This is a big day for Kyle Schwarber, whose age is now a little closer to the number of pounds he lost this offseason. Throw in the knee brace he’s no longer wearing in the field and 25 el-bees seems like too low an estimate. But lost in all the talk of improved physical fitness and increased explosiveness are the steps Schwarber has made on the mental side of the game.
I sometimes worry that we talk about the Cubs’ focus on mental skills too much and that it’ll become trite, though I sincerely hope it never reaches that point. Given the limitless capabilities of the human mind and the impact thoughts have on athletic performance, I suspect this is a resource we’ll be able to tap into ad infinitum.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have discussed various facets of mental acuity since the time they took the reins in Chicago and it’s something you see and hear throughout the organization.
“I think responding to adversity is key,” Epstein explained to Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies during a recent Cubs broadcast. “This is a game where there’s just so much failure and a lot of players will fail for the first time in pro ball, certainly at the big league level.
“[We look at] how they handle failure and adversity and whether they can make the requisite adjustments. Having enough of a foundation, a strong mental foundation, to make adjustments and come back better is really important.”
Epstein was speaking mainly of the scouting process and how the Cubs determine which players will be a fit to bring in, but these concepts apply just as readily to those on the 25-man roster. Schwarber presents a particularly compelling case, what with his immediate success at the big-league level. After his home run barrage in the 2015 playoffs cast the mold for his statue, the improbable World Series comeback performance a year later poured the bronze in.
Then came 2017, when his production in the leadoff spot fell just a skosh shy of the expectations that had been heaped on him. And that’s not just about the fans, either. While rabid support from the blue-clad masses can often create unrealistic predictions, the front office and coaching staff were very much complicit in Schwarber’s elevation to folk-hero status.
As you’d expect from any large adult son yearning to do his adoptive parents proud, Schwarber tried to live up to the legend that was granted wings before it could even walk. Maybe it was the extra weight that kept him from flying, maybe it was looking too long before he leapt. Whatever the case, nothing seemed to be working for him at the outset of the 2017 season.
Some of those struggles came from the inability to get out of his own head. Schwarber worked tirelessly in the cage and the film room, but he was simply turning the Wheel of Pain like Conan the Barbarian, exerting great effort with nothing but a circular rut to show for it.
“He’s definitely fighting himself, obviously,” Epstein said of Schwarber not long before his demotion last June. “And he cares so much and wants to contribute so much, this is killing him. And he’s working his tail off maybe too much at times and just crushing the video and in the cage all the time. But yeah, there are times when he’s going up to bat when he just doesn’t look at all like himself and you wonder if he is giving himself that much of a chance.”
We saw signs of life once Schwarber came back from Iowa, and now we’ve been flooded with a litany of reports about his offseason workouts and trim physique. That’s all well and good, but the biggest impact on Schwarber’s game may have nothing to do with chef-prepared meals featuring all manner of boneless, skinless chicken breast.
“My goal is be a great teammate and take it one day at a time,” Schwarber told the media prior to the game against the Reds last week. “I’m not looking forward to October or the first day of the season, I’m looking just forward to today right now.”
Even if that’s the furthest you can get from an original statement, it’s become a trope among athletes for a reason. Although I’d say Schwarber’s issue was less about looking forward and more about looking back. He seemed to hold onto those failures in a futile effort to fuel his success. More than the actual weight, dropping that mental baggage is sure to help.
“Just trying to do too much,” Schwarber said of his struggles. “Because when you’re in that slump, you’re just wanting to get out of it so bad because you want to win, you want to help the team win and sometimes you just put too much pressure on yourself.
“You just got to take a step away from that and be able to just take that breath, whatever it is, relax and go back in.”
If that sounds like an incredibly simple task, consider Schwarber’s natural tendency to drive ever forward. He’s a perpetual-motion machine who’d just as soon barrel through a mountain as climb over it. Having met that immovable object and been rebuffed time and time again, however, the unstoppable Schwarbs has opted for a new tack.
Does this mean he’ll go out there this season and hit 45 homers with a 1.100 OPS and play Gold-Glove caliber left field? Of course not, but I wouldn’t bet against any of that. Okay, yeah, I probably would bet against all those things, but I think you get my point. By applying a more mature mindset with a renewed focus on being an outfielder, Schwarber has a much better shot at reaching his lofty ceiling.