The Cubs are just ever so barely hanging onto a division lead over the Brewers. For this, there could be any number of factors to blame. The Brewers, obviously, are half responsible, having played tremendously well after adding their best two players over the offseason. And on the Cubs’ side, what if Yu Darvish hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Brandon Morrow hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Kris Bryant hadn’t gotten hurt? What if Tyler Chatwood hadn’t underachieved? The division lead currently stands at half of one game. It wouldn’t have taken very much more to give the current Cubs a greater amount of breathing room.
Just glancing around, you wouldn’t think to fault Kyle Schwarber for anything. Schwarber’s been an above-average hitter and a three-win player, regularly playing an acceptable corner outfield. And before I proceed, I want to make one thing clear: Overall, the Cubs should be happy with where Schwarber is. They should be pleased with his overall health and development, and it seems as if his career is moving forward. But as you know, in a tight division race, almost anything could make a significant difference. And so we need to talk about Kyle Schwarber’s timing. I saw something in his splits I can’t in good conscience ignore. You know that I love a good fun fact.
Here is the most clutch thing that Kyle Schwarber has done this season. He’s batted two times with a leverage index greater than 5. Here, the leverage index was 5.32. We’re going back to the middle of April, when the Cubs rallied against the Braves for nine runs in the bottom of the eighth.
That bases-loaded walk moved the Cubs into the lead. Sure enough, Schwarber worked a quality plate appearance. Full credit to him. Granted, the weather was bad, and the batter before him walked on four pitches. The batter after him also walked on four pitches. It was a meltdown inning for the Braves’ bullpen. It was such a meltdown inning that I imagine both Braves and Cubs fans can recall the inning today.
But regardless, Schwarber did a good thing at a good time. It was a high-leverage plate appearance, and Schwarber turned in a positive result. By definition, high-leverage plate appearances are the most important plate appearances. According to our splits, Schwarber has batted 56 times in a high-leverage spot. Seven of those times, he was walked intentionally, just about always with an open base. Intentional walks aren’t particularly positive; if they were, opponents wouldn’t grant them. In the remaining 49 plate appearances, Schwarber has three walks. He has three RBI, and 19 strikeouts. He has two hits — both singles. Three times, he’s hit into a double play.
Because this is getting kind of critical, let’s take another moment to focus on some positives. Here is one of those high-leverage singles:
Here is the other one of those high-leverage singles:
Terrific! Not a complete and total failure. Yet Schwarber, on the year, has a wRC+ of 117. In just high-leverage situations, he has a wRC+ of — and I’m not making this up — -62. That is the number “62” with a negative sign in front of it. You’re wondering how that compares to the rest of the league. Here is the answer, given a minimum of 50 high-leverage plate appearances.
That table, I imagine, speaks for itself. So will the following tables. For a different angle on the above, consider that Schwarber has a wRC+ of -62 in high-leverage situations, and a wRC+ of 137 in low- and medium-leverage situations. The difference there is -199 points. This is the bottom of another leaderboard.
Coincidentally, there are actually three Cubs among those ten players, but Schwarber has the greatest difference, and it’s not even close. The gap between Schwarber and Smith is 80 points. Schwarber’s splits are downright laughable, if you’re able to take a step back, and they remain laughable if you extend the window back to 2002, which is as far as our FanGraphs splits stretch. Here are the worst single-season high-leverage wRC+ marks.
Right. And now here are the biggest (negative) differences between high-leverage hitting and low- and medium-leverage hitting.
It’s Schwarber by a mile. It’s Schwarber by the length of the average Kyle Schwarber home run. We haven’t seen anything quite like this in recent history. Granted, that’s somewhat arbitrary — for example, Baseball Reference uses different cutoffs when determining their leverage splits. But there’s no getting around the general message that Schwarber’s timing has been lousy. In low- and medium-leverage plate appearances, Schwarber has struck out 28% of the time. In high-leverage spots, he’s struck out 39% of the time. He has 43 extra-base hits and zero extra-base hits, respectively. His respective hard-hit rates are 43% and 15%. It’s not as if Schwarber has simply been the victim of bad luck. His performance has been legitimately bad in the most important situations. That doesn’t have to mean anything about his actual talent, but it’s a fact of how this season has gone.
In just those high-leverage plate appearances, Schwarber as a hitter has been about 16 runs below average. That translates to being about 2.5 wins below average. That’s basically the whole of it, there — if Schwarber had just been his regular self, the Cubs today would have a more comfortable cushion. You could say the same kind of thing about anything this year that hasn’t gone the Cubs’ way, but there’s an important thing here to remember. There’s how good a team actually is, and there’s how well a team times its good performances. The latter is much, much harder to control, but it can end up making a big difference in the standings nevertheless.
Schwarber might not have seen his last high-leverage opportunity of the regular season. And even if he has, the Cubs are still looking at the playoffs, when everyone starts from scratch. I don’t suspect that Kyle Schwarber is actually an unclutch hitter in his heart, and for all I know, it could be his bat that goes on to deliver Chicago another World Series. This post ultimately doesn’t have to say anything important. But I can never pass up a comical split. I’ve never seen splits quite like Schwarber’s. It has all been something to behold.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.