At Theo Epstein’s lengthy end-of-season pow-wow, he discussed, among many things, the need to shift our thinking from talent to production. There’s no arguing this Cubs team isn’t LOADED with offensive talent – and that is really not something most other teams can say. The problem this year, it seems, was in translating that talent into actual, you know, runs.
In 2017, Kris Bryant offered something of an extreme example of this disconnect. In case you forgot, the story went something like this: Despite slashing .295/.409/.537 (146 wRC+), Bryant’s clutch rating (as determined by FanGraphs) was the second lowest in all of Major League Baseball. But if you thought Bryant had issues coming through in the moments that mattered most last season, just wait until you see what Jeff Sullivan uncovered about Kyle Schwarber’s 2018 campaign.
After Schwarber’s uneven 2017 season, his 2018 numbers were something of a breath of fresh air: .238/.356/.467; 15.3 BB%, 27.5 K%, 26 HRs. Sure, his batting average is still a little low, but Schwarber walked like crazy, dropped his strikeout rate WELL within an acceptable range, and still launched 26 long balls. A 115 wRC+ is nowhere near Schwarber’s ceiling by talent – and that’s something the Cubs may have to work on or make a decision off of – but at 3.2 total WAR, he had a good year *individually.*
But baseball isn’t really an individual sport, is it? It’s a team sport. And sometimes, your team needs you to come through in certain moments or with certain guys on base, and in that respect, Kyle Schwarber didn’t just come up short … he was historically bad, according to Sullivan’s late-season article: “Yet Schwarber, on the year, has a wRC+ of 117. In just high-leverage situations, he has a wRC+ of — and I’m not making this up — -62. That is the number ’62’ with a negative sign in front of it.”
When Sullivan wrote the article, Schwarber had a 117 wRC+ for the season and a NEGATIVE 62 wRC+ in high-leverage situations. I’ll remind you, at this point, that 100 wRC+ is exactly average, 72 wRC+ is the number Jason Heyward posted in his inaugural Cubs season (28 percent below average), and NEGATIVE 62 is what Kyle Schwarber posted in high-leverage moments this season. By contrast, he had a (positive) 65 wRC+ in high-leverage moments last year, which is still quite bad, but at least it’s on this side of zero.
Here’s the rest of the bottom ten by wRC+ in high leverage moments in 2018 (qualified hitters only).
- Kyle Schwarber: -62 wRC+
- Alcides Escobar: -5 wRC+
- Chris Davis: 10 wRC+
- James McCann: 11 wRC+
- Brian Dozier: 13 wRC+
- Addison Russell: 15 wRC+
- Kendrys Morale: 16 wRC+
- Adam Engel: 17 wRC+
- Joey Wendle: 22 wRC+
- Willson Contreras: 23 wRC+
Side note: Wonder why Theo Epstein wants to focus on production over talent? Just check out the presence of not one, not two, but THREE key Cubs players among the least productive bats in the moments that matter most.
Schwarber was not just the worst hitter in big moments this season, he was the worst by a mile, and he was one of just two players with a negative wRC+. But it gets even stranger than that. You’ll have to/want to check out FanGraphs for more context, but Schwarber also had by far the widest difference (-199 wRC+) between his production in low and medium leverage situations (a really really solid 137 wRC+) and his production in high leverage moments (-62 wRC+). In fact, that gap is again, BY FAR, the largest going all the way back to 2002 when FanGraphs data started tracking these specific stats.
So basically, Schwarber was killing it in the moments that mattered least and completely disappeared in the moments that mattered most. Considering how much better he was in those chances last season and how most players tend to regress to their averages in all leverage situations, I would not expect a repeat performance next year, but wow. That is striking and almost certainly a HUGE reason the Cubs offense felt anemic at times this year – though that’s not only on him, of course*. Moreover, it’s important to point out that because these numbers don’t always stay consistent season-to-season (see Bryant’s years in the big leagues), sometimes there’s just a lot of flukey noise at work.
When it comes to being “clutch” – which this somewhat speaks to – there tends not to be some magical ability to be better in high-leverage moments over a long period of time than you are in all other moments. But there long has been a well-founded belief that some players are better than others at maintaining their production when the moment gets big. If that was something that was getting to Schwarber this past season, it could be fertile ground for some work.
*Before I let you go, I do want to point out one more very important caveat (that is, in addition to regression and past performance in these exact moments being better):
Apparently Schwarber's bases loaded walk last night wasn't a high leverage situation as FG defines it (probably too early in the game and/or score wasn't close enough). But it did increase his batting line in medium leverage situations (188 PAs) to .288/.401/.564 (148+).
— Brad (@ballskwok) September 27, 2018
“High-leverage” has to have some kind of cut off, and it might not be a perfect measure of how a guy performed in the biggest spots. Tack-on runs in the 2nd and 3rd inning help a team win, too. A 9th inning hit is usually more high-leverage than a first inning bases-loaded walk, that’s not always the case. Runs count at all times. So just take all this in with a grain of salt. It’s not gospel – it’s just interesting, and so extreme that it bears noting and pondering for implications.