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."

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

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."

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream