It's safe to say the Cubs have found their long-term leadoff hitter.
The revolving door atop the order has stopped over the last month, with Kyle Schwarber stepping into the role and running with it.
As his team completed the sweep of the rival Cardinals at Wrigley Field Sunday night with a 5-1 victory, he jumpstarted the Cubs' offense once again with a walk in the first inning and motored around to third base on Kris Bryant's single into the left-centerfield gap. Schwarber then later scored on Anthony Rizzo's ground out to stake the Cubs to an early 1-0 lead.
Four innings later, he hit another rocket to right-center for an RBI double to plate David Bote.
"Love his stance right now, man. I love what he's doing in the box. I think it looks great," Joe Maddon said. "That's it — that's why he's punishing the baseball. He's made some beautiful adjustments and it's as good as I've seen him. Ever. I've seen him good when he first came up [in 2015] and even in the World Series — he was outstanding. But this, if we could put this little bit in a time capsule, heads up."
The Cubs entered the year figuring Ben Zobrist would see most of the time at leadoff against right-handed pitchers and Albert Almora Jr. would slot in there against lefties, with Daniel Descalso or Jason Heyward maybe working in there a bit, too.
But Zobrist left the team to deal with personal matters during the first week of May while Almora has actually struggled against lefties to start the season and Descalso has struggled in general the last month-plus. Heyward has been a valuable piece to the middle/bottom of the Cubs' order all year, so Maddon needed somebody else to plug in ahead of Bryant, Rizzo and Javy Baez.
Enter Round 2 of the Kyle Schwarber Leadoff Experiment.
Back in 2017, Schwarber was dubbed as the Cubs' next leadoff hitter as Dexter Fowler went south to join the Cardinals. But the young outfielder didn't take to the spot that season, batting .190 with a .693 OPS in 36 starts atop the Cubs order before getting sent down to the minors to work on his swing. By the time he returned to Chicago, he had lost the hold on the leadoff spot.
This time around, things are going much, much better for the slugger and his team.
Since May 16, Schwarber has started every game he's played in the leadoff spot (even against lefties). The only time he wasn't atop the Cubs' order was Friday's series opener with the Cardinals when he got a general day off and The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time (Rizzo) took over for an afternoon.
In that span, the Cubs are averaging 5.2 runs per game — which is right in line with their season tally (5.3 runs per game), so the lineup's overall production hasn't missed a beat.
But Schwarber himself is starting to take off after a hot homestand in which he's reached base 12 times and scored 6 runs in 6 games. He's also homered twice, including a 114 mph rocket into the right field bleachers on the 11th pitch of an at-bat Saturday night.
"Schwarbs, to me, that's what it's supposed to look like," Maddon said. "And not because of the home run [Saturday]. What he's doing at the plate right now, we need to keep that in a jar, because that looks really good."
Schwarber said he's been feeling pretty good the last week or so and believes he's simply not missing his pitch right now. He wasn't willing to admit this is the best he's ever been at the big-league level, but he knows the skills are in there and right now, it's just all clicking for him.
The big night Sunday boosted Schwarber's OPS out of the leadoff spot to .911 on a .258/.349/.562 slash line. He's also scored 20 runs in 23 games at leadoff while smashing 12 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) and driving in 16 runs.
Schwarber believes he's better equipped to handle the leadoff role right now because the circumstances are different than they were in 2017.
"A little bit more experience there and kinda taking away the leadoff hitter name or role or whatever it is and just go out there and take my at-bats," he said.
With that stability atop the order now, it's changed the complexion of the Cubs' lineup. In their exit interviews with Theo Epstein and the Cubs brass, some players mentioned that they wanted more consistent lineups in 2019.
Right now, it's about as stable as it gets. On any given day, it's easy enough to predict what the lineup will be: Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo-Baez and then either Carlos Gonzalez or Willson Contreras hitting fifth and Heyward not too far behind.
It also presents as a nice left-right-left-right balance for the Cubs.
"We've all seen what he's able to do as far as working the count," Jon Lester said Saturday night. "It seems like now he's just not missing the pitch he's supposed to hit. He gets frustrated when that pitch comes and he misses it or fouls it off. Now, it seems like — knock on wood — that he's locked in and doing well.
"We all know he knows the strike zone and he can work walks, but when he's hitting the ball out of the ballpark, that just adds another dynamic to the lineup. Especially with him in the 1-hole now, our lineup getting turned over. He's not only getting on base, but hitting for power and that makes our lineup deeper. It just extends those innings that these guys have to pitch and pitchers have to throw.
"When we're able to throw him in there with the way our lineup's been going, it's always an added bonus."