Kyle Schwarber is mashing the ball this spring, which surprises absolutely nobody. Then, let's be honest, would it have surprised if he was hitting .111 and striking out once every two times he comes to the plate? No, probably not.
Nothing about Schwarber surprises anybody anymore. He has played just 200 games in his Major League career and yet he already has been a folk hero, a so-called bust, a World Series icon, a player demoted to the Minors and everything in between. Few players in baseball history have had so auspicious and strange of a start. Schwarber hit .211 and was sent to Triple-A Iowa for a time last year. Would it surprise you if he put up All-Star numbers this year? No, probably not.
In fact, Cubs president Theo Epstein expects it. Well, he isn't predicting an All-Star appearance or anything tangible like that, but he fully expects Schwarber to hit a lot in 2018. Epstein expects this because he believes, as so many believe, that more than anything else, Schwarber is one heck of a hitter.
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"He's one of these guys who cares so much," Epstein says, before pausing. "I think sometimes players who really care about the team and who take their responsibilities to contribute really seriously, the ones really don't want to let their teammates down, it can be harder for them to come out of slumps. They carry so much weight on their shoulder. Maybe they don't have to, and you tell them that, but they feel the responsibility so deeply that they can't help it.
"Whereas someone who is a little bit more self-oriented -- not self-centered, but self-oriented -- maybe they can come out of it a little bit quicker."
This is one of the more fascinating quirks of the game -- you want players who are team-oriented, yes, but you also want players who can get out of their own heads and be a bit selfish at the plate. As Derek Jeter says, "Baseball is a team game, but when you're hitting, it's just you and the pitcher, one on one."
And to take on the world's best pitchers one on one, it's helpful not to add too many layers, even admirable stuff like wanting to help the team. Hitter after hitter through the years has found it easier to think of a strikeout as just that, rather than thinking about the ramifications of it all.
Hall of Famer George Brett has this exercise he challenges young hitters with: He asks them to say a number between one and five out loud and, at the same time, hold up a different number of fingers up. Then do it again and again and again. Unless you come up with some pattern, few people can do that for very long without eventually repeating numbers or saying and holding up the same number.
"When you're a hitter," Brett says, "you have to think about one thing."
Schwarber had a hard time doing that in 2017. The expectations were enormous. He had come off one of the most amazing World Series performances ever; he got hurt on April 7 that spring and missed the rest of the regular season and the National League Division Series and the NL Championship Series. Schwarber's first at-bat in almost seven months came in Game 1 of the World Series; he struck out against Corey Kluber.
Schwarber's second at-bat, he rapped a double to right. In all, he hit .412 in that Series, and anyone who could do something miraculous like that was fated to follow it up with an extraordinary hitting year. Schwarber banged two hits, including a double on Opening Day. But then it went bad. He hit .175 for the next month and struck out 38 times in 25 games.
And it got worse. From May 3 to June 3, Schwarber got just nine hits in 76 at-bats, for a .118 average to drop his season average to .163. He seemed to be swinging harder and harder every at-bat, as if he thought one monster home run might pull him out of the madness. And Schwarber hit a few monster home runs -- including one against the Mets that seemed like something out of a cartoon. But it didn't change the dynamic. The Cubs were flailing too. It was a bad scene.
"He carried this tremendous weight around with him," Epstein says. "That's why we ultimately [sent] him down, just to allow him the chance to reset and hopefully remove that weight and be a little selfish and rediscover his identity as a hitter because he was becoming this carnival act slugger, taking these huge swings, getting pull oriented and trying to lift the ball, swinging up hill and losing his balance as he finished his swing. It's just not who he is."
After a rough postseason to follow the rough regular season, Schwarber rebuilt his swing. He tried to go back to the natural hitter had had been -- "hitter first, slugger second," as Cubs manager Joe Maddon says. Schwarber even talked with the Cubs about hitting leadoff again. Then -- yes, it's the ultimate baseball cliché -- but he did come into camp in the best shape of his life.
And so far, the signs are awfully good. Schwarber in 15 games was hitting .378 with seven extra-base hits, including a triple. His strikeouts were a bit down, his walks a bit up. It's a small sample size of exhibition baseball, which means the numbers are pretty close to meaningless … but if Schwarber was hitting .111 in spring, you know people would be talking about that. The fact he's crushing the ball again can only add to the Cubs' belief that he's going to rebound in a big way.
"It's baseball, so you never know," Epstein says. "I just know we really believe in the person, and we really believe in the hitter. Yes, I've been wrong. But I'll bet on this guy."