Jason Hammel has taken the mound three times so far this spring and had allowed only a single run over 10 innings while walking one and striking out 11 (six of which came Thursday). Behind the plate for two of those starts was one of the many catchers the Cubs have been carrying as they march slowly through, well, March. Many have questioned whether he’s got the chops to stick as the third backstop behind Miguel Montero and David Ross, but Kyle Schwarber might have a future in the game yet.
Deployed primarily in left field (five of eight games) thus far, Schwarber has seen time behind the plate on three occasions. Other than the aforementioned pair of pairings with Hammel, he came in as a defensive replacement and caught a quartet of pitchers who won’t be making the roster. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but seeing the War Hammel battery powering the Cubs for the second time at this early juncture may be telling.
I had written a couple weeks back about the possibility for Schwarber to act as a a personal catcher, but had concluded at the time that John Lackey would be the best choice. My theory was based more on the various pitchers’ tendencies, specifically the fact that Lackey misses small and doesn’t rely on the kind of nasty stuff that might be difficult for a young catcher to handle. What I didn’t take into account, however, was chemistry and how certain pitchers and catchers sync up.
Please note that I’m not making assumptions about how Schwarber gets along with Lackey or Hammel, or any of the other pitchers for that matter, just that being on the same page is an important part of setting up a battery of this nature. Joe Maddon has said that he’s considering a semi-permanent pairing, though he’s not really tipped his hand as to who would be involved.
For his part, Hammel seems to be pretty supportive of the idea.
“If that’s the way it ends up playing out, I welcome it 100 percent,” the big righty said Thursday. “[Schwarber]’s a student of the game. He made a lot of adjustments over the course of the offseason and then even in the early part of the spring with game-calling.
“You’re seeing him stick his leg out and giving a lower target than he was last year. It only helps the guys like me with tall leverage where I need that little extra sight line down to drive the ball down.”
Hammel and Schwarber worked together a handful of times last season, so there’s some familiarity there already. It’s hard to take much away from those starts or from the two this spring, but they appear to work well together. It probably doesn’t hurt that Hammel enjoys seeing War Bear’s bat in the lineup as often as possible too. And Schwarber catching likely means Jorge Soler in left, a scenario that played out nicely for Hammel and the Cubs Thursday evening against Archie Bradley and the Diamondbacks.
Four extra-base hits in the first inning is a pretty good way to start the game, but the Cubs would add seven more in a 15-4 blowout that looked like one of the 1 vs. 16 seed matchups taking place in the NCAA tournament. Seeing Schwarber hit a triple, particularly one that wasn’t flukey, was a good sign and perhaps proof that an offseason regimen based on explosiveness and speed is paying off. Seeing Soler shake off some early rust with an oppo shot and then a double was huge too.
You have to think the Cubs will be doing everything they can to give Soler a significant number of at-bats, which lends credence to the Schwarber-as-personal-caddy plan. Though the game got so lopsided that the starters left the park early, it’s clear that Maddon is getting closer to running with lineups we’re going to see once the real games start. Had Ben Zobrist not been ruled out with an ingrown toenail, he might have been in there rather than Munenori Kawasaki.
Marveling over the collection of talent the Cubs have amassed is not a novel concept, but it’s a little crazy to think that a hitter of Zobrist’s caliber could be batting at the back end of the order. Thursday’s game saw Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Schwarber, Soler, Addison Russell, and Kawasaki batting ahead of Hammel. You add Zobrist or Javy Baez to that group and…whoa.
We may not know until April whether Schwarber ends up paired with Hammel every 5th day or just gets more random starts behind the plate with a few different pitchers, but if the results are 15-run outbursts like this, I’d imagine fans will be happy either way.