Kyle Schwarber might still be the Cubs’ catcher of the future, but at the moment, he’s the Cubs’ left fielder of the present.
He did nothing but catch in his brief minor league stint this season, and that’s what he was doing up at the big league level while Miguel Montero was sidelined with an injury. But since Montero’s return, it’s pretty much been left field exclusively for Schwarber, a first-year player who in addition has to get used to hitting and catching as a major league player also has to get used to patrolling the outfield.
Schwarber said it’s been a good transition. He played plenty of left field last year in the minors and as a college player at Indiana University.
“Since Miggy’s back, it’s probably the position I’ll be playing most often,” Schwarber said ahead of Friday’s game against the Braves. “I might get to catch a day here and there, but right now I’m primarily going to be in left field. Played it all last year, mostly. Played about 30-something games out there in a half-season. Then this past year in the minor leagues, I didn’t play it at all until I came up here. So it was getting a little bit of a refresh, working with Davey (Martinez, the Cubs bench coach) and just trying to get the familiarity back. But it’s been a fine transition.”
Schwarber has played 37 major league games, and 14 of those have come as a left fielder.
It obviously hasn’t impacted his bat, as he’s set the world on fire offensively with a .303/.403/.598 slash line, 10 homers and 31 RBIs in his three dozen games.
But he works on his outfielding all the time. According to his manager, that work has paid off.
“He’s been good, he’s been very good,” Joe Maddon said Friday. “He’s been really calm out there. If you watch him go after a fly ball, it looks like he’s never in trouble. … So for the most part, I think he’s done really well. He’s gone to the wall properly, he’s thrown well — he’s thrown really well, actually. The ball was off the line a little bit, he almost threw out a pretty good runner at second base (in a recent game), but the throw was strong. The throw to the plate (n Tuesday night’s game against the Tigers) was strong. His positioning’s been good, he pays attention. He’s been fine.”
Schwarber is dealing with different challenges than other outfielders who come up to the bigs for the first time. He plays his home games at Wrigley Field, which creates adventures for outfielders thanks to infamous wind patterns, a foliage-covered brick wall, the odd shape of that wall and the exposed bullpen mounds in foul territory.
Schwarber isn’t making any excuses, though, and he said he’s already mastered some of the angles at the Friendly Confines.
“If the ball’s smoked over your head, it’s probably going to be off the wall. But if it’s hit down the line in the air, you’re going to have a chance. You’ve just got to know your park. The ivy can be a little tricky: Sometimes it’ll spit it out to you, sometimes it’ll drop it right down, sometimes it gets stuck in it. This plays like any other ballpark, really, you’ve just got to know your ballpark.”
[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]
One interesting factor in Schwarber’s play in left is his play behind the plate.
Schwarber said that when he’s in left field, he’s thinking like a catcher. It helps him know what kind of batted balls to expect to come his way. And it keeps him engaged at every instant, too, avoiding that Little League stereotype of the outfielder playing with grass while wearing his glove on his head.
“It helps me, being a catcher. I like to think along with what we’re going to throw,” Schwarber said. “Seeing set-ups can help out. If we set up outside to a left-handed hitter, it might be a good chance that he’s probably going to hit it to my right. And if we set up in, probably a good chance he’ll either hit a shallow fly ball in front of me or he’ll hit it out in the gap. Besides just being bored and just sitting around, I’m always still trying to think.
“I’m always still trying to think along with the game and not be surprised with any situation.”