Kyle Schwarber's Hot Start Is So Much More Than That

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Kyle Schwarber’s Hot Start Is So Much More Than That

Chicago Cubs

Before yesterday’s offensive explosion at Wrigley Field, Brett took a closer look into the Cubs offensive performance over the past two weeks, sharing the team’s offensive leaderboard, which looked something like this:

Something caught my eye … that guy up there at the top, Kyle Schwarber, wasn’t being a good teammate. While everyone else on the roster was struggling, he was still just doing his thing at the plate.

Sure, his .229/.308/.543 slash line (during that two-week stretch) looks unconventional, but it actually comes out to about 23% better than league average, which, if that’s your low point, good for you. Indeed, Schwarber’s entire 2018 season has been so very refreshing, exciting, and promising (especially compared to 2017) that it’s time to give it some dedicated attention.

As of today, Kyle Schwarber has appeared in 28 of the Cubs 32 games, with 109 total plate appearances – which is enough to qualify, by the way. In other words, there’s no unfair sample-size (relative to other players) going on here. And during those 109 plate appearances, Schwarber has slashed .269/.376/.548 (148 wRC+).

I don’t normally do things this way, but given his unbalanced approach at the plate last year (low batting average, high K-rate, high slugging, high-walk rate), let’s break this slash line down into parts and really dive into his entire approach at the plate.

Starting with …

The Batting Average

Although this is not necessarily the most important component of his slash line, I am thrilled to see Schwarber with such a nice batting average (relative to this era and his power/history). Even at his highest points last year, his average was always quite low and there was a fear that he might never turn into the “all-around” hitter we all know he can be.

Don’t get me wrong, that .269 average isn’t astonishing – it’s arguably the weakest part of his slash line – but it ranks 74th among all qualified hitters in MLB, and 38th in the National League. For a guy who wasn’t even hitting his weight last year, that’s huge.

The Stat That Stands Out: 22.9% strikeout rate

Perhaps we can dive into the plate discipline more deeply another time, but it feels important to point out that Schwarber is swinging at far fewer pitches out of the zone, more pitches in the zone, and is making more contact on pitches in the zone than ever before. He’s also got the lowest first-pitch strike rate *and* whiff-rate of his career. All of which has led to a BY FAR the lowest strikeout rate of his career – one that is below league average. Woo!

The On-Base Percentage

But here’s where things start to get really exciting. Kyle Schwarber has gotten on base at a .376 clip so far this season, which is, again, the best mark of his career, and among the better marks in baseball (37th in MLB, 21st in the NL). He always struck us as the type who would get on base a lot – even without the contact/average being as good as it has been – and he’s currently demonstrated it.

The Stat That Stands Out: 14.7% walk rate

And how is he getting on base? Well, we already discussed the fact that he’s swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than ever before – so, that, combined with what I suspect is a renewed respect for his in-game power, has led to a really high walk rate. In fact, this is the highest walk rate of his career, and one that’s tied for the 21st highest mark in MLB with Paul Goldshmidt and Eric Hosmer.

The Slugging Percentage

But despite the best contact/average of his career and some of the best on-base skills in the game, Schwarber’s power has shined brightest here in 2018. As of today, Schwarber has 3 doubles, a triple, and 7 home runs through his 93 at-bats, which is good for a .548 slugging percentage.

In 2017, only 13 players finished with a higher slugging percentage and let’s just say every single one of them is a household name (and only two of them, Jose Ramirez and Freddie Freeman, hit fewer than 30 home runs (and they hit 29 and 28, respectively!)).

As of this point this season, Schwarber’s slugging percentage ranks 25th in MLB and 12th in the National League.

The Stat That Stands Out: 39.7% hard-hit rate

How is Schwarber doing it? The best way: lots of hard contact! His 39.7% hard-hit rate ranks 45th in baseball and 20th in the National League. In 2017, it would be a top-20 rate overall. It’s also led to the highest ISO of his career (.280), which, unsurprisingly, ranks 16th in MLB and 8th in the NL, sandwiched between Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant.

But this party isn’t over!

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

In related-news, Schwarber may still be struggling against left-handers overall (50 wRC+), but I’m not so sure that’s entirely fair.

He’s walking at a 20% clip against lefties this year, and is actually making hard contact at a ridiculous 60% rate. His current .200 BABIP versus LHP is probably a great deal lower than it should be, and, thus, his overall production against southpaws – particularly in the batting average and slugging department – is due for some natural, positive regression (let alone any actual/natural improvement he might enjoy).

Speaking of which, Schwarber actually has an 79 wRC+ against lefties since April 1 (with a 23.5% walk rate and 23.5% strikeout rate), which, sure, it’s only 17 plate appearances (so, like whatever), but at least it’s heading in the right direction. It’s not like you’d prefer the opposite.

And all of this leads me to my favorite part … the outlook for the rest of the season.

Yesterday at ESPN, data-nerd Dan Szymborksi took a look at some of baseball’s hottest starts this season to see which hitters might be on track to turn their hot-streaks into hot-seasons, and Kyle Schwarber makes the cut. According to Szymborski, Schwarber’s rest-of-season OPS projection of .834 is higher than his preseason projected of .821 … and he’s still taking the over on that, guessing Schwarber finishes the year with an .850 OPS the rest of the way.

On top of that, he even likes what he’s seen from Schwarber in the field and thinks he’s “far more adequate in the outfield than many people,” including himself, thought. It’s *EXTREMELY* early, but the defensive metrics agree with that particular eye test.

Schwarber may not be a wizard in left, but he has a +1 defensive runs saved (DRS), which ranks 4th best among the 13 qualified left fielders, and is tied for 28th among the 69 qualified outfielders. Meanwhile, his +1 rARM rating is tied for 10th best in baseball, and his +0.3 UZR is tied for 27th.

Now, defensive metrics are notoriously bad in small samples and this is primarily a post about his offense, so don’t go nuts with that stuff. But the guy’s worked very hard to get himself up to speed in left and he deserves some credit. Just like the small sample against lefties … it might not mean much yet, but it’s better than the alternative.

In any case, Kyle Schwarber has already earned himself 0.9 WAR this season in fewer plate appearances than any player who’s earned more. And if he plays 87.5% of the remaining games (which is the rate at which he’s getting into games right now) he’ll finish a 142-game season with 4.6 WAR(!), which is absolutely excellent, as it would’ve made him the 23rd most valuable position player in baseball last season. And it’s entirely possible that, if he continues succeeding, he’ll play even more than that.

Yes, Kyle Schwarber still has some work to do, but he’s gotten off to a fantastic start on both offense *and* defense, with the peripherals to support it, and the projections to believe it.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami