Chicago Cubs first baseman Frank Schwindel can’t help but reminisce sometimes when watching catcher Willson Contreras deftly unleash throws to nab would-be base stealers.
Schwindel was once known for his arm behind the plate, then a minor-leaguer in the Kansas City Royals organization. The Cubs don’t want to dwell on a scenario that would require them to use an emergency catcher. But should that occur, Schwindel would be the unexpected yet obvious choice.
Schwindel started 67 games at catcher over three minor-league seasons in the Royals’ farm system, most recently in 2015. He even caught Cubs teammate Alec Mills in 2014 when they played for Low A Lexington. Schwindel featured a great arm behind the plate, posting an elite 39% caught-stealing rate in 2013 rookie ball and 40% in 2014.
“I used to get excited when I see somebody take off and throw it down, it was a lot of fun,” Schwindel told the Tribune. “But I didn’t like doing much anything else. I picked everything I could, blocking stuff, especially in A-ball when the pitcher doesn’t know where it’s going, how am I supposed to know where it’s going?”
The Cubs’ emphasis in finding a quality backup catcher after last season unknowingly created more lineup flexibility.
When the Cubs signed veteran Yan Gomes before the lockout, the designated hitter had not officially been added to the National League. Although it was an expected change in the collective bargaining agreement, now that the DH is in place, manager David Ross has made sure to give Contreras enough rest early in the season to pay off in the summer.
At times, though, the catchers’ offensive profiles make it worth playing them together. Friday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates marks the third time in the last week Ross put Contreras and Gomes in the same lineup thanks to the DH spot. The offensive boost outweighs any potential risk the Cubs face in potentially being down to catcher if an in-game injury occurs.
If the Cubs need Schwindel to catch in an emergency, he would be happy to fill in. Schwindel even has a catcher’s mitt at his apartment that he’s doing work on, “but hopefully I won’t need that.” His experience his at catcher has paid off at first base. He believes he possesses good hands because he used to pick so many balls in the dirt behind the plate, forcing him to keep his body and hands well-positioned.
“If I’m catching 100-mph heaters, standing in front of a ground ball is not as bad,” Schwindel said.
Schwindel’s bat-to-ball skills and hot hitting earned him playing time last season. While his offensive production his understandably garners more attention, he takes the defensive side of his game seriously too. After getting called up after the trade deadline, Schwindel often could be seen working with bench coach Andy Green before games at first base.
“He’s hungry to be known as one of the elite defensive first basemen, and he didn’t show up with that reputation, so he’s growing,” Green said this week. “He’s put a lot of work into what he does, before the pitch reading pitches, reading swings, and he’s doing a really nice job.”
Schwindel turned his fourth 3-6-3 double play of the season to end the first inning Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the most among big-league first basemen. The Miami Marlins’ Jesus Aguilar has recorded two, the only other first baseman to have tallied more than one such double play. Schwindel has made those plays look easy with proper positioning, footwork and making sure he has a clear angle to throw to avoid hitting the base runner heading to second.
“Those are some of the toughest double plays to turn,” Green said.
Schwindel’s improved prepitch routine and readiness as the ball is entering the zone has stood out to Ross through the first 13 games.
For a rotation that features pitchers such as Kyle Hendricks and Marcus Stroman — who rely on ground balls for success — solid infield defense is a must. While the middle infield in particular gets a lot of defensive attention, especially with the Cubs’ frequent shifting, a steady and improved Schwindel would go a long way toward helping their defense.
“I always thought he had nice hands and glove, it’s just about getting his feet to react when the ball was hit,” Ross said. “I thought he’s done a much better job of doing that from now and then at the back end of last season than when he first got here.”