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Kyle Schwarber, prototypical leadoff masher

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The Cubs leadoff experiment may be over

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs
Kyle Schwarber at bat during the Cardinals series
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Since Dexter Fowler left Chicago and signed with the St. Louis Cardinals the Cubs have lacked a traditional leadoff hitter. Various people have stepped into the role with different skill sets including Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward and of course the “Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time” Anthony Rizzo. And, then of course, there was the other most prominent leadoff experiment: the 2017 Kyle Schwarber experiment.

The 2017 Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment was stunningly unsuccessful. It was such a poor fit for the Cubs young slugger that it caught me by surprise and ended with Schwarber in Triple-A. In fact, full disclosure, I’ve been sitting on this title and this draft for two and a half years now, because I was sure this would work, but it didn’t. Every few months Al goes through the editorial queue and asks me if I am ever actually going to finish this piece.

Today is the day. Part two of the Great Kyle Schwarber at leadoff experiment is upon us and we are far enough in now that I’m prepared to call it a success. The age of the prototypical leadoff masher is here, and it’s going to be incredible.

What makes a great leadoff hitter?

After the stunning success of the Rizzo experiment I did a bit of a deep dive into the leadoff hitter and what he brought to the table in that role despite being an unconventional fit for it. I concluded pretty quickly that the conventional wisdom about leadoff hitters isn’t the whole story and the “typical” leadoff hitter is largely a myth:

Expanded leadoff hitters comparison

Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Player BR Rank 1 BR Rank 2 OBP SLG SB K% BB%
Rickey Henderson 1 1 .401 .419 1406 12.7 16.4
Pete Rose 2 3 .375 .409 198 7.2 9.9
Ichiro Suzuki 3 5 .355 .404 508 6.0 10.1
Kenny Lofton 4 9 .372 .423 622 9.1 10.2
Lou Brock 5 4 .343 .410 938 15.4 6.8
Craig Biggio 6 10 .363 .433 414 14.0 9.3
Tim Raines 7 2 .385 .425 808 9.3 12.8
Maury Wills 8 11 .330 .331 586 8.2 6.6
Vince Coleman 9 19 .324 .345 752 16.1 8.0
Willie Wilson 10 13 .326 .376 668 13.8 5.1
Wade Boggs NR 8 .415 .443 24 6.9 13.1
Paul Molitor NR 6 .369 .448 504 10.2 9.0
Juan Pierre NR 18 .343 .361 614 5.8 5.6
Alfonso Soriano NR 20 .319 .500 289 21.5 5.9
Expanded leadoff hitters comparison Fangraphs - Bleacher Report

Basically, the image we all have of a leadoff “type” is a bit flawed. Great leadoff hitters do a few of these things well, even if they aren’t great at all of them. As I wrote in 2017:

Even the great Rickey Henderson has a category where he’s not in the top half of this list, but he clearly made up for his higher (relative to this list) K% with an exceptional BB%, OBP and SLG (not to mention being the all-time leader in steals).

What is Schwarber doing?

I want to be really clear here, I don’t think Kyle Schwarber is Rickey Henderson, but I do think he’s doing some things that are interesting in his new home at the top of the Cubs order. Let’s take a look at some basic stats below:

Kyle Schwarber batting stats

Year G PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Year G PA HR BB% K% BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2015 69 273 16 13.2% 28.2% .293 .246 .355 .487 131
2017 129 486 30 12.1% 30.9% .244 .211 .315 .467 103
2017 Leadoff 37 173 7 13.9% 27.7% .228 .190 .312 .381 83
2018 137 510 26 15.3% 27.5% .288 .238 .356 .467 115
2019 63 263 15 12.9% 27.4% .270 .238 .335 .484 109
2019 Leadoff 27 125 10 11.2% 28.8% .262 .252 .328 .589 130
Select stats by year and batting order Fangraphs

The first thing that jumped out at me was that 2019 leadoff Schwarber looks a lot like an unluckier version of 2015 Schwarber when he burst onto the Cubs with 16 home runs in 69 games. He’s walking slightly less, but hitting for more power.

But honestly, it was this tweet that made my eyes pop out of my head and decide to write this piece today, because Kyle Schwarber is absolutely destroying baseballs:

You are not reading that wrong. Over the last 16 games when Schwarber makes contact he is hitting the ball hard. A lot. He’s only had a single softly-hit ball in 72 plate appearances. That’s ridiculous, and I wanted to know more so I headed over to baseball savant and saw this:

Schwarber 2019 rankings
Baseball Savant

Schwarber’s exit velocity and hard hit rate in 2019 aren’t just good, they are elite. He’s in the 95th percentile for exit velocity and the 97th percentile for hard hit rate. Below you can get a better idea of the company he’s keeping in the leader boards, first up average exit velocity:

Top 20 players average exit velocity 2019
Baseball Savant

Next up, hard hit rate:

Top 20 players hard hit rate 2019
Baseball Savant

These lists read like a who’s who of MVP candidates, All Star candidates and potential rookies of the year. Frankly, I probably should have filtered it to at least 100 batted ball events to limit out some of the smaller sample size noise. Schwarber only looks better if you do that.

Is this sustainable?

Which brings us to the crux of the issue: Can Schwarber keep doing what he’s doing in 2019 and would the real Kyle Schwarber please stand up? I’m cautiously optimistic here because the underlying numbers indicate that if anything Schwarber has been unlucky in 2019 and he’s been unlucky since moving to the leadoff spot.

Schwarber’s BABIP at leadoff is .262 which is slightly below his career average of .271, but honestly that career average is being dragged down by an abysmal 2017 BABIP of .244, in other words, his numbers should be higher. Statcast data at Baseball Savant backs that up, you can see Schwarber’s expected stats below:

Expected stats by year
Baseball Savant

Incredibly, those are season to date estimates, which means Schwarber’s expected batting average and slugging at leadoff would be better than .270 and .524.

Schwarber still strikes out at a rate that gives me pause for this role, and I completely agree with this on-point analysis from Evan Altman at Cubs Insider on Kyle’s maddening tendency to look at strike three. However, there is some real promise in the underlying numbers for Schwarber’s second extended stint in the leadoff role. When his luck finally starts to shift he could be an absolute terror at the top of the lineup for the Chicago Cubs.