Cubs' demotion of Kyle Schwarber to minors reinforces the cruel realities of baseball

0:40 | MLB
Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber optioned to Triple-A
Thursday June 22nd, 2017

In the latest example of "Baseball is a very hard sport even for those who are very good at it," the Cubs announced on Thursday that they were sending World Series hero Kyle Schwarber down to Triple A due to a terminal case of him being terrible this season.

By the numbers, this is an easy and obvious move. The burly leftfielder was hitting a putrid .171/.295/.378 in 261 plate appearances (albeit with 12 homers), his -0.6 WAR is seventh-worst among players with 200 or more PAs, and his defense in the outfield falls somewhere between "unacceptable" and "avert your eyes." The 24-year-old has hit just .147 in 40 games since the start of May, and while that might be tolerable on a team that's firing on all cylinders, it's harder to hide with a Cubs squad that is only a game above .500 and 1 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central.

But while the demotion is understandable, Schwarber's struggles are unexpected. Before the season, the prevailing thought was that Schwarber—who missed nearly the entire 2016 regular season with a torn ACL but came back in time to play in the World Series—would be a key piece of the Cubs' title defense, just as he was expected to be a big part of of their run to a championship last season before his knee injury. After all, he hit .246/.355/.487 with 16 home runs in 69 games after being called up in late 2015 and crushed some mighty homers in the playoffs, and he showed no rust in his Fall Classic cameo, reaching base 10 times in 20 plate appearances.

MLB
Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber optioned to Triple A

Instead, Schwarber was so awful as Chicago's regular leadoff hitter that manager Joe Maddon was forced to boot him from that spot last month, mixing and matching with a variety of players before settling on Anthony Rizzo, who's been stellar in that role. Schwarber, meanwhile, moved all over the lineup as Maddon sought to get him going; at one point in late May, he settled on starting Schwarber only against righthanders. But while Schwarber has had his moments this year—see his grand slam against the Cardinals in early June or this titanic home run against the Mets a week ago—he hasn't been able to break out of his slump for any extended stretch.

What's strange is that there hasn't been any real change in Schwarber's approach: He's still plenty selective at the plate, with a 13.8% walk rate that's a mirror image of his 2015 mark. His contact rates, meanwhile, have actually gone up from 2015, and his swinging-strike rate has dropped. But there are a few numbers that suggest that Schwarber simply isn't making consistent hard contact. His infield fly-ball rate has doubled, going from 7.6% in 2015 to 14.5 this year, and his line-drive rate has fallen from 17.3% in '15 to 12.3 in '17. His average exit velocity, meanwhile, is 87.3 mph, roughly at the MLB average (86.9) and nearly four miles per hour off his 2015 numbers (and 10 mph slower than 2017 leader Miguel Sano).

MLB
The Slugger & The Scout: How Kyle Schwarber became the consummate Chicago Cub

Add it all up, and you have a player whose batting average on balls in play has plummeted 100 points from his last full season and sits at a meager .193. Some of that can probably be blamed on defensive positioning: The lefty-swinging Schwarber has hit just .212 against the shift in 113 plate appearances this year, the worst mark of any player with 100 or more PAs in that situation. But it's hard to beat the shift or do much of anything when you're not hitting the ball hard, and until Schwarber can figure out why that's the case, he won't be of much use to the Cubs or anyone else.

As such, his trip to the minors makes sense, even if it is short; a low-pressure environment to tinker and think seems ideal. But it's also a reminder that there is no such thing as a straight path for any player in this league, no matter how talented they are (and it's worth noting that Schwarber isn't the only young Cubs hitter scuffling; shortstop Addison Russell and catcher Willson Contreras have also slumped mightily throughout the first half). It's also a reminder of how quickly this game can wreck you. For proof, take today's other notable transaction: The Athletics dumping two-time All-Star Stephen Vogt, who was designated for assignment after hitting .217/.287/.357 in 174 plate appearances this season. Less than a year ago, Vogt was Oakland's lone representative in San Diego for the 2016 Midsummer Classic; since then, it's been all downhill.

It feels fitting that Schwarber and Vogt should get bad news on the same day, if only because the latter seems like the time-displaced version of the former. (It's very fun to imagine them somehow joining the same team and becoming the Large Adult Bash Brothers.) But the game of baseball is ruthless and difficult to figure out, even if you can smash a ball 450 feet or reach base at will in the World Series after not playing competitive ball for six months. And while Schwarber has talent enough that this Triple A stint will likely be brief, Vogt is proof enough that no matter how good you are, things can go from brilliant to brutal in the blink of an eye.

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