Two years ago, the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment went down in flames. Across 173 plate appearances, the slugging outfielder slashed .190/.312/.381/.693, striking out 48 times. That it lasted as long as it did (37 games) is a wonder.
Not only did Schwarber lose his role with the club in response to that lackluster effort, but the former first round draft pick was optioned to Triple-A, where he spent 11 games before returning to the team. He never again graced the leadoff role following his demotion, ending the 2017 campaign with a 99 OPS+ and 150 strikeouts over 129 games.
While Schwarber was in his third season with the Cubs in 2017, it’s safe to say he was still finding his way in the big leagues. Disrupted by a knee injury that caused him to miss all but two regular-season games a year prior, Schwarber entered the ’17 season with only 278 big league plate appearances under his belt. Being placed atop the lineup would no doubt be tough for any hitter, but his limited experience made the task that much more difficult
Schwarber made great strides offensively in 2018, cutting his strikeout rate to 27.5% while increasing an already robust walk rate to 15.3% over a career-high 510 plate appearances. That helped the slugger achieve a lofty .356 OBP and solid .823 OPS to finish the campaign 15% better than league average at the plate.
Joe Maddon‘s initial plans for 2019 would not have included batting Schwarber in the leadoff spot again. Instead, as we saw early on, the left-handed batter was slotted in the lower half of lineup, where he excelled last season.
Early on in ’19, it looked like Schwarber was finally breaking out the way many hoped he would. He slashed .300/.391/.650/1.041 through the first week of the season, hitting two home runs across six games. Unfortunately, something was destined to change has the lefty posted a BABIP of .333 during that stretch of play, racking up a lofty 26.1% strikeout rate in the process.
Regression caught up, causing him to finish the month of April with only league-average numbers of a .241 batting average and .741 OPS. May has not been much kinder, as he is currently slashing .224/.389/.448/.837 across 90 plate appearances since May 1.
Those numbers aren’t indicative of a patient approach that has remained steady throughout, with strong on-base skills standing out. So with Ben Zobrist on the restricted list while he deals with personal matters and names like Daniel Descalso and Jason Heyward in offensive slumps, Schwarber has returned to the top of the order.
While it’s still a very small sample size (43 PAs), Schwarber is posting numbers that may result in a prolonged look as the leadoff hitter. Spanning nine games, he has slashed .265/.372/.618/.990 with five extra-base hits, seven RBI, and seven walks. Not bad. And with a .286 BABIP, it seems sustainable
What needs to change, however, is Schwarber’s 27.9% strikeout rate batting leadoff. When setting the table ahead of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez, traffic on the basepaths is always a good idea. As things stand right now, those 2-3-4 hitters look like All-Star candidates, with Willson Contreras also knocking on that door.
Schwarber owns a .444 OBP as the first batter of the game, knocking a home run and a double and racking up two walks while striking out just once. Additionally, his batted-ball profile has shifted in a promising direction. While the sample size remains small, Schwarber is sporting a 25% line-drive rate, just slightly below his ground ball rate of 29.2%. His fly ball rate has also seen an uptick, increasing to 45.8 percent, while his hard contact rate has risen.
We probably shouldn’t expect Schwarber to bat from the leadoff spot for an extended amount of time. With Albert Almora Jr. sporting an .847 OPS over his last 66 plate appearances and the hope that Zobrist will return at some point this season, Schwarber is little more than fill-in until the time is right to make a move.
Maddon has said as much, suggesting that Schwarber is not exactly the answer to the Cubs’ lead-off question moving forward. But given the run producers behind him, Schwarber seems like the best bet to lead off for the Cubs right now.
Of course, things could always change and Schwarber could force Maddon’s hand, extending the slugger’s look atop the lineup. Two more reaches on Friday, including his first home run to lead off a game, only strengthen his case. Now with a .348 OBP for the season that’s been even higher atop the order, Schwarber has a great shot at setting a new career best in that category. As he attempts to accomplish that goal, the Cubs should ride him as the leadoff man. Only good things have transpired with him in that role this season.