When I saw that DraftKings was doing a +200 odds boost for any player to hit a home run in tonight’s Cubs-Rockies game, my heart immediately pointed to Frank Schwindel. After all, it’s Coors Field, there’s a lefty on the mound who gives up more than his fair share of long balls to right-handed hitters, and we’re talking about Frank the Tank, right?
Easy heart decision, right?
Eh … not so much. Not yet, at least. My mind needed to take over.
Frank has not quite been The Tank yet this season, beginning the year with just four hits (all singles) and two walks over his first 19 plate appearances. It’s kinda silly to use stats this early in the season, when one good game can flip the script, but just for reference that’s a 67 wRC+, despite a .333 batting average on balls in play.
But that’s not the only reason I didn’t make the bet. I had also just read Dan Szymborski’s latest at FanGraphs, where Frank Schwindel was counted among the eight most likely bust candidates of 2022. It gave me additional momentary pause.
This isn’t about the narrative around a guy who has a late, small-sample breakout like Schwindel – we know that guys with that profile suddenly becoming quality big leaguers is really rare. Instead, this is just about the data. Using, among other things, some translations of his Minor League performances, Szymborski revealed the ZiPS projection percentiles for Schwindel (i.e. the range of likelihood for his projected outcomes). And the overwhelmingly thrust of the data is pretty clear: an above average offensive performance, relative to his position, is extremely unlikely this season:
Last season, the average first baseman slashed .254/.334/.443 with a 110 wRC+. But according to Szymborski’s projections, Schwindel is going to finish the season under that level of production with 60% certainty. And it would require Schwindel hitting his 70th percentile outcome just about match it.
… Schwindel’s résumé as a hitter is very, very short. Just two years before his 2021 debut, he was released after struggling for Triple-A Omaha. He went unclaimed on waivers, and when he signed with the Tigers, they put him down in Double-A, where he still didn’t hit, posting just a .700 OPS. Detroit only called him up to Toledo because Dustin Peterson hurt his elbow.
Two years later, he was enjoying his best minor league season, with a .992 OPS for Triple-A Las Vegas, when he was claimed on waivers by the Cubs. He got an opportunity because of the Anthony Rizzo trade almost by default, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’d love if Schwindel was a starter for the Cubs for the next five years. But his breakout came at age 29, not 22, and one can’t ignore his minor league history.
Given that he’s not a master glovesman at first (though there does seem to be some improvement there), that’s just not a very productive player to have in the heart of your order and at that particular position. The Cubs don’t have a ton of obvious answers waiting in the wings, but, yeah, it’s just important to keep this context in mind.
Now, with all that said, I don’t think we need to hit the escape hatch just yet. Schwindel has had a slow start, yes, but that included games against Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, two of the toughest righties in the NL.
Something to keep an early eye on:
2021 O-Swing%: 33.9%
2022 O-Swing%: 45.8%
2021 Zone%: 48.1%
2022 Zone%: 44.8%
In other words, Schwindel is swinging at a LOT more non-strikes, so pitchers are already throwing fewer pitches in the zone. And because his O-Contact rate is actually UP this season (making more contact on non-strikes), he’s generating too much weak contact overall — 86 MPH average exit velocity, and WAY too much of it on the ground (75% ground ball rate, 3.5 degree launch angle).
Again, it’s too early to use the discipline/batted ball stats to come to forward-looking conclusions, but I think this illustrates the APPROACH opposing pitchers are using against Schwindel and why it could be working. So what’s his way out? Well, to start, we should hope to see him become a little more selective at the plate. Start spitting on pitches out of the zone, even if you’re forced to take some extra strikes in the process. From there, hopefully, pitchers are forced back into the zone more often, where Schwindel can do more damage.
If he’s able to accomplish that first step, effectively changing the book on Frank Schwindel, I think he’ll have a better chance of avoiding the “bust” potential Szymborski’s data laid out.
(Brett: Also, for what it’s worth, it’s not like these risks are brand new reveals – there was a whole lot in the underlying data last year that gave you reason to question whether Schwindel could keep succeeding at a high level coming into this season. I *want* Schwindel to succeed for so many obvious reasons, and I think there are ways he can do it without being nearly the guy he was last year. But, as Michael said, it’s going to have to start with organizing the strike zone a bit more now that pitchers are adjusting to him.)