WITNESS ME BLOODBAG!
155 games, 610 plate appearances
38 HR 82 RBI
11.5 BB% 25.6 K%
120 wRC+ .357 wOBA .871 OPS
-7.1 Defensive Runs Saved 2.4 WAR
Tell Me A Story: There probably isn’t a better lesson in development not being linear than Kyle Schwarber. It was a given after his Doomsday 2nd half in 2015 that Schwarber would be taking aim and eventually bringing down the scoreboard in right field. But it didn’t work that way, as The War Bear got hurt, then spent ’17 and ’18 going through the growing pains he was supposed to go through in 2016. There was the cursed leadoff spot (which I will still contend he was good at and could be again if the Cubs really needed him to be). It got to the point where some fans and media had given up on him. And hell, it even took until the second half of this season for people to be convinced that Schwarber was going to be anything like we thought he would.
Overall, Schwarber’s season is really good. If you were to focus on just the second half, where he slashed .280/.366/.631 for a wRC+ of an astronomic 151 (for comparison, a season-long 151 would have ranked 7th in all of baseball right behind Anthony Rendon), then it’s really ya-ha time. The question for Schwarber and the Cubs and all of us is whether or not Schwarber is that guy from just the second half. Of course, most teams would settle for the whole of ’19 from their left fielder. Perspective is king, people.
There isn’t too much to suggest it simply can’t be. His BABIP in the second half was .287, which is high for Schwarbs simply due to the shifts he sees but hardly out of line by league-average standards. His hard-contact rate was above 40% in both halves of the season, which would suggest he was a touch unlucky in the first more than lucky in the second (though somewhat boosted by the 54% hard-contact rate he had in September). And nothing really changed about his approach, as the direction of his hits and contact remained pretty steady from first half to second half. And on a team that had trouble hitting the ball hard, Schwarber ranked 9th in all of MLB in average exit velocity. You wouldn’t get that long of odds on him repeating the second half for a full season, let’s say.
If there’s a problem area for Schwarber, it had been breaking balls. And overall, his numbers on sliders and curves this year aren’t impressive. But at the end of the year, in September, he blistered them for a .308 average and a .373 wOBA. Now maybe that’s just a one month spike, or maybe it’s an adjustment to how pitchers adjusted after getting weary of seeing their fastballs and sinkers turned into confetti somewhere over the right field wall. We’ll need more than a month to know, but it’s at least an encouraging start.
Could it actually get better? Maybe? The thing is Kyle’s walk-rate was the lowest of his career, at a still more than decent 11.8%. It was over 15% the year before, and over 13% in his rookie year. There are more walks in there. Some of that is Kyle being a little more willing to go get things a little outside because he can still do things with those pitches, But if he’d had ’18’s walk-rate this year he would have had 23 more walks, which would have boosted his OBP from .339 to .375. There is more in there in that sense. That would see his OPS crack .900 for the year, which is where we all picture The War Bear to be.
The concern with Schwarber, as it is with pretty much everyone now, is the lack of contact. Both his in-zone and overall contact rates were below league-average, and we know the Cubs would like to boost this where they can. I would think Schwarber’s overall production, especially in the second half, would outweigh that, but what do I know? And on breaking pitches, Schwarbs still has some swing-and-miss problems. That’s going to have to be the next step.
The other knock on Schwarber was his historic and mystifying incompetence in high-leverage situations last year. Well that certainly improved this year from -62 (my brain bleeds just seeing that number) to 92 in wRC+. Of course, even in his great second half, that number was just 81 in those spots. Perhaps that’s because pitchers, at least the ones able to execute a plan, know where to go with Schwarbs when they have to get him out. This is clearly the thing he’s going to have to correct come next year.
The funny thing with Schwarber is that even with his improved offensive numbers, he had a lesser WAR than ’18. That’s because his defense didn’t grade out as highly. And that’s because he didn’t really get the chance to throw out runners this year, as the book is out on his arm. Much like Willson Contreras, he contributed to his own sliding metrics on defense because of how good he was at one thing that he negated more chances to do that one thing. We know he’s not a great left fielder. Probably not even a good one. We also know a team doesn’t need to be great in left.
Contract: 2nd of three arbitration years, projected at $8M.
Welcome Back Or Boot In The Ass: There are whispers about trading Schwarber to the AL every goddamn year. I’m sure this won’t be different. And it’s not that he’s untouchable. For a top of the rotation starter, you’d have to think long and hard about it. But that’s about it, at least to me. We got a half season of the hitter he can be, and was in 2015. So this isn’t like it came from nowhere. He’s an adjustment or two from being one of the most dangerous hitters in the league. And even with the arbitration more thandoubling his salary, he’s cheap and young. True, for the first time since 2015, he’ll actually have some real value. But other teams would be wary of a backslide. And if you move Schwarber you have to replace that production in left. There really isn’t an in-house candidate, other than Ian Happ who is a lot farther from being that hitter than Schwarber is. To do it from the outside would be expensive, even if it’s everyone’s darling Castellanos. And if the budget is selfishly and callously limited again, then what room there is has to find pitching first.
As with everything, it depends on return. But the chance the Cubs regret moving Schwarber along rather than enjoy what they got back seems a lot bigger than the reverse.