The National League Has a Designated Hitter: What’s Next for Kyle Schwarber?David Banks/Getty Images
Some players make baseball appear impossibly easy: Ichiro beating out routine grounders, or Barry Bonds flicking an unhittable Eric Gagne fastball over the fence, or Daniel Murphy after being bitten by a radioactive Beltran. Others make it appear impossibly hard: Miguel Asencio throwing 16 straight balls in his big league debut, or Dan Uggla self-destructing at second in the 2008 All-Star Game, or Yasmani Grandal batting .067 and slugging .101 over the last 30 games of his injury-sabotaged 2015 season.
Few players do both in the same series, flipping from one pole to the other between the bottom and top of each inning. But the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber showed his best and worst sides during the Mets’ NLCS sweep: the precocious slugger who’s so at ease in the batter’s box, and the unpolished left fielder who treats the pursuit of every fly ball like a half-remembered routine from Purple Pizzazz.
In 31 postseason plate appearances, Schwarber slashed .333/.419/.889, setting a Cubs postseason record with five home runs.1 One of those homers went farther than any other homer hit in these playoffs, and it’s not even the one you would think, the called shot that might still be sitting on top of the Wrigley Field scoreboard. This is the same Schwarber who won’t turn 23 until spring training, who breezed through the minors in a little more than 500 at-bats, and who made his big league debut in mid-June, a year and three days after his first professional plate appearance. The same Schwarber who flips golf clubs, who’s quickly taught major league pitchers to fear throwing him fastballs, and who hit the year’s farthest-outside home run, which took considerable strength even if it was a product of his park. The same Schwarber who seems to have borrowed both the body and the swing of a much older Matt Stairs.
And, unfortunately for the Cubs, this is also the same Schwarber who had trouble going back on balls …
… and whiffed on one he lunged for like he was trying to tackle Braxton Miller …
… and deflected one he dove for …
… and overran an out.
Schwarber, who caught most of his games in the minors, is one of baseball’s best young hitters. According to NEIFI, a player evaluation and forecasting system developed by former Brewers manager of baseball research and development Adam Guttridge and licensed to MLB teams, Schwarber’s projected 2016 production per plate appearance ranks 13th among hitters who’ll be younger than 27 next June, slightly ahead of the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado. That’s particularly impressive given that Schwarber is the third-youngest player in the top 20, after Carlos Correa and (by two months) Miguel Sano. (Some chicken soup for the Cubs fan’s soul: Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant rank fourth and eighth, respectively.) However, for that bat to be in Chicago’s lineup, Schwarber has to play a position, which leaves the Cubs with three imperfect options:
Left Field: Talent evaluators I talked to were divided on Schwarber’s future in left. No one questioned his work ethic, but many questioned whether any amount of practice could correct his flaws.
“Probably not playable unless you have two CFs playing the other two spots,” said an AL scout, who followed up later to note that he hadn’t yet seen Schwarber’s latest NLCS mistakes when he first answered. Another AL scout was even harder on him. “He can’t read fly balls, he has a slow first step (and all subsequent ones too), poor instincts,” the scout said. “Just looks bad out there on every single play. Adam Dunn–ish … or even worse.” Worse than Dunn would be uncharted territory: The miscast DH posted the worst defensive season on record while splitting time between first base and the outfield corners in 2009. The same scout added that even if Schwarber devotes himself to defense, “He will always be one of the worst OFs in the league if he stays there,” concluding, “right now he is a disaster with the glove in the OF. Unplayable at present.”
“Unplayable” is a pretty strong description. In games Schwarber started in an outfield corner, the Cubs went 27-11, a far better winning percentage than they managed in all other contests. And that’s not including their 3-1 record in the four postseason games Schwarber started in the outfield before the NLCS. Schwarber’s defense was rarely the reason the Cubs won, but it seems to have been survivable. Even if we extrapolate his small-sample Defensive Runs Saved score (minus-3) in left field over a full season, he’d have been about 10 runs below average, far from the Hanley Ramirez territory that demands an immediate move to a less-damaging position. And while speed and defense peak early and decline quickly for most players, Schwarber’s inexperience in the outfield might leave him with some room to improve.
“He needs lots of reps to stick in LF, but Manny Ramirez stuck out there for a while,” said one scout who projected Schwarber as a DH when he saw him as an amateur.2 An NL GM echoed the scout’s sentiment by invoking the name of another bat-first left fielder, saying, “If Matt Holliday can do it, so can Schwarber. He will drive in more than he will let in.” And a scouting director told me that Schwarber “could get to 40 in LF,” referring to the 20-80 scouting scale, on which 50 is average. “Could upgrade from disaster to slight liability,” he added.
ESPN analyst Keith Law had the least equivocal and most optimistic response. “I have zero doubt he can play an average left field,” Law said. “He’s a good athlete for a guy his size” (6 feet and 235 pounds).
Plus, we know Schwarber has the arm for the outfield. The table below, which displays Statcast data on outfielders’ max-effort throws, proves that Schwarber fits in just fine.
|Fielder||Avg. Arm Strength (mph)||Throws|
|Kyle Schwarber (LF/RF)||91.9||5|
|Other Corner OF||89.3||860|
Statcast info on Schwarber’s range and reaction time is less helpful: Most fly balls and line drives are routine, even for iffy fielders, so it would take a subset of more challenging plays to reveal real differences. But the numbers we do have don’t suggest he’s as out of his depth as he seemed in the NLCS.
|Fielder||Avg. First Step (Seconds)||Avg. Route Eff. (%)||Avg. Top Speed (mph)||Plays|
Schwarber’s path to playing time in left field is fairly clear. Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler is a free agent, and while Chris Coghlan is signed for 2016 and five of the Cubs’ top 10 prospects are outfielders, including two of their top five (Billy McKinney and Albert Almora), none of those players is advanced enough offensively to unseat Schwarber, provided his glovework doesn’t worsen.
Catcher: Different position, same conflicting reviews. I asked one AL scout what prevents Schwarber from catching. “Everything,” he replied. According to some stats, that seems harsh. Statcast says Schwarber’s arm strength and pop time (how long it takes for the catcher’s throw to reach second after the pitch hits his glove on a steal attempt) are almost exactly average.
|Catcher||Avg. Pop 2B (Seconds)||Avg. Arm Strength 2B (mph)||Throws|
Baseball Prospectus says his receiving was exactly average as well: In 953 “framing chances,” he earned his pitchers precisely as many strikes as expected. So how does a guy with average ratings in so many areas draw such scathing reviews?
“He may be a decent framer but he’s a horrible [blocker],” the AL scout says. “And while the pop times are passable, the arm is not accurate.”
The stats support those critiques. Between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors, Schwarber allowed 47 wild pitches and 12 passed balls in 574.2 innings. Among major league catchers, only Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli, and Blake Swihart had as many combined wild pitches and passed balls this season, and all three allowed far fewer on a per-inning basis. Moreover, Schwarber has thrown out only 21 of 105 baserunners (20 percent) in High-A and above.
The AL scout thinks the Cubs’ rhetoric about Schwarber’s future behind the plate was intended to prop up his trade value in the event the team decided to deal him for young pitching, like the Yankees did with Jesus Montero, another player without a position who (unlike Schwarber) has also been a bust with the bat. Yet, I spoke to an NL scout who doesn’t believe the Cubs were blowing smoke.
“I think that, for the next few years, there’s a possibility that Schwarber becomes an average defensive catcher,” he said. “I believe in his athleticism and his ability to translate it into lateral agility. Perhaps more importantly than that, he has proven to have very good balance and strong hands. I believe those two attributes correlate strongly with framing abilities. I’m not sure how long he will be able to last back there — the tools I see seem to be fairly maxed out and I am skeptical about any increases happening. But count me in on the Schwarber-behind-the-plate bandwagon. He won’t be Yadi [Molina], but I think he can do it and not be harmful to the pitching staff.”
As a catcher, Schwarber would have to clear higher hurdles for playing time. After Miguel Montero came off the DL on August 8, Schwarber caught only 28 innings the rest of the way; Montero got the bulk of the work, while David Ross served as Jon Lester’s comfort catcher. Montero is signed through 2017, and Ross, who no longer hits but still has Lester’s love, is signed through next season. Twenty-three-year-old catching prospect Willson Contreras makes the position even more crowded. Contreras hit .333/.413/.478 in 126 games for Double-A Tennessee and bats right-handed, which might make him a better platoon complement to Montero than the lefty Schwarber.
The Trade Route: With Rizzo entrenched at first, the Cubs can’t stick Schwarber anywhere easier than left. Nor can they count on the designated hitter coming to the NL during Schwarber’s inexpensive seasons. So if the DH won’t come to Schwarber, Schwarber could come to the DH. A trade to an AL team would free Schwarber of the need to dwell on his weakness and free his team of the pressure to find him a home. “Let him become Mike Napoli,” one of the AL scouts said.
There are only so many DH jobs available, though: Many AL teams are committed to aging, immobile sluggers in that slot, like Nelson Cruz, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Kendrys Morales. The best fits for Schwarber would probably be the Indians and Rays, the two teams that have gotten the least offense out of their DHs over the past several seasons. Both clubs still have holes at DH, and both have young pitching that could catch Theo Epstein’s eye. Still, Schwarber’s breakout might make the price too steep.
“He’s not attainable now,” another AL scout said. “He still has a chance to hit .285 with 40 bombs. They’d be insane to trade that.”
Schwarber picked the worst possible time to fall apart in left field. For most of the season, he was closer to “slight liability” than “disaster,” and Schwarber’s bat is worth a moderate downgrade on defense. The rookie’s NLCS implosion was likely attributable to some combination of inexperience, playoff jitters, and a small sample — and all of those culprits can be ironed out in time.
In theory, Schwarber would be worth the most if he could catch. NEIFI projects his defense to be about 11 runs worse than the average catcher and three runs worse than the average left fielder in 2016 (which could be conservative estimates, since Schwarber’s track record is brief). But given how valuable offense is behind the plate, the defensive hit would be worth it. NEIFI sees Schwarber as a 3.3 WAR catcher, a 2.5 WAR left fielder, and a 2.0 WAR DH.
“I think he can probably play a decent left field,” the NL scout says. “The instincts are fine, first step is quick enough. You can teach routes.” But the scout still leans toward trying him at the position with the highest degree of difficulty. “If we’re talking strictly years of control for the Cubs, I’d work hard with him behind the plate.”
It’s likely that Schwarber’s travels will eventually take him to a team where he can embrace his inner Stairs, Jack Cust, and Josh Phelps, and shed every glove but the batting kind. For now, though, he’ll keep up the appearance of a complete player, and we’ll learn which scouts were right. Given the Cubs’ position-player logjam, look for him in left, with some of his rough spots sanded down by a winter’s worth of rehearsal.