If you are wondering how in the world the Washington Nationals’ Kyle Schwarber comes off as a leadoff hitter....
If you are seriously pondering how a 28-year-old with a career .231/.385/.434 slash line starts raking as soon as he gets to the top of the lineup...
Heck, if you hate “three-true-outcomes” baseball and can’t stand the proliferation of home runs and strikeouts in today’s game...
Don’t read this piece, ‘cause I’ve got nothing for you.
As a follower and student of the game for decades, learning the art of lineup construction by poring through box scores, watching ball at many levels, playing fantasy, roto and sim games, it seems impossible to rationalize.
Yet here we are, 72 games into the season, and a guy who is almost five times more likely over his career to strike out than hit a home run has carried the team to six straight wins, and a .500 record from the top spot in Davey Martinez’s order.
So with each and every leadoff Schwarbomb in the Nationals’ left fielder’s current run, the overwhelming urge is to just let it go.
Kyle Schwarber is Mr. June and we're going to need a calendar shoot, like, yesterday.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 24, 2021
June 12 - SCHWAR
June 13 - 2 SCHWAR s
June 14 - SCHWAR
June 19 - 2 SCHWAR s
June 20 - 3 SCHWAR s
June 23 - SCHWAR
June 24 - 2 SCHWAR s (so far)@kschwarb12 // #NATITUDE pic.twitter.com/YRzRYEHiVs
Because sitting back (or standing and jumping) and watching Schwarber’s incredible run sure is a lot more fun than trying to figure it out.
“He sparks us when he gets up there that first inning and puts us on the board,” said Martinez after Schwarber again hit again in the leadoff spot and belted his 20th and 21st home runs of the season in a 7-3 in Miami.
“I’ve talked often about scoring first, and he gives us the opportunity to do that right away right now.”
Schwarber insists he’s not always swinging for the fences.
“You’re not going up there expecting to hit home runs every time you’re up at the plate,” he told reporters after his 12th career multi-homer game. “I’m just wanting to try to get on base for these guys or drive in runs, whatever it is, and the ball is going out.
The six-foot, 229-pound Schwarber has 12 homers in 15 games since Martinez first wrote his name in the leadoff slot June 8th. His nine home runs on the season at the time didn’t even crack the National League’s top 10. Now he’s tied for fourth in the major leagues.
The Nats have won six in a row, and in the past five, Big Kyle has eight Schwarbombs.
Martinez says Schwarber is sparking the rest of the order.
“The guys are following suit. Guys are having good at bats, they’re putting the ball in play,” he said.
“It’s a little bit more satisfying that we’re going out there and we’re winning baseball games, and it makes it a lot more satisfying actually,” said Schwarber. “Trust me, I wouldn’t care if I was doing this and we’re going out there and losing baseball games.”
But isn’t this supposed to be the “Year of the Pitcher 2.0” or something like that?
“Some people make it look easy, I’m not saying I’m making it look easy, I’m saying some of the best players in this game make it look easy,” said Schwarber. “And this game is not easy, at all, I firmly believe that this is one of hardest games in all professional sports. And when you’re doing something like this, you kind of just sit bat and laugh, because you don’t want it to end, so that’s why you just keep going and doing work.”
No matter what his position in the order, Schwarber seems like a constant threat these days to the major league record that belongs to another big man known for his homers in the nation’s capital, in the original “Year of the Pitcher.”
Frank Howard, the “Capital Punisher,” belted 10 home runs in 20 at-bats over six games from May 12-18, 1968, which still stands as the most homers in a week.
Half of those came off two of the the top pitchers in the game, with Detroit’s Mickey Lolich giving up three and Cleveland’s “Sudden” Sam McDowell two.
The 6-7, 270-pound Howard, a self-described “one-tool player,” didn’t take part in seven-inning games, nor did he usually face three or four different pitchers in a game, and he certainly didn’t bat at the top of the order for Gil Hodges, Jim Lemon, or Ted Williams.
But all it takes is another pair of two-homer games in the next two days, and Schwarb will be right up there with Hondo as a DC sports legend. If he doesn’t match the record this week, he seems like a threat to do it in any rolling seven-day period.
So in a game where the standard-bearers for leadoff greatness are Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, and Rod Carew, why would anyone even think of putting a slow, low-average slugger atop a big league batting order?
It’s not like Martinez is the first manager to do it, but he certainly has been one of the most successful so far.
The innovation seems credited these days to Martinez’s longtime mentor, Joe Maddon, although the manager of the LAA Angels when Maddon was coming up in that organization, Gene Mauch, bucked the trend of high-average speedsters nearly 40 years ago.
The 26-year managing veteran had documented success in 1982, when Gwynn was a rookie and Henderson was still racing toward the record books. Carew was Mauch’s first baseman and had racked up 15 straight All-Star appearances and seven batting titles, including two batting crowns and an MVP award, atop Mauch’s lineups with the Twins and Angels.
But coming off the strike-shortened 1981 season, Carew was so disappointed with a .305 average he gave back more than $200,000 in salary. He also played the early part of the ‘82 season with a broken hand, and Mauch began looking for a new leadoff man.
He chose Brian Downing, a career .267/.370/.425 hitter, whose nickname was “The Incredible Hulk.” He had just 50 steals in a 20-year career, but Downing’s high on-base percentage and more walks than strikeouts made for success.
Home Runs Since June 12:— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 24, 2021
Kyle Schwarber - 12
Miami Marlins - 11@kschwarb12 // #NATITUDE pic.twitter.com/SvKng9Ma7W
The Angels won 93 games and the AL West, Downing hit 26 home runs with an .850 OPS in 146 games leading off, and Carew had one of the best seasons of his career in the 2-hole behind Downing.
Downing led off for most of the rest of his career, even 56 games as a 41-year-old designated hitter with Texas in 1992.
Maddon had limited success trying it with multiple players with the Chicago Cubs in 2017. Anthony Rizzo hit .300/.373/.680 in 15 games atop the order, and Schwarber led off in 37 games with a .190/.312/.381 average.
Mike Moustakas and Carlos Santana also led off for Kansas City and Cleveland respectively in 2017. Bryce Harper has seen stints in the leadoff spot under Dusty Baker, Martinez, Gabe Kapler, and Joe Girardi.
But all have either not had sustained success atop the order or were moved down once their bats got going.
Martinez doesn’t seem inclined to mess with Schwarber’s recent success.
“When he’s like that, you don’t say much to him, you let him go out there and just play the game and let him get his swings,” said Martinez. “He’s been awesome getting us going, he’s knocked some big runs in for us, so hopefully he stays hot for a while.”
Powerful leadoff hitters aren’t unheard of. Brady Anderson had an outlier season with 50 home runs for Baltimore in 1996, and Alfonso Soriano’s 46-homer, 41-steal season in 2006 season included 39 bombs in the top spot, still the most there in one season.
It’s still unclear if Schwarber’s production at leadoff is sustainable, but it sure is fun to watch, and it’s come at just the right time.
“It’s the reality of this game that I’m probably not going to keep doing this the whole year, it’s physically impossible to keep doing this,” said Schwarber.
“But I just want to keep going as much as I can, and I want to keep putting in good at bats. And if it’s a home run, so be it.”