HOUSTON — In late September, a scout took note during batting practice of a gravitational pull. Players, coaches, and everyone else on the Red Sox seemed drawn to Kyle Schwarber.
At the time, Schwarber was just two months into his Boston tenure. Yet it seemed like he’d been with the team for his entire career.
“There is no way,” the scout concluded, “that he is not back in a Red Sox uniform next year.”
That conclusion may have been premature. Yet it speaks to an unexpected hand-in-glove relationship between a player and a team, not to mention a region, that seemed like a very imperfect fit when the Sox acquired Schwarber from the Nationals for minor league starter Aldo Ramirez on July 29.
Schwarber had a hamstring injury, unavailable for just over two weeks after the Sox brought him over, and he had no prior big-league experience at first base, their position of most glaring need.
But while there were no guarantees about whether Schwarber could handle first, there were no doubts about the potential jolt he could provide the lineup or the headlong effort he’d make to adapt to a new position.
“When the idea [of Schwarber playing first] was brought up to me before we acquired him, that’s the first thing I said: ‘I don’t know what kind of first baseman he’ll be, but whatever he can be, he’ll get to. He’ll be out here working, he’ll commit to it, and give himself a shot at being the best version of whatever he is,’ ” said Red Sox bench coach Will Venable, Schwarber’s outfield coach with the Cubs from 2018–20. “That’s just Kyle. That’s just who he is.”
The willingness to take that crash course and to become a significant voice in daily hitters’ meetings even before he was activated from the injured list immediately endeared the 28-year-old to his new club. His production cemented that relationship, both inside and outside the organization.
From his Aug. 13 Red Sox debut through the end of the season, Schwarber hit .291/.435/.522 with seven homers in 41 games. Fangraphs pegged him as worth 1.4 Wins Above Replacement, tied with Bobby Dalbec for the most valuable Red Sox in that time.
Moreover, Dalbec and others credited Schwarber with helping them improve their offensive approaches. The veteran was seen as having an impact beyond his own performance line.
In the postseason, like most of the Sox, he excelled through the first eight games of the playoffs (.281 average, .955 OPS) with three game-changing homers before an Arctic turn (0-for-12) in the final three games of the ALCS.
He also formed an almost instant connection with Red Sox fans, whether through timely production, his obvious and relatable work ethic, and his joy in the game. Something most evident in Game 3 of the ALDS, when he tipped his cap after flipping the ball to Nate Eovaldi at first, shortly after badly overthrowing him for an error.
Did the bond between Schwarber and the crowd feel like it ran deeper than a 2½-month introduction?
“Definitely. It’s been a great time. You can’t ask for anything better,” said Schwarber. “I just want to be myself. I like to have fun. I like to be loose and then obviously when it’s time to cross lines, it’s business time, but I still have fun doing it. I don’t ever want to try to be something I’m not. I feel like maybe that’s why people relate to me.”
“His personality, his work ethic, and his performance make it pretty easy for the city to fall in love with the guy. I’m not surprised that it’s happened here in a quick period of time,” added Venable. “He’s had an unbelievable impact on the group. He’s a great player, fits in perfectly, and whatever happens, it’s obvious that he’s made enough of an impact here that everyone in the city will hope that he returns.”
But will he? That is among the first questions confronting the Sox following their ALCS loss to the Astros.
Schwarber, who thrived this season on a one-year, $10 million deal he signed with the Nationals, is certain to decline an $11.5-million mutual option for 2022 given that he may command twice that salary over multiple years on the open market this winter.
But he made clear that he’d be open to discussing a return to the Red Sox, and even to entertain offers before free agency starts at the conclusion of the World Series.
“It’d be pretty stupid not to think about [returning],” said Schwarber. “My team here has been unbelievable. … If they feel like they would like to talk about [a new deal], I’d be all ears. I just think it would be stupid to ‘X’ someone off for no reason. Especially for a place like this, I’d be all ears.”
But even with that evident interest, there are questions. Is Schwarber the hitter who posted career-highs in average (.266), OBP (.374), and slugging (.554) this year, or could he regress to the numbers he put up with the Cubs (.230/.336/.480)?
The fact that he chased a career-low 23.3 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, and swung at a career-high 67.6 percent of pitches inside the zone, suggests his All-Star season was not merely an outlier.
“This is the best version of himself,” said Venable. “Like every player in this league, he’s trying to find a way to be consistent. I think he’s found it … I don’t think anyone is surprised at him doing this. Certainly not him. This is what he expected.”
Does he fit the roster on a long-term deal going forward, with J.D. Martinez likely not to opt out of the final year and $19.375 million of his deal? Might the team consider trading Martinez if he doesn’t opt-out in order to carve out a clearer role for Schwarber as a primary designated hitter who could also help in left and at first?
Would the Sox — who have yet to sign a player for more than two years since Chaim Bloom became chief baseball officer — alter that approach for a corner player, particularly with Triston Casas on the horizon as the team’s first baseman of the future and with Dalbec’s late-season emergence?
Schwarber proved a valued addition in the mold of past midyear acquisitions such as Jason Bay, Victor Martinez, and Orlando Cabrera. All excelled in Boston. None was re-signed when he reached free agency.
Can Schwarber buck that trend? He certainly seems hopeful.
“This is definitely a clubhouse that I could see myself wanting to stay in. These guys are amazing,” he said. “This is a World Series clubhouse, and I would love to hopefully see if that opportunity comes back.”