Kyle Schwarber Is the Newest National

In 2020, the Nationals had an outfield problem. You might not have noticed it, because of human cheat code Juan Soto, but think of it this way: Soto accounted for 2.4 WAR. The outfield as a whole, Soto included, managed 2.0 WAR. The other six players accounted for a whopping negative 0.4 WAR, and you don’t need a fancy analyst to tell you that’s bad.

On Saturday, the team made a step toward remedying that weakness for 2021. They signed Kyle Schwarber to a one-year deal worth $10 million, immediately upgrading their second corner outfield spot from Andrew Stevenson (projected near replacement level in 2021) to Schwarber’s league-average stylings. Jesse Dougherty first reported the deal.

What you think of Schwarber depends on when you picture him. If your mental image was formed in 2015, he’s an up-and-coming slugger with defensive issues. If it was formed in 2016, he’s a World Series hero. If it’s been formed since then, he’s an inconsistent but exciting hitter with a problem on defense, a cypher who might have his best days ahead of him but who might also never re-scale the heights of his 2015 debut.

When Schwarber is at his best, he embodies baseball’s move toward whiffs, walks, and home runs. In fact, that’s true even at his worst: in each of his seasons, he’s had a higher walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power than average. Whether each of those seasons turned out well or poorly depends on the balance between those three factors.

In 2020, nothing worked quite right. His strikeout rate, a gruesome 29.5%, might sound like a problem, and it’s certainly not great! It was also only 1.5 percentage points higher than his career average, and it wasn’t the worst single-season mark of his career. His 13.4% walk rate wasn’t the culprit, either: that mark is almost exactly the same as his career rate. No, the problem was in the power.

How do you think of power? Home runs are one obvious metric, and Schwarber set new lows in that category in 2020, though only marginally. He cranked 11 homers in 224 plate appearances, a 4.9% home run rate. That’s the worst mark of his career, but it’s only narrowly behind the 5.1% rate he posted in a disappointing 2017. In fact, if you care instead about home runs per fly ball, Schwarber’s 25.6% mark was instead his best.

Doubles are another important component of power. Schwarber managed only six in 2020, the second-worst rate of doubles per plate appearance of his career. In all, he produced extra base hits in 7.6% of his plate appearances, the worst rate of his career, and nowhere near his nearly 10% rate entering 2020.

Another way to measure power is to ignore the outcomes completely and focus on process. Schwarber’s barrel rate dipped from 13.8% (career before 2020) to 11.2%, and his groundball rate spiked above 50%. More grounders and fewer smashed balls in the air go hand in hand, and they conspired to limit the number of chances Schwarber had to get the extra bases he thrives on.

If you’d prefer to separate barrels into two categories, as Alex Chamberlain outlined here, something interesting emerges. Chamberlain created a new subdivision of barrels that he calls “blasts.” Essentially, they’re the hardest-hit half of the population of barrels, the most valuable half of the most valuable subset of batted balls. In this category, Schwarber’s 2020 looks different (my numbers differ slightly from Chamberlain’s because I removed untracked balls from the denominator):

Kyle Schwarber, Contact Results
Year Blast Rate Barrel Rate
2015 7.9% 12.2%
2017 9.0% 15.1%
2018 7.7% 12.7%
2019 10.2% 14.5%
2020 9.0% 11.2%

In fact, that’s a more honest way of describing his most recent campaign. The balls he hit hardest, the ones that carry the most predictive power from year to year, looked basically like every other Schwarber season. An 11.2% barrel rate is solid — it places Schwarber in the top 25% of the league in terms of power on contact. He fares better in terms of blasts, where he’s in the 92nd percentile. In other words, Schwarber is still a premium power hitter, even if his doubles and homers wouldn’t tell you that in 2020.

Should we worry about the walks and strikeouts? Maybe a little bit, at least if Schwarber repeats his 2020 walk and strikeout rates. Expressed as one number, he would need to be 4% above average when he puts the ball in play to end up average overall. That’s not a problem — again, he’s a great hitter when he makes contact — but it helps set a rough idea for what Schwarber will be. His plate discipline will hurt him slightly, his power will make up for it, and it will probably work out to an above average but not standout offensive line.

Of course, baseball is more than just offense. Schwarber has to play the field — at least unless and until the NL switches to a DH for 2021 — and the picture there is decidedly less rosy than it is at the plate. Schwarber is a large gentleman — he’s listed at 6-foot and 235 pounds — and saying that he’s been bad on defense in his time in the majors undersells things. Schwarber is bad on defense in the way that Cleveland likes saving a little money or AJ Preller enjoys the occasional trade.

Per Statcast, Schwarber has been 29 runs below average as an outfielder in his career. That’s the fifth-worst mark in the majors over that period, ahead of only noted butchers Nick Castellanos, Matt Kemp, Melky Cabrera, and Shin-Soo Choo. He put together one solid defensive season, in 2018, and that season shows the best case scenario for Schwarber: he tallied a whopping 11 outfield assists that year, only one off the league lead, which was worth between 7 and 8 runs per both UZR and DRS.

Schwarber’s arm is no joke. When he first reached the majors, the Cubs still considered him a part-time catcher in large part because of that cannon arm. If the Nationals can somehow entice runners to take off against Schwarber, they might be able to wrangle another positive defensive season out of him despite his lack of range.

More realistically, Washington is hoping for a DH slot where they can hide Schwarber. With Howie Kendrick’s retirement, the Nationals don’t have an obvious candidate to fill that role, which means they can slide Schwarber there without losing anything on offense. That would leave them with Stevenson and Soto flanking defensive standout Victor Robles, which sounds to me like a solid defensive outfield. With Schwarber’s offensive value firmly in the green, that sounds like the best possible case here.

How does this deal work out poorly for Washington? The worst-case scenario is this: the NL plays 2021 without a DH, Schwarber’s plate discipline takes a step back, and he ends up as an average bat with painful outfield defense, more of the replacement level soup that they ran out around Soto in 2020. Even that, though, is hardly a disaster: at only one year, there’s no chance of this deal sticking around to haunt them.

For Schwarber, this contract fits his needs as well as can be expected. First, there’s the money: Schwarber will earn more on this deal than he projected to earn in arbitration with the Cubs. That’s a clear upside. Second, he’s still eligible for free agency after 2021 — his contract has a mutual option for 2022, but that’s merely a fancy way of telling a player you like them; the player can, after all, always decline his end of the deal.

More importantly, Schwarber will get everyday playing time in Washington. After the first five years of his career, I’m not sure that any team is clamoring to give Schwarber a long-term deal. That remains the brass ring for players: after six seasons at collectively-bargained low wages, free agency theoretically unleashes the forces of capitalism in their favor. For Schwarber, however, those forces aren’t yet guaranteed to work; bat-first corner types have found soft markets as teams realize they can replace those players with pre-arbitration talent without losing much on-field production.

For Schwarber to strike it rich, he needs to rise above the fray of slightly-above-average bats to become a premium one. For teams to believe that, he needs to do so in as big of a sample as possible. In that sense, the best thing Schwarber could do for himself is find somewhere with thin outfield and DH depth, and Washington fits the bill exactly. As a bonus, they’ll be playoff contenders, which is always a plus.

After their disappointing 2020, the Nationals could use some offensive help. After his arrested development, Schwarber could use some exposure. With this deal, both sides are getting what they want, at a rate that should make everyone happy. That’s a solid outcome for everyone — other than the rest of the NL East, perhaps.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

I think they’re hoping for a DH spot so they can hide Bell and hopefully convert Schwarber into a full-time first baseman. Schwarber’s defense wasn’t always this bad, but the last couple years it has been; I think he’d be a better fit at first and he very likely will not be worse than Josh Bell there.

I think the power will play in almost any park, so I like this deal overall for the Nationals. If there is a DH then Schwarber can move to first and they can see how real Stevenson is, and if not they get a lefty thumper with sub-par defense.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

No disrespect, but Schwarber’s only defensive asset is his arm, and while Josh Bell is awful at first base, there is no reason to suspect that Schwarber would be better, more to think he would be as bad or worse. The hope is that Kevin Long can work some kind of magic and some magnitude of offensive surge by Schwarber will compensate for his play in the field as long as Washington has to endure it. More concerning is that this signing signals the Nationals are unlikely to trade for Suarez of the Reds, who at least has a decent glove.

3 years ago
Reply to  Theodore

Sure, he could be worse. He could also be better. If I were a Nationals fan I would hope he gets lots of reps in training camp if the DH is imminent.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I agree 100%.