The Kyle Schwarber Decision

A year ago, Kyle Schwarber took over October with his bat, launching monstrous home runs and putting himself on the map as one of the better young hitters in baseball. This summer, Schwarber took over July with his unavailability, as many of the summer’s rumors revolved around teams — specifically the Yankees — trying to get the young slugger from the Cubs in various trades, but the team refusing to part with him, even though it meant they had to settle for a bullpen upgrade not named Andrew Miller. And now, Schwarber is taking over Octoer with his rehab; six months after tearing his ACL, Schwarber is now angling for a return to the team, offering to serve as the designated hitter in the four World Series games that take place in AL parks.

From an entertainment perspective, I hope the Cubs add Schwarber to the roster; it would make for a compelling story, especially when the Indians inevitably bring Miller in to face him, reminding the Cubs what they could have had in their bullpen if they weren’t so attached to him. From a baseball perspective, I’m less convinced that putting Schwarber on the roster would be a significant improvement for the Cubs roster.

The argument against rostering Schwarber has one pretty easy component, of course: we really have no idea how much of an impact his lack of at-bats will have on Schwarber’s ability to perform against big-league pitching. There’s a huge unknown related to what a team should expect from a guy in October who just missed the entire season, and there’s no real precedent for giving key at-bats in the World Series to a guy who missed virtually the entire regular season and the first few rounds of the playoffs. While it’s tempting to think of Schwarber as the guy he was last October, there seems to be a real risk that he’ll be Kyle Schwarber in name only, and won’t be an impact hitter while trying to get his timing back.

But beyond just the question of Schwarber’s unpredictable value, I’m not actually sure the Cubs need him.

If Schwarber makes the roster, he’d be in line to start the four games in AL parks, plus pinch-hit in the three games in NL parks. Realistically, we’re probably looking at something like 15 at-bats. But given the team’s other options, I’m not certain that he’d be a huge upgrade in those 15 at-bats.

For instance, in the first game of the series, the Cubs are going to throw Jon Lester, which means David Ross will be behind the plate. If they carried the same roster they had in the NLCS, and went with their standard lineup, their bench options who could serve at DH would consist of Willson Contreras, Miguel Montero, Jorge Soler, Chris Coghlan, and Albert Almora. It’s a nice mix of righties and lefties, with Contreras and Montero the most likely candidates; Contreras as the take-the-best-hitter option, Montero as the platoon-advantage guy.

A healthy Schwarber with his normal timing is a better hitter than either, of course, but we don’t know what Schwarber is going to be, and bumping a guy like Contreras out of the lineup would remove a quality hitter from the offense. The Cubs could start both by inserting Contreras into the outfield and benching Jason Heyward, who has looked entirely lost this postseason, but Heyward’s glove remains valuable, and since the Indians will mostly be throwing right-handers at them, sticking with him could pay dividends.

The same problem applies in Game Two. Because Kyle Hendricks had to pitch on Saturday, Jake Arrieta will be slotted in to start the second game of the series, and the Cubs have committed to letting him have Miguel Montero as his personal catcher. Montero even started for the Cubs in Game Three of the NLCS despite the Dodgers throwing Rich Hill, because they valued his work with Arrieta over the offensive improvement of starting Contreras against a lefty. Again, with the catcher spot taken due to the pitcher preference, starting Schwarber means not starting Contreras, or putting him in the outfield and removing Hewyard’s glove from the defense. The issue would also apply in Game Six, when Arrieta would again be scheduled to start in Cleveland, putting Montero behind the plate.

Either way, there’s a downside to starting Schwarber. His bat could justify the move, but it’s not like he’d be replacing some useless scrub; the Cubs have enough position-player depth that they have real DH options even without Schwarber. And the cost goes beyond just the lineups; they’d also have to commit a roster spot to a guy who can’t play the field, and for whom they’d probably need to pinch-run if he got on base in a late-inning situation.

The most likely casualty if the team decided to carry Schwarber would be Rob Zastryzny, as the Cubs would likely shift from a 13/12 hitter/pitcher split to a 14/11 roster; all the other position players serve too much of a function to get left off the roster. Zastryzny isn’t some vital cog to the team or anything, but since the Cubs aren’t really carrying a traditional long man, he’s the natural choice to soak up innings if a starter gets hammered and the team ends up in a blowout. With Zastrzny on the roster, the team would have to use relievers they’d rather have fresh for important late-game matchups, and so Schwarber’s roster spot would leave them a bit vulnerable to having overworked relievers if one of the starters doesn’t work deep into a game.

None of this is to say that there’s no reason to carry Schwarber. If the Cubs think the timing issue is overblown and that his work in the AFL prepared him to face the Indians, then he could certainly be an offensive upgrade over the team’s other options at DH. And given how right-handed the Indians staff is, just having another left-handed bat with some thump could be useful, even in the games at Wrigley, where Schwarber could pinch-hit for Ross in a big spot, especially if Miller has already been used.

But the Cubs aren’t your normal NL team with nothing but lousy options at DH. They already have players worthy of more playing time than they’re currently getting, and they don’t need Kyle Schwarber in order to give themselves a legitimate bat to play in the games in Cleveland. Maybe Schwarber, after missing the whole season, is still better than those guys, and the gap is large enough to carry one less pitcher, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in that judgment.

I hope the Cubs put him on the roster. The spectacle would be great theatre, and he would make the series more intriguing. But from a pure baseball perspective, I might leave him at home, and give those Contreras at-bats instead.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

If Schwarber were a righty, would this be an easier decision? If it’s only ~15 ABs and there’s a chance 1-2 are against Miller as a lefty, that seems to make the value add much smaller…

7 years ago
Reply to  alang3131982

Their starters are all righty, so for 1, 2, 6, and 7, it would be better lefty (even if he does wind up facing Miller I think). At Wrigley, pinch hitting, yeah righty would be better I think (except of course for Allen and Shaw).

Tbh I don’t think it really matters much given cleveland’s pitchers

7 years ago
Reply to  bunslow

The Indians might well start Merritt, a lefty. If they do it will be in game 4 in Chicago.