Szczur Finding His Way In Second Full Season
Many questions surrounded Matt Szczur when the Cubs selected the young outfielder in the fifth round of the 2010 draft: Could he put his speed to use as an effective outfielder? Would his ability to make consistent contact at the plate in college carry over into pro ball?
Everyone knew Szczur was a premium athlete after coming out of Villanova as a two-sport star. Two years later, he has answered a lot of the questions, leaving no doubt that Szczur is a lot closer to reaching his impressive ceiling.
Szczur (pronounced like Caesar) had legitimate NFL potential as a wide receiver after leading the Wildcats to the Football Championship Series national title in 2009 and racking up 270 all-purpose yards in the title game.
The Cubs signed him for $100,000 as a fifth-rounder in 2010. The initial contract allowed Szczur to continue playing college football.
After he finished up his football career during the fall of 2010, the Cubs tore up that initial contract, paying him an additional $1.4 million to give up football for good. That deal also required Szczur be added to the 40-man roster, which speeds up his timetable to the big leagues as his service-time clock continues to tick.
"I think there's still a lot for me to learn, but my progress this year has been a lot better," Szczur said. "As far as my fielding in the outfield and my baserunning and hitting, I think I've made great strides and it's due to a lot of the coaching staff and the staff on the team, from the big leagues down to the minor leagues."
Szczur signed early enough after the 2010 draft to get in to 25 games and hit .347/.414/.465 over three levels. He made his full-season debut last year with low Class A Peoria and hit .314/.366/.431, using his above-average speed to swipe 17 bases in 22 tries and chase down balls in center field. He hit .260/.283/.410 after a second-half promotion to high Class A Daytona, where he returned to open this season.
Szczur started off slow at the plate in 2012, batting .242 in April. He began to rally at the plate after making a few adjustments to his swing and was hitting .267.359/.374 by the beginning of June. He hit .290 with seven multi-hit games in May. He's currently on the disabled list with a minor knee injury.
"I think I struggled at first but just had to get in a groove," Szczur said. "I kind of switched my batting stance up a little bit and shortened everything up. The leg kick I had at the beginning of the season really wasn't working out for me. (Hitting coach) Desi Wilson kind of helped me out and shortened me up and ever since I did that it's helped me stay back. My timing is better and I started hitting the ball and everything just sort of came together for me."
Because he split time in college between the diamond and the gridiron, there has been the sense since he was drafted that Szczur needs to make up for lost time in terms of developing his baseball skills.
"The biggest thing is just continuing to improve his hitting approach like he's doing and just get more experience at all the outfield positions," Daytona manager Brian Harper said. "He definitely can play center field, there's no question, but he'll get more innings in left and right just for experience purposes."
Making adjustments is nothing new to Szczur, who missed the 2008 baseball season with a sports hernia injury, and didn't appear in a college baseball game until the Wildcats' 2009 opening against Louisiana State.
"His very first game for me was versus LSU when they opened up their new stadium on a Friday night—and Matt struck out three times," Villanova baseball coach Joe Godri told Baseball America in April 2010. "Matt didn't strike out his next 18 games after that. So that's just a little snapshot of how this guy makes adjustments. He has a good understanding of how people want to pitch to him, he has a good plan at the plate, he's a patient hitter, he trusts his hands, he's not a guy who's afraid to hit with two strikes, not afraid to hit the other way. He's making mental adjustments well past the experience level that he's at."
Those adjustments have continued in pro ball. "Just in a couple months this season I've seen an improvement in his hitting approach and in his jumps on balls in the outfield, stealing, everything," Harper said.
"Everybody has been on my shoulder, in my ear just helping me out with everything," Szczur said.
Big League Look
This past spring marked the second straight year that Szczur spent with the Cubs in major league spring training in Mesa, Ariz., an experience that he mentioned was very beneficial for him.
"Up at the big league camp, (Cubs first-base coach) Dave McKay was the outfield guy and the baserunning guy and I found myself talking to him a lot because I was comfortable with him," he said. "He stayed late and did extra work with me and that was huge. I needed that."
Harper says that experience is the number one thing separating Szczur from the big leagues at this point.
"Becoming a big league hitter is probably the toughest thing to do in sports, so he's going to need some at-bats in the minor leagues," he said. "But I think there's no question he's going to get it because he's just that kind of kid."
On the basepaths is where Szczur is most dangerous. He is tied for the lead in the Florida State League with 19 stolen bases in 26 attempts through June 4. He also led the league with 43 runs.
It may be a couple of years yet before anyone talks about seeing Szczur in Chicago, but the 22-year-old emphasizes the effect that thinking in the short term has had on his performance.
"I think that's another thing that has helped me out, just taking it a day at a time," Szczur said. "You're as good as your last day; I feel like I've tried to use that a lot this year to go out and play the best that I can on that day and take it an at-bat at a time, an inning at a time."
Szczur may not be a finished product, but Harper has no doubt that he's well on his way.
"He's a hard worker," Harper said. "Players that have ability and work hard get there almost all the time, and he's got both."