On June 8th against the Tampa Bay Rays, Kyle Schwarber found himself in a spot that he hadn’t been in for a while when Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez put the slugging left fielder in the leadoff spot of his batting order.
Schwarber didn’t get off to a great start, going 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts against Tyler Glasnow.
A couple of days later, this time against the San Francisco Giants, he was back atop the order again and was able to make his mark with a leadoff home run in a 2-0 win.
“I knew I was like 0 for whatever rolling into Tampa,” Schwarber explained on Sunday afternoon in the nation’s capital.
“I know [Martinez] put me up in the leadoff spot there against Glasnow, and obviously, went 0 for whatever it is, but got the hit out of the way the next day and was able to keep rolling from there.”
“Rolling” is probably one of the biggest understatements of the season given how dominant Schwarber has been in the leadoff spot since then.
In his 10 games atop the batting order, Schwarber is 13-for-36 with nine home runs and 16 RBIs, giving him a ridiculous .361/.415/1.111 slash line in that time.
Yes, that’s a slugging percentage of over 1.000, not his OPS. That means that he’s averaging a base with every at-bat he takes. It’s only a small sample size, but that’s just absurd.
“It was amazing,” Martinez said of Schwarber’s performance in this week’s homestand. “I’ve seen Kyle get hot and start swinging the bat and hit the ball like that.
“When he squares balls up, he hits them far. And not only that, his hits in-between, him driving in runs, I’ve seen him do it, but it’s been amazing to watch, fun to watch, and he’s lifted up this team tremendously.”
In his new role, Schwarber has thrived under the pressure to have better at-bats ahead of the team’s big guns in the order. If that happens to end in balls that clear the fence, so be it.
“It’s fun to get instant offense up there, first batter,” Schwarber told reporters after the weekend series against the New York Mets where he hit another five home runs, including three in the series finale.
“But I just want to be able to keep putting in quality at-bats for the guys behind me.”
“Yeah, cool, home run, whatever, but work the pitcher, not let him feel comfortable, not let him feel like he’s going to be able to settle in right away and feel out his pitches, and hopefully the guys behind me get a mistake and take advantage of it.”
It has been well-documented that this isn’t the first time Schwarber has led off in his career.
During his time under former Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon, who Martinez was previously bench coach for, Schwarber was occasionally deputized as the leadoff man for Chicago, starting there 36 times in 2017 and 56 times in 2019.
The results were mixed though.
In 2017, Schwarber had an underwhelming OPS of .693 from the top spot. Then in 2019, he had a much more respectable .825 OPS and even clubbed 17 home runs in those 56 games.
For Martinez though, he wanted to get Schwarber at the top of the order to get him to pounce on more fastballs and do damage to try and jumpstart his stagnant offense.
“I knew he led off before,” the Nats’ skipper explained. “It’s just something that when you try to get a guy going and you know a guy is a really good fastball hitter, you know for me, it’s to try to get him up there and see what happens, see if he can make adjustments. See if he can calm down. Schwarber rides his emotions a lot, he really does.
“And for me, it was about, ‘Hey, you’re leading off, just get on base. You can take your walks, swing at strikes, put the ball in play,’ and when he starts doing that he slows everything down.
“You can see the at-bats that he’s having. He’s having some unbelievable at-bats. Even the ones he fouls back, we’re all sitting there going, ‘Ohh, what a good swing.’ But he’s really letting the ball travel and he’s trying to hit the ball — he’s not trying to hit home runs, he’s just trying to hit the ball hard, and it’s been great.”
It’s only 10 games, but Schwarber’s recent warpath at the plate while leading off has done exactly what Martinez hoped and given a lethargic lineup signs of life lately.
With Schwarber in the leadoff spot, the Nationals have gone 8-2 this year and the team’s lineup has finally backed up a pitching staff that had been lights out during the homestand.
“I’m just glad it’s working out, I really am,” Martinez said of the results with his new leadoff hitter. “He gets up there early and often, and the way he’s swinging right now, guys are on the bench saying they know that anything can happen right now when he’s up there.
“So it’s fun to watch and he’s getting us going, which is great. I talk about scoring first, we’ve done that a lot since he’s been there.”
Whether this recent run will be enough to haul the Nationals back into contention is yet to be seen.
Despite winning eight of their last ten, Schwarber and his teammates still sit three games under .500 at 33-36 and are five games back of the division-leading Mets.
As he stated last Sunday though, Schwarber still believes in this team, and thinks they will turn things around and he reasserted that belief after the Nationals took the four-game series this weekend.
Now, with him atop the lineup, there’s finally a sign of what things could be for this Nats team...
“This is a good team. I don’t know what to tell you. This is a good team. We faced a lot of adversity.
“You see guys stepping up, you see the way that guys are throwing the baseball. You see the way guys are taking their at-bats, we’re playing defense unbelievable right now, and we got an unbelievable fan base behind us right now. We just want to keep this rolling.”