It’s no secret that Jason Hammel finished the 2015 season on a low note. He couldn’t get past the fourth inning of a game, and you could see the frustration taking hold. At the beginning of the 2015 season, though, he was pitching very effectively. In fact, right up until he dove after a hot grounder down the third base line (that he probably should have left alone) and injured his leg, he was nearly lights out.
Kyle Schwarber, who has always (until recently) played catcher, has found himself in the not unenviable position of being too good with a bat in his hand to be left in the minor leagues long enough to develop as a major-league backstop. Still, the ‘War Bear’ has said time and again that he wants to catch, and the team has never closed that door on him.
Now it seems possible that he’s going to get his wish. Playing admirably into Joe Maddon‘s game plan of shifting positions and ingenious lineups, the possibility has been broached that Schwarber might do well as the “personal catcher” for one of the starters – much as Jon Lester has pitched almost solely to David Ross since joining the team. This would help to keep Miguel Montero rested and healthy, and would allow one of the Cubs other big bats into the lineup in left field on days that Schwarber was set to catch.
There’s more to this than that though. In an article by Carrie Muskat in Cubs News, a bigger picture emerges. Hammel spent a lot of the winter working with pitching guru Tom House. With his leg healed, he was after something to bring his game back to the level it needs to be at to maintain his spot in the rotation. He dropped weight, worked on mechanics, but, beneath all of that was a more mental regimen. Getting the confidence back.
It’s pretty clear in Muskat’s article that Hammel feels comfortable with Schwarber catching. The rookie has done some work of his own, lowering his stance with one leg extended. Hammel, who’s bread and butter pitch is a nasty slider down low, finds this new target comfortable. He also states that the familiarity of having that same target each time, and knowing the mindset of the man behind the mitt, help him to focus.
Hammel calls Schwarber a “student of the game,” and to be a major-league catcher, that’s pretty much a necessity. The amount of information that needs to be processed, and very quickly, to manage a game behind the plate is staggering, but Schwarber seems to have a knack for it. Despite a couple of those sliders getting into the dirt and around him this spring, Hammel is confident that this partnership could work.
That’s the key. It’s a plus to keep Schwarber’s bat in the lineup and add another powerhouse like Soler in left – but it’s equally important if it can help to boost the productivity on the mound every five days. The relationship between a starting pitcher and his catcher is unquantifiable and difficult to explain, but if, for whatever reason, Hammel pitches better to Schwarber, the Cubs should run with the idea. Playing Schwarber behind the plate with a pitcher who wants to work with him could also help boost his confidence and further his development at his natural position.
It’s an odd situation. While Lester and Ross are not the only one pitcher, one catcher combination in baseball, it’s still far from a “normal” situation. Adding a second such pairing might seem crazy, but under the circumstances, also makes a lot of sense. More power bats in the lineup, more rest for Montero, who is no spring chicken, and more confidence from one fifth of the starting rotation. It will be interesting to see if Maddon pursues this. He said of the pairing, “They seem to work well together,” and I have to agree. In any case, we should know in the next two weeks – it’s about time for some real baseball.