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According to the Nationals, Kyle Schwarber is one of three players, along with Barry Bonds in 2001 and Sammy Sosa in 1998, to hit 15 home runs in a 17-game stretch. According to MLB, Schwarber is the second player, along with Frank Howard in 1968, to hit 11 home runs in a nine-game span. According to Baseball-Reference, Schwarber’s 1.465 OPS batting first makes him the best leadoff hitter of all time.
According to Kyle Schwarber, hitting home runs is fun. Counting them is boring.
On June 12, Schwarber sat in 56th place in the majors with 10 bombs. The next night, Nationals manager Dave Martinez moved his left fielder to the leadoff spot. Sixteen days later, after Schwarber added another two in Washington’s 8–4 victory over the Mets on Monday, he had climbed to fourth place, with 24 homers.
He smiled politely on Monday when informed of some of the history he is making. “I love when you guys come out with some cool stats,” he said. But he rarely pays attention to the numbers. “I think it's best if I don't, just because, to be honest with you, I want to play stupid,” he said. “That's kind of the best way to describe it—just keep going up there and take your at bat, don't remember the one before, just live in the present. That's kind of the biggest thing. And I think that goes for when everything's going good and also when things aren't working out, just being able to turn the page and focus the at bat that's at hand or the inning that’s at hand or the out on defense, things like that. I think that's the biggest thing, is just go out there and have a short memory.”
His memory does run as far back as this winter, when anyone could have had him. He floundered to a .701 OPS in 2020. MLB Trade Rumors projected he would make between $7 million and $9.3 million in his final year of arbitration. In December, the Cubs declined to tender him a contract, making him a free agent. A month later, the Nationals signed him for one year and $10 million. He promised GM Mike Rizzo that he would give the team everything he had.
“I wouldn't say that I'm going out there and trying to prove the team that I got let go from [wrong],” Schwarber said, noticeably avoiding the word Cubs. “It's more about going out there and doing it for me, knowing that I'm a better baseball player than I was last year.”
He had once been a collegiate catcher whom Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein had compared, in a late-night email, to David Ortiz. “Let’s stick this dude right between Javy [Báez] and [Kris] Bryant and call it a day,” Epstein wrote. Seven months later, Chicago made Schwarber the fourth pick of the 2014 draft. A year after that, he made his major league debut. That October, he clobbered a shot onto the top of the right field video board at Wrigley; the Cubs encased the ball in plexiglas. He was a star on the rise.
Then, in April 2016, he collided with center fielder Dexter Fowler and tore two ligaments in his left knee. Doctors told Schwarber he would be back by spring training. By the NLCS, he was taking secret batting practice in the middle of the night at Dodger Stadium. He played two games in the Arizona Fall League. He started at designated hitter in all four World Series games with the American League rules. He hit .412 as the Cubs grabbed their first title in 108 years.
He was never quite the same afterward. He can be a bumbling fielder, even in left, and he has not hit consistently. He has not reached the All-Star heights to which he once seemed destined. After the disappointment of last year, a Chicago team trying to cut costs decided to cut bait.
He says work with Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long has helped him repeat his swing mechanics. Schwarber says being surrounded by a great lineup has helped him see good pitches. He says he is just trying to “keep riding the wave.”
Meanwhile, his teammates burst out laughing when he sends another ball into outer space. Martinez taps his head and grins when asked if moving Schwarber to leadoff is the best managerial decision of his career. And the Nationals march up the NL East standings, to where they now sit at .500, three games behind New York. Those odds aren’t bad. Just don’t ask Schwarber to calculate them.
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