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April’s Cubs player to watch: Kyle Schwarber

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The Cubs slugger has turned it around in 2018.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

April was a wild month of baseball for the Chicago Cubs. The vaunted starting pitching staff struggled before it dazzled. Javier Baez is on a torrid pace at the plate. If it continues, he’s a viable MVP candidate. Albert Almora Jr. is routinely putting on a clinic with his defense in center field. The Cubs’ bullpen is exactly as good as I anticipated over the off season as each arm was signed.

There have been a few pieces written on all of the above, both here at Bleed Cubbie Blue and elsewhere. Today, however, I wanted to try something a bit different. So this will be the inaugural edition of a monthly series where I dig into the peripherals and find something that is hiding a bit.

We’re going to kick off April with some really encouraging offensive numbers for Kyle Schwarber.

The Promise: 2015-2016

Kyle Schwarber and his prodigious bat arrived in the major leagues on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland. He only played one inning in that game and his lone at bat was a strikeout, but the next night went much better as he was four for five with two RBIs and a triple.

He also treated us to moonshots like this towering home run off of the Cardinals’ Kevin Siegrist in Game Four of the 2015 National League Division Series [VIDEO].

2016 and 2017 didn’t exactly go according to plan.

During the third game of 2016 Schwarber collided with Dexter Fowler and tore multiple ligaments in his knee. Most experts assumed he wouldn’t return that year. While his World Series comeback in Cleveland is the stuff of legends (he slashed .412/.500/.471) and no Cubs fan in their right mind would change 2016, one of the unanswered questions of that season was: “What would a healthy Kyle Schwarber have accomplished?

The Struggle: 2017

Schwarber’s 2017 was not a the answer to that question that either he or the Cubs were looking for. The main cause doesn’t really matter. It could have been any number of things. Maybe it was the pressure of batting leadoff. Maybe it was too much exposure to lefties. Maybe the league adjusted. I actually think there is a better explanation than any of these a bit later in the piece. Whatever it was, by the third week of June Schwarber was batting .171 and was sent to Triple-A. He recovered nicely in the second half, as you can see from the first half/second half slash lines for Schwarber from Fangraphs (note: their “half” ends on July 10, so this includes a few games after Schwarber returned from Iowa.)

Kyle Schwarber’s 2017

First Half .178 .300 .394 13.7 28.2
Second Half .253 .339 .559 10.0 34.4
Career .227 .334 .484 12.8 29.3
2017 Kyle Schwarber by half compared to career Fangraphs compiled by Sara Sanchez

That second half included 17 home runs and frankly, this is exactly what a lot of people projected Schwarber would do in the major leagues. The K/9 is higher than his career average of 29.3 percent and the walk rate is lower than his career 12.8 percent, but it really isn’t that far off from projections.

I think most people would have been satisfied with those numbers for 2018. Kyle Schwarber had other ideas.

The Resurgence: 2018

Kyle Schwarber spent the 2018 off season getting into the best shape of his life. His diet and exercise regime were well covered by baseball media. It’s already paid off on the basepaths a bit, although the defense in left field is still a work in progress.

Schwarber’s 2018 offensive numbers, however, are a real revelation. Here is the above chart updated with Kyle’s 2018 numbers to date:

Kyle Schwarber Compared

First Half .178 .300 .394 13.7 28.2
Second Half .253 .339 .559 10.0 34.4
2018 to date .272 .379 .593 14.7 24.2
Career .227 .334 .484 12.8 29.3
Kyle Schwarber’s 2017, 2018 and Career Fangraphs Compiled by Sara Sanchez

This offensive profile is at the higher end of Schwarber’s projections and pretty much everything looks better. The walk rate is up, the K rate is way down. He’s hitting for a higher average and more power. It’s worth looking at a possible explanations for how he made these changes. Keep in mind that it’s probably a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. There is also a high likelihood that something else is also going on behind the scenes.

Explanation 1: Joe Maddon is limiting Schwarber’s exposure to lefties

Kyle Schwarber’s struggles against left-handed batters have been discussed before. His numbers are still pretty radically different.

Schwarber’s L/R splits

2018 Lefties 18 .067 .222 .133 16.7 33.3
2018 Righties 77 .318 .416 .697 14.3 22.1
Career Lefties 112 .150 .266 .294 13.6 37.9
Career Righties 210 .247 .352 .534 12.6 27.1
Comparing Kyle Schwarber’s L/R splits for 2018 and career Fangraphs Compiled by Sara Sanchez

There are two differences I really want to look at here. First, Schwarber has actually been worse against left handed pitching in 2018 versus his career averages. He’s also substantially less exposed to them. Whereas about a third of his plate appearances over his career have been against left handed pitching, this year so far only 19 percent of his plate appearances have been against lefties.

Second, Schwarber has been substantially better against right handed pitching this year than his career averages.

Another note, his walk rate is up and his K rate is down against both right handed and left handed pitching. This actually suggests that in addition to exposure there is also a change in approach, which we’ll look at in the next session.

Explanation 2: Schwarber abandoned the launch angle revolution

Launch angle is everywhere and seems to have been all the rage in the last few years. Daniel Murphy cited it as instrumental in the radical change in his offensive numbers, Josh Donaldson highlighted it on a frequently viewed MLB Network clip. Hitting the ball up, even if it increases K rates substantially, is the trend.

However, for some players adjusting swings for launch angle may have messed up a pretty good thing. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci took a look at this, specifically as it relates to Kyle Schwarber, I highly recommend you read the whole thing, but I’ll highlight some clips and stats that he pulls out:

This is the story of Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber. It may surprise you—and it certainly surprised Chicago executives, who upon drafting him, foresaw him putting up “Big Papi” numbers—to know that last year Schwarber was the worst fastball hitter in baseball.

The worst.

Schwarber hit .212 against four-seam and two-seam fastballs and sinkers, the worst batting average among any player with 200 such results.

To give you an idea of the company he was in, Mike Napoli and Darwin Barney both hit .214 against fastballs. I never thought I’d see the day where I was comparing Kyle Schwarber to Darwin Barney. Yikes.

How did the next David Ortiz become Darwin Barney? The answer may surprise you. Verducci reports that it may have been launch angle. Which Maddon spent time in spring training de-emphasizing, instead, stressing that players swing through the ball and use the whole field. Schwarber clearly took this to heart and it’s working wonders, as you can see from the next two charts, both from the SI piece:

Kyle Schwarber Launch Angle and K rate by year
Sports Illustrated
Kyle Schwarber v. Fastballs
Sports Illustrated

Those numbers speak for themselves.

The results do as well. Now, a couple of notes, as you might expect with a lower launch angle, the line drive and fly ball rate is down and the ground ball rate is up. However, interestingly, Kyle Schwarber’s HR/FB rate so far in 2018 is higher than at any point in his professional career as you can see below:

Kyle Schwarber Batted Ball by Year

Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Launch Angle
Season LD% GB% FB% HR/FB Launch Angle
2015 17.3 40.4 42.3 24.2 16.0
2017 15.2 38.3 45.5 24.0 17.8
2018 13.8 53.4 32.8 36.8 8.0
Schwarber LD, GB, FB, and HR/FB percentages by season Fangraphs Compiled by Sara Sanchez

Maddon explains in the Verducci piece that he thinks playing around with launch angle should be a last resort. I have a related, but slightly different hypothesis. For players who are already absolutely scorching the ball like Schwarber a hard hit ground ball can be as effective as a line drive. Either way, Verducci is onto something when he reports that its made Schwarber a more effective hitter in 2018. And that’s why he’s the inaugural BCB player to watch.