Another Case Study: Joc Pederson v. Kyle Schwarber

Kyle Schwarber gets double-duty this week. Yesterday, Mike Podhorzer discussed Kyle Schwarber’s 2016 potential. He mentions he read a post in which the author allegedly considered Schwarber in the second round of a 2016 mock draft.

I found the whole thing intriguing, primarily because we’re working with a small sample — slightly more than 150 plate appearances. I tried to draw meaningful conclusions on a comparably small sample size for Carlos Gonzalez, and now I’m pretty sure hired assassins are tracking me. Alas, what follows is not a disagreement with Pod (because his analysis is excellent) but an unauthorized biography extension of his post.

In June, I compared Joc Pederson to George Springer, two blossoming young stars to each of whom I alluded as “evolving juggernauts.” In fact, I think Schwarber is not particularly dissimilar from Pederson. With another two months of baseball in the rear-view mirror, that comparison is especially illuminating, given we’ve seen just how tumultuous Pederson’s rookie campaign has been.

In the comments of Pod’s post, a commenter, Kevin, remarked:

Does Schwarber’s low Z-contact (75%) worry anyone? Among players with 150PAs it’s bottom 10, and the names around him don’t scream safe batting average. […] Or is this just a case of looking too much into one flaw?

Yo, Kevin. I’m with you on this one.

But first, let’s start with formalities. I isolated Pederson’s first 157 plate appearances of 2015 and compared them to Schwarber’s.

Traditional Statistics
Joc Pederson 157 24 10 21 2 0.236 0.391 0.528 0.293
Kyle Schwarber 157 35 11 32 2 0.284 0.382 0.575 0.291

Through their first 157 PAs, Pederson and Schwarber generated almost identical production in terms of talent-controlled statistics: home runs (HRs), stolen bases (SBs), on-base percentage (OBP) and isolated power (ISO).

Schwarber’s batting average trumped Pederson’s by almost 50 points, but this can be attributed almost entirely to nearly 60 more points of batting average on balls in play (BABIP). (Is it sustainable? Hold that thought.) That probably explains a majority of the 11-RBI difference between the two.

Moreover, Pederson spent his first 18 starts batting out of the 8-hole, whereas Schwarber has started only five games outside the 2-hole. Again, that probably explains a majority of Schwarber’s 11-run margin, given Pederson had to rely on pitchers in the 9-hole and Jimmy Rollins at lead-off to drive him in.

Advanced and Batted Ball Statistics
BABIP K% BB% LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Hard%
Joc Pederson 0.275 28.70% 19.10% 16.50% 46.80% 36.70% 10.30% 34.50% 53.80% 40.00%
Kyle Schwarber 0.333 27.40% 12.70% 20.70% 35.90% 43.50% 5.00% 27.50% 46.70% 43.50%

Each hitter bolsters his batted ball profile a little differently. Pederson pulled the heck out of the ball but didn’t hit it in the air, nor quite as hard, as often as Schwarber has. Overall, Schwarber edges Pederson (except in on-base skills), but each of them has the batted ball profile to support big-time power.

Their plate discipline similarities are what really intrigue me.

Plate Discipline
O-Swing% O-Contact% Contact% Zone% SwStr%
Joc Pederson 26.50% 51.00% 66.20% 40.30% 14.20%
Kyle Schwarber 32.40% 57.60% 68.30% 40.90% 14.50%

Schwarber chases more often than Pederson did, although he does make a bit more contact, too. Still, they both chase(d) a lot as pitchers generally avoided the zone. Their contact (Contact%) and swinging strike (SwStr)% rates are almost identical.

Alas, Pederson, after a strong start despite shaky peripherals, crashed down to Earth, sitting on a not-horrible 23 homers, 58 runs, 47 RBI and 3 steals but also a yes-horrible .214 batting average. Naturally, the kid has regressed; his pull rate (Pull%) has dropped more than eight percentage points, his walk rate (BB%) almost three. And that’s the point I came here to make: This same kind of struggle can be reasonably expected for Schwarber, and it’s not pretty when it happens

In Pederson’s defense, he’s getting BABIPed worse than he was before. Even with a suppressed line drive rate (LD%), my xBABIP equation projects Pederson for a .293 BABIP. Then again, in defense of his current BABIP, Pederson is a lefty who hits the occasional ground ball. Still, line drive rate doesn’t correlate well year to year, so he could see a sizable boost in that department next year.

Moreover, Schwarber’s xBABIP stands at .331, almost perfectly aligning with his current .333 BABIP. However, the equation is enamored by his running (and not as much with Pederson’s), even though Kiley McDaniel grades Schwarber’s speed as below-average (and Pederson’s as at least average). And Schwarber, like Pederson, is a lefty who doesn’t spray the ball to all fields and is vulnerable to the shift.

I see Pederson’s season, where it stands now, as closer to both his and Schwarber’s floors. As it stands, ESPN ranks Pederson 66th of all outfielders. (Perhaps Schwarber is better now and long-term, but I don’t think he is profoundly so.) If Pederson were a catcher, however, his production would slot him 10th at the position, albeit comfortably above 11th-ranked A.J. Pierzynski, making him an easy top-10 catcher. (Wouldn’t that be fun, both in fantasy and real life?) Moreover, Schwarber’s current production is likely much closer to his ceiling than his average performance, what with the massive ratio of home runs to fly balls (HR/FB).

There’s also the possibility that Schwarber simply can’t sustain this kind of hot hitting through next year. Khris Davis teased us with a whopping 47.6-percent hard-hit rate (Hard%) through his first 153 plate appearances in 2013, which he followed up with a solid-but-not-quite-dominant 40.3-percent hard-hit rate in 2014. It has since dropped to 34.9 percent this year. Davis and Schwarber are not quite cut from the same cloth, but Davis’ trajectory illuminates the kinds of progressions — and digressions — that can be difficult to anticipate from young hitters.

Pod sums it up pretty well: Schwarber is basically Evan Gattis with upside, but drafting someone in the second round expecting him to performing near his ceiling is foolhardy. The striking similarities between Schwarber and Pederson gently remind us that Schwarber can, and probably will, struggle at some point, and perhaps for a prolonged period of time (or two).

The only cause for concern would depend on your league settings. So far, Schwarber has started 12 games behind the dish, which is good enough for most leagues, but he may not reach the 20-game threshold given his usage — five straight starts as the designated hitter, 12 of 13 at catcher, then 13 of 14 in left field, in that order. His value is very critically linked to his positional eligibility, so be wary if you play by some funky rules.

Were he strictly an outfielder, Schwarber would carry the Pedersonian risk of being merely average or perhaps below-average. But at catcher, he’s practically a no-doubt top-10 talent, barring injury. Thus, should he rightfully earn catcher eligibility in your league’s format, his potential struggles will be a lot more tolerable.

(P.S. I wrote this while watching Schwarber’s golden sombrero yesterday. His batting average dropped nine points.)

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Previously featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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Chicago Mark
Chicago Mark

Good stuff Alex. Please don’t rain on us Cub fans parade! You do understand we have in Schwar, Bryant, Russell and eventually Baez the top four vote getters in the 2016 MVP race. Other than that I have nothing of value to say.
But I still enjoyed the write.