If the Cubs’ roster has any two things, it’s a positional glut of young, talented Major Leaguers, and some glaring vacancies in the starting rotation.
And if we’re still buying what Theo Epstein is selling (of course we are!), the former can help pay for the latter by ways of a big-league trade this offseason. In fact, I’d go as far as say that moving some of the Major League positional redundancies for starting pitching this winter is something close to a no-brainer. The difficult part, of course, is deciding which guy you’re willing to move.
At NBC Sports Chicago, Patrick Mooney justifiably wonders if Kyle Schwarber may finally be heading out the door this winter, given the Cubs needs and the extremely disappointing first-half and demotion. Sahadev Sharma looks at related questions and Schwarber’s value over at The Athletic.
Obviously, Schwarber’s immense offensive upside, left-handed bat, slugging tendencies, and defensive unevenness in the outfield make him an interesting trade candidate for an AL team, but I’m not so sure were there yet on the 24-year-old.
For one, Epstein and Co. continue to crush on Schwarber (as they should), for his upside/talent/etc. For another, this was just Schwarber’s first full season in the Major Leagues (coming off a MASSIVE knee injury/surgery), and despite getting fewer than 500 plate appearances, he hit 30 home runs.
It wasn’t just the homers. Schwarber’s down season still had some bright spots, and that’s without mentioning the second-half resurgence. Although we’ve discussed aspects of Schwarber’s solid second half a couple times over the past couple months, I thought we could give it a more conclusive look today, as Schwarber figures to come up throughout the offseason in various rumors.
After the All-Star break, Kyle Schwarber took 209 plate appearances for the Cubs (16.3% of which came against southpaws, but we’ll get into his splits later). And in those 200+ PAs, Schwarber slashed an absolutely wonderful .253/.335/.559 with 17 homers, a triple, and four doubles.
For reference on how good that really is … among all Major Leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances in the second half, Schwarber’s 129 wRC+ ranked 40th in all of baseball, ahead of guys like Matt Carpenter (128 wRC+) and Paul Goldschmidt (128 wRC+), and just behind guys like Dexter Fowler (132 wRC+) and Anthony Rizzo (136 wRC+). So, yeah. He did well in the second half.
While the overall numbers are certainly eye-catching, it’s the marginal improvements in his peripherals that are especially encouraging. Take a look at some of his batted ball date from before and after the break:
Before All-Star Break:
Vs. LHP: 35.5 Soft-hit%, 22.6 Hard-hit%
Vs. RHP: 19.7 Soft-hit%, 33.1 Hard-hit%
Overall: 22.8 Soft-hit%, 31.0 Hard-hit%
After All-Star Break:
Vs. LHP: 29.4 Soft-hit%, 35.3 Hard-hit%
Vs. RHP: 17.5 Soft-hit%, 45.4 Hard-hit%
Overall: 19.3 Soft-hit%, 43.9 Hard-hit%
Bam. Smack. Boom. Schwarber improved his soft and hard contact rates against both lefties and righties from the first half of the season to the second. And let me remind you, a 19% soft-hit rate and a 32% hard-hit rate are roughly league average, so those numbers in the hard-hit category that start with a “4” are very impressive.
To be fair/clear, Schwarber’s strikeout rate did worsen in the second half of the season, but that suggests there’s room for him to swing for more contact while maintaining elite power if he can continue find that balance.
And wait, there’s more!
From the first half to the second half, Schwarber lowered his ground ball rate to 35.7% (much better than the league average of 44.2%) while raising his fly ball rate up to 47.3% (also much better than the league average of 35.5%). In terms of a hitter you’d like to have in the current juiced ball era featuring extreme defensive shifts, you can do a lot worse than a lefty who hits the ball VERY hard and in the air A LOT.
But let’s get back to those lefty/right splits, because I know a lot of you will get hung up on them:
Before All-Star Break (277 PAs):
Vs. LHP (23.1%): 63 wRC+
Vs. RHP (76.9%): 87 wRC+
Overall (100%): 82 wRC+
After All-Star Break (209 PAs):
Vs. LHP (16.3%): 94 wRC+
Vs. RHP (83.7%): 136 wRC+
Overall (100%): 129 wRC+
Although Schwarber saw a lower percentage of plate appearances against lefties in the second half of the season, he improved his production against them immensely. And against righties, Schwarber went from a downright liability to Anthony Rizzo’s total level of production.
From a plate discipline perspective, things were a bit of a mixed bag – Schwarber walked less often in the second half (but still did so quite a lot) and struck out more often, as his zone contact rate dipped a little. With that said, he did swing at fewer pitches out of the zone and at more pitches in the zone, which is a good sign, because a hole in your swing tends to be a more correctable issue than pitch recognition problems.
All things considered (and that includes that it was just his first full MLB season and the fact that he was coming off major knee surgery), it’s hard for me not to be excited about Schwarber’s potential in 2018. He has some flaws, there’s no doubt about that, but even in a bad year, he managed to produce at All-Star levels in the second half after making midseason adjustments at AAA.
Schwarber has a number of things to work on this offseason, but nothing he’s done in his career leads me to believe he can’t make it work. And if I were the Cubs, I’d hold onto him for AT LEAST one more season to show us what he’s got. Because I think it might just be something special.