SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Last month I wrote this post about Joe Maddon considering using Kyle Schwarber as his leadoff hitter. It was something I came out in favor of; Schwarber’s on-base skills could help replace the loss of similar skills from Dexter Fowler the last two years. Maddon used to say about Fowler, “You go, we go,” and now the Cubs will hope Schwarber will do the same, because Joe made it official today:
Schwarber will be #Cubs leadoff man, Maddon says. Leaning toward pitcher batting 8th again— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 23, 2017
While Schwarber’s big-league career still consists of just 278 plate appearances, he posted a .353 OBP in those PA, which would be perfectly suitable for a leadoff guy. In 621 minor-league PA in the Cubs system his OBP was even better: .429.
And, he reached base 10 times in 20 PA in the World Series.
Obviously, Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of the traditional “speedy leadoff guy.” But getting on base is the key to any successful leadoff man, and Kyle does that — and he even did steal a base in the World Series. Maddon made this excellent comp for what sort of leadoff hitter Schwarber could be:
#Cubs Maddon on Schwarber: "I'd prefer that he subscribe to the Brian Downing method of leading off." BD totaled 12 SB in 606 Gs as leadoff— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 23, 2017
Brian Downing is perhaps one of the best prototypes for what Kyle Schwarber could become. He came up with the White Sox as a catcher, but wasn’t really all that well suited to it. Once he went to the Angels they gradually moved him to the outfield, where he became a reasonably good defender — probably as good as Kyle can be. Later Downing became a full-time DH.
From the time he was moved to the outfield full-time, Downing posted a career .374 OBP in over 6,200 plate appearances. In 1987 he led the A.L. with 106 walks and had a .400 OBP.
So those are the kinds of numbers we can expect, I think, from Schwarber. Downing hit 275 career homers, but didn’t really start to hit for power until he was 31. Kyle should do better than that right away.
Of course, Schwarber isn’t going to play every day. He might sit against tough lefties, or just to give him a break from time to time coming off the serious injury he had last April. Joe has a solution for that, too:
#Cubs will be careful with Schwarber playing time so don't aggravate left knee. If he sits, Zobrist can leadoff, Maddon says— Carrie Muskat (@CarrieMuskat) February 23, 2017
That should also work well. Ben Zobrist posted a .386 OBP last year (and .401 vs. LHP in 170 PA). Since Joe noted he’s leaning toward batting the pitcher eighth, that would mean Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay will likely hit ninth. That’s good protection for Almora in his first full season and Jay, who also has good on-base skills, could serve as a kind of “second leadoff man” hitting behind Schwarber.
The upshot of this is that the Cubs will likely be even less of a running team than they were in 2016. Fowler led the team with 13 steals and the entire ballclub stole only 66, which was tied for 12th in the National League. On the other hand, the team set a franchise record for walks (656) last year and that led the league by a significant margin, and the team OBP of .343 also led the N.L. The Cubs’ 808 runs were second in the league (to the Rockies) and it marked just the third time in the last 80 years that any Cubs team had scored 800 or more runs.
Keep up that kind of on-base work and the 2017 Chicago Cubs will be just as potent an offensive ballclub as the 2016 champions were.