Arguably the most prevalent this-is-THE-problem-with-the-Cubs drum beat you’re hearing right now is about Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff hitter. He’s an atypical leadoff hitter, to be sure, and he’s hitting just .179/.313/.343 on the season, so it’s a reasonable thing – at a surface level – to attack.
From my perspective, I don’t really see the issue so long as (1) his initial batting spot isn’t totally changing his mindset to such an extent that it’s wrecking all of his at bats; and (2) you believe Kyle Schwarber is a good hitter worth getting a lot of plate appearances.
As near as I can tell on number one, neither Schwarber nor Joe Maddon believe the one time Schwarber leads off during the game (afterwards, he’s just hitting after another position player typically anyway) is mucking with his mind (CSN, Cubs.com). On number two, sure it’s possible that the flashes we’ve seen from Schwarber have been a mirage, and he’s actually going to always be an overmatched, struggling hitter, but I doubt it. The Cubs doubt it. You don’t do the things he’s done – tearing through the minors, debuting so well in the big leagues, tearing through the postseason in 2015, and then coming back in the World Series with almost no ramp-up time – without at least some God-and-hard-work-given ability to hit the ball. The better bet with respect to a player like Schwarber is that he simply needs time to adjust.
But … actually … I don’t even want to get into all of that. When it comes to Kyle Schwarber, leadoff hitter, you already know all of the arguments and counterarguments.
Instead, I just want to point out something more granular.
Much of Schwarber’s struggles – or at least the narrative feel of them – have come lately, as he’s gone hitless in his last 16 at bats. That’s a long stretch to go without a hit, especially when there’s already a hyper focus on the top of the Cubs’ order not producing.
How bad has that 0-fer stretch actually been, though? It’s easy for us to say a guy is slumping because he doesn’t have a hit in a week, but when you go at bat by at bat, what do you really see over a stretch like that?
Well, I was curious, because it felt like I’d seen a whole lot of hard contact out of Schwarber in this past week, even if he didn’t have hits to show for it. I also noticed that it wasn’t like he wasn’t walking or was striking out every time. Over that 16-at-bat stretch (21 PAs) Schwarber has walked five times, or a ridiculous 23.8% of the time. Over that same stretch, Schwarber has struck out twice. That’s right. Just twice. A 9.5% strikeout rate.
So, on the other 14 outs – the batted balls that didn’t fall in for hits – I decided to see how well each one was struck, using Statcast data:
- Groundout, 97.4 mph
- Groundout, 89.5 mph
- Pop out, 80.0 mph
- Groundout, 82.9 mph
- Groundout, 93.4 mph
- Pop out, 86.6 mph
- Fly out, 91.5 mph
- Groundout, 99.9 mph
- Fly out, 96.5 mph
- Line out, 100.6 mph
- Groundout, 95.5 mph
- Fly out, 105.0 mph
- Line out, 107.8 mph
- Groundout, 85.1 mph
Immediately, I notice two things: (1) way too much groundball contact for a guy like Schwarber – a 50% groundball rate is never going to be a good thing for him, especially against the shift; and (2) there’s a ton of really hard contact in there.
Speaking generally, balls hit in the 90 mph to 100 mph range fall in for a hit at a very nice batting average, in the .280 to .400 range. Balls hit in excess of 100mph are hits far more often than they are outs.
Of those 14 outs, a whopping 9 were hit at over 90 mph, 7 were over 95 mph, and 3 were over 100 mph (with one at 99.9 – come on, rounding).
In a typical distribution of batted balls, with that kind of exit velocity, we’d expect to see about four or five hits with absolutely no difference in what Schwarber was doing at the plate.
If even four of those balls dropped in for singles – just singles! – his .000/.238/.000 batting line over this “horrible” stretch that really stands out to us would increase to .250/.429/.250. That is a stretch that I submit you would not even notice. And if one of those balls had been a double or a homer? We might be talking about what a great hot streak Schwarber is on!
And I’m really not making any dramatic leaps here. A batter has very little control over what happens once the ball leaves his bat. All he can do is find the right pitch to hit, and hit the thing hard. Over this “horrible” stretch, Schwarber has done that.
The point here is not to excuse any issues we might note over a longer stretch (like I said, he’s gotta figure a way to get that groundball rate down). Instead, the point is to make sure you’re taking a look at the actual batted ball results during a stretch like this to know whether it’s “wow, this guy has been horrible and we should talk about whether he needs to move down the batting order” or it’s “wow, this guy has been ripping the ball lately and has found a lot of gloves.”
Schwarber hasn’t gotten the results in this stretch, but the dude has ripped the ball (and taken his walks, and hasn’t struck out).