“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
— Sun Tzu,
“Schwarber is not a bad name, Kyle is not a bad name at all. Actually, a couple years ago, I considered leading Kyle off and putting Dexter second. But I had all the dudes do all the work, all our nerds did all the work, and they really liked Fowler 1 and they liked Schwarber 2, just based on our data. So I went with that, and it worked out really, really well. So now all of a sudden, Dexter is not there anymore. It’s not impossible to consider Kyle in that spot.”
— Joe Maddon, The Art of War Bear
You go, we go. That’s what they used to say about Dexter Fowler. But now that their leadoff hitter and his thousand-watt smile find themselves in The Lou, the Cubs are forced to change the lyrics of that particular ditty to “you gone, we gon’ find a way to replace you.”
The most likely successor to the recently vacated spot at the top of the order is Ben Zobrist, a man who’s OBP is comparable to Fowler’s and whose patient approach set an example for the young Cubs hitters. He’s also a switch-hitter who’s better from the left side but can hold his own as a righty too. Zobrist is perfectly capable of setting both the table and the tone for the defending champs. One thing he’s not, though, is scary.
You want to win a war before it really starts? Put Kyle Schwarber up there with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo following him, probably with Zobrist in the cleanup spot, and even the most confident pitcher might find ice water running down his leg instead of through his veins. Scoring first is a tried and true recipe for success in baseball, and in Schwarber, the Cubs have a guy who can increase win probability early and often.
Want a template for Schwarber batting leadoff? Just think Rickey Henderson, Brady Anderson, or Alfonso Soriano, then take away the speed, swagger, and that little hop before catching fly balls. He may not possess the lightning, but War Bear can damn sure bring the thunder. And that’s what the Cubs may want to take advantage of.
“I will tell you when we talk internally and kind of kick things around, I love that idea,” Jed Hoyer said recently when he joined 670 The Score’s Matt Spiegel and Jason Goff on their eponymous show. “What I was always taught in baseball when I started working with Bill James with the Red Sox is that the most important part of a lineup is making sure your best hitters hit the most often. You’re only guaranteed to lead off once a game and the most important thing is to make sure the right guys are at the plate the most often.” [emphasis mine]
As a noted War Bear honk, I may love this even more than Hoyer. Listen, Zobrist is awesome and is definitely a guy the younger Cubs look up to and want to emulate. But Schwarber has that indefinable je ne sais quoi that draws others to him like moths to a flame. You saw it in the way his teammates rallied around him as he remained with the team during his rehab, and it was clearly evident when he made that improbable World Series comeback. Were it not for Ben Zobrist‘s late Game 7 RBI, a reasonable case could have been made for Schwarber as MVP.
I know there’s nothing quantifiable about War Bear’s personality and the impact of his catalytic emotional quotient on the rest of the team, but he sure does feel like the heir to the you-go-we-go throne. Right? I mean, doesn’t he throw off that same sort of vibe that we got from Fowler, that sense that people just want to follow the dude? You don’t have to answer that, I’ve already made up my mind.
And lest I make it sound like this is just some sweet gimmick that I want to see for the sake of its pure novelty, I need to point out that Schwarber really is an excellent hitter. The Cubs didn’t make what many thought was a reach to draft the guy fourth overall just because he can mash. And there’s no way you’d take a normal hitter who had missed almost the entire season due to a catastrophic knee injury and insert him into the middle of a World Series lineup.
That stuff doesn’t happen. Shouldn’t happen. Except it did. Schwarber not only showed out, he did it against some of the best pitchers in the American League on the biggest stage his sport offers. He performed so well that Maddon saw fit to elevate him from fifth to second in the order, a spot generally reserved for a team’s best hitter. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating that War Bear’s patient, professional plate approach after that time off and under those circumstances is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in sports.
He’s not the prototypical leadoff hitter, but he did post a 13.2% walk rate over 69 games in his rookie campaign. To put that in perspective, only a dozen players — Fowler (14.3%) and Zobrist (15.2%) among them — had a higher mark this past season. There’s no reason to assume Schwarber can’t improve on both that walk number and his 28.2% strikeout mark, thus strengthening his case for the top spot.
That said, I still believe we’ll see Zobrist’s name penciled in there more often than any other in the upcoming season. But since he can’t play every game, and because matchups will dictate changes to the lineup here and there, Schwarber will likely get a few cracks at getting the first crack at opposing pitchers. For what it’s worth, I was saying as much back in early November as well. Oh, don’t be alarmed if you hear a strange noise, it’s probably just the sound of me tooting my own horn.
Kind of like the car horn that started honking when Schwarber shattered its windshield with a BP homer in Spring Training. Man, can we just get to March already?