You Wrote Off Kyle Schwarber Too Soon

Well, maybe not you, specifically. The royal you. The editorial.

Kyle Schwarber has had himself a pretty dang good season so far. It’s exactly what I needed. Having just inherited my first ottoneu team — a relatively downtrodden 9th-place team (of 12) — and hardly knowing the rules, I took a gamble and traded a $12 Jon Gray for a $6 Patrick Corbin, a $7 Willie Calhoun, a $3 Jake Junis, and a $20 Schwarber. I liked every piece of the trade (although I, now regretfully, cut Junis during spring training, not really understanding the dynamics of the draft, my finances, or of ottoneu generally). But acquiring Schwarber at his relatively exorbitant price given his 2017 season was a risky proposition, especially after a summer of these headlines:

I wanted to put my money where my mouth was (I wrote Schwarber’s player caption/capsule/”cap” this year). To me, the criticism was overblown. Schwarber hit 30 home runs without qualifying for the batting title and produced at a league-average rate while batting a Mendozian .211. He was a 2-WAR player — not elite, obviously, but not the discarded remains of Albert Pujols, either — but he was a far cry from his 4.5-WAR pace during his (small sample!) debut. If anything, I was witnessing a severe case of communal fantasy whiplash.

So what if I were to tell you I have a list of hitters with only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Schwarber on it, with real criteria for why they’re on the list and everything. How would that make you feel?

In bulleted form, the criteria:

  • K% < 24%
  • BB% > 17%
  • ISO > .240

Only Trout, Harper, and Schwarber are actively accomplishing this feat. The list hardly expands even after significantly relaxing the constraints. (Side note: Trout and Harper have ISO marks of .337 and .301, respectively. Schwarber shares this list with them, but only nominally. He essentially has the second tier all to himself.)

Maybe it’s small sample magic. Besides, anyone can hit like a god for a quarter of a season — just ask 22-year-old Schwarber himself. But he is doing a lot of things right at the quarter pole. At the risk of exhausting my annual ration of bulleted lists, here are all the metrics for which Schwarber currently owns his best career-best 38-game rolling rates:

  • K%: 23.7%
    • SwStr%: 9.2%
  • BB%: 17.8%
    • O-Swing% (Pitch Info): 23.5%

All of these things at which Schwarber is doing the best for any 38-game span of his career are happening simultaneously. He is contemporaneously whiffing least often and chasing the fewest bad pitches of any prolonged stretch of games in his career, resulting in his best plate discipline (by K% and BB%) without sacrificing his plus power. Maybe Schwarber has caught lightning in a bottle, but in a series of small samples, he has whittled down his whiff rates against four-seamers, curves, and cutters into the single-digits. Sliders have always given him fits, but he’s learning to lay off the bad ones and is making contact more frequently against the ones in the zone, where they count.

Maybe Schwarber has simply become more passive: his rolling overall swing rate (Swing%) is also the lowest of his career. Passivity can be good or bad, depending on who’s in the batter’s box, but it appears to have augmented his overall approach.

Schwarber is, by no means, a perfect hitting specimen, even as he shows remarkable and critical growth. His rolling 30.7% fly ball rate (FB%) is, again, a career-low. Everything has been taken to an extreme, it seems, and it has cost him a significant chunk of his typical home run rate. It’s a harmful result for fantasy owners.

But, at the expense of home runs, Schwarber is on pace to post a 5-WAR season — better than his lauded 2015 debut — thanks to what is currently a career-best 136 wRC+. A .250 average is nothing to write home about (better than .211 though, am I right), but his .385 OBP ranks 23rd among players with 150-plus plate appearances. Only three players ahead of him have a sub-.300 BABIPs like he does. Extrapolating performance is a dangerous game, but nothing about his outcomes so far suggest to me we should fundamentally doubt them, given the underlying skills.

At this point, it’s reasonable to believe Schwarber won’t ever be a high-BABIP guy despite running up an insane .384 mark in the minors (albeit in only 665 plate appearances). The line drive rate (LD%) has yet to show up, too, and he pops up a lot. All told, he fits the high-power, low-BABIP mold. However, it was still probably unwise to write him off after a .244 BABIP ravaged his sophomore campaign. He’s a low-BABIP guy, sure, but a true-talent .244 BABIP guy? Let’s reconsider.

Schwarber, essentially at his worst, was a league-average hitter with 40-homer power. Now, he’s an above-average hitter with somewhat stifled power potential as long as his launch angle remains shallower. He is certifiably very good, even if he’s occasionally a botch job in the outfield (R.I.P. in peace, dreams of resuming his catcher duties). The plate discipline has improved, and if I’m being honest with you, I’m optimistic the fly ball rate improves without sacrificing his other gains. If there’s a Kyle Schwarber who can hit, say, 36% fly balls while still striking out and walking 25% and 15% of the time, respectively, we will have a very, very good hitter on our hands. He’s still hacktastic against lefties, but he has improved even in that regard, albeit very slightly and in a microscopic sample size.

I await the very-very-good version of Schwarber patiently. Of course, it’s possible this all evaporated as soon as the ink dries. Maybe it is all a pleasant coincidence of really good things happening at once, of which Schwarber has no control. I always talk about how player performance ebbs and flows; maybe I’m being shortsighted and this is all a mirage. (There are a lot of maybes in here. Analysis ain’t so cut-and-fried.) Color me hopeful.

Regardless of if he sustains this approach adjustment, skinny Schwarby will, until further notice, do things like inhabit lists shared only by perhaps the two most talented baseball players on the planet. If you’re still holding a grudge against Schwarber for last year, it might be time to let go.

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. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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4 years ago

The editorial “us” bought in too hard too early. If you have to suffer through multiple years to get one – is that a positive? Sure, buying this year looks good so far, but his price was maybe 25% of what it used to be. It was paying top dollar several years ago that was perceived as a bad move – and it was.

4 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

This. Most people are in dynasty leagues and have salvaged SOME value out of him. But based on 3 years he has barely broken even for most of us.

4 years ago
Reply to  southie

To be fair: prospect development isn’t linear and he missed a huge chunk of time due to a freak accident.

Also part of the continued valuation weirdness was due to him being Yahoo catcher eligible.

This article seemed to be addressing his current value, which is higher than it was at the start of the season, which would indicate that people gave up on him (thus causing the devaluation).