CHICAGO – Cubs manager Joe Maddon couldn’t help but gush about his leadoff hitter after Sunday’s 5-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It’s as good as I’ve seen him,” Maddon said.
After a day off Friday, Kyle Schwarber returned to the Cubs’ lineup Saturday and Sunday and proceeded to go 4 for 7 with a home run, two doubles, two walks and four RBIs.
Finally, after the trials and tribulations of the 2017 season, Schwarber is finding success in the leadoff spot. The 26-year-old attributes it to experience.
“That was the real first shot I had [at leadoff],” Schwarber said of 2017, when he hit first in 36 games. “I wouldn’t say it was different or anything like that. It was just getting that leadoff man, the things that come with it, get it out of your head.”
In 2017, Schwarber hit .190 with a .312 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot. He was even worse (.161 batting average, .278 on-base percentage) in the first at-bat of the game. He struggled so much the Cubs sent him to Triple-A Iowa midseason to work out the kinks.
This season, in 23 games leading off entering play Monday, Schwarber is hitting .258 with a .349 on-base percentage. In his first at-bat of the game, he has reached base in 10 of 23 plate appearances (.435 on-base percentage), with six walks.
“There hasn’t been any problems,” Schwarber said. “I’m not changing my approach or anything like that. It’s just being able to keep the same at-bats and don’t stop being aggressive. Let the walks come.”
Maddon gave Schwarber the day off Friday in the series opener against the Cardinals. Before that, Schwarber hit leadoff for the Cubs in 21 consecutive games. That was the longest such streak for a Cubs leadoff man since Anthony Rizzo did so in 20 consecutive games in July and August last season.
“I love his stance right now,” Maddon said of Schwarber. “I love what he’s doing in the box. I think he looks great. That’s why he’s punishing the baseball. He’s made some beautiful adjustments.”
When he’s making contact, Schwarber is making hard contact. His average exit velocity (92.9 mph) ranks 10th in the major leagues and has risen almost 3 mph over last season.
At this point, Schwarber has a large enough body of work that it would be unrealistic to expect any drastic reduction in strikeouts. He always has complemented his high strikeout rate (27% in 2019, 21st worst in baseball) with a high walk rate (13.9% in 2019, 17th best in baseball).
“Walking has always been a big thing of mine,” Schwarber said. “It’s always been in my game. There’s always things to fine-tune. More experience and more times you see [pitchers], things like that, you always get a better idea of where you get that curveball or that fastball.”
As a team, the Cubs have amassed more walks (266) than any other club in baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers are second (263) entering Monday.
Although Schwarber still is not a true leadoff hitter in the traditional sense, his recent performance is making an argument for him to keep hitting at the top of the order.
“I’ll keep doing it,” Schwarber said. “It doesn’t change the way I feel. Anytime I’m in the lineup, I want to do something to help the team win that day. If it’s in the leadoff spot, it’s in the leadoff spot.”