Three and a half years ago, Kyle Schwarber was a nondescript former high school linebacker playing in front of crowds of dozens in the snow. Now he’s the focus of the baseball universe, a key figure in ending a 108-year championship drought, a transition so sudden it’s difficult to separate the hype from the reality. Is it possible, at this heightened moment, to discuss Schwarber’s place as one of the most talented hitters in baseball without getting swept up in the narrative? Maybe not. I’ve been on the Schwarber hype train since the beginning, and looking out the window, everything just looks blurred.
I first started following Schwarber back in 2013, when he was a sophomore catcher at Indiana, the key player on a team that ushered in a college baseball revolution in the Midwest. At that year’s College World Series, he emerged from a crowd that included Alex Bregman, Trea Turner, Carlos Rodon, Aaron Nola, and Michael Conforto as the tournament’s darling.
Schwarber started to get first-round hype the following spring, but I was circumspect about his professional prospects — every tournament produces a cult favorite, but those heroes end up selling Toyotas or teaching high school P.E. more often than they strike it rich in the big leagues. Still, when Indiana came through Columbus on a snowy weekend in March of 2014, I went to see him live. That was when I realized that he was the best amateur hitter I’ve ever seen.
That weekend, Schwarber went 6-for-12 with two walks, a hit by pitch, and a home run that left the ballpark (where the field is incidentally but hilariously named after Nick Swisher) entirely. Ohio State already wasn’t very good that year, but Schwarber made the Buckeyes look like children. In addition to the strength you’d expect from the Strong Mad of ballplayers, you could almost see Schwarber thinking through each at-bat, like Mike Trout, or Joey Votto, whom Schwarber grew up idolizing.
Schwarber hit .358/.464/.659 as a junior, then went fourth overall in the 2014 draft. That night in early June was when his hype train added sleeper cars. Though Schwarber’s under-slot bonus made his draft position somewhat less surprising than it first appeared, it was still the biggest shock of the first 10 selections. Here were the Cubs, Theo Epstein’s Children’s Crusade of power hitters, investing $3.125 million in a blocky catcher from a Big Ten school.
That selection validated Schwarber’s bona fides, and he validated the hype right back. The Cubs would promote him aggressively as long as he was hitting, and that’s all he did. It took him 72 games to traverse three levels of A-ball, hitting .344/.428/.634 along the way. He started 2015 as Baseball America’s no. 19 prospect, hit .320/.438/.579 in 58 games in Double-A, .333/.403/.633 in 17 games in Triple-A, and appeared in his first Cubs game on June 16, 2015, almost exactly a year after he signed.
And then Schwarber just kept hitting: .246/.355/.487 as a 22-year-old rookie, plus a franchise-record five home runs in his first postseason. Even the catastrophic knee injury that knocked him out after five plate appearances this year did little to dull the hype. His absence was disappointing, but maybe it would give the Cubs time to figure out where to put him on the field, or to trade him to a team with a need for a first baseman or DH.
So I didn’t think anything of Schwarber getting some reps in the Arizona Fall League last week. Sure, it’s a high level of competition, but Tim Tebow’s playing there — would that really prepare him to hit against Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller in a matter of days?
But sure enough, on came Schwarber, like Kirk Gibson leading the cavalry over the hill, to smash a double off the wall against Kluber in Game 1, then add two hits and two RBIs in a Game 2 win. I thought the knee and the rust would be too much for Schwarber, but it didn’t even take until the double for me to realize I was wrong. He struck out on six pitches in the second inning of Game 1, but in so doing, provided a clear reminder that his carrying tool — his eye, his ability to track the ball — was perfectly intact.
So great was Schwarber’s impact that the Cubs toyed with the idea of putting him in left field for the three games at Wrigley — which was already a dicey proposition before he blew out his knee — but team doctors wouldn’t clear Schwarber to play the outfield. That might be best in the long run for everyone involved; Schwarber’s built like an Easter Island statue and has the mobility to match. Watching him run the bases this week leads to no other conclusion than this: To put him in left would be to ask Dexter Fowler to run down every ball hit to the gap.
Schwarber doesn’t have wheels, and neither does his hype train, which is now a thousand-mile-an-hour maglev bullet designed by Elon Musk on ’shrooms. Some of this is the Willis Reed element; some is likely the result of a corner outfield panic that stems from Jason Heyward’s continued inability to hit; and the rest is because Schwarber, young as he is and hitting the way he does, would still be legitimately exciting if he were playing for the Padres in May, and not the Cubs in October.
Except, he’s not such a great hitter that putting him in left field — where he’d be a danger to himself as well as the Cubs defense — would be anything more than a desperate attempt to ride the lightning. Maybe that will change when he’s fully healed, and the Cubs can live with his glove. The Cubs are uniquely unsuited to take advantage of Schwarber because they not only play in the National League, they have an outstanding first baseman in Anthony Rizzo. Short of Schwarber growing range unexpectedly, that leaves him without a home, but that’s also a problem for the offseason.
This weekend, Schwarber can still make an impact as a pinch hitter without sacrificing defense. Playoff baseball seldom follows the rote pitcher-usage patterns of the regular season, never less so than right now. By keeping him on the bench, Cubs manager Joe Maddon can use him only once in each of the next three games, but that one plate appearance can be at a time and place of his choosing for maximum impact. Say, against Cody Allen in the ninth with men on base, or as a fleet-in-being to dissuade Terry Francona from bringing in Miller too early.
But Schwarber returning to full-time action and returning to left field just in time to save the Cubs? For now, that’s just hype.