After Dexter Fowler officially left the Cubs for the St. Louis Cardinals, the question about who would replace him at the top of the line-up needed a definite answer. And while looking back at before the 2016 offered some insight, there was no obvious mark on the roster. Before Fowler re-signed with the Cubs during the spring of 2016, the lead off options were essentially Ben Zobrist or Jason Heyward. Moving forward into 2017, Ben Zobrist remained a strong candidate. Jason Heyward, coming off the worst offensive season of his career, was no longer a viable candidate at that moment. What we got was Kyle Schwarber, who has a good eye and a ton of power. He was supposed to create a murderer’s row at the top of the Cubs’ line-up, being followed by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
Kyle Schwarber has struggled. Anyone can see that. But how and where he’s struggled is something worth examining closer. And it’s been deep counts that have really been where Kyle Schwarber has run into trouble. It’s worth pointing out here, though, that Kyle’s still in his career’s infancy. He has played on 126 career regular season games at the MLB level. That’s not a lot. So, he’s still growing as a player.
First, Schwarber has been mighty mighty effective when he gets ahead early in the count. In situations where it’s the first pitch or he’s ahead 1-0 or 2-0, Kyle is 10-34 (.294) with 2 doubles and 6 of his 10 home runs. Adding the 7 walks he’s taken when ahead 3-0 (in 7 plate appearances), that slash line is a pretty strong .294/.415/.882(!!!!). Obviously, small sample bells and whistles all apply here. But the point is that the guy has been lethal when he’s hitting from ahead. And frankly, most major league hitters are. There’s a reason why strike 1 is considered so important for pitchers. It’s harder to hit behind in the count. The point here is two fold. One, Kyle’s really really good when he has the advantage. And two, he hasn’t had it very much. Remember, this is 41 plate appearances of awesome. The guy has had 229 on on the season.
With two strikes, Kyle Schwarber has been a non-factor. In 141 plate appearances, he has struck out 71 times (I’ll spare you the math…it’s over half). That’s a lot. I made this point on Twitter during Saturday’s game, but Anthony Rizzo has struck out in 31 of 135 plate appearances, roughly 23% of the time. Anthony is a lower strike out guy than Kyle Schwarber probably will be, but there’s a sharp contrast between them. Furthermore, when Schwarber does put the ball in play with two strikes, he’s making much weaker contact. In the 125 balls he put in play before Saturday’s game, his average exit velocity is 87.9. The 51 in play with two strikes are down over 3 mph to 84.7. 27 of those have been on the ground at an average of 80.5. He’s either striking out or making very weak contact. When adding up all of this data, it should come as no surprise that he is hitting .098/.199/.203 in two strike situations.
The struggles aren’t limited to two strike counts, either. He’s slashing .200/.579/.300 on 3-1 counts (19 plate appearances), and .065/.396/.161 in full count situations. We can see by the on-base numbers in those situations, that Kyle is definitely taking some walks when they’re presented to him. Which is good. That’s what he should be doing. But without looking into each of his plate appearances to determine exactly what pitch he’s hitting when he puts the ball in play, it’s fair to say that he isn’t making great contact. And it would seem that part of that is because pitchers are not giving into Kyle and challenging him when they fall behind, so he is getting himself out. His average exit velocity on fly balls is 94 mph this season. That drops slightly to 93.7 on 3-1 counts and precipitously to 92.3 on 3-2 (albeit, there are only a total of 4 fly balls in these cases…which is also kind of an issue). Pitchers are not giving him the ball he can drive. He has 13 ground balls or pop ups in 67 3-1 or 3-2 plate appearances, resulting in 2 singles.
Kyle Schwarber has a strong handle on the strike zone. We know that. It’s part of the reason we all thought he would be an intriguing candidate to lead-off in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He has seen about 46% of the pitches thrown to him in the strike zone. And a first strike percentage at about 48% (down from about 60% in 2015). For these reasons, his 14% walk rate is about what you’d expect. He takes a lot of walks. It also makes the 30.5% strike out rate a little alarming. Thus far, he’s swinging at about 27% of pitches outside the strike zone. And he’s making contact with about 64% of those. That’s a lot of swing and miss. When he does make contact on pitches outside of the strike zone, it probably isn’t very good contact. Those are pitches that the guy on the mound wants him to swing at, and so far it’s worked. This at least serves as some of the explanation for the dip in exit velocity when Kyle is getting into deeper counts. Overall, his contact rate has jumped up to about 75% this season over his last significant playing time at the major league level in 2015, meaning he’s doing a nice job of putting the bat on the ball in the zone (about 80%, up from about 75% in 2015).
To provide a source of comparison, it’s seems useful to go backward and look at Kyle Schwarber’s results in 2015 in his first significant playing time. Early in counts, he was similar. He was a dangerous hitter then as he is now. He did not record a hit in his 17 plate appearances with a 3-1 count, but did draw 13 walks. On 3-2, he slashed .370/.614./815. That’s a lot different. He was actually pretty effective in two strike counts, too, hitting .193/.280/.359. Obviously, some of that is driven by his full count numbers, but he was not completely inept with two strikes as he is in this season, and plate discipline might be a significant contributing factor to that.
Again, without going back to look at every single plate appearance in Kyle Schwarber’s career, some of the explanation probably falls under the category of “league adjustment”. While I can’t and won’t go back and look for trends in the video of Kyle Schwarber’s plate appearances, major league teams pay people to do exactly that. There’s no question teams have learned quickly that they cannot challenge Kyle Schwarber when they’re behind in the count and expect to live to tell about it. He’s shown the ability to crush a challenge pitch. So teams have gone about pitching him outside the zone and letting him get himself out all while being content with walking him. In a lot of ways, this serves as the best evidence against the line-up protection theory because he’s been followed by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the line-up for much of the season. That hasn’t mattered at all. If it did. Kyle would likely be seeing more pitches in the strike zone.
Another possible change could be where he’s hitting in the batting order. As a lead-off hitter, Kyle could be altering his approach to suit the more prototypical lead-off hitter’s. After all, he is tied for the NL lead in pitches per plate appearance at 4.48. He saw 4.24 pitches per plate appearance in 2015, which would have been 3rd in the NL if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. So while he has always been willing to wait and see a lot of pitches, he is seeing more this season. Statistically, 0.24 pitches per plate appearance is significant. Either way, he’s seeing a lot, but if he were at a level similar to his 2015 rate, it would push him to 11th in the NL. It is probably not worth noting, but he is essentially statistically even with the 4.40 pitches per plate appearance that Dexter Fowler saw last season.
Fixing Kyle Schwarber is another matter altogether. One popular solution (which I admit I am beginning to come around to ) is sending him to Iowa. The downside is that he is going to head to the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League, make Triple A pitchers cry for a few weeks, and come right back up with the same book on him. The other side of that is sending him down allows him to work on his selectivity and aggressiveness at a level that isn’t working to the detriment of an offensively inconsistent big league club.
Another solution that comes to mind is moving Schwarber to the middle of the line-up. He hit 2nd a in the majority of his 2015 plate appearances, and that may be an option again. Putting him in the clean up role could also help him get pitches to hit. Penciling a line-up in with Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber at the top could alter the approach teams are taking of working around him to a degree because it’s not a good idea to walk him if any combination of the three ahead of him are on base. This season, he’s gotten so precious few opportunities with runners on base, that it is difficult to make any sweeping conclusions on his outcomes or approach. Only 83 plate appearances have come with men on. That’s a function of hitting at the top of the order for the most part (and a bit of an indictment on the bottom of the Cubs’ order this season). But in 2015, he hit .270/.364/.550 with runners on base and .241/.318/.466 with runners in scoring position. He’s a prototypical middle of the order bat. Maybe putting him there puts him back in a place where he’s most comfortable.
We don’t know how the last 101 games are going to play out. At 30-31, the Cubs have under performed against a difficult schedule, as well as gotten the short end of the luck stick. Maybe after 2016, where a lot went right, this should have been expected (although it was by a lot of observers). But one thing that can change the Cubs’ fortunes is getting Kyle Schwarber trending in the right direction. He’s hit some balls hard that went for outs, but that’s a small part of the overall picture. Whether he’s pressing or adjusting (or probably some combination of both), he remains a key reason why the offense hasn’t met expectations. The Cubs need Kyle Schwarber to see the ball like he has demonstrated the capability to do and make pitchers pay when they challenge him like he’s shown the capability to do. The answer may be to look to swing earlier. Or to not swing at all. But the truth appears to be somewhere in both.