Consider, for a moment, Kyle Schwarber. If you saw him in street clothes and were told that he’s a professional athlete, you would assume that he’s a football player. A linebacker, perhaps. Some sort of bruiser with the job of clobbering other players.
Schwarber’s job is not to clobber other players, however, but rather to clobber baseballs. He’s quite good at that. This year, however, has been something of a struggle for the goateed one. Last night’s 0-for-4 showing sent Schwarber under the Mendoza line and dropped his batting line to an unsightly 79 wRC+. It’s early yet, and Schwarber has just 115 plate appearances to his name so far this season, but this is decidedly not what the Cubs want from their leadoff hitter and one of their biggest (literally and figuratively) sluggers.
Joe Maddon’s usage of Schwarber in the leadoff spot is predicated upon Schwarber’s theoretical ability to get on base. To be fair, he’s done an admirable job in that. Rocking a .322 OBP with a .196 average isn’t easy at all. Getting some more hits will make that OBP go up even more, though, and Schwarber (or any hitter, for that matter) is at his best when he’s crushing the ball into the next time zone.
We know Schwarber can still do that. Exhibit A:
Schwarber hasn’t had a real chance for prolonged big-league time just yet. He played in 69 games when he first came up, and then lost nearly all of last season to his devastating knee injury. Despite his talents and his exploits in the postseason, we don’t yet have an idea of what a full season’s worth of Schwarber really looks like. We’ve got 393 regular-season plate appearances with which to work, though. So let’s poke around a bit.
Rian Watt wrote an excellent piece for The Athletic* about Schwarber’s approach this year. Schwarber is making much more contact than in the past, but the results of that contact are worse. Indeed, consider: Schwarber is has produced a contact rate of 76.9% so far this season, far higher than the mark he recorded in 2015 (67.6%). He’s hitting the ball on the ground more, which means fewer balls in the air. If you’ve read FanGraphs at all over the last few months — or been involved in baseball discourse at all, for that matter — you know that hitting the ball in the air is generally a more favorable approach. It’s impossible to get yourself a 6-3 putout if you’re banging the ball off the wall or off the seats.
*It’s worth reading, as is much of the work at The Athletic.
What’s perhaps even more troubling is that Schwarber is pulling the ball far less. When he first surfaced in 2015, Schwarber sent the ball to the right side of the field just under 47% of the time. This year he’s done that with just 35.5% of his batted balls. While Schwarber is strong enough to effectively drive the ball to whichever part of the park he pleases, he’s still likely to do the most damage to the pull side. His spray charts from 2015 show that he can hit home runs to all fields, but that hits largely came from the right side of the field.
So, does this mean that Schwarber should attempt to make less contact? That certainly seems counterintuitive. Contact isn’t generally regarded as a bad thing. It’s quite often a good thing. And perhaps this will all even out with time, and Schwarber will start driving the ball more as he gets more used to his new approach. But Schwarber is a slugger, a big bruising power hitter.
Perhaps Schwarber’s new approach is a reaction to infield shifts, but Schwarber was elevating more (i.e. hitting fewer grounders overall) when he was pulling the ball with authority. If he can find a way to accomplish both contact and elevation at the same time, then the NL Central is in deep trouble. But somehow, Schwarber must find a way to drive again. The Cubs are likely going to be fine no matter what he does. They’re still a fantastically talented club, with plenty of offense to go around.
Schwarber, however, figured to be a major cog in the machine. The Cubs are one game over .500 in what’s been a mess of a division. One would imagine that they’ll break away from the pack regardless of whether or not Schwarber is hitting. Some more loud contact from him would go a long way in that endeavor.
He will always have his greatest advantage, and that is his body. He’s still a large bear of a man who looks like he should be wrestling bulls or something. He’s still got his natural power. He just needs to figure out how to use it as often as he once did.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.