I always had fun dissecting Jason Heyward’s 2016 season from an analytical perspective. I never had fun discussing the results of that dissection.
That is both because the results were so very bad, and because they also kept bringing me back to the same place: Heyward performed really poorly, and also was really unlucky.
We both know that in the baseball analysis internetting world (do I even need the “baseball analysis” part in there?), nobody likes fuzzy answers. People want you to take a stand. People want their pre-existing hard-and-fast beliefs to be reinforced by your conclusion. But baseball – you chose this sport! – for all its analytical possibilities, is also subject to so much randomness that “luck” will always permeate every single analysis performed at some small or large level.
Enter Kyle Schwarber, and the woeful .184/.307/.349 start to his season.
It’s because he was batting leadoff. It’s because the league is adjusting. It’s because he was never that good to begin with. Folks will want a clear answer for why the results haven’t been there, but I’ve gotta tell you: (1) I think it’s a combination of things, including the fact that it’s still only 179 plate appearances; and (2) I cannot rightly dig into the psychology of how a player’s spot in the batting order or prior bad results are impacting performance at the plate.
What I can tell you is what I see with my eyes, supported by the data, and what I see in the statistics. My eye and the data say Schwarber’s been hitting the ball consistently harder than the results are reflecting.
We talked about it within the context of his recent slump in particular, but Cubs Insider took an even deeper dive into the hard luck of Schwarber. Therein, you’ll learn a good bit about “expected” stats, if you’re unfamiliar, and the upshot is that, based on the actual contact Schwarber has been making heading into last night’s game, you’d expect him to have five more singles, and an extra double, triple, and homer this year. If his results simply matched what you’d expect from his contact, you’re suddenly talking about a guy with much better numbers. Again, that’s with no change whatsoever to what Schwarber – himself and his bat – have done at the plate. It’s just a change to where the ball drops and/or how adept the defenders are at gloving the ball.
That hard luck stuff would go a long way to explaining Schwarber’s .227 BABIP and .164 ISO, each of which you’d expect to be much higher even if you didn’t have the data that says, yeah, they should be much higher. Just for example purposes: with a BABIP closer to .300 and an ISO closer to .230, Schwarber’s looking at a line right around .250/.350/.480, which is virtually identical to what he hit in his rookie campaign. And again, that’s with no change to what he’s done. The change is only to his luck (we’re not even giving him good luck! just expected luck!).
Throw in the fact that Schwarber’s walk rate is up from that rookie year, his strikeout rate is down, he’s swinging less often at pitches out of the strike zone, he’s making more contact with pitches in the strike zone, and this looks like a better version of Schwarber. The results just haven’t been there.
Moreover, CI points out that Schwarber’s strikeout rate – not something we’d associate with good or bad luck, typically (though it’s not hard to imagine bad luck with timing and close calls – does not align with what you’d actually expect based on his contact rate. He’s making far more contact than you’d expect for a guy who is striking out 27.4% of the time. (In case you’re thinking like I was: I immediately checked Schwarber’s zone swing rate – surely this is all a signal that he’s simply taking too many strikes, right? – but no signal there. Schwarber is swinging at 66.2% of pitches he sees in the zone, nearly identical to the league number (66.5%).)
Like I said, though, there are two sides to this coin, because there are some things to point out about Schwarber’s performance where he’s not helping himself.
Although I don’t dispute the expected stats and the overall quality of contact, Schwarber does have a very high infield pop-up rate (14.0%), a slightly above average soft contact rate (19.4%), and a near league average groundball rate (44.3% – his style needs more elevation than league average groundball rates). All of those things would contribute to a lower than expected BABIP for Schwarber, and the groundball rate would definitely contribute to a reduction in ISO.
In other words, it’s almost like Schwarber is either making great contact (and getting some bad luck when he does), or making poor contact (and getting the results you’d expect).
I also think that the 27.4% strikeout rate – even if it is being inflated slightly by some bad sequencing luck – is reflective of a genuine issue. For one thing, Schwarber’s zone contact rate (81.8%), while dramatically improved over his rookie year, is still slightly below league average (85.5%). Further, as noted in the parenthetical a few paragraphs ago, Schwarber is slightly below league average in his swing attempts at pitches in the zone.
Being around or slightly below “league average” in various plate discipline numbers is really not a great thing for a guy whom we expect to be a better than league average hitter (and who will need to be much better than league average in order to provide value, when set against below average defense in left field). I expect the strikeout rate to come down, but it’s going to take Schwarber swinging at some more pitches in the zone, and making contact with them at a higher rate than he has been.
In the end, where do I think this goes? Well, so long as the bad results don’t start to get in Schwarber’s head or somehow wreak havoc on his swing, there should be natural, positive regression coming. I also happen to believe Schwarber is a naturally gifted hitter who is also dealing with adjustments from the league, and his own adjustments will be forthcoming.
In other words, were I betting right now, I’d bet on the combination of better luck and positive adjustments kicking in at the same time, and Schwarber going on a tear at some point. Not that anything is ever certain in baseball, though.