Kyle Schwarber entered the 2017 season with as much hype as nearly any young player in the league. After not playing a single game since the first week of the 2016 regular season, Schwarber stepped into the starting lineup in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians and looked like he hadn’t skipped a beat. Given the circumstances, he finished the 2016 World Series with a stunning stat line: a .412 batting average, getting on base in 50% of his plate appearances, scoring twice and driving in two more runs. After that performance, almost everyone assumed that he would light the league on fire in 2017. He would have a full offseason to prepare and get healthy (he was not medically cleared to play in the field during the World Series); the sky appeared to be the limit.
However, with the Cubs playing sub-.500 (18-19) baseball entering Tuesday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds, this has simply not been the case.
As the man appointed with replacing Dexter Fowler atop the Cubs batting order, Schwarber entered Tuesday’s game on a 0-for-16 streak, with a batting average of .179 and an on-base-percentage (OBP) of .313. Indeed, Schwarber is not the only bat in the Cubs lineup that is struggling, as teammates Ben Zobrist (.223), Addison Russell (.226), and Anthony Rizzo (.213) are all hitting barely over the Mendoza Line. But, batting leadoff for a team that was expected to score 800+ runs this season holds Schwarber to a different standard. And, as he has not met that standard to this point in the season, one is left to wonder what the root cause might be.
Schwarber is doing a lot of the things that you would expect a lead off hitter to do: he is seeing plenty of pitchers per at-bat (4.41, 7th in MLB) and walking a healthy amount (24, 7th in MLB). And, while Schwarber does not fit the role of the traditional lead-off hitter, that of being a speedy slap hitter with the ability to steal bases, it is important to note that teams are increasingly going away from that model, sacrificing speed and getting more at-bats for a player who is deemed to be a bigger threat to hit a home run or do major damage if a player at the bottom of the order reaches base ahead of him.
A deeper dive into Schwarber’s advanced analytics show that not much has changed since he made his debut in 2015. Comparing his inaugural season’s statistics to this season, since he had only a handful of at bats in 2016, he is actually walking more (15% vs 13%), striking out less (27% vs 28%), and hitting the same percentage amount of fly balls (42%). Instead, the big change is in Schwarber’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP, calculated as the number of times a player reaches base when he puts a ball in play, not including home runs), where he is only reaching base 22% of the time in 2017 compared to 29% in 2015.
There are a couple reasons for why he is not reaching base as frequently when he makes contact this year, all of which can be interrelated:
- Teams have learned where he frequently hits the ball and are shifting their defense to fill those spots on the field, often times moving a third baseman into shallow right field, as Schwarber has a propensity to pull the ball that direction (for his career, he has pulled 45% of his hits to the right side of the field),
- Opposing teams have had a full year to dig into tape on him and scout ways to attack Schwarber’s weaknesses at the plate, which feeds directly into the next reason,
- He is not hitting the ball nearly as hard this year as he did in 2015, as his soft-hit percentage has increased to 21% from 15%***.
Baseball is a game of constant adapting and changing and one can reasonably expect Kyle to make the necessary changes to adapt to how teams are pitching to him.
However, if there is one area of justifiable concern about Schwarber, it needs to be his approach and results in two-strike counts, where Kyle has been as bad as a hitter can possibly be. His batting average entering Tuesday’s game is a ghastly .075 (.199 in 2015), with an OBP of .204 (.285 in 2015), and a BABIP of .167 (.349 in 2015). When the count reaches two strikes and he makes contact, 50% of these instances are ground balls, often times resulting in easy outs for the opposing team (see #1 above). It is imperative that these numbers return to their 2015 form if Kyle is to regain some of the mystique that he had entering this season.
All in all, baseball is a long season and players both slump and get hot multiple times during the year. Like the rest of the Cubs team, Kyle Schwarber is far too talented of a hitter and works far too hard for the trends of early-2017 to continue. It was for those two reasons that the Front Office wouldn’t deal him at last season’s trade deadline for pitching. In the end, I expect water to find its level and for Kyle Schwarber to return to being an above-average major league hitter.
***I’m watching Tuesday’s game as I type this and Schwarber just launched a home run 462 feet. Go figure.
Stats via Fangraphs.com
For continued coverage of the Cubs, follow along on Twitter! @CubsColumn