Joe Maddon sees Matt Szczur playing ‘tension-free' baseball with Cubs


Joe Maddon is the king of chill.

The relentlessly positive Cubs manager could never be described as uptight and he spends a lot of time making sure his players feel loose and free.

Matt Szczur has looked awfully comfortable in the early going, hitting .385 with a 1.192 OPS in 16 plate appearances. He also has five RBI - the same total as Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler and one more than Ben Zobrist.

Maddon chalks up Szcuzr's small sample size of success to a more relaxed approach and mindset.

"What you're seeing now is what he's done in the minor leagues," Maddon said. "I think he's finally getting comfortable here. If you watch him in batting practice, there's more of a tension-free approach to his game. He's not uptight.

"He is thinking here as he had done in Triple-A or Villanova or wherever. I think that's the difference. I like that. 

"He's very talented. He has a lot to contribute. He's a tremendous athlete - runs well, throws well, hits well, he's got great power. He's not the biggest guy in the world, but the ball really jumps for him."

Szczur was always pretty highly regarded as a prospect, going in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB Draft and passing up a possible pro football career. He was ranked as the No. 64 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the 2012 season and posted a .733 OPS in six minor-league seasons with 26 homers and 140 stolen bases.

Now the 26-year-old Szcuzr is getting his chance on the big-league level, making his first Opening Day roster when Javy Baez started the season on the disabled list and now with Kyle Schwarber lost for the season, Szczur could be in Chicago to stay as a key role player in the outfield.

Maddon has already utilized Szczur in almost every game on the young season, whether as a defensive replacement, pinch-hitter or spot-starter to give an outfielder a rest (as he did Saturday, playing right field to spell Jason Heyward).

Szczur has worked with Cubs hitting coach John Mallee to stop rolling over on the ball so much and grounding out to the left side of the infield and the results are showing on the field right now.

"He's made a lot of nice adjustments," Maddon said. "The biggest thing I'm talking about - I've only known him for a little over a year now, but I can see a definite difference in just his approach to the day here at the major-league level."

Szczur said the major difference in his mindset is a change in confidence and knowing he belongs in the big leagues. He is out of options, so the only way the Cubs can send him down to the minor leagues is if they put him on waivers and risk losing him to another organization.

"I'm not thinking that I'm gonna go down," Szczur said. "Last year, I feel like I was playing very tight. Didn't want to make a mistake and get sent down, because I knew if someone got hurt or if we used an extra pitcher or someone had to come up, I was gonna go down.

"This year, I'm able to play a lot looser. I think it's helped me a lot. A lot of weight off my shoulders, for sure."

Szczur said he spent a lot of time learning from veteran Chris Denorfia last season. Denorfia has made a career out of being a role player and his game is similar to Szczur's - right-handed hitter, solid defense all around the outfield, a blend of power and speed.

But no matter what he learned from Denorfia, Szczur couldn't shake that feeling last season that he could be sent down to the minors at any moment.

"I feel like more of a part of the team now because I know I'm not going down," Szczur said. "I feel like an everyday guy here. I know everybody. I'm comfortable here.

"For me, it's much easier. I know I belong here and I know I'm not going down."

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