Epstein on 670 The Score: Schwarber Lost Identity as Hitter, Needs to Rediscover Who He Is

Theo Epstein joined 670 The Score’s Spiegel and Parkins Show for his weekly Thursday afternoon appearance to talk about the timeline for Kyle…Hendricks to return to the rotation (there isn’t one). Before they got to that, though, there was the business of the recent demotion of Kyle Schwarber. You may remember Schwarber as the destroyer of souls in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland, but he’s also been at least partly responsible for the erosion of enthusiasm on the North Side of Chicago this season.

The idea of a return to AAA isn’t new and it’s something Epstein spoke of with a great deal of transparency three weeks ago on this very same show.

“He’s definitely fighting himself, obviously,” Epstein admitted at the start of June. “And he cares so much and wants to contribute so much, this is killing him. And he’s working his tail off maybe too much at times and just crushing the video and in the cage all the time. But yeah, there are times when he’s going up to bat when he just doesn’t look at all like himself and you wonder if he is giving himself that much of a chance. But then you see how hard he’s working and he’s had a few good swings and hit the ball out of the ballpark a few times.

“I just think it’s…look, no one’s immune to needing to sit or needing to go down at the right time, and you want to give guys a chance. It’s just something we’ll continue to monitor with all our guys, and, as I said the other day, it’s really rewarding when they can work themselves out of it up here. For them — not for us — for them and for what it means long-term, so the next time they go in a slump they can lean on what they did up here to get out of it and shorten the length of time when they’re slumping.”

It had looked for a while as though their faith in the slugger was paying off. Over the first two weeks of June, Schwarber hit .250/.368/.688 with a .424 wOBA and 166 wRC+, not to mention four home runs. He does that for a whole season and you’re looking at a straight-up monster, the good kind. But things dropped off precipitously after that, with Schwarber going one for his last 14, with only a lower strikeout rate to serve as consolation.

Those who know him best were finally convinced that a change was needed to get Schwarber outside of his own head for a while.

“We reached a point recently where on the mental side, it has reached a point where it was really tough,” Epstein explained. “As hard as Kyle was working, working harder than anyone,  it had gotten so deep that it was hard for him to take the things he was working on in the cage and take them out into the game with him. You reach a point where you’re trying to survive. You’re just trying to put the ball in play. You’re not yourself. You’re searching for your identity as a hitter on a nightly basis.”

Epstein went on to say that, despite all that’s been made of the front office’s emotional investment in Schwarber, this decision was made purely from a baseball perspective. To that end, Schwarber handled it like a pro. One wonders if perhaps a weight was lifted from his shoulders upon hearing that he’d been sent down, since you know he had been hearing the single footstep and was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“There’s going to be some element of relief just getting away and taking a deep breath,” Epstein confirmed. “We have zero doubt he’s going to go down and this will be good for him and he’ll rediscover who he is.”

And who Schwarber is is more than just a three-true-outcome masher. Well, that’s who he’s been prior to this season and who the Cubs believe he can still be. What we’ve seen in 2017, though, is a hitter who’s worked deep into counts and has then found himself battling and losing too often. He’s swinging for the fences and hasn’t been able to settle into a groove.

“I told him,” Epstein continued, “‘This decision is an investment in you. It’s not turning our back on you. It’s an investment in you, because we want you back, we need you back. You’re going to be right in the middle of everything good that happens here for a long, long time. You just got to find yourself again, find the hitter.’

“The answer is not home runs. It’s more how consistent his approach [is], how hitterish he is, his ability to handle different parts of the zone, hit the ball to all fields, hit line drives, be a tough out. Just start to resemble the hitter he’s been his entire life.

Epstein declined to share whether there was a set timeline for Schwarber’s return, but did say that the team recommended that the outfielder take a few days to collect himself prior to reporting to Des Moines. With the I-Cubs in Texas for the next few days, it makes sense for Schwarber to join them when they return home on Monday. From there, they have 14 games in as many days before heading into the AAA All-Star break, which coincides with MLB’s midsummer classic.

The Cubs want to make sure Schwarber is “himself again” before bringing him back, and I’m betting they’d like for that self-discovery to take place over the next three weeks. That’s probably an ambitious desire, but it can’t hurt to get out of the pressure cooker in Chicago and to legitimately take some time to truly decompress. That same tireless work ethic that got Schwarber back in time for the World Series may have burned him out to an extent this season.

Confidence has never been an issue for Schwarber, but this is a type of adversity he’s never had to face before. The last time he was sent to AAA, it was a planned demotion following a DH stint on an AL swing. How he handles this move and what he looks like on the other side will go a long way toward determining who he’s going to be. Trite, but true.

“He needs to respond to it the right way, and I know that he will,” Epstein declared. “And that’s what will define him.”

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