Why Cubs love the idea of Kyle Schwarber creating havoc as their leadoff guy

Why Cubs love the idea of Kyle Schwarber creating havoc as their leadoff guy

MESA, Ariz. — Kyle Schwarber became an instant attraction at Wrigley Field because he smashes baseballs and looks like the kind of dude who would crush beer cans against his forehead.

Superstitious Cubs fans can also relate to this pregame ritual that sums up Schwarber's somewhat goofy personality (show choir in high school), linebacker mentality (second-team all-Ohio) and potential to do damage as an unconventional leadoff hitter (1.178 career postseason OPS).

Sometime during Schwarber's rookie year – his first full season in professional baseball — he began stomping on the lineup card before first pitch as a way to fire up/entertain the Cubs in the dugout.

"I have no clue what started it," Schwarber said, laughing. "I think I took it up one time and maybe I stomped on it. You know, 'Stomp on 'em,' things like that. Then it turned into being an everyday kind of thing.

"Joe (Maddon) was like: 'All right, do it every time now, because we won.' And then we kept winning."

Schwarber gave the Cubs a shot of adrenaline in 2015 and then pulled off a medical miracle last year, recovering from major reconstructive knee surgery within roughly six months, just in time to be the designated hitter against Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field.

So you did this in the dugout before Game 7 of the World Series?

"Yes, I stomped on the lineup," Schwarber said. "I don't even know how I came up with it."

First base coach Brandon Hyde — who would often bring the lineup card out to home plate for the exchange and then throw it on the ground for Schwarber — laughed and said: "The legend continues."

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The Geek Department's projections verified Maddon's belief that batting Schwarber leadoff — and slotting the pitcher eighth in front of Albert Almora Jr. or Jon Jay — should generate more offense for the 2017 Cubs than the 808 runs the World Series champs scored last season.

Until that point, the Cubs had reached the 800-run mark only eight times since 1900. Maddon already designed T-shirts with the "Be Uncomfortable" theme. That's the thinking behind the opponent having to deal with Schwarber, reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant and Silver Slugger Anthony Rizzo in the first inning.

"You're not used to facing that kind of guy leading off a game," Kyle Hendricks said. "Especially as starting pitchers, we kind of feel our way into games. But, yeah, when you see him up there, you can't really do it.

"'Schwarbs' will take a cut at the first one, it doesn't really matter. I love it — being on this side."

The prototypical leadoff hitter is vanishing anyway — like the focus on batting average or acceptance of rote bullpen usage — and the Cubs obviously didn't construct a team around the idea of stolen bases.

"That's the whole point," Maddon said. "What do you want? If you have a speed guy that really is a high on-base guy that can create havoc, please, absolutely, by all means.

"If you don't, then what do (you do)? Just because somebody looks like a leadoff hitter? Or somebody thinks he profiles in a method that's just based on what you think and not necessarily what you know? I don't get it.

"I just like (Schwarber's) skill set there, and getting him up there more often, building the bottom of the lineup if we can to possibly feed him a little bit more significantly.

"But what does a leadoff hitter look like anywhere? There's not many of those high on-base percentage, base-stealing types. They just don't exist that often anymore.

"Guys don't want to run as much, because it beats their bodies up. It's not easy to be a 50-bag guy or more, because of what it does to your legs. Or if you're a headfirst guy, what it does to your ribcage, your wrist, your hands.

"You'll see on occasion guys that will go. But not to the level that we used to see with a (Lou) Brock or a (Maury) Wills or (Tim) Raines and all those guys that just went all the time."

Maddon also doesn't want Schwarber — whose less than half-a-season production projects out to 37 homers and 98 RBIs over 162 games — to be diminished in the middle of the order.

"If he's hitting fourth or fifth," Maddon said, "I don't believe he gets pitched at the same as he's going to get pitched at in front of Bryant and Rizzo. I'm really big on that. You've heard me talk about protection in the past. I thought 'Zo' (Ben Zobrist) was the only guy that could help Rizzo if you wanted to stack the guys last year.

"I just think our lineup card going to this other team — they're going to look at that. If Schwarber is kind of without a blanket, they're going to exploit not pitching to him. That's my concern."

Those pitchers might be hearing footsteps: Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

"I don't want him to change anything," Maddon said. "His DNA is to see pitches, accept walks, work good at-bats. (So) please do not change anything. Just go up there and hit."

Cubs' all-time saves leader Lee Smith elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

Cubs' all-time saves leader Lee Smith elected to National Baseball Hall of Fame

Lee Smith is headed to Cooperstown.

Smith, the Cubs' all-time saves leader, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Today's Game Era Committee on Sunday night. 

Smith, 61, pitched in 18 MLB seasons, eight with the Cubs. He posted a 3.03 ERA in 1,022 career games, saving 478 games. At the time of his retirement, Smith was was MLB's all-time saves leader, though he now ranks third behind Mariano Rivera (652 saves) and Trevor Hoffman (601).

After spending the first eight seasons of his career (1980-87) with the Cubs, Smith went on to pitch for the Red Sox (1988-1990), Cardinals (1990-93), Yankees (1993), Orioles (1994), Angels (1995-96), Reds (1996) and Expos (1997). He is a six-time All-Star, making the team with the Cubs twice (1983, 1987). 

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If Bryce Harper wants to live up to his upcoming mega-deal, here's how he can improve

USA Today

If Bryce Harper wants to live up to his upcoming mega-deal, here's how he can improve

Someone, somewhere, sometime soon is going to give Bryce Harper a *lot* of money. 

Whoever decides to pay Harper $330-350 million over the next 6-8 years will also look for a *lot* of return on investment, which stands to reason. Gone are the days of 10-12 guys getting massive, above-value contracts per offseason. Love it or hate it, fiscal prudency is all the rage in baseball, and teams are going to look long and hard before handing out the type of contracts that they were throwing left and right only half a decade ago. 

Because Harper exsists in the 1% of pro baseball players that are still going to get nine-digit contract offers, whichever fanbase he ends up playing in front of for 82 games a year will dissect his performance in a way that few players before him have experienced. Want to get Cubs' or Yankees' or Phillies' or Mystery Teams' fans off your back? Here's what Harper can improve upon during the first year of his new deal. 

Strike out less 

It's the goal of every pro baseball not named Mookie Betts or Jose Ramirez to cut down on the strikeouts, and while may be obvious to point out that it'd be nice if Harper K'd less, it should be noted that Harper was especially free-swinging last season. His K% was all the way up at 24.3 percent, his highest since 2014. He had 169 strikeouts in 2018, which is far and away his worst season in that regards. Ironically enough, his next-worst season was the 2015 campaign, when he notced 131. He also notched the MVP that season, so. 

Power hitters are going to strike out, especially in the increasingly-infamous Three True Outcome era. Minus a radical change to plate approach -- which NO team that's about to give someone 300 million dollars wants to hear about -- Harper's strikeout percentage is always going to sit in the low-20s.  With that said, there's a big difference between 20-21% and 24%, as you know, and only two hitters with higher wRC+'s than Harper also had higher K% -- Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Nimmo. Even getting back close to his career average (21.2%) would be a win for him next year. 

Get better on the bases again  

Harper's bat grants him baserunning leniency, but it'd be nice if he got back at least not having a negative impact on the basepaths. According to FanGraph's baserunning metrics, it's been two years since Harper's been worth even one run on the bases. In his first five years with the Nationals, he was worth at least two runs four times - and even got above three twice. How active Harper is on the basepaths has a lot to do with whoever's his manager next summer, but he has the speed to at least be a plus runner. Does he need to haul down the line to beat out a grounder to 2nd in a late-August game in Texas? No. But considering only eight guys got on base more often than Harper did last year, it'd be nice to see him take some more chances with all the opportunities he's given. 

Get luckier 

This one only kind of counts, because obviously Harper has no ability to control the type of luck he gets. A lot of Harper's bizarre 2018 season stems from the fact that he was historically unlucky, especially in the first half of the year. His .226 BABIP during that stretch was 18th-worst in all of baseball, putting him with the likes of Texas' Joey Gallo and Baltimore's Chris Davis. He posted a .378 BABIP in the 2nd half, which is even better than his career average (.318). Not convinced yet? Harper hit .249, slugged .496 and posted a .376 wOBA. Per Baseball Savant, his expected results in those categories were .270, .506, and .398, respectively. He was a much better hitter last season than he gets credit for, and suffered because of a prolonged slump that looked bad in all the wrong categories. Even being a smidge more lucky over the first eight weeks of next year will go a long way.