Phillies Power Up with Kyle Schwarber

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Fifteen months ago, the Cubs non-tendered Kyle Schwarber following a subpar season, because they didn’t think he would be worth paying something in the neighborhood of $10 million. He landed on his feet with the Nationals, went on an epic home run binge in June, made his first All-Star team, and, after being traded to the Red Sox at the deadline, helped Boston make a run to the ALCS. On Wednesday, the 29-year-old slugger parlayed that big season into an agreement on a four-year, $79 million deal with the Phillies.

Schwarber set career bests across the board with a .266/.374/.554 (145 wRC+) line for the Nationals and Red Sox in 2021, thumping 32 homers en route to 3.1 WAR. He packed that production into just 471 plate appearances; among players with at least 400 PA in both leagues, he ranked 10th in slugging percentage and 11th in wRC+. He fell short of qualifying for the batting title because he lost six weeks to a right hamstring strain and was still on the injured list when he was sent to the Red Sox for pitching prospect Aldo Ramirez on July 29.

Schwarber’s season was actually a bit more uneven than those robust numbers suggest. Coming off a subpar .188/.308/.393 (89 wRC+) campaign with the Cubs in the pandemic-shortened 2020, he signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Nationals but hit for just a 103 wRC+ with nine homers in April and May. He didn’t add his 10th homer until June 12, but from that point to the end of the month, he pounded 16 in just 83 plate appearances, a run that included four two-homer games and a three-homer game (his six multi-homer games overall tied Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Salvador Perez for the major league lead). On June 19 and 20 against the Mets, he tied the major league record with five homers in two games, homering twice and driving in four runs in the seven-inning nightcap of a doubleheader, and then hitting three homers and driving in four runs the next day. From June 19 to 29, he mashed 12 taters in 10 games, tying Albert Belle for the major league record.

Unfortunately, just three days later, Schwarber strained his right hamstring and landed on the injured list, which put a damper on his first All-Star selection, announced just two days later. The Nationals, who went 19–9 in June to nose above .500 (40–38), sank to 8–18 in July and cleaned house at the end of the month, trading eight players off the major league roster, including franchise cornerstones Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Flipping Schwarber as part of that housecleaning was a no-brainer.

The Red Sox added Schwarber in hopes that he could man first base, a position he had previously never played professionally. On August 12, the team sent him to Worcester for what was supposed to be about a week-long rehab assignment with on-the-job training at the position, but his first appearance was rained out. With the Red Sox in the midst of a 3–11 skid, they decided that they couldn’t wait, recalling him and inserting him into the lineup the next day as their DH. Two weeks later, he did debut at first base, playing a total of 10 games there. It wasn’t pretty, but his .291/.435/.522 (161 wRC+) post-trade performance — which included 14 starts apiece in left field and at DH — helped Boston secure a Wild Card spot, and his solo homer off Gerrit Cole sealed the ace’s fate in the Wild Card game. He added a leadoff homer off the Rays’ Drew Rasmussen to start the home half of Game 3 of the Division Series (a Red Sox win), and then a grand slam off the Astros’ Jose Urquidy in Game 3 of the ALCS. Alas, Schwarber went 0-for-14 the rest of the way in that series as the Astros beat the Red Sox in six games.

The former No. 4 pick of the 2014 draft by the Cubs, Schwarber demonstrated ample power — to say the least — in parts of six seasons with the team. As a mid-June call-up in 2015, he homered 16 times in 69 games, then added another five homers in nine postseason games, including a memorable, towering shot off the Cardinals’ Kevin Siegrist in Game 4 of the NLDS that landed atop the Wrigley Field scoreboard.

In all, Schwarber homered 121 times in 2,108 PA for the Cubs, batting .230/.336/.480 (112 wRC+) from 2015 to ’20. He set full-season highs with 38 homers, a .531 SLG, and a 119 wRC+ in 2019, coincidentally the only year of his run during which Chicago missed the playoffs.

Indeed, Schwarber is one of the best in baseball at consistently making hard contact. Among players with at least 1,000 PA in the Statcast era, his 13.9% barrel rate ranks 17th, his 91.8 mph average exit velocity is tied for 20th, and his 47% hard-hit rate is 22nd; those numbers essentially put him in the 95th percentile or higher during that span. Along with that power comes very good plate discipline, including a 13.1% walk rate (22nd). He benefited from a more disciplined approach in 2021, swinging at a career-low 23.3% of pitches outside the zone and a career high 67.6% in the zone. He also annihilated four-seamers and sinkers even better than in 2019 and set career bests in barrel and hard-hit rates (17.5% and 52.5%, respectively); his actual numbers were a dead ringer for Statcast’s expected ones.

If there are knocks on Schwarber’s performance, it’s that he struggles against lefties and in the field. He did play regularly against southpaws last year, setting career highs for plate appearances (149) and wRC+ (119, via a .268/.389/398 line), but prior to that, he had maxed out with a 92 wRC+ in 124 PA against lefties in 2019. For his career, he’s hit just .214/.324/.361 (86 wRC+) against lefties; if he can build on last year’s uptick, that’s a big deal. As for his defense, the converted catcher has struggled mightily in left field, though the metrics are mixed to what extent. He graded out at -9 DRS in 1,124.1 innings from 2015 to ’17, but improved to -4 DRS in 3,187.2 innings since (though he was a -5 in 724 innings last year). Statcast suggests more consistent struggles, with -35 OAA since 2017, including -6 last year.

With the return of the universal designated hitter, the Phillies will have the option of shelving Schwarber’s glove, but they also have a vacancy in left field following the free-agent departure of Andrew McCutchen, who signed with the Brewers earlier this week. Via our Depth Charts (as of Wednesday morning, before news of the deal broke), Schwarber would provide a substantial upgrade at either position, with the team forecast for 0.3 WAR from a combination of Adam Haseley, Luke Williams and assorted others in left, and 0.5 WAR at DH, with Matt Vierling, Alec Bohm, and five other players rotating through. It stands to reason that Schwarber will contribute in both areas, with the proportions hinging upon the Phillies’ other additions (if any) over the next few weeks.

Via Dan Szymborski, here’s the four-year forecast for Schwarber as a left fielder:

ZiPS Projection – Kyle Schwarber
2022 .250 .354 .526 424 73 106 19 1 32 79 66 2 131 -1 2.9
2023 .250 .355 .537 408 70 102 19 1 32 78 64 2 134 -2 2.8
2024 .246 .350 .519 395 66 97 19 1 29 72 61 2 128 -2 2.4
2025 .243 .346 .492 378 60 92 17 1 25 65 57 2 121 -3 1.8

That’s 9.9 WAR over four years (Schwarber’s age-29 to age-32 seasons), for an estimated contract of $74 million, which is to say that his contract is no bargain but hardly an overpay given the fluidity of the assumptions that go into such estimates. Incidentally, Dan re-ran the numbers for Schwarber as a DH, and they yield two more homers (one apiece in the bookend season) and 0.2 more WAR in the final year; as he ages, his defense is expected to decline, and so his value as a DH grows.

Regardless of which role he takes on in 2022, Schwarber will be reunited with hitting coach Kevin Long, with whom he worked in Washington. He should provide some extra punch for a team that ranked seventh in the league in scoring (4.53 runs per game) but eighth in SLG (.408) and ninth in wRC+ (93) while finishing second in the NL East at a tepid 82–80. That was Philadelphia’s highest win total since 2011, the last year of a five-year run atop the NL East.

Via our Playoff Odds, as of Wednesday morning, the Schwarber-less Phillies projected for 83.6 wins and a 43.1% shot at the expanded playoffs, with a 2.0% chance of winning the World Series. It’s safe to say he adds a couple wins and a few points to the left of the decimal on the former odds, and a few points to the right of the decimal on the latter, though the Phillies and their NL competitors still have moves to make. Based on the Depth Charts, the team’s most glaring needs remaining are the left field/DH situation and the bullpen, where their projected 2.6 WAR is currently 14th overall. Last year’s bullpen was a tire fire, ranking 13th in the NL in both FIP (4.61) and WAR (1.10) and 11th in ERA (4.60). With Schwarber in the fold, Philadelphia is still about $13 million under the new $230 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, giving president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld some breathing room.

All told, Schwarber’s rebound helped him secure a handsome deal — neither a bargain nor an overpay, but one that provides a bit more bang for the buck given the marginal value of the upgrade for a team right on the fringe of the projected playoff picture. With his massive home runs in a park that favors lefties much more than either Wrigley Field or Fenway Park did, he’s got a good shot at becoming a fan favorite in the City of Brotherly Love.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Pros: Makes the lineup considerably more dangerous.

Cons: Only one of Hoskins, Bohm, and Schwarber can DH.

Next Step: Finding a way to get Kiermaier to cover for Schwarber.

David Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Seems like Herrera will be their CF, which is suboptimal for sure. The rumor is that the Phillies owner is allowing Dombrowski to spend but not to go beyond the luxury tax. I guess they can get Margot.

2 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

The plan seems to be a Herrera/Vierling platoon which, while not actually good, is somehow much better than what they entered the season with. Getting Margot or KK would be a great improvement. The true value here is the PA’s taken away from the likes of Mickey Moniak/Luke Wiliams/Adam Hasley. The Phil’s really are just the Angels of the NL.