From the Pages of Vine Line: Schierholtz speaks softly …

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(Photo by Stephen Green)

The following ran in the November issue of Vine Line.

Last season, the man in the middle of the Cubs’ lineup did most of his talking with the bat. Perhaps in the grand tradition of former President Teddy Roosevelt, Cubs right fielder Nate Schierholtz simply decided to speak softly and carry a big stick.

You probably didn’t hear much about the outfielder’s breakout season in the media, and you certainly didn’t hear anything about it from Schierholtz himself. It’s not that the 29-year-old Reno, Nev., native and San Francisco resident is at all unfriendly or reticent with reporters. It’s just that before games, he was more than likely working on his craft in the batting cages. And after games, he was usually working out or getting treatment for one of the nagging little aches and pains he dealt with this year, mostly in silence.

“I just prefer to fly under the radar,” Schierholtz said late in the season. “I guess I like to lead by example more so than being a loud, vocal guy. I just try to go out there and play hard every day and help the team win. I feel like I’ve learned that over the years, and that’s how a lot of the guys were in San Francisco. It worked that way. Winning’s everything. Winning’s what makes this game fun.”

No, the Cubs didn’t win this year, but Schierholtz was one of the bright spots that may have been overshadowed by other developments. In many ways, it was a career year for the veteran, who has two world championship rings from his time with the Giants and also played for the Phillies at the end of 2012.

In 2013, Schierholtz put up a batting line of .251/.301/.470 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 21 home runs and 68 RBI. Both the home run and RBI totals represented career major league highs for the lefty. He also tied his career high in games played (137), which he first set in 2010 with the Giants, and he set new career highs in at-bats (462) and hits (116).

The key, no doubt, was that Schierholtz finally got an opportunity to play on a regular basis.

“My biggest priority last offseason was finding a team, first of all, that I fit in with and thought had a good future, but also a place where I could play more and get more consistent at-bats,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve never really had since maybe 2008 in Triple-A. I’m fortunate for the opportunity here, and I tried to do the best I could with it. I know I’ve got more to offer the team, but I was happy to get the playing time I’ve gotten.”

Schierholtz began the 2012 season with the Giants but was traded to the Phillies on July 31, just before the trade deadline expired. (The Giants won the World Series and presented the outfielder with his second championship ring.) The Phillies didn’t tender Schierholtz a contract following that season, so he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs just before Christmas.

“That was a pretty hectic week, but I had quite a few teams calling,” he said. “In the end, I sorted through everything and decided that the Cubs were probably the best fit for me to come and win a job in right field.

“I feel like I contributed to both World Series. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the two rings I’ve gotten. Being from the Bay Area, it meant a lot. It still does. It was tough to leave at first, but I also realized I’m getting a little bit older.”

Although people may have been surprised by the outfielder’s success—as a left-handed batter, he’s gotten most of his playing time and done most of his damage against right-handed pitching—Schierholtz was not one of them.

“I haven’t been surprised by anything, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think I’ll get better over time. I feel like my body’s still young in the sense that I’ve been like a fourth outfielder the past five seasons. For me, it’s just working hard this offseason and making a couple of little adjustments. I feel I’ve learned a lot this year playing every day in the sense that I have a better idea of what I have to do to prepare for next year, both physically and mentally.”

Regardless of whether the Cubs were surprised by Schierholtz’s good season, they were more than happy to get it. In a lineup that often lacked the necessary pop, the veteran outfielder provided a solid middle-of-the-order bat.

“No question he fulfilled what a lot of us and our scouts [thought],” said former Cubs manager Dale Sveum. “We thought if he could get that many plate appearances, he’d be able to hit 15-25 home runs and do some things with the bat. He runs well. He’s played a really nice right field. He’s done probably more than what we expected, really.

“He’s that guy you dream of as a manager. You don’t have to worry about him. You don’t have to worry about him playing hard, preparing. He tries to make himself a better player every day. He’s played with some nagging stuff. Obviously, he’s picked us up and had a really, really nice year.”

But Schierholtz brought much more than offense to the table this season. He also played a solid right field, and at Wrigley, that’s no easy trick. The wind, the brick wall, the configuration of the park and the occasional 3:05 p.m. start, which leaves the right fielder looking directly into a blinding sun, have humbled their fair share of outfielders.

“There’s a lot of different factors that go into it, from the sun to the wind and the whole playing surface,” he said. “It’s a little tougher than most big league parks. It’s something you have to work on and remind yourself to grind it out to do the best you can.

“It’s definitely [difficult], only because it’s the sun field, and the wind can change from an inning or two. It can change from blowing out to blowing across. The wind, the sun—there are a few factors here that make it more difficult than most places.”

Former first base coach Dave McKay, who worked with Cubs outfielders the past two years under Sveum, lauded Schierholtz’s work in right.

“I think Nate’s done a really good job,” McKay said. “He had a couple of little nagging leg things. He’s a tough guy. He had some issues where most guys probably wouldn’t have played. There might be times where he wished he could have gotten a better jump or continued hard after something, but we’ve been real careful with him.

“He’s a real pro. He knows how the game is played. He goes over the scouting reports on guys. You watch him out there, and he knows where I am [in the dugout positioning outfielders], and he adjusts to the count. As far as his defense in the outfield, I’ve been really, really pleased.”

As a player with five-plus years of major league service, Schierholtz has one year of eligibility for salary arbitration remaining. So if the Cubs want him to remain in Chicago, he’ll be back for at least one more season.

“I look forward to coming back next year,” he said. “Beyond that, I’m not quite sure. I’ve enjoyed my time here. I have only positive things to say. Yeah, I’d like to be part of the future. I’ve said that for a while. I’ve also got things to work on to improve my game to help the team.”

Schierholtz mentioned the word “improvement” on several occasions. He has an interesting baseball résumé and a tremendous background of success. In addition to playing parts of two seasons with world championship teams, Schierholtz was a member of the bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic baseball team at the 2008 Beijing Games, where he played with future big leaguers such as Dexter Fowler, Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta. These experiences have given him a sense of what he needs to do to get better and compete at the highest levels.

But if he wants to improve and earn even more playing time next season, he needs to work on his splits. He batted .262 against right-handed pitching but just .170 in limited action (53 at-bats) against lefties in 2013. He also did most of his damage in the first half of the season, batting .269 before the All-Star break compared to .230 after it.

“The grind of the season gets to you sometimes,” he said. “I feel like the mental game’s a little tougher than it is physically. That’s just something that I’ll keep in the back of my mind for next year. It’s good to know as a player that you’re going to go through ups and downs. It’s just part of baseball.

“I worked out a lot last offseason. I learned a lot over the years as far as how to play the game. I just try to work with the coaches on the little things, making those little adjustments. I feel I got a lot done this year. There’s always more to do.”

—Bruce Miles

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