- The Washington Times
Saturday, January 9, 2021

When Kyle Schwarber looks back at his development as a major leaguer, many of those memories involve Dave Martinez.

While serving as the Chicago Cubs bench coach, Martinez helped Schwarber with his transition from catcher to the outfield in 2015, and the time they spent together in Chicago laid the groundwork for Saturday’s move. Schwarber signed a one-year deal worth a reported $10 million to join the Nationals.

Schwarber’s addition inserts another power bat into the lineup, a left-handed slugger who clubbed 38 home runs in the 2019 campaign. And the move reunites Schwarber with Martinez — a reunion years in the making, once joked about back when they both were with the Cubs.

“He goes, ‘Whenever I get a manager’s job, you’re going to come over and you’re going to play for me,’” Schwarber said Saturday in a video conference. “And now it’s coming to fruition.”

Washington entered the offseason searching for a corner outfielder with pop in his bat, and general manager Mike Rizzo secured one such player Saturday. Schwarber fits the mold of a slugger, striking out at least 140 times in each of the 2017 through 2019 seasons. He knocked a total of 94 long balls in those three seasons, though, with 38 in 2019 to go along with a .250 batting average.

And while Schwarber regressed in 2020 — a trend shared by many players in the 60-game season — he views this opportunity with the Nationals as a prime chance to rediscover his form on a team that should play into October.

“I know it’s a one-year deal, but I told [Rizzo] when we talked on the phone, I said, ‘I’m not approaching this as a one-year deal. I’m going to come in, I’m going to give you everything that I have, and I’m going to play as if I’ve been here for five years and still got a couple years left.”

Schwarber joins a lineup with plenty of dangerous hitters. There’s Juan Soto — who Schwarber called “the best hitter in the game” — as well as Trea Turner and Josh Bell. With Schwarber’s addition, Soto should shift to right field, a position he played during the last week of the 2020 season to prepare himself for this sort of signing.

Schwarber transitioned from catcher to left field during the 2015 season, and at least on paper, the 27-year-old’s fielding in the outfield leaves something to be desired. In his last full season, Schwarber recorded a .974 fielding percentage and his defensive runs saved above average was -3, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

Washington finished 2020 with a .980 fielding percentage — good for 23rd place in the league. For all the strong batters, there are questions surrounding Bell’s fielding at first, and both Soto and Schwarber in the corner outfield spots.

But Schwarber tells a different story. The numbers might not stand out, but Schwarber believes in his ability.

“I’ve improved a lot since 2015,” Schwarber said. “I think I’ve become an above-average defender. I know the numbers don’t say that about me, but you know what? I think I’ve made a lot of improvement on definitely the throwing part of the game, keeping guys from advancing to second base there on some borderline doubles. Definitely getting to a lot more baseballs that I need to get to.”

Schwarber has made a name for himself at the plate, though, with long blasts at Wrigley Field endearing himself to Cubs faithful. Even at Nationals Park, Schwarber has found success. He competed in the 2018 Home Run Derby in Washington, losing to Bryce Harper in the finals. In 2019, Schwarber posted career-highs with 38 homers and 92 RBI with a 51.2 hard hit percentage.

Once the 2020 season ended, Schwarber said he took a one-week break to unwind. Then the review began, studying what exactly factored into his lower offensive production last year — beyond the uncertainty of playing through a pandemic.

Looking at film, Schwarber said he jumped out at the baseball too often, resulting in weak groundballs as his bat rolled over too soon. Schwarber’s average dipped to .188 in 2020, and his .701 on-base plus slugging percentage was lower than any other full season he’s had.

“Had a conversation with [hitting coach] Kevin Long not too long ago,” Schwarber said, “and we’re going to sit down here and talk some hitting, and talk about what he sees, talk about what I want to accomplish.”

Schwarber viewed Washington as his clear No. 1 choice this offseason after Chicago non-tendered his contract on Dec. 3. In a veteran-laden clubhouse, Schwarber envisions an easy transition, already having familiarity with plenty of his new teammates.

And then there’s Martinez, a reunion that was a long time coming.

“This is the perfect fit,” Schwarber said. “I’m excited to be here, and I’m excited to be playing for Davey.”

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