There’s no hiding Kyle Schwarber. You’d have an easier time concealing a fireworks display.
The tape-measure home runs, the childlike genuineness, the Tonka Truck build, the postseason stardom, the smile — good luck trying to shove him into the shadows while he struggles at the plate. In many ways, he’s a victim of his own brief, enormous success.
But the Cubs haven’t done him any favors, either. Manager Joe Maddon continues to bat him high in the order, despite Schwarber’s .170 average. His teammates also are struggling at the plate, and the reigning World Series champions are playing far below their potential, relieving him of none of the pressure. The team’s marketing department hasn’t been shy about promoting him as a bona fide star, despite his relative lack of experience.
All of this has meant more stress than any 24-year-old baseball player should have to endure. Or, to put it another way, maybe the Hall of Fame plaque was premature.
It’s important to remember that, before he faced a pitch this season, Schwarber had played in only 71 regular-season games and had just 236 at-bats. He missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. So, as this season began, it wasn’t as if he possessed a large body of work, no matter how big his playoff legend might be.
It would have been the perfect time for someone in the organization to say, “Let’s remember that Kyle is still in the early stages of his career. Let’s tap the brakes.’’
Instead, Maddon said, “Hey, I have an idea! Let’s put him in the leadoff spot!’’
Hitting leadoff didn’t cause Schwarber’s troubles, but it did make things more difficult for him when his slump established residence.
The Cubs put enormous faith in him, based on two wonderful postseasons and a fine half-season as a rookie. That included last year’s World Series, in which he hit .412 — after not playing a game since early April. Most of us understand why the Cubs think so highly of him. Anyone with a beating heart would. But the team didn’t leave him any wiggle room for when life got difficult.
His teammates have let him down in a big way. At least a struggling Jason Heyward could fade into the background of the team’s march to a World Series last season. The Cubs talked up his excellent defense, as if it could make up for his misery at the plate, and people bought it. Everybody else was hitting, so it was no big deal. Not so for Schwarber this year. He’s not hitting, and few of his teammates have caught fire.
It’s fine for the Cubs to use youth as an excuse for their poor hitting, but how does it follow that Schwarber has to be in such a prominent spot in the order? It’s impossible to hide him, but it is possible to take pressure off him by hitting him sixth, seventh or eighth. But, no, there was Schwarber batting second again Wednesday in San Diego. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in a 2-1 loss, the Cubs’ sixth consecutive defeat.
They can’t bemoan all the attention on Schwarber’s struggles while having his image on banners in the concourses at Wrigley Field. They can’t have it both ways. Fans love him for his kid-like enthusiasm, and the Cubs have marketed the hell out of it. They think they have more than a good ballplayer on their hands. They think they have a folk hero. They might be right. But why the rush to immortality?
Of course Schwarber can come out of this slump. But is there enough of a track record here to guarantee it? It’s possible he’s simply going through a delayed sophomore slump. It’s also possible that somewhere between the depths of where he is now and the heights he has reached in the postseason sits the real Kyle Schwarber. Anyone who tells you he knows where the kid is going is guessing right now.
Send him down to the minors? I think Maddon and president Theo Epstein would sob if they had to do that. The obvious answer would be to move him down in the order, where there isn’t so much attention, where a man can deal with a slump without the glare. But Maddon has refused to do it.
Schwarber hasn’t had more than two hits in a game this season. It’s the kind of dryness you’d expect from someone near the bottom of the majors in batting average.
For two months, Maddon has been saying that Schwarber is hitting the ball well and is close to breaking out of his slump. But because Maddon always says nice things about everybody, it’s hard to tell what’s real here. He’d tell you a naked mole rat is beautiful “in the right light.’’
Part of the decision to stick with Schwarber near the top of the order is belief on Maddon’s part. And part is stubbornness, with the hope of being able to say “I told you so’’ if Schwarber ever comes out of this sinkhole.
There’s no doubt the kid has failed so far this season. There’s also no doubt that a lot of people have failed him.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.