His demotion to Triple-A Iowa — shocking to even think about in April — can’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched him at the plate most of this season. He ranked last in baseball among qualified hitters with a .171 batting average before being sent down on Thursday.
“We reached a point recently where the fundamental side, it was really tough,” Cubs president Theo Epstein told the team’s flagship radio station Thursday afternoon. “You reach a point where you’re just trying to survive.
“It’s not atypical for players to change their environment to rediscover who they are.”
Only in baseball can a player nearly win World Series MVP honors in the fall and then get sent to the minors the next season. Schwarber hit .412 with a .500 on-base percentage during the Fall Classic and became a hero for his quick return from knee surgery, but that production never showed up this year.
Some may think asking him to lead off was the beginning of his downfall –and Epstein didn’t rule that out — but even after being moved down in the order Schwarber could not get in a groove. His 12 home runs accounted for almost one-third of his 38 total hits, which Epstein recognized as numbers a pure slugger would put up. The Cubs have never viewed Schwarber as just that though, hence his leadoff role — and so the criteria for his return is simple:
“Come back as a hitter, not just as a slugger,” Epstein said.
Being able to combine the two traits is what made Schwarber so dangerous before this season. He worked the count like a leadoff hitter but could slug with the best cleanup men. His World Series at-bats against tough lefty Andrew Miller were Schwarber at his best. Pick many of his at-bats this season — especially against lefties — for evidence of him at his worst. He hit .143 against lefties but did manage a .311 on-base percentage.
There were some signs of progress but they usually came only via walks. Uncharacteristically, Schwarber began chasing pitches — at a 25.9 percent clip that ranks 72nd in the majors, which is no place for a leadoff hitter.
As Schwarber heads to the minors to fix these issues, Epstein stressed that many big-name players return better for it. Last year, New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto had a .727 OPS before being sent down. Since coming back he has produced a .929 mark. Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Zunino had a minuscule .486 OPS before an early-May demotion but has produced a 1.065 mark since returning. The Cubs will see Marcell Ozuna of the Miami Marlins this week, another player who benefited from a demotion. The Marlins outfielder posted just a .313 OPS before being sent down in early July 2015. After returning in August, he finished the season with a .789 OPS.
The bottom line? A demotion can actually help a player find himself again. Epstein indicated to the flagship station that the same qualities that enabled Schwarber to return early from a devastating knee injury are the same ones that will pull him out of his season-long slump. The Cubs figure they’re helping him by allowing him to do it away from the limelight of the major league club.
The Cubs may end up needing the old Schwarber just as badly this season as they did when he became a World Series hero in Chicago last fall. With injuries to veterans Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Kyle Hendricks, combined with a .500-ish record, they could use all the help they can get.
But first Schwarber has to help himself.