For a guy with just 484 plate appearances, a 104 career wRC+, and 1.4 WAR, Kyle Schwarber gets talked about an awful lot. There are a lot of good reasons for that talk. He was part of a rejuvenation for the Cubs in 2015 that saw the team move from punching bag to NL force. He hit a massive home run in the National League Division Series that year. After missing almost the entire season and playoffs last season, he returned for just the World Series, during which he reached base in 10 out of 20 plate appearances. Those are some impressive feats for such a brief career.
But again, the regular-season numbers aren’t exceptional. Is it possible that Schwarber is overrated due to his performances in big moments? Maybe a tad. He is an offense-first corner outfielder who needs to hit a ton to be a really valuable player. The Cubs’ insistence on keeping him instead of trading him for a potential upgrade elsewhere might play into his perceived value versus actual value, as well. In either case, Schwarber was still a good hitter entering the 2017 season. Whatever his struggles so far, he probably still is a good hitter.
Right now, Schwarber is putting up poor batting numbers, including a .165/.286/.341 slash line and 70 wRC+ in 206 plate appearances. Those marks have rendered Schwarber something worse than replacement level so far this season. If the Cubs were running away with the division right now like they did last year, maybe Schwarber’s results get a bit less scrutiny. (Maybe. Of course, the struggles of Jason Heyward last year certainly drew a lot of attention.) It probably doesn’t help that Schwarber began the season in the leadoff spot, either. In any event, Schwarber’s results have been terrible. Before he makes major changes to his swing or his approach, however — or before the organization does something drastic — it’s probably worth exploring whether Schwarber’s just hit into a bit (or a lot) of bad luck due, simply, to hitting ’em where they are.
First of all, there are actual positives for Schwarber this year. His walk rate of 13%, for example, is quite good and basically the same figure he recorded during the debut season that ratcheted up expectations. His strikeout rate is 29%. That’s not very good, but it is right in line with his debut, as well. Even when Schwarber was tearing up the lower minor-league levels for which he was clearly too good, his strikeout rate was around 20%. A strikeout rate above 25% and close to 30% should be a reasonable expectation for Schwarber. That might not be his ceiling and he might be better at his peak, but right now, those strikeouts are pretty reasonable.
As Nick Stellini noted last month, Schwarber has actually made more contact this season. He’s just done less with it, which somewhat limits his production. Schwarber is a guy who’s swing has holes. Look at this map of Schwarber’s contact percentage. Focus on the areas inside the strike zone. (From the catcher’s perspective.)
At the top of the strike zone, particularly outside, Schwarber swings and misses a lot. Despite those swings and misses, Schwarber still does damage when he makes contact, and if the pitcher misses even a little more toward the middle of the zone, Schwarber capitalizes. Here’s Schwarber’s slugging percentage in the zone, from Brooks Baseball.
The next chart, which depicts slugging by zone in 2017, might have you wondering what’s wrong with Kyle Schwarber and wondering why he isn’t doing damage on pitches he used to crush.
We’re talking about a very small subset of pitches here, so it’s easy to just say “small sample size” and ignore the limited damage Schwarber has done. In this particular case, we should actually just take the easy route — as long as we realize that we should also be ignoring very poor hitting line thus far. Schwarber’s BABIP so far this season is .206, which is much lower than the .293 line he put up back in 2015. There’s some skill to BABIP, of course. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say Schwarber had a BABIP of .293 this season and all of the extra hits were singles. His hitting line would be .223/.337/.400, in that case. His .313 wOBA would make Schwarber a roughly average hitter.
Statcast lends some support to the notion that Schwarber hasn’t actually earned the .204 BABIP causing the .170 batting average. Based on exit velocity and launch angle, Schwarber’s expected batting average is .221, right in line with a BABIP of .293 like he had in 2015. We might attribute some of the expected batting-average numbers to the shift, but his expected batting average on fly balls is 70 points higher than his actual batting average. Even on line drives, where we might expect some shifts to be hurting him, only two of his 18 line drives have been caught by infielders, per Baseball Savant. Of course, even if you buy the BABIP argument, that only makes Schwarber an average hitter. Not a cause for concern necessarily, but not the world-beater for which people are hoping.
To take things a step further, we can look at the batted balls on which we’d expect Schwarber to have done some damage. Based on exit velocity and launch angle, Schwarber has recorded 19 batted balls classified either as a “barrel” or “solid contact” by Statcast. These balls typically fall for hits 65% of the time; the league wOBA is 1.058. Schwarber has gotten a hit 58% of the time and put up a 1.039 wOBA on such batted balls, which might lead one to the conclusion he’s been slightly unlucky on average and pretty close to the league in overall hitting. However, launch angle and exit velocity show an expected hit 76% of the time and an expected wOBA of 1.324. That’s just bad luck. In 2015, his wOBA and xwOBA were within 10 points of each other.
Schwarber’s has recorded a .343 xwOBA for the season. That’s a good bit above average and would produce about a 110 or 115 wRC+ after park adjustment. It remains to be seen whether Schwarber returns to the monstrous production of 2015. He’s going to walk a ton, though, which should keep his on-base percentage afloat. He might always strike out a lot, too, which will limit his upside some. Even if he hits the rest of the season just like he has so far, that’s going to make him a roughly average baseball player, assuming he runs into less bad luck. If the wind blows out a little bit more this summer at Wrigley, we might see something closer to the 2015 version of Kyle Schwarber. The stat line screams slump and the eye test might deceive due to a game that involves a lot of strikeouts, but Schwarber hasn’t been as bad as he’s shown. There’s little reason not to expect substantially better results going forward.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.