By Bruce Levine–
CHICAGO (CBS) — If you look at the history of Major League Baseball, it’s cluttered with young stars who stumbled and came back to become Hall of Fame icons of the game.
The Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, the Giants’ Willie Mays and the Phillies’ Mike Schmidt come to mind as great stars of the past who struggled mightily early in their fabled careers. In the present in Chicago, you only have to look four lockers down from demoted Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber to find a teammate who struggled mightily early in the big leagues and then prospered. First baseman Anthony Rizzo hit .141 for the Padres in his debut in 2011 before he was traded to the Cubs, for whom he’s become a three-time All-Star.
On Thursday, the 24-year-old Schwarber was optioned to Triple-A Iowa as his season-long struggles have continued. His poor season has followed a 2015 rookie campaign in which he impressed and a 2016 in which he sat out nearly the entire year with a serious knee injury before making a surprise comeback in the World Series, where he heightened his legend by hitting .412.
It’s sometimes easily overlooked, but Schwarber only had 278 big league plate appearances entering 2017. That provides perspective and a reminder that Schwarber is still in his player development.
“I can’t look at the numbers or the outcome,” Schwarber said Tuesday. “I have to be process-based. I have shortened up a few things. I have been able to see some better pitches. This organization is so supportive, and we have each other’s backs.”
The fact that Schwarber was a postseason hero the past two years has convoluted the real adjustments that he hasn’t made. He’s chased too many high fastballs out of the zone and changeups that dip out of it. He’s far from the only Cubs player to struggle, of course. Chicago is hitting .237 as a team, with fellow youngsters Addison Russell and Ian Happ each checking in at .221.
Would a more explosive Cubs offense and better team record than 36-35 have spared Schwarber from a trip down to the minor leagues? Probably not.
Amid Schwarber’s downturn has come this question: Did his new role as the team’s lead-off hitter for the first two months of the season negatively affect him? The decision to utilize Schwarber there was one the organization was aligned with, from executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to the advanced metrics department to manager Joe Maddon. The advanced statistics actually projected Schwarber to be better than Dexter Fowler was at lead-off in 2016.
That role was probably a contributing factor to Schwarber’s hardships, but it was far from the main reason. Right now, he needs to work on his hitting fundamentals and mechanics.
“He somehow has lost his strike zone confidence,” a National League scout said. “This is common with young hitters.
“Sending him down with a positive message is the right thing to do. It’s to say they should have done it sooner. He has a lot of hitting ability. He needs to get back to hitting and not trying to hit it 475 feet each time up. Twenty-nine other teams would love to have him in their system.”
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.