We mentioned Sahadev Sharma’s write up on Kyle Schwarber’s trade value back when we talked about his dramatically improved second half at the plate, but there’s one ancillary bit that I want to give a special attention here.
Sharma notes something extremely interesting – and frankly quirky – about Schwarber’s 2017 season: Schwarber’s strikeout rate was totally out of whack with his swinging strike rate. That is to say, Sharma shows the data for all players, and generally speaking – as you would expect – there’s a linear relationship between strikeout rates and swinging strike rates (the more often you swing and miss, the more often you strike out, and vice versa).
Schwarber, however, had a 30.9% strikeout rate and a 12.2% swinging strike rate. The former is WAY above league average (21.6%), and the latter is only slightly above league average (10.5%). In fact, Sharma points out that the difference between Schwarber’s actual swinging strike rate and the swinging strike rate you’d expect based on his strikeout rate was 19th highest in all of baseball.
So what do we make of that disparity? Well, you can and should read Sharma’s piece for more on the topic, but you should know that he poo-poos the idea that it’s simply a matter of Schwarber taking too many strikes. Instead, it could be, as Sharma speculates, that Schwarber was fouling off too many hittable pitches, thus reducing the swinging strike rate, but bringing him a strike closer to a strikeout earlier in the count. I’m sure that’s a factor in all of this.
For me, though, I can’t help but wonder if the bigger issue was Schwarber getting outside of himself and executing especially poorly when he gets to two strikes.
Consider: when Schwarber got to a two-strike count this season, he struck out 49.0% of the time. The league average in those situations is just 41.0%.
OK, but maybe that’s just because Schwarber was better off “going for it” with two strikes than simply trying to make contact? Sometimes, in those situations, you’d be willing to take the greater chance at a strikeout in exchange for slightly better overall production – not all guys are meant to use a ‘B’ hack. For example, Kris Bryant has never really shortened up with two strikes just to make contact, and, thus, he strikes out at a nearly league-average rate in those situations (36.9% in 2017). But, in those situations, he still managed to hit .221/.343/.363 with a 91 wRC+, blowing away the league average (.181/.254/.288, 44 wRC+).
(Contrast Bryant’s results and approach with the Cubs’ most famous ‘B’ hacker, Anthony Rizzo, who struck out only 24.8% of the time when he gets to two strikes, but who hit just .197/.311/.294 (66 wRC+) overall in those situations. That’s still far, far better than league average – and that’s what works for Rizzo. Just as sticking with his primary approach and swing is what works for Bryant. There is a lid for every jar.)
So, that could be the case for Schwarber, too, right? Like, maybe he’s going with the Bryant school of thought, and sticking with his primary approach and swing even when he gets to two strikes?
Well, if so, it doesn’t seem like Schwarber was successfully sacrificing contact in those situations for productivity. Schwarber’s .131/.239/.291 (40 wRC+) line in two-strike counts was actually worse than league average.
In other words, when he got to two strikes last year, Schwarber was striking out much more than league average, and hitting worse than league average. For a guy who you want to see as a significantly above-average bat overall, those two-strike results were a big problem (and probably contributed to that elevated strikeout rate, despite the not terrible swinging strike rate – if a disproportionate number of your swinging strikes come with two strikes, well, then you’re going to have that disparity).
Anecdotally, we saw a little of this issue play out throughout the season – remember the few times we saw Schwarber choking up and trying to shorten his swing with two strikes? There weren’t a ton of examples, but it definitely happened. As a young hitter without a ton of professional experience, that kind of experimentation is to be expected. Schwarber has to “know thyself,” so to speak.
Are there any signs for optimism? After all, we know that Schwarber got so much better at the plate overall in the second half, perhaps the same is true on the two-strike front?
Well … kinda!
In the second half, Schwarber’s strikeout rate got a little worse in two-strike counts (52.2%), but his slash line improved markedly to well above league average (.149/.254/.355, 58 wRC+). Note in particular the huge leap in slugging. Perhaps that was, indeed, a case of Schwarber doing a little “know thyself,” and deciding his best two-strike approach was simply to be himself, and not worry about modifying to try to increase contact. Again: not everyone can be Anthony Rizzo.
Still, the performance there leaves some room for improvement, particularly over the course of a full season. I’m certain that two-strike approach is going to be a huge point of emphasis for the whole team this offseason with new hitting coach Chili Davis and new assistant hitting coach Andy Haines. As a team, the Cubs were slightly below league average after getting to two strikes (.175/.259/.271, 41 wRC+, 41.6% K rate).
A big thanks to FanGraphs’ splits tool for making the data necessary for this kind of analysis accessible.