Cubs

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Cubs

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."