There’s a certain charm, even a naiveté, to Kyle Schwarber that’s hard to resist.
Around Cubs spring training camp in the early going, Schwarber has looked to be the most eager to get started.
“He’s jacked up to play,” manager Joe Maddon said before the first Cactus League game. “I walked by him in there, and I don’t even know what I said to him, but his response was pretty much, ‘It’s so great to get going again.’
“He’s worked so hard, and he wants to get back out there. Wow. See it with first-time eyes. Feel it with first-time passion. That’s what he’s doing. I love it.”
Seeing Schwarber himself with first-time eyes this spring might not elicit much more than a glance. After all, he looks like any other baseball player plying his trade in the desert to get ready for the season.
But second- and third-time eyes might blink a few times to make sure they’re seeing right.
By now, most who follow the Cubs know Schwarber is slimmer and trimmer, and leaner, if not necessarily meaner.
The hope harbored by Schwarber and the Cubs is that the body transformation will lead to better numbers than he had in a most interesting 2017 season. While Schwarber posted a line of .211/.315/.467 with 150 strikeouts in 486 plate appearances, he also hit 30 home runs.
After a failed experiment to make Schwarber the leadoff hitter, the Cubs sent him to Triple-A Iowa on June 21. By the time he came back to the big leagues July 6, he already had begun formulating his offseason plan to lose weight and get into better shape.
“It kind of clicked halfway through (the season), once I came back up,” he said. “ ‘OK, I want to start doing some better things here.’ Once that offseason really hit, it was full-on go and not leave anything out.
“It wasn’t the year I wanted it to be at all. I had different expectations in my head. I’m just trying to cover my bases here and not leave anything out. I want to get better defensively. I want to be better offensively and be better on the basepaths. Just trying to get better all around the game.”
It wasn’t long after the Cubs were eliminated by the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series that he started to get after it.
“I took about a week to two weeks off and was ready to roll,” he said. “That was my thing. I wanted to get back into it and prepare for this year.”
Of course, seeing will be believing, but the early eye test says Schwarber has looked more nimble in left field and on the basepaths – he stole second and third bases against Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey in an early Cactus League game.
“I feel a little bit lighter, a little bit more explosive,” he said. “It’s not going to let me go out there and hit .500 and hit as many home runs as I want to. I have to go out there and perform on the field. The little things feel good.
“I’m just happy with the way my work is going. Just the whole offseason thing was good, but now you’ve got to translate it onto the field, being able to work with (instructor) Doug Dascenzo and (coach) Will Venable and our outfielders. We have a great group of outfielders. Just being able to watch them work and try to incorporate some things in a game, it’s been great. I feel like it’s definitely helped now on the field.”
Among the touchier subjects surrounding Schwarber was Maddon’s decision to start the season with him as the leadoff hitter. In that role, Schwarber went .190/.312/.381, earning a trip to Iowa.
Maddon was steadfast in his position that the leadoff spot had nothing to do with Schwarber’s struggles, and the manager has not ruled out using Schwarber in that role at times this year. Instead, Maddon said Schwarber’s inexperience – he missed virtually the entire 2016 regular season with a serious knee injury – led to the poor performance.
Schwarber has only 764 major league plate appearances in regular-season play.
Schwarber rules out the pressure of batting first as the reason for the first-half numbers. As for what caused the slow start, he said he doesn’t know. Nor is he dwelling on it.
“I will just say you can’t put an excuse on anything,” he said. “I was the one out there performing, so it falls back on me. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready to roll this year.”
If there’s reason for encouragement, it’s that Schwarber’s second-half numbers improved markedly from those before the All-Star break last year. The pre-break line was .178/.300/.394, and the post-break slashes were .253/.335/.559. He had an OPS of .940 in July, .852 in August and .938 over the final month.
If he can get his batting average on balls in play (BAPIP) up from last year’s .244 to a more normal .300, the whole line will look better.
Schwarber, who turns 25 on Monday, has given up catching – for now – to concentrate on left field, but he still dresses with the receiving corps at the Sloan Park spring complex.
“It’s given me a little bit more time to focus on outfield stuff, but I’ll find my way back there just in case something does happen,” he said of catching. “I’ll sneak my way out there and get some reps.”
Schwarber is so serious about playing outfield that he does not want to be considered “the National League DH.” He wants to be on the field to shake hands after victories.
As for the doubters, those who have said Schwarber “can’t do it” – whatever the “it” is – he has his own thoughts.
“You just try to tune that stuff out,” he said. “Obviously, everyone’s going to have their own opinion. But I care about my own.”