Cubs

Will Kyle Schwarber's physical transformation transform his hitting and fielding, too?

Will Kyle Schwarber's physical transformation transform his hitting and fielding, too?

MESA, Ariz. — You might have heard that Kyle Schwarber is skinny now.

Yes, it seems the “Hulk” part of Schwarber’s one-time nickname “Fast Hulk” has been rendered inaccurate after Schwarber’s well-documented physical transformation this offseason.

And so the question becomes: What do we do with the “Fast” part? Does that get to stay?

Schwarber’s bodily makeover and the accompanying lifestyle changes have Wrigleyville thinking the slugger will now become some sort of different player, a guy who can wipe away the memories of a challenging 2017 campaign in which he hit just .211 and spent a stint in the minors at Triple-A Iowa. From the ashes of the guy who made a few glaring fielding mistakes in left field shall rise a phoenix capable of Gold Glove defense. That’s the idea, right?

Schwarber’s suggesting pumping the brakes on all that. Asked how much effect getting into such good shape will have on his play, he kind of threw cold water on the notion that he’ll be someone brand new.

“I don’t think there’ll be much,” he said Friday. “Being whatever I am isn’t going to help me go out and hit .500 and 70 home runs. I’ve got to go out and perform, still, at the end of the day. It’s going to help with things I can control. Being quicker, more explosive, those are things I can control, and working on my swing, everything like that. It’s trusting your preparation and taking it into the game.”

And really, Cubs fans shouldn’t want Schwarber to change too much. Despite what was characterized for much of 2017 as a horrendous season, Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, just two behind team-leader Anthony Rizzo, and walked 59 times, third on the team behind Kris Bryant and Rizzo.

But obviously this new-look Schwarber will be able to do some new-look things, right?

“It’s definitely going to feel better,” Schwarber said. “I would say there was a lot of work that was put in just acceleration and more explosiveness throughout the offseason just to get quicker, quicker hands, explosiveness, things like that.”

“It doesn’t ensure anything, but his whole game should be a little bit quicker because of that, whether it’s defensively, base running, movement in general,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’ll see how it pertains to hitting.”

And on defense?

“I think that’s definitely going to help, too, just being able to get quicker, more explosive first steps, just being able to get better reads,” Schwarber said. “I think it’s all going to benefit. This isn’t something that’s going to not benefit me at all. This I think’s just going to help down the road. I think it’ll be good.”

“I do believe if you just start carrying less weight, you’re probably going to feel better on your feet out there, you’re probably going to be able to do some things you might not have been able to do before,” Maddon said. “So I just think that in and of itself is going to be able to improve his defense.”

The Cubs have helped Schwarber and the other guys who had less-than-ideal 2017s in other ways. There’s a new hitting coach in town in Chili Davis, who will be tasked with getting guys like Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and more back to what they’ve done in years past.

Schwarber mentioned that he and Davis have already established a bit of a connection, with Schwarber relating to Davis starting out as a catcher and being moved to the outfield, just like he was.

“Chili’s great. I talked to him on the phone a couple times in the offseason and was able to really sit down with him and talk baseball a little bit,” Schwarber said. “The guy’s got a really great understanding of the game. He really gets that hitter’s side of the game, where he can just sit down and talk to you and go through what’s in your mindset and anything else. I’m looking forward to working with him. I think it’s going to be a great new voice.

“And to be able to listen to his story a little bit, it kind of relates to me. So I’m really excited to just work with him throughout the whole year and get that mindset down and go from there.”

In the end, baseball is a results-oriented business, and Schwarber’s transformation won’t mean much to many if his statistics don’t go through a transformation, as well. But again, even in a year seen on the outside as a disaster, Schwarber hit 30 home runs and helped the Cubs to their third straight National League Championship Series. Not too shabby.

A new body and a new focus built from what happened last year could yield new, even more positive numbers.

“You’ve got to be able to take it a day at a time. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. You can’t beat yourself up too much, there’s always tomorrow,” Schwarber said. “You’ve just got to be able to find a way that day to help the team win. If you go 0-for-4 with four punch outs but make a great play in the outfield, That’s a great day right there.

“That’s my focus this year, just take it a day at a time, don’t worry about the end goal and just worry about just trying to help the team win that day.”

That all sounds pretty typical for a professional athlete. But given how difficult things were for Schwarber at points last season and how hard he has worked this offseason, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a different batch of results from a different-looking player.

“What he’s done is pretty darn impressive,” Maddon said, “and we’re all eager to watch how it plays out there and I know he’s eager to show us.”

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

Feeding off their defense, Cubs starting to feel those 2016 vibes

A year ago, the Cubs were struggling to float above .500, sitting 1.5 games behind the first-place Brewers.

Two years ago, the Cubs were10.5 games up on the second-place Cardinals in the division and already in cruise control to the postseason.

As they entered a weekend series in Cincinnati at 42-29 and in a tie for first place, the Cubs are feeling quite a bit more like 2016 than 2017.

The major reason? Energy, as Joe Maddon pointed out over the weekend.

That energy shows up most often on defense.

The 2016 Cubs put up maybe the best defensive season in baseball history while last year they truly looked hungover.

After a big of a slow start to 2018, the Cubs are feelin' more of that '16 swag.

If you watched either of the wins against the Los Angeles Dodgers this week at Wrigley Field, it's clear to see why: the defense.

"I like the defense," Maddon said of his team last week. "I'm into the defense. There's a tightness about the group. There's a closeness about the group. Not saying last year wasn't like that, but this group is definitely trending more in the '16 direction regarding interacting.

"If anything — and the one thing that makes me extremely pleased — would be the continuation of the defense. We've fed so much off our defense in '16. We've been doing that more recently again. We do so much good out there, then we come in and it gets kinda electric in the dugout. I'd like to see that trend continue on defense."

The Cubs scored only 2 runs in 10 innings in the second game against the Dodgers Tuesday night and managed just 4 runs in the finale Wednesday. Yet their gloves helped hold the Dodgers to only 1 run combined between the two games.

Wednesday's game was a defensive clinic, with Jason Heyward throwing out Chris Taylor at home plate with an incredible tag by Willson Contreras while Javy Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber all hit the ground to make sprawling/diving plays.

"[Almora] comes in and dives for one and I'm just like, 'OK, I'm done clapping for you guys,'" Jon Lester, Wednesday's winning pitcher, joked. "It's expected now that these guys make these plays. It's fun on our end. It's the, 'Here, hit it. Our guys are really good out there and they're gonna run it down.'"

The Heyward throw, in particular, jacked the team up. 

Maddon compared it to a grand slam with how much energy it provided the Cubs. Almora said he momentarily lost his voice because he was screaming so much at the play.

There was also Baez making plays in the hole at shortstop, then switching over to second base and turning a ridiculous unassisted double play on a liner in the 8th inning.

"That's what we're capable of doing," Maddon said. "In the past, when we've won on a high level, we've played outstanding defense. It never gets old to watch that kind of baseball."

The Cubs are back to forcing opposing hitters to jog off the field, shaking their head in frustration and disbelief.

"It could be so dispiriting to the other side when you make plays like that," Maddon said. "And also it's buoyant to your pitchers. So there's all kinds of good stuff goin' on there."

A lot of that is the play of the outfield, with Almora back to himself after a down 2017 season and Schwarber turning into a plus-rated defensive outfield.

After finishing 19th in baseball in outfield assists last season, the Cubs are currently tied for 6th with 14 outfield assists this year.

Schwarber has 7 alone, which is already as many as he tallied in the entire 2017 season.

"I feel like they'll learn quickly on Schwarber, if they haven't yet," Heyward said. "You gotta earn that respect. You gotta earn that sense of caution from the third base coach.

"But please keep running on me in those situations. I want it to happen."

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow has a healthy sense of humor about his pants-related injury

Brandon Morrow's body may not be healthy, but his sense of humor sure isn't on the disabled list.

The Cubs closer had to go on the DL Wednesday after he injured his back changing out of his pants early Monday morning when the Cubs returned home to Chicago after a Sunday night game in St. Louis.

The story made national rounds, not only in the baseball world, but resonating with non-sports fans, as well. After all, it's not every day a guy who gets paid millions for his athletic endeavors injures himself on a mundane every day activity.

But it's all good, because even Morrow can find the humor in the situation, Tweeting this out Thursday afternoon:

Morrow's back tightened up on him and didn't loosen up enough the next two days, making him unavailable for the Cubs doubleheader Tuesday at Wrigley Field.

The team decided to put him on the shelf Wednesday morning so an already-gassed bullpen wouldn't have more pressure during this stretch of 14 games in 13 days.

The Cubs are in Cincinnati this weekend for a four-game series with the Reds. Morrow is eligible to return from the DL next Wednesday in Los Angeles as the Cubs once again take on the Dodgers — Morrow's old team.

The 33-year-old pitcher is 16-for-17 in save chances this year while posting a 1.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 25 strikeouts in 22.2 innings. He's only given up a run in 2 of his 26 outings as a Cub.