Welcome to the post-Thanksgiving edition of the positional year in review series. I hope you enjoyed your dinner and some time with your family. While you continue working through your leftovers, we’ll be discussing the Cubs‘ left-fielders, one of the most team’s crowded position groups, and one that doesn’t have any clear starter. For the purposes of this story, I’m anointing Kyle Schwarber as the the starter, because he has the highest ceiling, and he got most of the starts there near the end of the season. Whether he actually starts there in 2018 depends on a number of factors.
Schwarber was a different hitter after his 2-week midseason stint in the minor leagues. The left-handed-hitting slugger seemed to sell out for power on nearly every swing. He swung and missed more often, but also hit the ball hard at a rate comparable to the game’s elite power hitters. After his return to the majors on July 6, Schwarber posted a .255/.338/.565 line. Worlds better than his performance early in the season.
That .903 OPS was actually significantly better than .842 figure he posted in his rookie season. Lest we forget, that was the season Schwarber hit one of the most impressive home runs this writer has ever seen.
Any reason to use that clip is a good reason. It’s magical.
Schwarber’s second half was so good that it actually brought his full-season totals to slightly above league average. He finished the year with a 102 wRC+ and 30 home runs. That means it’s probably unfair to call his season a failure even if it was a disappointment after last season’s World Series heroics.
The key for the Indiana University product going forward will be to manage his swing-and-miss tendencies. Schwarber’s contact rate was a poor 68.9 percent in the second half of the season. He was particularly susceptible to curveballs low and in.
As long as Schwarber is clobbering the ball when he does make contact, those swings and misses are tolerable. If his timing is a little off, though, he’ll likely go through some very cold stretches where he’s striking out a lot and also hitting a lot of towering infield pop-ups. Even if he is hitting the ball hard, swinging and missing so much likely caps his production.
During his torrid second half, nearly one out of every three fly balls off of his bat turned into a home run. That is an unsustainable figure no matter how hard he hits the ball. That means that, if his contact rate remains similar to what it was in the second half of 2017, it would be unwise to expect much above a 120 wRC+. That’s still a solid number of course, but it’s not the elite level some predicted after Schwarber’s rookie year.
However, Schwarber has demonstrated in the past that he has a command of the strike zone. He drew plenty of walks at every level of the minor leagues and took a free pass in 12.1 percent of his plate appearances in 2017. It’s possible that he can learn to lay off some of those off-speed pitches out of the strike zone. Still just 24 years old, he’s by no means a finished product as a hitter. For comparison, Kris Bryant improved his contact rate by 5 percent in his age-25 season.
Even if he remains simply a good hitter rather than a great one, Schwarber’s defense has improved to the point that he would still be worthy of the Cubs’ starting left-fielder job. The 2014 first-round pick was noticeably more confident in the field in 2017, and was only very slightly below average by most defensive metrics. He even made a couple of highlight plays.
Schwarber’s 2017 season was certainly disappointing. But it wasn’t a completely lost year as it looked like it might be in June. Still, he’ll have plenty to prove heading into 2018, with plenty of competition for playing time.
Schwarber will feel pressure in left next season from both the Cubs’ veteran contingent and their youth brigade. As we’ve discussed multiple times in this series already, Ian Happ is a talented player without a position on which to hang his hat on a regular basis. He’s blocked by Javier Baez at second and Albert Almora in center, so his most direct path to playing time will likely come if Schwarber struggles. Even if Schwarber hits well early in the season, Happ will probably soak up some at-bats against left-handed starters.
Also jockeying for playing time in left will be 36-year-old Ben Zobrist. Zobrist had the worst season of his career in 2017, seeming to enter his decline phase without much warning. If he doesn’t rebound somewhat, he might not be much of a factor. But he’ll certainly get plenty of at-bats early in the season. Whether those come mostly at second or in left remains to be seen.
Schwarber will probably be the Opening Day left-fielder in 2018. Beyond that, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Although it will mostly go away if Schwarber hits like he did in the second half of 2017. If he struggles, however, he won’t get nearly as much time to figure it out as he did last season. Another April in which he hits .204 with just three home runs could see him relegated to a part-time role, with Happ emerging as the everyday left-fielder.