe Maddon probably considered a lineup to give him a maximum number of at bats against Joe Mantegna.
Szczur’s greatest offensive moment came on April 29 in an 8th inning pinch-hit appearance with the bases loaded and the Cubs having just taken a 2-1 lead over the Braves. He drove an 0-1 pitch from Chris Withrow just over the wall in left for a grand slam that broke the game wide open and his reaction to it looked as if he was doing a one man impersonation of V-J Day. If any of us could ever know what it was like to hit a ball like that just once, I imagine we’d do the same thing.
And while Szczur was left off the postseason roster, he still managed to find a unique way to contribute. After Anthony Rizzo broke out of an NLCS slump with a homer in Game Four, Fox’s camera zoomed in to discover that he had done so with Szczur’s bat. Rizzo then went on to crush four consecutive hits with it and helped lead the Cubs to victory. Not to be outdone, Addison Russell later revealed that he had his breakout 3 for 5 performance in Game Four while wearing Szczur’s underwear.
This shouldn’t be surprising as Szczur’s sense of generosity has become legendary ever since an ESPN special report detailed how he saved the life of a toddler in The Ukraine with a bone marrow donation. At this point, the only thing keeping Szczur from donating a kidney is that Crane Kenney would probably find a way to sell it at the Cubs Authentics stand.
Looking Ahead: It gets tricky to predict how much Szczur will contribute in 2017. The Cubs will enter the season with four outfielders guaranteed to get playing time in Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora, Jon Jay, and Jason Heyward. So right out of the gate, it seems unlikely Szczur will be able to match his 200 plate appearances from last year.
Add in recent hints that the Cubs might carry an extra pitcher to make up for the workload the staff endured during the postseason and Szczur’s grasp on his roster spot becomes even more tenuous. (Although you can argue that if Maddon wanted to pitch someone who didn’t work during the playoffs, he could just give the ball to Pedro Strop or Hector Rondon.)
Hopefully the Cubs can find a way to keep Szczur on the roster. While he doesn’t appear to be much more than a 1.0 WARP player, he clearly accepts and knows how to thrive in his role as a defensive replacement and aggressive bat off the bench. Which, as he demonstrated repeatedly in 2016, is a valuable commodity to have.
And if nothing else, his jockeys turned out to be a much healthier slumpbuster than anything Mark Grace ever came up with.
Lead photo courtesy of Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports