Cubs

Kyle Schwarber finding his niche in Cubs' leadoff spot: 'He’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be'

Kyle Schwarber finding his niche in Cubs' leadoff spot: 'He’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be'

After two seasons alternating table setters atop their lineup, the Cubs may finally have found a consistent leadoff hitter in Kyle Schwarber.

“It’s one of those things you have to believe it to see it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s game against the Reds. “And sometimes there’s other folks that have to see it to believe it. I just thought it was the right time.”

Schwarber started his 11th-straight game on Friday, hitting leadoff in the last nine games of that stretch. Unlike his abysmal tenure leading off in 2017, though, Schwarber is getting into a groove hitting first for the Cubs this season.

In 2017, Schwarber hit leadoff 37 times; not only did he slash a woeful .190/.312/.381 with seven home runs, but he walked 24 times compared to 48 strikeouts. The Cubs went with a leadoff-man by committee approach the rest of the season, as 10 other players hit leadoff at least once.

Schwarber has flipped the script as a leadoff hitter this season. Although the sample size is small, he’s slashing .265/.372/.618, (34 at-bats) with three home runs and seven walks compared to 12 strikeouts.

“Again, I liked it back then, I did. However, he did not react to it well in that moment,” Maddon said. “But if you look at his overall abilities as they stand right now, for me, that’s the perfect spot for him, especially in our lineup.

“He’s made some adjustments recently, he’s more mature as a hitter, he’s understanding it better. All of those things are involved. I like it; I could’ve done it earlier this year, but he really wasn’t doing what he’s doing right now earlier this year.

“I think this last three weeks or so, he’s really morphed into the hitter we thought he could be.”

Schwarber certainly has been trending upwards since the calendar flipped to May. In April, he slashed .211/.282/.338 with 25 strikeouts and seven walks. While he’s hitting .224 this month, he holds a stellar .389 OBP (.837 OPS), walking 19 times compared to 21 strikeouts.

“There’s things that he’s doing right now that are permitting him to be more consistent,” Maddon said. “Like the other day, that first at-bat walk against [Max] Scherzer in what was such a big at-bat. There was like four pitches all over the place and he didn’t swing.”

Schwarber walked in both of his at-bats against Scherzer on May 17 on a combined 10 pitches. He took four pitches out of the zone the first time around and four more the second at-bat. On the latter instance, the only strikes came on foul balls.

All of this is not to say that the days of Schwarber hitting for power are over. He has four home runs in May, three of which have come in the leadoff spot. And while RBI chances aren’t as prevalent for leadoff hitters, Maddon mentioned how Schwarber has room to grow.

“To this point, he hasn’t really been the RBI guy that you might envision. He’s been more the table setter,” he said. “I think as he learns his craft better, of course he can drive in runs more consistently.

"He’s on the verge of doing that right now. The benefit has been for him to set the table more than cleaning it up to this point, but I think he has the abilities to do both.”

Following the Cubs’ 6-5 loss to the Reds on Friday, Maddon reiterated his confidence in his latest No. 1 hitter. Schwarber went 1-for-4 with a home run, a walk and a strikeout.

“I like his at-bats right now in general,” he said. “That’s kind of why I did what I did, because I think that it’s become a more mature at-bat and the more the stays up there, the more comfortable he’s going to get.”

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2019 MLB Power Rankings: It's almost time to get mad about All-Star snubs!

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USA Today

2019 MLB Power Rankings: It's almost time to get mad about All-Star snubs!

It's almost exactly halfway through the season, and if you've been following these rankings, you'll know the tiers have been set for some time now. As the All-Star break gets closer, it's the middle of the pack that has a big couple of weeks coming up. Looking at you, Pittsburgh or St. Louis or Cleveland or Texas or Oakland or Philly. Make something happen, or suffer the ultimate fate: falling an arbitrary number of spots in a MLB Power Ranking slideshow you're certainly not clicking through. There is no worse punishment. 

Want to see where your very good or very bad or maybe in the middle team ended up this week? To the rankings!

CLICK HERE FOR THE 2019 MLB POWER RANKINGS, PLEASE

Adbert Alzolay makes some memories on an otherwise forgettable night for the Cubs

Adbert Alzolay makes some memories on an otherwise forgettable night for the Cubs

The Cubs lost an entirely forgettable game on Tuesday night, dropping the second of their four games against the NL East-leading Braves by a score of 3-2. They left four men on base, only managed four hits, ran into two outs, and made one error in a game that was over well in time for a Clark Street nightcap, or three. 

What was memorable about Tuesday night was the performance of Adbert Alzolay, the Cubs’ top pitching prospect who was making his first major league start. The final line: 4.2 innings pitched, one hit, one run, four walks and four strikeouts. It’s certainly not the prettiest line you’ll see in tomorrow’s box scores, but the 24 year old passed the eye test with flying colors. 

“Everything was good - he was outstanding,” Joe Maddon said after the game. “I just think he hit a well there at the end. We just have to get him more used to that. Listen, he’s been injured in the past, he’s coming back - you’ve got to be real sensitive to the number of pitches and workload you put on him, because you can see how good he’s going to be.”

Things got off to an inauspicious start for Alzolay, whose first pitch of the game was crushed 413 feet into the left field bleachers for a leadoff homer, courtesy of Braves’ outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. It would prove to be the only hit and run that Alzolay allowed on the night. 

“It’s just one pitch,” he said. “You have to keep working - the game continues. I was just starting the game, so if you lose your mind in that situation than you’re not going to last a lot of innings.

“Even after the home run, he came right back and said, ‘I’m fine’,” Maddon added. “Then he went up and got three really good hitters out. I liked the mound demeanor, we’ve just got to get him a little further along in regards to being stretched out.”

After coming out flat with his secondary pitches during his 4-inning relief appearance on June 20th, Alzolay flashed better command and execution of both his curveball and changeup. Half of his strikeouts came on the curveball - one to get left fielder Austin Riley in the 2nd and one to get Acuña in the 3rd. After throwing 13 changeups in his debut, Alzolay double that number on Tuesday (27). 

“I’m feeling really confident throwing the pitch in any count,” Alzolay said of his changeup. “Tonight I threw it a couple times when I was behind in the count and I got a good result after that, so I’ll just keep on throwing it.

“For us to get confident at something, you have to practice, you have to execute it, and you have to use it in the game,” said catcher Willson Contreras, who plated both of the Cubs’ two runs with a double in the 4th. “For him to be able to throw the changeup for a strike, and strikeout people, it’s really good - especially at his age.”

Maddon couldn’t answer when Alzolay would make his next start. With Kyle Hendricks eyeing a return around the All-Star break, there would seemingly be a few more opportunities ahead of the rookie. Given what he showed on Tuesday night, it’d be hard to argue against it.

"He can be really good in the big leagues," Contreras said. "He still needs to make adjustments like all of us, but with the confidence he has, the ability he has, and the way he prepares before the games, it's going to take him a long way."