Kyle Schwarber is Suddenly a Contact Hitter? We Should Talk About Some Things

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Kyle Schwarber is Suddenly a Contact Hitter? We Should Talk About Some Things

Chicago Cubs

The Psych majors will call me crazy, but here it goes anyway: Kyle Schwarber is on the verge of a massive breakout.

Very exciting, I know. But before we dive directly into the hope pool, let’s consider what’s been preventing him from turning into the type of elite hitter he was always supposed to be. On a narrative level, Schwarber was rushed up to the Majors for a playoff run in 2015 (he came up more quickly than any other top Cubs prospect, including Kris Bryant) and then also suffered a massive knee injury in 2016 that ate up an entire season.

Those two factors alone are both unique and essential to his story, but you know about both by now. And as unfair as it may be given those factors, Schwarber has still had his fair share of faults that need to be addressed. For example …

  1. Schwarber’s strikeout rate has obviously been quite poor, especially before this season (29.0% from 2015-2018). Perhaps you’re willing to accept a strikeout rate around 30% for a power hitter, but that’ll prevent him from being much more than that.
  2. Schwarber’s BABIP has been uniquely terrible for so long (.261 for his career) that, as Brett discussed in the Bullets yesterday, we can no longer say he’s just been unlucky as we await natural, positive regression – especially when we can explain much of that with some combination of low speed, a very high pull rate (44.8% from 2015-2018), and the rise of the extreme shift (which works especially well against him, because of that pull rate).
  3. Schwarber’s contact rates have also been an issue. Although this is related to both #1 and #2, it’s sort of a compounding problem. Schwarber’s 72.1% contact rate before this season is among the bottom-25 in all of baseball for players with more than 1,000 plate appearances from 2015-2018. That makes strikeouts come by more often and it makes the effects of a low BABIP even worse (having a low batting average on balls in play is even worse when you don’t put many balls in play).

But things have been fundamentally better across the board (1) this season and (2) especially lately, which is leading to better production overall and even more optimism going forward.

Strikeout Rate

This season, Schwarber has by far the lowest strikeout rate of his career (25.1%), in an era when strikeout rates are on the rise. Consider what happens when we normalize his strikeout rates and compare to league average:

2019: 116 K%+
2018: 127 K%+
2017: 147 K%+

As you can see, in 2017, Schwarber was striking out 47% more than the league average hitter. In 2018, 27% more. And this season, just 16% more overall. That’s a huge improvement in his biggest area of weakness – something that’s all the easier to see visually:

Encouraging enough, but it gets even moreso when you break down this season further.

Schwarber’s 16.4% strikeout rate since the All-Star break (134 plate appearances) is an entirely different animal. On a league-average basis, that’s 24% *BETTER THAN* the league average since the break. Dude. Schwarber’s been a *contact* hitter since the break. Wut?


Schwarber actually has the worst BABIP of his career this season (.236), but that’s despite the fact that many of the underlying signals would suggest otherwise. For example, Schwarber’s 2019 line drive rate is slightly better than his career, as is his hard-hit rate. So right there, alone, you might expect it to be – at worst – about as bad as it’s ever been, when in reality it’s somehow slid down further.

But the interplay with his pull rate is what really baffles me.

Schwarber routinely faces one of the most extreme shifts in baseball, and rightfully so. He’s constantly hitting would-be line-drive singles into shallow right field, where they’re gobbled up by an overly shifted infielder. And without enough speed to beat many of those plays out, he’s thrown out at first … a lot. But look at how significantly his pull rate has changed this season:

In 2019, Schwarber is not only experiencing the lowest-lows in terms of pull rate, he also hasn’t had any spikes nearly as high as he has in the past.

Pull rate Pre-2019: 44.8%
Pull rate in 2019: 39.0%
Pull rate since ASB: 33.0%

This season, Schwarber is pulling the ball 3% less often than the league-average hitter. And since the All-Star break, it’s been 15% less.

Obviously, pulling the ball isn’t fundamentally bad – in fact, for some guys, it’s the only way to generate power – but for a big bat like Schwarber, it isn’t as necessary, especially not at the expense of his BABIP and batting average.

But here’s the thing: this dramatic drop in pull rate can help ramp his BABIP back up in two ways: (1) in the short term: more balls in play to the opposite field and up the middle should turn into more hits and (2) in the long-term: defenses will have to play him more traditionally (less of a shift), which could help when he does back-slide from time to time.

And, of course, this all leads into #3 …

Contact Rate

Before this season, as we stated above, Schwarber had one of the single lowest contact rates in all of MLB. And when you’re already struggling to turn the balls you do make contact with into hits, less contact doesn’t help. But here in 2019, Kyle Schwarber’s contact rate is up to 75.1%.

That, alone, is impressive, but it gets even better since the All-Star break: 78.1%. Again, what’s nice about making more contact is that, in general, that should lead to a few more hits (and a few less strikeouts) independent of BABIP, because there’s more balls in play to begin with.

So where does all of this lead us?

Well, to recap, Kyle Schwarber has improved this season on each of his three biggest weaknesses, and especially so lately. For the season as a whole, the production hasn’t quite met the underlying numbers just yet (103 wRC+), but things are inching closer since the All-Star break (119 wRC+).

And while experience has taught us not to simply call Schwarber “unlucky,” the data is changing on that front, too. Because at the very time he’s done a lot to address the very reasons he’s been “unlucky,” he’s gotten even unluckier (.167 BABIP since the ASB) … while also producing more than usual (119 wRC+). Think about that.

Ultimately, based on the data we see here, I’d guess we’re at the beginning of a huge offensive step forward for Kyle Schwarber. Hopefully it comes before this season is up.

Author: Michael Cerami

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