Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is left fielder Kyle Schwarber.
It’s cliché to say, but 2019 was a tale of two seasons for Schwarber. After an average first half, he was one of the best hitters in the National League post-All-Star break. A look at his splits:
-Schwarber first half (353 plate appearances): .227/.320/.457 (.777 OPS), 18 home runs, 43 RBIs, 97 wRC+
-Schwarber second half (257 PAs): .280/.366/.631 (.997 OPS), 20 HR, 49 RBIs, 151 wRC+
Remember how well Nick Castellanos performed after the Cubs acquired him last season? Schwarber was neck-and-neck with him in August and September. Of those with at least 90 plate appearances, Schwarber ranked fourth in the NL in homers, fourth in slugging percentage, eighth in OPS and 11th in wRC+.
Schwarber doesn’t have the hottest reputation defensively and the advanced metrics from last season didn't change that. The 26-year-old posted -3 Defensive Runs Saved and a -10 Outs Above Average (worst of his career) in left field.
Note: Outs Above Average is a range metric showing how many batted balls a player turns into outs. It considers an outfielder’s route to a ball, how far they must run to catch it and how much time they have to do so. You can read more about OAA here.
In this writer’s opinion, the ‘Schwarber struggles defensively’ narrative is overblown, and the eye test says he’s a serviceable outfielder. The advanced metrics aren’t kind, but Schwarber isn’t some liability in left field (which some seem to believe) and his cannon for an arm is a useful asset for the Cubs. I digress…
Expectations for this season’s role
Schwarber’s been a full-time left fielder since 2017 and that won’t change this season. He made one appearance at catcher last season but will only play there in an emergency situation in 2020.
It’ll be interesting to see how David Ross manages late-game defensive orientations. The Cubs’ outfield is versatile; Jason Heyward is a Gold Glove right fielder and a capable center fielder. When Albert Almora Jr. plays center, Ian Happ can play right or left. Steven Souza Jr. can play all three positions.
Former manager Joe Maddon habitually pulled Schwarber late in games, opting to use a victory formation defense. We saw less of that in 2019, especially during the second half. If Schwarber picks up where he left off at the plate, it’ll be hard for Ross to pull him for defensive purposes and risk losing his bat.
Ross plans to alternate righties and lefties in his lineup. That slots Schwarber into the cleanup spot behind Javy Báez, as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are the Cubs’ new 1-2 punch atop the order.
It’s both easy and risky to use Schwarber’s 2019 second half to estimate what he'll do in 2020. However, given the underlying numbers, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’s turned a corner.
Schwarber posted career bests in strikeout rate, line drive percentage and groundball percentage last season. The less you strike out and the more you hit liners, good things will happen. The same is true for lefties hitting fewer groundballs because of the shift opposing teams deploy against them. With an infielder in shallow right field, there's little room for a grounder to find daylight.
Furthermore, Schwarber — who’s struggled against lefties in the past — enjoyed some success against them last summer:
-Schwarber vs. LHP (2015-18): .182/.300/.308, 68 wRC+
-Schwarber vs. LHP (2019 second half): .240/.309/.500, 106 wRC+
The sample isn’t huge, but Schwarber laid the foundation last season for a breakout campaign. Between their position players experiencing growing pains and a lack of free agent additions, the Cubs' lineup has grown stale the past few seasons. Schwarber taking another step forward in 2020 will help alleviate those issues.