CHICAGO -- Cubs folk hero Kyle Schwarber -- the Schwarbino! -- has not been cleared to play in the field. With that bit of news, passed down during Thursday’s off-day workouts at Wrigley Field, the last of the Schwarber-related World Series drama seems to have been resolved. Well, maybe not the last.
We might not see Schwarber in the field, but we will see him at Wrigley Field as the series -- tied 1-1 -- shifts to the National League park for three games, beginning with Friday's Game 3. We’ll most likely see the 23-year-old three times against the Cleveland Indians, each as a pinch hitter. Schwarber could be placed into the game in a different role, but even Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t crazy enough to make that experiment in late October. No, the Cubs will have their rust-proof, lefty-hitting powder keg for three pinch-hit appearances.
Now the onus falls on Maddon about how to leverage the precious trio of plate appearances into their maximum value. He has three wishes; no more, no less. He can’t wish for Schwarber’s doctor to change his mind, and Maddon can’t wish for more wishes. So what does he do?
FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Let’s lay out a few factors here. First, Schwarber doesn’t have a long history as a pinch hitter, and what exists hasn’t been very good. He is 0-for-9 in the role. Only one of those at-bats was against a lefty: Cole Hamels. In the eighth inning of Hamels' no-hitter at Wrigley Field on July 25, 2015, the Texas Rangers ace induced a groundout from Schwarber. Of course, to read too much into that is to ignore everything we’ve seen of Schwarber since he returned from his injury.
We can also assume Schwarber will be reserved for high-leverage spots, at least until Maddon thinks one isn’t likely to come up. For example, say the Cubs lead 8-3 and have two guys on in the bottom of the eighth with the pitcher’s spot due up. If Maddon hasn’t already played the Schwarber card, he’ll probably just send him up. It’s not high leverage, but you might as well use him while you can.
Most high-leverage spots arise in the later innings. A great framework for thinking was developed in the sabermetric masterpiece “The Book,” which produced this table to illustrate the leverage index for every given situation.
The few high-leverage spots that can come up for a manager in the earlier innings tend to be bases-loaded situations when a team is either tied or a run(s) behind. Those situations produce an interesting dilemma for Maddon. Unless his starting pitcher is having a terrible night, he’s not likely to pull him in the first three or four innings. But what if Jason Heyward is up in a potentially game-turning spot? Maddon knows he has Albert Almora Jr. on the bench to keep the defense strong, and Chris Coghlan as an additional option, so why not roll the dice here with Schwarber? You might not get another chance.
Really, though, we’re just pointing out that high-leverage spots do come up early in games. It would be shocking if Maddon didn’t hold back Schwarber until the sixth inning or later, when it’s more plausible to pull a starting pitcher. That being the case, we can guess what matchups Schwarber will be facing. Indians manager Terry Francona has relied heavily on his bullpen, and if high-leverage spots arise, he’s going to have some order of Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen going in those situations.
SCHWARBER VS. OTERO/SHAW
We’re lumping these two together, though Shaw has been more of a go-to pitcher for Francona. Otero actually had the better bottom-line metrics this season, but Shaw has faced nearly three times as many hitters in the playoffs. Both right-handers could be relevant for Schwarber. High-leverage situations in which Schwarber could be used against them would most likely happen in the fifth, sixth or seventh innings if the Indians are clinging to a lead. Otero has a full arsenal for a reliever, mixing in a slider and two different off-speed offerings to go with the fastball with which he does the bulk of his work. Shaw throws basically nothing but cutters to lefties.
Righties tend to be very sparing with the fastballs against Schwarber, so Otero’s variety of pitches could help. But there’s a problem for both players in this matchup: Schwarber doesn’t hit curveballs, and while Otero throws them, he’s not good at it. Here’s Schwarber’s OPS against righties by pitch type so far in his career: fastball .984, changeup .934, slider 1.194, curveball .377. Throw him a curve, Danny! But here’s Otero’s OPS versus lefty hitters over the past three seasons by his pitch types: changeup .372, slider .643, fastball .789, curveball 1.143.
In other words, for Otero to attack Schwarber, he’d be tempted to go after him with his worst pitch. So even though Otero is one of Francona’s big four relievers, this isn’t a great matchup for him.
As for Shaw, Schwarber has an .819 career OPS against cutters, but the sample is small. That makes this matchup a bit of a wild card, but you'd expect Francona to choose Shaw over Otero to face Schwarber. Of course, Otero and Shaw aren’t Francona’s only righty options out of the pen. Other options include Danny Salazar, Jeff Manship, Mike Clevinger and Zach McAllister.
SCHWARBER VS. ALLEN
Allen, on the other hand, is a handful for Schwarber, because he throws curves about 35 percent of the time to lefties. Allen is basically a fastball/curveball closer, and that’s not a great situation for Schwarber. Lefties have put up a .247 OPS against Allen’s curve the past three seasons. So if Schwarber faces him, it’s a case of tracking the pitch and laying off the curve in hopes Allen is not commanding it, then going after his fastball. All you have to do is look at Allen’s ERA to know that approach doesn’t work often for batters, and Schwarber struck out against Allen the one time he faced him. Plus, chances are, if Schwarber faces Allen, it’s a bottom-of-the-ninth, game-on-the-line situation. Exciting stuff.
SCHWARBER VS. MILLER
We’ve seen this one already. Game 1 served as the only time Miller has faced the same hitter twice in a game all season. Schwarber’s walk against Miller was the only walk the dominant lefty has issued to a lefty hitter all season. That’s why you have to take all of this stuff with a grain of salt: Schwarber is the kind of guy who thumbs his nose at logic. But, still, we know Schwarber versus Miller is not an ideal matchup for the Cubs, and we know Francona is going to use Miller in the high-leverage spots. And not just one, but a swathe of them over two or three innings. Schwarber has a .481 OPS in his career against lefties. Miller gets everyone out. And let’s not forget Francona has a second lefty in the bullpen: man-of-the-hour Ryan Merritt.
It’s a tough decision for Maddon. Do you hold Schwarber back in hopes that Francona eventually inserts Allen? When do you insert Schwarber when facing Miller? Or do you seek out a high-leverage spot earlier in the game, before Miller enters, that can turn an Indians advantage into a Cubs advantage, or extend a Cubs lead, or break an early tie that keeps Miller in the bullpen?
Folks, this is the good stuff. Of course, either team could simply supersede all this strategy talk by jumping out to a big lead, as has happened in each of the first two games of the World Series. Trying to figure out when and how Maddon should use Schwarber, and Francona’s tactics for combating that, will make for great baseball drama.