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Why Kyle Schwarber Should Give Up Catching

The critics have said that Kyle Schwarber is not good enough defensively behind the plate to be a catcher. I'm here to say that even if they're wrong, they're right.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest debates in the Cubs organization over the past year has been over what position Kyle Schwarber should play. Schwarber played catcher at Indiana University, was drafted as a catcher and played catcher exclusively (except for DH) in the minor leagues in 2015. But when the Cubs needed a bat in the majors, they called up Schwarber and moved him to left field. He did get a lot of chances early in his time in the majors behind the plate as starter Miguel Montero missed much of July. After Montero returned on August 8, Schwarber only got three starts behind the plate.

With the re-acquisition of Dexter Fowler, there has been more talk about Schwarber getting more time behind the plate so that Jorge Soler can get in the lineup more often. I'm here to tell you that, generally-speaking, that's a mistake.

I'm on the record as saying that I don't think that Schwarber is a good catcher and that I don't think he's likely to ever be one. But the Cubs are on the record saying that they think Schwarber can learn to catch. Schwarber thinks he can catch. Why should anyone believe me (and dozens of other neutral observers) over them?

Fair enough. I'm willing to grant the point for the purposes of this piece. Let's say that Schwarber can, with some time and training, get good enough behind the plate to be a league-average catcher. Even then, I'm saying that Schwarber should be a left fielder and not a catcher.

Why? Because catching is hazardous to your health.

Kyle Schwarber has the potential to be a first-rate hitter. I've rarely seen a rookie with a better approach at the plate and a power swing that can turn any pitch into a double to the opposite field and any mistake into a three-run home run. Yes, he strikes out a little more than you'd like. He's not a young Albert Pujols. But his potential as a hitter could make him an All-Star for years to come.

But catching is a dangerous game. Look at the career of Joe Mauer. Mauer was once one of the best players in the game. His 2009 MVP season was something to behold. But injuries have dogged Mauer throughout his career. In 2004, he missed most of his rookie season after tearing up his knee going after a foul pop. In 2011, he missed half the season with "leg weakness" and other assorted maladies. But the biggest injury in Mauer's career was suffered in 2013 when he took a foul tip off his mask in August. The concussion he suffered ended his season and ended his career as a catcher. Mauer's career has never really recovered from that concussion.

Or there's Buster Posey. The Giants' chances of winning three straight World Series titles ended in 2011 when Scott Cousins ran over Posey at the plate, breaking his leg and ending his season. Major League Baseball initiated the "Buster Posey Rule" after that to ban those kinds of home plate collisions, but the bottom line is catching is still dangerous. Look at what happened when Yadier Molina tried to tag Anthony Rizzo in September. Molina tore his thumb ligament, missed the playoffs and might still not be ready for Opening Day.

Despite those risks, those teams continue (or continued, in Mauer's case, until they couldn't anymore) to put those players behind the plate. Why? Because they were superior defensive catchers. Even then, the Giants make sure that Posey gets 40 games a year at first base. But even the most optimistic Schwarber supporters can't reasonably argue that he'll ever be as good defensively as those three.

If you want more evidence of what catching can do to your body and mind, read this piece on John Jaso.  Author Fernando Perez, who played for the Rays (and the Iowa Cubs!), asked Jaso what he thought. Jaso said:

Look at how Josh Donaldson's career took off when he stopped catching, I don't know if that would have happened if he stayed behind the plate. If I was a GM and I had a catcher who had a chance to be a really great hitter I'd make him change positions. Why put those miles on his body? What are the chances you'll get a catcher who'll be Yadier Molina behind the plate and also hit like Yadi?

The counter-argument here is Mike Piazza, who was a great hitter who stayed behind the plate almost his entire career despite poor defensive reviews.  Three points here. One is that modern analysis is revealing that Piazza's defense was a lot better than most of us thought at the time. Piazza was bad at throwing out runners, which was all we were really able to evaluate a catcher for back in the 1990s. We know better now. The second point is that we know a lot more about injuries and concussions now than we did when Piazza was playing. Finally, Piazza is the exception, not the rule. The Cubs shouldn't make their decisions based on the hope that Schwarber is a Hall-of-Fame freak of nature like Piazza. (And that's not even getting into the other things whispered about Piazza, for which I know nothing about and neither do you.)

If the Cubs want to let Schwarber practice behind the plate and serve as the third catcher, I don't have a problem with that. If it allows Joe Maddon to pinch-hit for David Ross in late innings of a close game when Miguel Montero needs a day off, I'm fine with risking Schwarber behind the plate for a few innings here and there. But he should not be a part of the regular catching rotation. If Montero or Schwarber gets injured, the Cubs should call someone up from Iowa rather than giving Schwarber a lot of games behind the plate. He's just too important to the Cubs' future to risk.

That's what David Ross is for. To quote Paul Rudd in the movie Ant-Man, "I'm expendable."