How it all sped up on Kyle Schwarber and why Cubs bet on him over Michael Conforto

How it all sped up on Kyle Schwarber and why Cubs bet on him over Michael Conforto

Kyle Schwarber could retire tomorrow and live off what he did in the World Series, signing autographs at memorabilia shows, playing golf with corporate sponsors and letting it rip on some future Cubs network.

If David Ross can go “Dancing with the Stars,” how about the guy who did show choir in high school?

Schwarber could also play every day from here and still not reach Game 162 until the third series after the All-Star break, a reminder of how much he has already packed into his big-league career and how far he still has to go to live up to these great expectations. 

That’s part of the broader point manager Joe Maddon made late Wednesday night after a 9-4 loss to the New York Mets. This young core group that made history has never been through anything like this before.

Schwarber crushing a 467-foot homer off Matt Harvey over the Shea Bridge at Citi Field is a reminder of what the Cubs have been missing during an erratic 32-33 start — and how the Mets handled Michael Conforto when he repeatedly struggled after instant success in New York.   

Leading up to the 2014 draft, Stan Zielinski, the legendary area scout who died in January, filed a report comparing the Indiana University slugger to Babe Ruth. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein envisioned the left-handed power and hard-charging personality as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.

This is the bottom line to that No. 4 overall pick.

“I still believe 100 percent that we got the right player for the Cubs in Kyle Schwarber,” amateur scouting director Matt Dorey recently said with a laugh on the Cubs Talk podcast. “I think having a World Series ring is a pretty good measure of how productive that pick was for this organization.”

No doubt. It just shows that there are no safe picks or sure things or slam-dunk decisions, no matter how much people talk about upsides and high ceilings during draft week. Look at Conforto, who landed with the Mets six spots after Schwarber, hit two home runs during the 2015 World Series and last season got sent down to Triple-A Las Vegas in late June and the middle of August.  

[PODCAST - Inside the Cubs Draft room]

While the Cubs so far haven’t sounded open to that idea of a mental reset with Schwarber — whose .178 batting average is the lowest among all qualified big-league hitters this year — Conforto responded by putting up 14 homers and a .999 OPS and becoming a leadoff solution for the Mets.    

That experiment didn’t work with Schwarber, who does have 12 homers, ranking fourth in the majors by seeing 4.45 pitches per plate appearance.

“I haven’t gotten too emotionally attached to the performance,” Dorey said. “Our evaluations and how we saw Kyle — it was a culmination of what we think he’s going to do over the length of his career. This is a small snapshot.

“I don’t even know if at this point he has a full season of major-league at-bats under his belt. So you put that into context and then you also realize he’s still recovering from a serious knee injury that took away a huge part of his developmental curve.

“We knew how advanced he was — and what he did in the World Series was superhuman. But at the same time, we know that — Theo says it all the time — no developmental path for any prospect is linear.

“Another part of it is he’s just putting a lot of pressure on himself to be such a huge part of what the next stage of this World Series contender is trying to be. I think — like a lot of players — it sped up on him a little bit and he’s gotten away from what he’s great at, which is really managing the zone and using the whole field.”

The big idea leading into the 2014 draft had the Cubs picking fourth from a group headlined by three pitchers. The Houston Astros failed to sign Brady Aiken, the Miami Marlins hope Tyler Kolek comes back from Tommy John surgery and the rebuilding White Sox see Carlos Rodon as a foundation piece.

Meanwhile Trea Turner — the 13th overall pick out of North Carolina State University who would get flipped from the San Diego Padres to the Washington Nationals — could be the next college hitter from that class to play in the World Series.

“It’s been amazing across the board,” Dorey said, “how advanced these college hitters are, how willing organizations are to take the reins off them. The traditional wisdom of development was to always be ultra-patient. But these guys just go out and dominate the competition, so it’s hard to keep them down.

“We liked Trea a lot. We liked Conforto a lot, too. He was in that bucket right with Schwarber as the three college bats we really targeted. We were really splitting hairs at the end. But, ultimately, it came down to Kyle, the relationship that Kyle had with Stan Zielinski, the access we had to Kyle from the top.”

Conforto — the son of an Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming and a Penn State University linebacker — came from a strong family background. The Cubs had doubts that Turner — who hit .342 in 73 games and stole 33 bases for a 95-win Nationals team last — would stick at shortstop.

Tracy Smith, the Indiana coach at the time, got drafted by the Cubs in the late 1980s and played in their minor-league system. Schwarber also agreed to a below-slot $3.125 million bonus that allowed the Cubs to take more chances on pitchers deeper in the draft.

Schwarber won over Cubs executives with his “It really f------ pisses me off when people say I can’t catch” declaration during a meeting at the team’s Arizona complex, showing the confidence that made him a Wrigleyville legend and the self-assurance he will need to get out of this downward spiral now.

“It’s a great indicator of how locked in Theo is — and will continue to be — with that clubhouse and knowing Kyle’s makeup,” Dorey said. “Not that Conforto or Trea wouldn’t have fit in either, but it just seemed like such a natural fit for what we were trying to accomplish.

“And the fact that we really believed in the power, where we had some concerns with Conforto’s. He played in a really non-offensive college park, which is kind of hard to measure.

“Obviously, he’s hitting a ton of homers now, but we believed a little bit more in Kyle’s power at the time. At the end of the day, we had backup plans with Trea Turner and Conforto if somebody else would have taken Schwarber. But it was really, like I said, splitting hairs between those three players.”

Schwarber has been able to keep most of his frustrations self-contained, working diligently with the hitting coaches, carefully studying video and patiently answering the same questions from reporters.  

“It’s all a process,” Schwarber said. “It’s just more of staying within myself and not trying to go out there and get hits after hits after hits.”

Maddon has seen glimpses of the quick, short swing that allowed Schwarber to blast five home runs in nine playoff games in 2015 and rake in all these off-the-field endorsement opportunities.  

“His feet are on the ground — he’s not lifting his leg up a lot,” Maddon said. “Great balance in his finish. You’ve seen every time he’s hit the ball well, he’s just able to stand there, because his balance is so good. When a hitter can do that, it means he’s permitting the ball to travel. He’s using his hands. He’s keeping his head still. All the really good things you’re trying to get done.”

Someone who can wreck his left knee and step in against Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller less than seven months later in the World Series — with only two Arizona Fall League games to warm up — doesn’t just lose all those skills overnight.

“He’s going to have the ability (to) downshift and say: ‘OK, who is Kyle Schwarber as a player?’” Dorey said. “Everybody around him believes in him. We know he’s going to be great.

“It’s just really focusing on not looking at that average, but controlling what he can, which is swinging at the right pitches, controlling one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time.”

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

Which player on the 2019 Cubs has the best redemption story so far?

The Cubs woke up Thursday morning 11 games over .500, 2 games up on the Brewers in the division and sporting the best run differential (+63) in the National League.

But they wouldn't be in that position without some strong comeback seasons from a host of players. 

In the series finale of Game of Thrones this week, Tyrion Lannister made an impassioned speech about how stories bind people and "there's nothing more powerful than a good story."

We already know who had the best redemption arc in Game of Thrones (*cough* Theon Greyjoy *cough*), but who has the best comeback on the 2019 Cubs roster?

There are plenty of worthy candidates — all of whom have been on display in this week's series with the Phillies at Wrigley Field.

Tyler Chatwood

The impetus behind this idea, Chatwood has a very strong case as the Cubs' Comeback Player of the Year. 

After leading Major League Baseball in walks allowed and finding his way out of the rotation by Aug. 1 last season, Chatwood has bounced back in a huge way in 2019. He posted another clutch performance out of the bullpen Wednesday night, throwing 4 innings in relief and allowing only 1 run on a solo shot by Andrew McCutchen.

Chatwood picked up the win in the process and is now 3-0 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 28.1 innings. He's been even better of late, posting a 1.82 ERA in 24.2 innings since April 7.

"If he's throwing strikes, he can do anything, absolutely," Joe Maddon said. "But he's been valuable with the length, like he showed today. We needed to have a length guy today. He came through. 

"As we rectify [the bullpen] maybe you get other people that can provide those jobs, maybe you can spot him up a little bit. It's all about him, man. If he wants to go out there and do that, you can put him in anywhere, anytime."

Chatwood has been clutch for the Cubs in so many different roles, including tossing 6 shutout innings in a spot start on April 21, 4 shutout frames in extra innings against the Brewers on May 11 and then Wednesday night's performance to help pick up some of the slack after starter Cole Hamels was forced out of the game by the fifth inning.

"It was awesome," Hamels said. " ... You have him and he's got electric stuff and he's been able to come in after me a few times and just absolutely dominate. That's just great to see. To have that type of caliber guy coming out of the bullpen, it's a big sigh of relief because he can go multiple innings. 

"It definitely alleviates the amount of innings that the relievers are getting and the up-downs because myself not being able to go deep into 2 ballgames within a week is not helpful. So to see what Tyler was able to do, that was outstanding."

Kris Bryant

It took a while for the former MVP to really state his #ComebackSZN case, but he's certainly done that over the last month. 

Bryant has re-emerged as a viable candidate to take the crown as the Cubs' best player and has left no doubt that he's fully over his shoulder injury. 

After another multi-hit game Wednesday night, Bryant is now slashing .280/.404/.560 on the season (.964 OPS) and is on pace for 38 homers, 110 RBI and 138 runs scored.

Of all the guys on this list, Bryant's return to form might be the most important to the Cubs' overall success. 

It's not unheard of for teams to turn in successful seasons without their stars performing up to par or staying healthy, but it's so much easier to have a special season when your studs put up studly numbers.

Albert Almora Jr.

Almora smacked his first career grand slam Wednesday night and was rewarded with a chill-inducing curtain call by nearly 40,000 Cubs fans after the game-winning blast.

"Those are the things you dream about as a kid," Almora said. "That curtain call, all of that went by so quick. I wish I could've enjoyed it a little bit more, but it's something I'll never forget."

But what's even more impressive about the grand slam is that it was Almora's fifth homer of 2019 — the same total he had in all of 2018 when his power cratered in the second half. And we still have more than 2/3 of the season remaining.

Almora has always been a streaky hitter and he got off to a wicked cold stretch to begin this year, but he's been one of the most productive hitters in this Cubs lineup for the last month. 

He's also taken some major steps forward against right-handed pitchers, sporting a .312 average and .827 OPS in an area that was his biggest weakness coming into the season.

Willson Contreras

Speaking of last year's homer total, Contreras has already blown by his 2018 mark, drilling his 11th dinger in Washington D.C. last weekend. 

He once again looks like arguably the best offensive catcher in the game and leads the Cubs in on-base percentage (.421) and OPS (1.024) and is second in slugging percentage (.603).

Contreras is on pace for 38 homers and 103 RBI out of the catcher's spot and has helped solidify the lineup by lending protection for Javy Baez in the middle of the order.

Brandon Kintzler

The 34-year-old reliever has struggled a bit of late, but it's still safe to say Kintzler has been the MVP of the Cubs bullpen all season. 

After coming over to the Cubs in a midseason trade from the Nationals, Kintzler never found his form last year, posting a 7.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in 25 appearances. The Cubs declined their team option on the veteran, but he exercised his $5 million player option, much to the chagrin of a large contingent of the fanbase.

But where would the 2019 Cubs be without Kintzler? The bullpen has been a big point of contention for much of the season and the Cubs have been missing closer Brandon Morrow all season, interim closer Pedro Strop for the last few weeks and are still waiting on former top setup man Carl Edwards Jr. to get right.

Meanwhile, Kintzler has a 3.18 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 8 holds. He's walked just 4 batters in 22.2 innings and is squarely in Maddon's circle of trust.

Jose Quintana

Quintana didn't have a horrible 2018 season, but he underwhelmed pretty much from start to finish. 

So far this season, he's shown exactly why the Cubs gave up so much to acquire him in July 2017. 

The veteran southpaw is tied for the team lead in wins (4), second in innings pitched (57.1), third in strikeouts (54) and third among starters in ERA (3.30) after quietly tossing 6 shutout innings Tuesday night.

Quintana has also given the Cubs some much-needed consistency in the rotation in a season in which Jon Lester has already spent time on the injured list, Kyle Hendricks got off to a shaky start, Hamels has scuffled a bit lately and Yu Darvish is just now starting to turn a corner. 

Over his last 8 starts, Quintana has turned in 6 quality starts and he's allowed more than 3 runs in just one outing so far.

So who has the best redemption arc on the 2019 Cubs?

Maybe it's none of the above. 

One fan brought up a great point — maybe it's Theo Epstein who should get some credit for sticking with the guys the Cubs already had:

Of course, Epstein's hand was pretty much forced this winter due to the budget constraints and guys like Kintzler and Chatwood were both under contract for a pretty hefty guaranteed price tag with essentially no trade value...but you get the point. 

The Cubs could've blown this thing up as an overreaction to the way 2018 ended and they didn't and now they're in first place with the season nearly 1/3 of the way completed. 

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The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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