Cubs’ Theo Epstein Explains Kyle Schwarber’s Demotion: ‘More Slugger Than Hitter’ Right Now

(CBS) Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called the demotion of outfielder Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa a needed move Thursday because he “looks more like a slugger than a hitter” amid his season-long struggles.

Epstein wouldn’t commit to a timeline for how long Schwarber’s stint will be at Triple-A, answering that question by replying, “Until he’s himself again.”

“I wouldn’t expect it to be too long, but I also didn’t expect us to be in this position,” Epstein said in an interview with Matt Spiegel and Danny Parkins on 670 The Score on Thursday. “Neither did Kyle, neither did just about anybody else. There are no certainties in this game, but we still have full belief in him.”

Schwarber is hitting .171 with 12 homers, 28 RBIs and a .673 OPS in 64 games in the big leagues this season, with a strikeout rate of 28.7 percent. He has looked nothing like the player he was as a rookie in 2015 and in his scintillating World Series performance in 2016, when he returned early from a serious knee injury to hit .412 on the game’s biggest stage.

Not helping matters is the pressure Schwarber has piled on himself in the awful start.

“We reached a point recently where on the mental side, it has reached a point where it was really tough,” Epstein said. “As hard as Kyle was working — working harder than anyone — it had gotten so deep that it was hard for him to take the things he was working on in the cage and take them out into the game with him. You reach a point where you’re trying to survive. You’re just trying to put the ball in play. You’re not yourself. You’re searching for your identity as a hitter on a nightly basis. That’s just really hard. And it is not atypical at all for players to need to change their environment in order to rediscover who they are.”

The Cubs informed the 24-year-old Schwarber of his new assignment after a loss to the Padres on Wednesday, and Epstein said he took the news like “a complete pro.” There was “no emotional consideration” from Cubs officials in the decision, Epstein said.

The Cubs also encouraged Schwarber to take a few days away from baseball to gather himself, Epstein said. The Iowa Cubs start a four-game series at Round Rock (Texas) on Thursday before returning home to Des Moines for a game Monday.

“None of us saw this coming,” Epstein said. “But when you look at him, these days he looks more like a slugger than a hitter. I think that’s what our fans who watch him on a nightly basis would say. And Kyle’s a hitter first. If you go back and look, he had 600 plate appearances in the minor leagues, and he’s a career .333 hitter in the minor leagues. He’s not just some all-or-nothing slugger. He’s a hitter first who has power. Obviously, a lot of things have happened this year. It’s gotten away from him. Now it’s sort of just a power game.”

Epstein expressed great confidence that Schwarber will find his better form and benefit from the trip to the minor leagues, noting that Angels star outfielder Mike Trout — “the best player in our game,” Epstein said — and many others took similar detour, adding that environment changes can be “magical.”

“We have zero doubt he’s going to go down and this will be good for him and he’ll rediscover who he is,” Epstein said.

“I told him, ‘This decision is an investment in you. It’s not turning our back on you. It’s an investment in you, because we want you back, we need you back. You’re going to be right in the middle of everything good that happens here for a long, long time. You just got to find yourself again, find the hitter.’

“He’s going to. I really like the look in his eye, how determined he is to take a breath to go down and rediscover himself as a hitter and come back up here and make some people pay for the way his season’s gone so far.”

Epstein noted Schwarber’s mechanics have been off and that he’s struggling to handle pitches that he would drill the previous two years, such as the high fastball. So

“The answer is not home runs,” Epstein said. “It’s more how consistent his approach, how hitter-ish is, his ability to handle different parts of the zone, hit the ball to all fields, hit line drives, be a tough out — just start to resemble the hitter he’s been his entire life.”

Schwarber lost his job as the team’s lead-off hitter in the latter half of May, after which he was dropped even further in the order. Epstein downplayed the notion that Schwarber batting lead-off affected him negatively, though he admitted it’s possible.

Schwarber is hitting .196 in June. For his big league career spanning parts of three seasons, Schwarber is a .207 hitter.

“There’s going to be some element of relief just getting away and taking a deep breath,” Epstein said of Schwarber going to Triple-A.

“He needs to respond to it the right way, and I know that he will. And that’s what will define him.”

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