In a story that seems yanked right the heck out of a ding dang baseball fairy tale, the Cubs have added Kyle Schwarber, who was by all accounts lost for the season after tearing his ACL and LCL in Chicago's third game of the season, to their World Series roster.
Cubs fans are justifiably excited, both about the speed with which Schwarber has apparently returned to game shape and about the state of the universe in general, given their well-publicized history of not playing in a World Series game for quite some time prior to today. The rest of us, however, may be wondering if this is really the right move for Chicago, and what a reasonable expectation is from the Cubs' young slugger.
One concern, of course, is whom he'll replace on the 25-man roster, what their loss means, and what would happen if he re-aggravated the injury. As we saw with the Indians and Trevor Bauer in the ALCS, the Cubs would have to play the rest of the series a man short if Schwarber finds himself unable to play for some reason. The stakes for this are relatively low, however. If Schwarber bats five times tonight, he will have matched the number of plate appearances that Chris Coghlan, the man he'll replace on the active roster, has in this postseason. Should he get a hit, he'll surpass Coghlan's total. [UPDATE: Schwarber will actually replace Rob Zastryzny, who has yet to pitch this postseason. Six of one, etc.] In other words, the opportunity cost of adding Schwarber is quite small.
The opportunity cost of starting Schwarber, however, is of some concern. In a landmark 2015 report on the ability of Major League Baseball players to return from ACL tears, Peter D. Fabricant et al. found that while 88 percent of them returned to play at least 30 games, they saw a 21.2 percent decrease in games played per season after the surgery, and a 12.6 percent drop in batting average for players who injured their back, power-generating leg, as Schwarber did (896).
Of course, we aren't concerned with the number of games played right now. Schwarber will almost certainly be used only as a designated hitter and a bench bat, so he won't start games three through five in Chicago. However, a 12.6 percent dip in Schwarber's career batting average would represent a 30-point drop, down to .212, which is Jason Heyward if Heyward had gotten hits even less often than he did in 2016. The 23-year-old is still a developing talent, of course, so this ins't a prediction that he'll be scraping the Mendoza line for the rest of his career, but it may temper expectations for his performance over the next week-and-a-half.
Not all players that are returning from ACL tears come back as shells of their former selves, and in terms of his long-term recovery, Schwarber's youth is working in his favor. Working against him in the short term is the number of rehab games he played — or rather, the complete and total lack thereof. He appeared in just two games for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, going 1-for-7 with a double and two walks. Players coming back from long term injuries generally spend multiple weeks in the minor leagues against competition of increasing ability. Schwarber spent one weekend in a league not known for its quality pitching.
Our Jen Mac Ramos was in Mesa last night and saw Schwarber's second AFL game first hand. Here's what they had to say about his performance, along with video they captured:
Monday afternoon was Kyle Schwarber’s second and final game of a very short Arizona Fall League stint. He went 1-3 with a walk and a double. During the first two at-bats, he looked a little bit impatient, almost jumping on the ball — he even grounded out on the first pitch he saw in the game. He was a little more patient in his second trip to the plate. He lined out to third, but it was well-hit; it just happened to be eaten by the BABIP dragon. While there were a couple of ugly swings, that’s to be expected from a man who hasn’t seen live pitching in six months.
The third at-bat showed more promise. He worked the count full and eventually drew a walk. He was more selective of pitches and his timing got better. He legged out a double in his fourth at-bat of the game [below], wisely not going to third on a throw even though he probably could’ve made it — presumably not to run too hard for no reason and re-aggravate anything.
Schwarber’s not necessarily the best runner; far from it. It might seem concerning that he wasn’t running at full strength, however — looking very much into his speed, it could be telling of where he’s at in this point in recovery. On Monday, he wasn’t running at full strength or speed, though that may not be of concern for the Cubs at all. They want him to hit dingers, and you don’t necessarily have to run fast and/or hard when you hit a dinger.
At the very worst, Schwarber could be a very useful pinch hitter, a guy off the bench, the guy you want in a clutch situation. He needs a few more at-bats to fully get that power back—it started to show a bit in his final two at-bats on Monday, but it wasn’t quite there yet. Singles or doubles, though? He could probably hit those.
Now, even those that have spent the requisite time in warm-up games usually don't see great results right out of the gate. Victor Martinez, who missed all of 2012 after tearing his ACL in January, returned on Opening Day 2013 (after a full spring training) and proceeded to hit just .232/.290/.337 over the season's first three months. He got hot around the All-Star break and stayed hot the rest of the way, salvaging a fairly useful .785 OPS on the year, but the long layoff clearly took a toll on his effectiveness in his first games back.
Schwarber doesn't have three months to get back in form. He's been thrust into the starting lineup of Game 1 of the Cubs' first World Series appearance in 71 years. The desperate eyes of a long-suffering fan base are upon him, and if you don't think they won't turn on a playoff goat despite his relative innocence, you've clearly been away since 2003.
Now, there's the math, the facts, and the eye test. And they're all bad!! So let's dispense with that for a moment. The Cubs are clearly a team that are not only very talented, but also very blessed by the venerable and most holy gods of baseball. The Cubs led the league with eight wins when entering the ninth inning trailing — their .131 winning percentage in such games is more than quadruple the rest of the league — and they were 9-4 in extra inning games. They know how to come back late. Schwarber probably won't be the weight that tips the scales between Cleveland and Chicago, but all it takes is one swing for his presence to mean something. And if it just seems too improbable, well, so does just about everything else about this Cubs team.
Fabricant, P.D. et al. 2015. "Return to Play After Anterior Cruciate Ligament Reconstruction in Major League Baseball Players." The Journal of Arthroscopic and Related Surgery. 31:5. 896-900.
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Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, a Hank the Ballpark Pup truther and a Taylor Swift enthusiast. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke, but you shouldn't.