Cubs

Cubs: The education of Kyle Schwarber behind the plate

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Cubs: The education of Kyle Schwarber behind the plate

Kyle Schwarber won’t be facing Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field. Because the Cubs want him catching guys like Donn Roach and Dallas Beeler at Triple-A Iowa.

That’s the big-picture question after Schwarber looked like he belonged in the big leagues – at least as a designated hitter – by going 8-for-22 (.364) with a home run and six RBI (and eight strikeouts) in six interleague games.

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein called the crash course “a best-case scenario as far as how it could have went.” Now more than ever, the Cubs say they are committed to the idea of Schwarber at catcher.

[MORE: Schwarber ready to work back in minors after 'perfect' situation with Cubs]  

“Pitchers love throwing to him,” Epstein said. “They’ve got a lot of trust in him. He creates a lot of conviction for them and the pitches that they throw. He’s getting better as a blocker. He’s doing a real nice job as a framer. (He’s) learning how to call a game. He’s got a perfect personality as a catcher and a great presence.”

Some of that might be a little exaggerated, but the Cubs appreciate Schwarber’s underrated athleticism and the football mentality that helped him become a second-team All-Ohio linebacker in high school. They’ve already seen how far he’s come since getting drafted fourth overall out of Indiana University last year.

“You want to believe the bat’s going to play. Now you want to make sure that the defense plays,” manager Joe Maddon said. “You really want the complete ballplayer that can do both things. I’m certain he’s going to put the time in. He will definitely work.

“It’s hard to teach (game-calling) on the minor-league level with a catcher (because) the information’s not the same. (Unless) a guy’s got some like innate ability just based on watching your pitcher throw – and can find maybe where the hitter’s standing in the box and set up – or just watching foul balls and how the hitters are reacting.

[RELATED: 'Iron Horse' Coghlan has become unheralded contributor for Cubs]

“Some guys might have the ability to process all that stuff. But coming from the minor leagues like I did – and being in charge of instructing catchers – it’s really hard to get the whole mental component out there while you’re struggling just to get them to be competent physically.

“You talk about developing a catcher – it’s probably not unlike developing a big-league quarterback. There’s a lot more to it than just the physical mechanics. And that’s where the separators are, the guys who can really make an impact and know what they’re doing behind the plate.” 

For six days, Schwarber got valuable exposure to Maddon’s coaching staff, the team’s game-planning infrastructure and veteran catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross.

“Schwarber’s definitely capable,” Ross said. “You have to know each individual on (the other) team and how to get those guys out, where their hot zones are, where they like the ball, where they don’t like the ball. And then you got to figure out how that matches up with the pitcher on the mound, how it switches with a lefty or a righty.

“That stuff is learned, though. It’s like anything else – you got to learn those things. You got to learn hitters’ tendencies. A scouting report can give you a starting point, but when you’re in the heat of battle, guys make adjustments. You have to adjust off their adjustments. If your pitcher’s not making the pitch, you have to adjust to that.”

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That sounds like information overload for a 22-year-old catcher in the middle of his first full professional season. But Schwarber is now one phone call away at Iowa if someone gets injured. And the Cubs already planned to limit his workload behind the plate this year, meaning a move to left field could get his left-handed bat back in the lineup this summer. 

“If I’m in the minor leagues and I’m thinking – Oh, when am I going to get called back up, blah blah blah? – that can really put you back into a bad way of thinking,” Schwarber said. “(That puts) you back into a slump and then you start thinking negative and acting negative toward your teammates. You just don’t want that to happen. You always want to have good mojo.”

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Albert Almora Jr. dishes on his role and the Cubs’ unsung hero that keeps things loose behind the scenes

Albert Almora Jr. joins Kelly Crull on the Cubs Talk Podcast to weigh in on a variety of topics, including his budding bromance with rumored Cubs target Manny Machado, his expanded role and how he spends his time off away from the ballpark.

Plus, Almora has a surprise pick for the organization’s unsung hero, stating the Cubs would’ve never won the World Series without this guy.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here:

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."