Kyle Schwarber entered the 2017 on an incredible high. After tearing his ACL in the second game of the 2016 season, he had miraculously returned just six months later to serve as the Cubs designated hitter in the World Series. And, after collecting seven hits and three walks in just 20 plate appearances in Chicago's first Championship in over a century, expectations for Schwarber soared. As a result, manager, Joe Maddon, installed the slugger in the lead-off spot, hoping to capitalize on his excellent on-base skills.
As everyone knows by now, the optimism quickly dissipated for War Bear in 2017. He crashed out of the starting gate with a sub .200 batting average in the first half of the season and tacked on an OPS (.694) that was below replacement level. Eventually he was shipped to AAA Iowa to retool his swing.
Using the demotion to try to rediscover his natural swing and reset himself, he returned to Chicago with a second-half surge. The Indiana University product boosted his OPS from that ugly .694 before his demotion to a robust .894 after it. The power remained as well as he finished 2017 with 30 homers in just 486 plate appearances.
The question entering 2018 is a simple one: which Schwarber will the Cubs get? The struggling first-half model? Or the much improved second-half version? The evidence at hand leads me to believe the Cubs left fielder will have a big year.
To begin, Kyle is in the best shape of his life. I know, I know, every player says that. But Schwarber truly is. He lost at least 20 pounds during intensive off-season workouts with a focus on improving his agility. The formerly burly masher has stolen three bases this spring. The next Billy Hamilton he is not, but it still demonstrates his improved conditioning.
Speaking of, that same improved conditioning has allowed him to shed the bulky knee brace he wore all of last year. And, after deciding to give up catching to focus on being a full-time left fielder, his improved speed with no brace should allow Schwarber to have more range in the outfield. His defensive shortcomings have always been overblown, but this year he appears ready to make needed improvements.
As far as the offensive side of game goes, it must be noted just how little time Kyle has had in the majors. He was called up in July of 2015, it was supposed to be a quick look, but his production kept him at major league level the rest of the year. After his knee injury, his first mostly full season was 2017 (i.e. last year!). He only has 764 plate appearances in his career, a little over what a full-time starter would have in a single year.
The reason this writer feels Kyle Schwarber is ready for a big year is psychological. After his World Series star turn, expectations piled on the Ohio kid. 40 homers, .300 batting average, replacing Dexter Fowler in the lead-off spot, all with only 270 plate appearances in the majors. Oh yeah, don't forget the whole recovering from major knee surgery just 11 months before.
A year later, a fully healthy, very motivated Schwarber is back to prove the doubters wrong. Now with an entire season under his belt and more reasonable expectations for success, he should be primed to have a bounce-back year. The talent is there, Cubs scouts feel he has the hand-eye coordination to be an elite hitter. The power is self evident, even in a down 2017, he had 30 homers. Don't be surprised if Kyle Schwarber is back and better than ever in 2018.