Ryan says: Lester’s Decreased Velocity, Schwarber’s Awkward Defense, Heyward’s Surprising Offense
The Cubs got off to a great start against the Marlins on Thursday and despite a shaky performance from starter Jon Lester, they were able to pull out an 8-4 victory. It has only been one game, but here are my notes for the week.
• It was a rough day overall for Lester, who lasted just 3 1/3 innings while allowing seven hits and three walks. Some of the hits weren’t exactly frozen ropes, and the walks were at least partly due to an umpire with an erratic strike zone. But there’s no way to slice this that makes Lester’s performance anything but disappointing.
How big a deal is it? Not much, really. But Lester comes into the 2018 season looking to prove that his poor (for him) 2017 season is just a bump in a Hall of Very Good career, not the beginning of the end for the 34-year-old.
His velocity was down on Thursday, averaging 90 mph on the four-seam fastball and hitting 91.8 mph at the absolute fastest. When Lester came in second to Max Scherzer in the NL Cy Young voting back in 2016, he averaged just over 93 mph on his heater. Some pitchers still take time early in the year to build up velocity, but it’s something to keep an eye on as the season rolls along.
• Kyle Schwarber giveth, and Kyle Schwarber taketh away. This is why he’s such an enigma in left field. It’s fantastic that Schwarber lost weight, rededicated himself to becoming more of a well-rounded hitter, and opened the season with an absolute blast of a home run to right field. It’s less stellar that he has proven to still have some issues in the outfield grass.
Although the weight loss should make Schwarber more nimble out there, maybe providing for a bit more range, it really doesn’t solve his major issue. Schwarbs is not a natural outfielder and really didn’t start playing there full-time until he was called up to Chicago as a rookie back in 2015. As such, he has poor outfield instincts, is prone to the occasional “wow, you never see that happen” error, and is terrifying to watch when he’s going back on a ball – like the one Derek Dietrich hit in the third inning.
I’m not saying that Schwarber can’t be passable in left field, because innings like he had on Thursday aren’t an everyday occurrence. But it seems to be a “hot take” on #CubsTwitter these days to admit that Schwarber is a poor defensive outfielder, and that by putting him out there you’re taking the risk of exchanging the occasional bad play (or bad route that leads to injury) for more dingers. Just embrace it, you guys.
• One major positive I took away from the Opening Day victory over the Marlins actually came from – checking my notes again, here – Jason Heyward. After a brutal spring in which he hit .191/.250/.319 in 52 plate appearances, Heyward came out and worked a walk from the erratic Jose Ureña in his first plate appearance. In his second trip, he cranked a double. But the most positive things, at least in my eyes, came in the next two plate appearances.
I welcomed Michael Cerami of Bleacher Nation to discuss this very thing with me on Locked On Cubs (shameless plug alert!), and Michael pointed out that Heyward’s deep flyout to right field in his next trip to the plate was 99 mph off the bat and flew 364 feet. It was an out, but often balls struck that way end up as doubles or homers at Wrigley Field.
Finally, Heyward reached base on catcher’s interference. That’s not all that impressive, but he also lined a frozen rope down the left field line that was foul by less than a foot. Four plate appearances is the smallest of small sample sizes, but what matters here is less the results and more the approach. Heyward had some great swings, creating the tiniest bit of hope that Chili Davis may help him turn things around in 2018.