With the minor league season winding down, much of the prospect focus has shifted to where they’ll spend their winters. One of the more surprising stories has been news that the Cubs will send Kyle Schwarber to Fall instructional ball to work on catching full-time.
Schwarber catching in the major leagues remains an extreme longshot, but the possibilities are tantalizing. If he could catch even part of the time, as BaseballProspectus’ Jeff Moore has suggested he eventually could, the Cubs would reap the benefits in more ways than one.
The most obvious effect of catching Schwarber in a part-time role is the extreme boost in value he would receive. Left field and catcher are about as far apart on the defensive spectrum as you can get. FanGraphs uses a positional adjustment of +12.5 runs/600 PAs for catcher, and -7.5 runs/600 PAs for left field.
If Schwarber spent one third of a 600-PA season behind the plate, his positional adjustment would jump from -7.5 runs to roughly -0.5 runs, a gain of about 0.7 WAR. Schwarber’s below-average glove would surely wipe out some of that gain in value, but he’d have to be literally the worst defensive catcher in recent memory to wipe out 7 runs of value in just 200 PA’s.
Putting Schwarber behind the plate for 200 or so plate appearances a year could also provide the Cubs with some very interesting platoon options. For example: this year Welington Castillo has OPS’d .791 against lefties compared to just .610 against righties.
By wRAA, that performance against righties has been worth -6.8 runs. If you replaced half of those PA’s with Schwarber, you could greatly increase offensive production from the catcher position.
By how much? Well, therein lies the rub. Because of how much work goes into playing catcher, both in minor league development time and in major league game preparation, developing a prospect as a catcher risks stunting the development of his bat.
Disgraced former prospect Jesus Montero was once thought of in much the same way Schwarber is now: a good bat bat that has practically no chance to stick there. (In Montero’s case, replace “good bat” with “elite bat”).
Montero was repeatedly trotted out at catcher by the Mariners despite how bad he was back there, and the effort he was putting into it clearly affected his bat, as he has yet to post a wRC+ above 90 in Seattle. (It might be worth noting that in his great 18 game debut with the Yankees, Montero caught just 3 games).
You can look beyond Montero to see that MLB teams believe that playing behind the plate hurts players’ bats. Buster Posey has spent plenty of time at first base to protect his legs. Joe Mauer has been permanently moved to first for the same reason. Bryce Harper was moved to the outfield the second he was drafted in order to get him to the MLB faster and to protect his legs.
There’s a reason the positional adjustment for catchers is so high, and that is because the toll it takes on the men who play it is severe.
So with that in mind, I can’t say I’m a fan of trying to keep Kyle Schwarber at catcher. Even if he could provide you with roughly a win of value through providing more platoon advantages around the lineup, I can’t imagine that his bat would be the same as if he were playing nothing but left field.
And if that reduces the overall benefit from sticking him behind the plate to just a few runs (which it very well could), is that worth delaying his arrival by a year or more? I would think not.
The Cubs will give him opportunities to catch in the minors and that’s fine, because if the nearly-impossible happens and Schwarber morphs into a full-time catcher, he’s an All-Star. I just hope they don’t try to force something with him where the likely outcome (part-time catcher) provides so little benefit.