Why Joe Maddon is considering Kyle Schwarber for a return to Cubs’ leadoff spot
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Don’t look now, but the Cubs’ 18-month search for a leadoff man might take them right back to where they started.
Will Kyle Schwarber be back at the top of the lineup?
“I have thought about it,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It came up a couple times recently.”
Maddon’s riding Ben Zobrist right now against left-handers.
But Schwarber’s first appearance at the top of the lineup since last season’s failed experiment could be imminent the way he is reaching base and the way Maddon talked Tuesday.
“Listen, I’m not running to get there yet, but I’m not running away from it either,” Maddon said. “If it all makes sense, you’ll see him back up there, and he’ll embrace it.”
The bigger question might be whether the shirsey-wearing public is ready to embrace it. Schwarber’s 36-start run last season as Dexter Fowler’s replacement resulted in a .167 average and eventually a two-week demotion to the minors.
Never mind the perception that putting that responsibility on Schwarber’s shoulders to open last season contributed to his slow start.
“That has nothing to do with anything,” Maddon said. “If he’s the best-suited guy in the moment, you’ll see him back up there.”
The Cubs entered Tuesday with a miserable .308 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot (24th in the majors), with just 19 runs in 32 games.
That still hasn’t improve, as Zobrist struck out in his first two trips to the plate.
The Cubs’ inability to solve their leadoff puzzle post-Dexter Fowler was a major factor in their feast-and-famine scoring last year. Things haven’t improved so far this season as the offense has scored three runs or less in 10 of 11 games until Monday’s outburst against the crappy Marlins.
Schwarber, on the other hand, has quietly been the Cubs’ most consistent on-base performer this side of Kris Bryant since the season began.
After going 1-for-4 in Tuesday’s 4-3 victory over the Marlins, Schwarber is hitting .268 with an on-base percentage more than 100 points higher (.372), thanks to 16 walks that tied him with Bryant for the team lead.
“If they’re taking pitches out of the zone, if they’re controlling their strike zone, that’s what I’m looking for,” said Maddon, who has used 11 different players in the leadoff spot since Fowler signed with the Cardinals after the 2016 season.
“When you’re 100 points over your batting average, you’ve pretty much got your strike zone organized,” Maddon said.
Since Schwarber led off 26 of the Cubs’ first 27 games last season, he has hit in every spot in the batting order, including ninth.
Schwarber hasn’t led off since June 10 of last season. But five teammates have just five weeks into this season, including first baseman Anthony Rizzo and catcher Willson Contreras.
“If he feels he wants me to do that, I’m up for it,” said Schwarber, who looks more calm and comfortable at the plate than at almost any time last year. “I’m just trying to stay simple, confident, be me and go from there.”
The Cubs already went through this year’s version of 2017 Schwarber — when Ian Happ opened the season as the regular leadoff man against right-handers before slumping badly and exiting the role at the end of April.
Maddon said he is not letting anything in the past influence what he does with Schwarber and the leadoff spot moving forward.
“I agree,” said Schwarber, who has crept toward the top with three recent appearances at No. 2, including Tuesday. “My swing was just messed up last year. I was messed up. I was in a bad place. [Leadoff] had nothing to do with it.”