I was very excited when I heard Kyle Schwarber was going to be leading off for the Cubs to start 2017. I thought the move made a lot of sense. Their previous leadoff hitter, Dexter Fowler, signed with the Cardinals last winter so they needed a replacement and Schwarber does what you want a leadoff guy to do - he gets on base. It's unconventional, sure, since Schwarber doesn't exactly have much speed, but I liked that even after winning a championship the Cubs were willing to try something different.
So far the results have been.....not good. Schwarber is batting .193 with a .679 OPS. Over 128 plate appearances he has struck out in 39 of them (30.5%). Normally the strikeouts wouldn't be a problem, since he walks a lot, but they become a problem when you don't also hit for power. In his rookie season in 2015 Schwarber struck out 28.2% of the time, but he hit 16 homers in 69 games (nice) so the K's could be forgiven.
What's more concerning than the strikeouts right now is the fact that Schwarber isn't pulling the ball. In 2015 he pulled the ball at a rate of 46.8% as opposed to just 38.6% so far in 2017. It's only the beginning of May, but that's enough of a sample size to suggest he has a different approach at the plate this year. Perhaps he is trying to beat the shifts put against him but he might be better off just doing what he does best, which is pulling the ball and hitting for power.
So what now? Was the experiment a failure? Not necessarily. I still think the thought process made sense. In 2017 your leadoff hitter doesn't have to be fast. If they're fast and get on base that's a luxury, but the on base aspect is more important. Yet I still don't think there's any one right way to fill out a lineup card. There's logic and stats you can use to prove almost any lineup is best so long as the best hitters are towards the top of the order and the weaker hitters are at the bottom. Depending on the players a team has I could see the case for leading off with speed or OBP. I can see cases for batting your best hitter second versus third, etc. There's a lot of variables.
Entering Saturday afternoon Schwarber had led off in 27 of the Cubs' first 29 games. The Cubs are off to a "slow start" at 16-13 but are still in first place. Luckily for them nobody else in the National League Central is lighting the world on fire, but this team needs to get going and Schwarber needs to get back to pulling the ball. Hitting him fifth or sixth for a while could take some pressure off. Other teams throughout baseball have opted to put power hitting, on base machines in the first spot of their lineups. Ultimately I think that's where Schwarber finds himself come playoff time, but it might be time to take a break from this experiment in the meantime.