Ed. note: I opted against Corey Freedman’s suggested title of Hey, Schwarber Haters, Suck on This, but please know that I hope the following will express that same sentiment with just a tad more decorum.
As a rookie, Kyle Schwarber set a Cubs postseason record with five home runs, two of which deflated opponents’ souls just as they pumped up a modern-day legend. It feels like forever ago that he blasted one tater into the Allegheny River and another onto the top of the video board in right field at Wrigley. But it kinda feels like yesterday at the same time. I guess that’s how legends work.
In keeping with colleagues like Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and Sir Lancelot, Schwarber came back from a devastating knee injury early in the season to DH in the World Series. Oh, and did you hear that he raked against the Indians? You may not have, since, you know, it’s kind of been one of the more little-known aspects of the Cubs’ first title in 108 years. Which reminds me: The Cubs actually won the World Series. People, they forget that.
Whether it was a consequence of hubris as with so many other heroes, War Bear’s humanity has been very much on display this season. There was the anemic batting average, which, while still viewed by far too many as an accurate indicator of performance, was really bad early on. Even for the most statistically enlightened onlooker, a slash line of .171/.295/.378 is not good.
Nor is a wRC+ of 77 that indicates Schwarber was 23 percent worse than the average hitter when it came to creating runs. He was taking pitches and drawing enough walks to boost his OBP more than 120 points higher than his average, but the power wasn’t there. He was fighting himself at the plate and just didn’t look like the uber-confident hitter we’d seen in the past. So he went down to Iowa.
The stay was a short one, so much so that even an unapologetic Schwarber honk like me thought he needed more than 44 AAA plate appearances. And yet, all he’s done since is go .256/.339/.568 with a 132 wRC+ that tells us he’s been 32 percent better than the average hitter when it comes to creating runs. He’s striking more more frequently and walking less, but the increased power is well worth the tradeoff.
Folks, this is a prime example of how using a season-long stat like batting average to understand how a player is doing right now is a grievous error. By that I mean that it’s incredibly ignorant to ask why I’m going to advocate for having a “.211 hitter” in the lineup all the time. Why? BECAUSE SCHWARBER IS NOT A .211 HITTER. Not now. And even if he was, that’s not why he needs to be in there.
In fact, only five players* from among MLB’s top 122 second-half home run hitters logged fewer plate appearances than Schwarber since the break.
Schwarber ended with 30 home runs, 17 of which came in the second half of the season. A look at the leaderboard tells us that that total ties him for 15th in MLB since the break, which isn’t all that impressive in and of itself. Until you realize that no player hit as many homers as Schwarber with fewer than the Cubs slugger’s 209 plate appearances (Rhys Hoskins was closest with 18 in 212). In fact, only five players* from among MLB’s top 122 second-half home run hitters logged fewer plate appearances than Schwarber since the break.
Extrapolated out to the 300-PA level of a typical everyday power hitter, Schwarber would have hit 24 or 25 homers, right there with Josh Donaldson (24). His 32.1 percent home run-per-fly ball rate ranks fifth in baseball in the second half and his 44.3 hard-hit percentage is eighth. He’s missed plenty of balls too, as evidenced by the 14.5 percent swinging-strike rate that is higher than all but 12 of the 193 batters who’ve made at least 200 plate appearances in the second half. Then you have the 18.9 percent infield fly ball rate that is higher than all but six of those players.
Simply put, he has been one of the best hitters on this team and he’s the one most capable of impacting the game with a single swing.
You know what, though? I’ll take the high probability of mishits and strikeouts when the power potential is so blatantly obvious. Schwarber is among the Cubs’ top four run producers in the second half, he’s second in slugging, and leads the team in ISO. Simply put, he has been one of the best hitters on this team and he’s the one most capable of impacting the game with a single swing.
And just in case you’ve been holding onto your “But his defense” trump card and feel like playing it at this point, I’ll have to ask that you kindly refrain from showing your hindquarters thusly. Which is to say, “Hey, haters, suck on this.”
Turns out the man some keep trying to describe as a butcher in the outfield has been anything but. His overall defensive rating of -0.5 on FanGraphs might look pretty average, but it ranks sixth among all left fielders with at least 500 innings played. His 3.8 UZR ranks seventh and his 8.4 UZR/150 (which is the the earlier number standardized to 150 games) ranks sixth. His range isn’t great and he only rates out middle of the pack in that regard, but his arm sits atop the list.
So let’s see, we’ve got a guy who’s mashing with the best of ’em and who has actually been a really solid defensive outfielder. And that’s before we factor in the general badass swagger and the capability of crushing soul-rending bombs.
Schwarber has yet to face either Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg in his career, but he absolutely needs to be in there against both of them. With the pressure cooker of playoff baseball putting runs at a premium, the Cubs can’t afford to leave their biggest release valve on the bench.
*Rhys Hoskins – 18 (212); Luis Valbuena – 16 (204); Mike Napoli – 11 (202); Ian Happ – 11 (208); Mitch Haniger – 9 (200)