From the Pages of Vine Line: Top pick Schwarber impressed in his rookie campaign
(Photo by Aldrin Capulong)
The first thing you notice about Cubs 2014 No. 1 draft pick Kyle Schwarber is that no one will say a bad word about him. And it takes all of about 30 seconds to understand why.
On a rainy July day, Schwarber’s Kane County team had just lost a 3-2 affair in gut-wrenching fashion, after Tyler Marincov smashed a two-out, two-run, ninth-inning homer to give visiting Beloit the victory. It was a frustrating day all around, and the fourth-overall selection in this year’s draft had probably the worst showing of his nascent professional career, logging an 0-for-4 that included an ugly three-pitch strikeout.
As members of the media entered a quiet clubhouse filled with players licking their wounds, Schwarber stood with a plate of food in his hands. After a few seconds, the newest of the Cubs’ elite prospects realized the media scrum was there for him. He politely put down his tray, walked over to the gathering and ushered them into a small storage room outside the clubhouse so as not to disturb his teammates—most of whom he’d known for less than three weeks.
Even though he’d been a pro for only a short time, the Indiana University product was surprisingly poised, professional and conscientious. He has always been comfortable in his own skin, and he just wanted to make sure everyone else was comfortable too.
“It happens—0-fors can happen,” Schwarber said, shrugging his large shoulders. “I’ve got to realize that. You can’t be too negative on yourself because that can happen sometimes. … It’s a long season. You’ve just got to keep grinding each and every at-bat.”
The next thing you notice about Schwarber is how polished he looks at the plate. The Cubs rated the 21-year-old left-handed slugger as the best hitter in the 2014 draft, and he’s more than justified their confidence in him since he made his professional debut with Short-Season A Boise on June 13. In the Northwest League, Schwarber hit .600 with four home runs and 10 RBI in just five games. After that scorching start, he was quickly promoted to Low-A Kane County, where he played another 23 games, compiling a .361/.448/.602 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line with four homers and 15 RBI. In mid-July, he was bumped up to High-A Daytona, where he finished the season hitting .302/.393/.560 with 10 homers.
But when people are asked about Schwarber, the thing they generally rave about is not his powerful bat—it’s his selfless team-first attitude and the presence he brings to the clubhouse.
“We’re really happy with the quick adjustment he’s made to pro ball,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “The on-field stuff takes care of itself with how he’s handled things mentally. He’s been through a lot this past month, and he’s been consistent, steady, and he’s off to a great start.”
For former Indiana University coach Tracy Smith, it was virtually love at first sight. After hearing of a hulking catcher from Middletown, Ohio, who was posting huge numbers and consistently making hard contact, Smith figured he’d check it out. Though Schwarber was also recruited on the gridiron as an All-State middle linebacker, his first love was always baseball.
“I went to see a game, and he was facing a high school guy that ended up being drafted that year, a left-handed pitcher,” said Smith, who recently accepted the head-coaching job at Arizona State University. “The game I saw him, Schwarber took him out to left field, center field, right field. So that [scholarship] offer came on his way home.”
Indiana is generally known as a basketball school, but the baseball program has transformed into a national power in the past three seasons, largely behind the play of Schwarber.
From 2012-14, the catcher and outfielder hit .341/.437/.607 with 238 hits, 40 homers and 41 doubles, all while drawing 116 walks and striking out just 91 times in 180 games. He was named to multiple All-America teams, and Perfect Game, an amateur scouting company that hosts top-level national baseball showcases, named him the best college catcher in the country in 2013 after he bashed a school-record 18 home runs. That same season, Schwarber and his teammates reached baseball’s elite eight, advancing Indiana to the College World Series for the first time in program history.
All the while, the Cubs were watching.
At first, all eyes weren’t necessarily on Schwarber. The 2012 Indiana roster included eight players who eventually got drafted by major league clubs. But for Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, just knowing that the big catcher was batting second piqued his interest.
“Freshmen aren’t supposed to hit at the top of the order of a [Division 1] program. If they’re trusting a guy to top an order as a freshman, then they must think he’s pretty good,” Zielinski said. “Then he’s squaring up balls, hitting line drives, just playing with a lot of tenacity and just loving the game.”
The longtime scout came away impressed and decided to schedule some time in Bloomington during the ensuing seasons. While there may not have been a signature on-field moment that sold Zielinski on the collegiate star, he said it was a “series of blows” that made him a believer.
After identifying a potential draft pick, the next step the Cubs take is to try to gain a better understanding of that person off the field. Scouts and front office personnel talk to the player, coaches, family and any other influential voices. As Zielinski did his research, it became clear Schwarber’s mental toughness was just as potent a tool as his powerful bat.
When it came time for Zielinski to deliver his report, the scout sold the slugger hard to the Cubs front office—and the decision makers listened. Even though most teams had Schwarber as a mid-first-round talent, the Cubs felt strongly enough about him to take him fourth overall.
“He’s just a genuine All-American kid,” Zielinski said. “To know him is to like him. You can’t walk away without liking the kid. He’s just a fun-loving kid. If the team is too tight, he tries to loosen them up. If the team is too loose, he tells the guys to get their focus back.”
During Zielinski’s time on campus, he and the IU coaching staff had numerous conversations, many of them about Schwarber’s personality.
“Everybody talks about what a great player he is and all that, but he really is … a better person,” Smith said. “I’ve always thought you don’t have a good ballclub unless your best players are the hardest workers, and that’s something Kyle brought to the field every day. He’ll outwork everybody.”
If there’s one knock on Schwarber, whether it’s justified or not, it’s about his ability to stick behind the plate. The Cubs front office admitted they selected the slugger primarily for his advanced bat. Catchers often require more time in the minor leagues to refine their skills, but team representatives said they didn’t want Schwarber’s defensive development to slow down his offensive process. In other words, if his bat is big league-ready, they might not hold him back waiting for his receiving skills to catch up.
“I love catching, but if they want me to do something else, I’ll do something else,” Schwarber said.
The one thing that is repeated by everyone you talk to about Schwarber—from Cubs front office personnel to college coaches to scouts—is that he is, first and foremost, a team-oriented guy. As such, he’s willing to pass on catching in the long run and make the full-time switch to a corner outfield spot. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to hang up his catcher’s mitt just yet.
“I want to be able to help the team down the road, when it comes, if that opportunity does come,” Schwarber said. “I feel like if I can get better defensively, [catching] could be in the best interest of the team.”
The argument, for what it’s worth, is that he’s relatively new to calling his own games, and his release on throws is a little long. Those who have seen him play on a more consistent basis, however, say much of that criticism is unwarranted. While he might not ever be a top-tier glove man behind the plate, people who know his work ethic believe he could backstop at the major league level.
“As far as pro ball, there are some things he needs to learn, and he’s so open to it,” said Kane County manager Mark Johnson, who spent parts of eight major league seasons as a catcher. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better, and he busts his butt every day. That’s all you can really ask for.”
From a scouting standpoint, the pieces are there too. It’s evident Schwarber has spent the majority of his life being the field captain. He just needs to hone his game to make it major league-ready.
“Everybody knocks his defense … but everyone is a little afraid to make their own opinion on it,” Zielinski said. “I actually think he can catch. I think the ingredients are all there to make the cake. He needs some refinements and coaching.”
Schwarber spent most of his time in Daytona manning the outfield and logging a few games each week behind the plate. It remains to be seen where he’ll end up defensively, but it will certainly be a topic of discussion this offseason, when it looks like some questions might get answered.
“We’re going to sit down at the end of the minor league season and see whether it’s an appropriate time to make a call,” Epstein said. “That’s a good time of the year, because you can decide then that if catching is something we really want to pursue, we can get him a lot of work daily in the instructional league—a lot of focused attention on his defensive fundamentals.”
Schwarber admitted the first few months of his professional career have been a whirlwind. Wrapping up a college career, getting drafted, signing a multimillion-dollar contract and jumping through three professional levels would be a lot for anybody to handle. But Schwarber said he appreciates how supportive everyone in the organization has been since he signed, which has helped make the transition from amateur to pro ball as seamless as possible.
“I thought it was going to be a lot different being the new guy, especially being the guy that got picked first by them,” Schwarber said. “It’s a different story for everyone. But these guys … they brought me in. It’s like I haven’t missed a beat with these guys.”
Based on the stories, getting along with Kyle Schwarber hardly sounds like a difficult task. His natural personality, combined with the effort he gives on the field every day, makes it easy for coaches and peers to call him a good teammate.
The comfort level is already there, and everyone around him can feel it.