Kyle Schwarber

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout season

Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout season

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.

2019 recap

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.

2020 outlook

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.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation

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Kyle Schwarber's only worried about one thing, and it certainly isn't trade rumors

Kyle Schwarber's only worried about one thing, and it certainly isn't trade rumors

As long as Kyle Schwarber’s on the Cubs, Kyle Schwarber’s going to lead the Cubs. As the former 1st-round pick (4th overall) begins his sixth season, there’s a sense around the team that 2020’s going to be a big one for him. 

“Oh yeah, it’s going to be a great year,” he said on Wednesday morning. “It’s fun coming in and seeing everyone. Obviously with Cubs Convention, you get to see the faces all over again. Now that we’re going to be back together full time, getting after it with each other, we’re excited, we’re hungry, and it’s going to be a fun camp.” 

Perhaps no one from the Cubs’ core – maybe with the exception of Kris Bryant – has faced more scrutiny and been a centerpiece in more trade rumors than Schwarber. Always a threat at the plate, his deficiencies in left field have had people insisting that he’d be better suited as a DH for years now. After setting a career-worst in Outs Above Average (OOA) last season, maybe that’s still the case. That’s no matter to him; he’s heard this all before. 

“I’ve learned my lessons from previous years to obviously not look into things like that,” he said. “At the end of the day, those are all things you can’t control as players. As I said, we’re all still getting to play the game that we love, and that’s all you can ask for. You know, obviously I think everyone in this room would still all love to be here, being with each other, keep going to battle, but the reality of it is that it might not happen.” 

It’s rare to hear an athlete talk as candidly about trade rumors as Schwarber does. It feels like every season that the Cubs need some relief help at the deadline, he’s being shipped to whatever AL East team is out of the race by mid-July. In a way, being so often surrounded by uncertainty has been critical in molding Schwarber into the type of leader that first-year managers love to have. 

“He’s always had those leadership qualities,” David Ross said. “I think those things are easier to come out once you feel secure in what you’re doing at the plate. The way he finished his season last year, in the second half, was pretty dominant. Pretty impressive. So I think you’ll see a great version of Kyle this spring and going into the season. He is one of those guys that will speak up, and I’m going to rely on him to do that.” 

It’s certainly easier to be a leader when you hit .250    /.339/.531 with 38 home runs. He’s coming off the best stretch of baseball in his young career, too: in the back half of 2019, Schwarber hit .280/.366/.631    (151 wRC+) with 20 home runs. As he heads into Year 6, though, good stretches of baseball are no longer enough. 

“You know, consistency is the name of the game,” he said. “That’s how it is. The best in this game – you see Rizz, you see a lot of people in this clubhouse – consistency is the name of the game. That’s what I expect out of myself: consistency. To be able do it day in and day out.” 

There will surely be more trade rumors, especially if the Cubs get off to another prolonged poor start. The core won’t be together forever, no matter how hard Schwarber, or Rizzo, or Ross suggest otherwise. That’s a conversation for another day, though. 

“Do I look like a guy that thinks about my future?,” Schwarber asked, with a smile. “For the most part, I live day-by-day, man. I’m just happy I showed up today.”  

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In wake of Astros cheating scandal, Cubs proud they've won the right way

In wake of Astros cheating scandal, Cubs proud they've won the right way

The Cubs and Astros often are compared as franchises that rebuilt from the ground up before winning historic World Series titles. The Cubs snapped their 108-year championship drought in 2016, whereas the Astros won their first ever title a year later.

Both clubs reached baseball’s mountaintop behind young, talented position players — Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo; George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa — and acquired an ace, veteran starting pitcher — Jon Lester; Justin Verlander — to help cook up the right recipe for winning.

Only now, Houston’s success has been tainted by their cheating scandal; the Astros used a camera located in center field at home games during the 2017 season to steal opposing teams’ signs. 

The scandal resulted in the Astros firing general manager Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch — who both received year-long suspensions from MLB beforehand. The Red Sox and manager Alex Cora — Houston’s bench coach in 2017 — have parted ways, as have the Mets and manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017. 

While other clubs are in a whirlwind, the Cubs have made one thing 100 percent clear: they play the game the right way.

“We’re really clear about what the rules are. They’re posted for everybody. We talk every spring training about playing with integrity and expecting our players to play fair,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “And they’ve done a great job of that. I was proud of Anthony Rizzo when he said yesterday that he can say with 100 percent certainty that we play within the rules. And I echo those thoughts, I know that.” 

New layers in the Astros scandal unearth seemingly by the day. Thursday, videos and images surfaced on Twitter possibly showing Houston players wearing wired buzzers under their jerseys. MLB said they found no such evidence in their investigation, however.

Sign-stealing in baseball is as old as the game itself but using technology to do so is problematic, as it goes from looking for a competitive advantage to downright cheating. Houston not only stole signs, but they did so in a way where their hitters knew the exact pitch coming their way.

“It’s unfortunate. It’s definitely surprising too,” Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said Friday. “For me personally, this is the only organization I’ve been in and the way we go about our business is pretty straightforward, cut through. We go with the rules, we go out there and play baseball.

“To hear this is definitely upsetting. I can’t imagine how some of the teams feel that played them in that playoff series, knowing that this is a real thing and knowing that it was an advantage. For that to happen, it’s a shame.”

For the Cubs, their hubris is so strong they don’t feel the need to steal signs, according to right fielder Jason Heyward.

“Even when [former hitting coach] Chili Davis got to our team, he kind of mentioned to us about how teams in Boston,” Heyward said, “how they got together — and this is no pun intended on what just happened with the manager — but he would just say ‘Hey guys, just pay attention. If you’re on second base, look in and see if we can find a way to get a little bit of an edge late in the game.’

“We were all kind of like to ourselves ‘Well, we don’t really do that here. We never really needed it.’ That’s not being cocky or anything, but we never really needed it.”

“I got nothing against any team or any players, but I think we should play the game right and let your talent the competition decide who’s the best,” shortstop Javier Báez said. 

The Cubs maintain they’ve been playing the game the right way, and they’re extremely proud of that. This current era of Cubs baseball has netted four postseason appearances in five seasons, three trips to the NLCS and that one famous championship.

“Definitely feels good, the ways we did it, especially stepping on top in ’16,” Schwarber said. “I think it’s a better satisfying taste too, now that you can look back on it. I think it’s a little thing that you can say you’re proud of. 

“You hear people back in the steroid era say that they’re proud they didn’t take part in that. I think we can say the same thing too.”

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