Progressive Field

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

Kyle Schwarber is basically Superman in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Kyle Schwarber LOVES hitting in Cleveland.

It's like he morphs into a superhero just by stepping foot into the left-handed batter's box at Progressive Field.

Playing in Cleveland for the first time since his legendary return to the field in the 2016 World Series, Schwarber went absolutely bonkers on a Josh Tomlin pitch in the second inning Tuesday night:

That wasn't just any homer, however. 

The 117.1 mph dinger was the hardest-hit ball by any Cubs hitter in the era of exit velocity, aka since Statcast was invented in 2015:

Schwarber followed that up with another solo blast into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning off Tomlin.

Schwarber — an Ohio native — collected his first MLB hit at Progressive Field back on June 17, 2015 in his second career game. He went 6-for-9 in that series with a triple, homer and 4 RBI.

Couple that with his World Series totals and the first two times up Tuesday and Schwarber has hit .500 with a .545 on-base percentage and .900 slugging percentage in his first 33 trips to the plate in Cleveland.

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?

Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.

Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.

Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.

Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.

Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.

Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:

Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).

Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.

But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.

As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.

He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.

Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.

"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.

"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.

"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."

The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.

By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.

Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.

Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.

If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.

So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).

Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.

Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?

Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.

So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so. 

But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

How Albert Almora Jr. became part of the World Series puzzle for Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Theory and reality collided for the Cubs in the 10th inning, when Kris Bryant drove Bryan Shaw's 94.8 mph fastball out to Progressive Field's warning track. Pinch-runner Albert Almora Jr. alertly hustled from first base as soon as Cleveland Indians center fielder Rajai Davis caught it in front of the KeyBank sign.   
 
Almora had already launched his body into a textbook slide — his left arm raised in the air and his right hand scraping the dirt — before Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor even caught the ball several feet off second base.
 
"Tagging is Almora with great baserunning," Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck told 40 million World Series viewers, making this epic Game 7 Major League Baseball's most-watched TV event in 25 years.   
 
That moment of clarity — after the fog of a 17-minute rain delay and potentially the most devastating collapse in franchise history — illustrated why Almora became the first player drafted by the Theo Epstein administration in 2012. The Cubs projected the baseball IQ and self-confidence sharpened by a strong Cuban-American family and from playing on Team USA and year-round in South Florida.   
 
"Just those intangibles," new Cubs outfielder Jon Jay said. "Maybe he picked that up growing up in Miami, where baseball is serious. We were taught the fundamentals of the game — do the little things right — and everything was so competitive. 
 
"That's what I saw out of that play. I said: Man, he probably did that in high school or when he was 13 years old, because that's what we were taught when we were younger."
 
Almora scored the go-ahead run from second base when World Series MVP Ben Zobrist smashed a double past diving Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez. Four days before his 23rd birthday, Almora will receive the championship ring marking the end of the 108-year drought. 
 
"Why I was so confident had a lot to do with my teammates, what they allowed me to be when I first got to the big leagues," Almora said. "They allowed me to be myself. It was really awesome to feel that way. I knew nothing would really change in the playoffs. 
 
"Just go out there and be yourself. Go out there and have fun. Obviously, I was such a small piece of the puzzle for the World Series. But when they called my name there, I was just happy I could get the job done." 

[MORE: Cubs and Pedro Strop look to future with contract extension]
 
The Cubs didn't hand Almora an everyday job, signing Jay to a one-year, $8 million contract and expecting him to be a left-handed complement and a veteran mentor. Jay played at the University of Miami — while Almora committed to the Hurricanes before agreeing to a $3.9 million bonus with the Cubs — and the two had already paired up as offseason workout partners back home. 
 
"I can learn from such a great person and a great player as well," Almora said. "My goal doesn't change from last year to this year — it's to win a World Series. He brings a lot to the table. He brings experience in the playoffs.
 
"This isn't about me. This isn't about him. It's about us and whatever makes the team better."
 
The Cubs opened their Cactus League schedule on Saturday with split-squad games against the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants, Jay starting in center field in Mesa while Almora did the same in Scottsdale. The Cubs will see the Indians again on Sunday afternoon at Sloan Park, another reminder of the instincts that might someday help Almora become a Gold Glove defender.
 
"He has a really good awareness of what's going on out there," manager Joe Maddon said. "This kid loves to play. He loves to be part of this. He's always looking for growth. He's always looking to get better at different things.
 
"Coming from Miami and his background, he's just kind of a baseball junkie."
 
To put Almora's focus in context, he married Krystal at a Chicago courthouse in late July last year, got sent back down to Iowa the next day and together they welcomed their newborn son, Ayden John, in August. By early November, Almora's father, Albert Sr., felt good enough after his battle with prostate cancer to ride in the bus in the championship parade down Lake Shore Drive and Michigan Avenue. 
 
At this time last year, Almora envisioned himself in the World Series, even though he hadn't yet played above the Triple-A level and wouldn't make his big-league debut until early June. That didn't stop him from making 2016 the most unforgettable year of his life. 
 
"Yeah, I can honestly say that I had confidence in myself that I was going to be there," Almora said. "I didn't know what role I was going to have — that's something you can't control — but I knew from the bottom of my heart that I had worked hard enough, that I was going to get the chance to be on a playoff team.
 
"You have to (look at it that way). My goal was to be on that team to help win a World Series. And that's what happened."