'I love the challenge': Schwarber up for DH, OF

July 9th, 2020

CHICAGO -- began one of his rounds of batting practice on Wednesday by working to the opposite field. The first pitch tossed his way rocketed off his bat, sliced over the gap in left-center field and then caromed sharply off the bricks and ivy at Wrigley Field. A couple pitches later, Schwarber changed course, pulling the baseball and sending it clanking off the vacant bleacher seats in right.

Those displays of power are why baseball fans have always sort of dreamed of Schwarber as a future designated hitter. But since he was in the National League, Schwarber tried to make it as a catcher before turning himself into a league-average left fielder. He takes pride in all that work put in and enjoys jogging out to left and raising his arms to salute the bleacher creatures.

"I know how people love to view me as a designated hitter," Schwarber said in a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday. "But I'm going to still go out there and play my best defense out there and make really good plays out there."

Now, at least for the unique and abbreviated 2020 season, the DH has arrived to the National League.

That development -- born out of minimizing injury risk for pitchers in this unusual campaign -- is fine by Schwarber, especially since he knows he will not be moved to the DH role on a full-time basis. Schwarber has already had the conversation with new Cubs manager David Ross about how the first-year skipper will utilize the hitting-only slot in the lineup.

Yes, Schwarber will see time as Chicago's DH. There is no getting around that, and it makes a heap of sense. That said, Ross wants to find other ways to get the most out of that slot. Maybe Steven Souza Jr. (coming off a left knee injury) can benefit from getting at-bats there. Maybe there will be days when both catchers, Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini, can start. The outfield and second-base logjams can also be loosened by cycling guys through that position.

"I think the DH makes us better," Ross said. "I think we've got some guys that we can match up for that. It makes my job easier in that context, for sure. I was preparing to not have the DH, so I understand what that looks like. But, now that we have it, it makes one less tough decision for me."

Schwarber likes that message from Ross, too.

"The conversations have been good," Schwarber said. "Really good open communication about, 'Hey, you're going to play left some days and you're going to be DHing, too.' It's just the way it is and trust me, I'm all for whatever he wants me to do. I'm just happy for the open communication that he's had with me."

The way the lineup looks right now, Schwarber appears to be the safe bet to be cleaning up -- especially against right-handed pitching -- behind Kris Bryant (leadoff), Anthony Rizzo (second) and Javier Báez (third). Given the way Schwarber finished the 2019 season, serving as the Cubs' No. 4 hitter is an earned role for the slugger.

Overall last season, Schwarber hit .250/.339/.531 with career highs in homers (38), doubles (29), runs (82) and RBIs (92). In the second half, he hit .280 with a .997 OPS, and he was even better down the stretch. From Aug. 25 through the end of the 2019 season, Schwarber hit at a .348 clip with a 1.145 OPS.

Defensively, Schwarber had minus-3 DRS with a minus 0.9 UZR/150 in left field, following an impressive showing in 2018 (3 DRS to go with a 14.0 UZR/150). That is why Ross is fine with giving Schwarber days in the outfield this year. And when Schwarber is the DH, players like Souza or Ian Happ could easily slide to left.

"I don't see Kyle as a huge outfield risk for us," Ross said. "We do have some guys that are better defensively, of course, outfielders than Kyle, but he plays a solid left field, to me. And I don't have any hesitation with putting him out there."

In his career, Schwarber has had 98 plate appearances as a DH, hitting .299/.367/.678 (1.046 OPS) with nine homers and 20 RBIs in 22 games. That does not include what he did as a DH in the 2016 World Series against Cleveland. In the four games on the road, Schwarber went 7-for-16 as Chicago's DH.

Schwarber said those experiences have helped him come up with strategies for handling the job. Rather than leave the dugout to get extra work in the indoor batting cage, Schwarber said he thinks it is more important to watch at-bats by other lefty hitters in the Cubs' lineup to pick up things about the opposing team's approach.

"I kind of have an idea and formula of what I want to do," he said. "You think of a DH and you think about them taking their at-bat and then the next thing they're going back down into the cage and they're swinging, swinging, swinging, swinging. I think that's not the case. I think the biggest thing for a DH is to be able to stay locked into the game as much as possible, know what's going on, see what's going on, keep your mind into it."

And what if the DH is here to stay in the NL?

"So be it," Schwarber said. "My job as a player is to prepare to play the field. At the end of the day, it's the manager's decision to see who plays the field and who's the DH. Obviously, I'm a guy who, I love the challenge."