Theo Epstein set the bar pretty high when he likened Kyle Schwarber’s ceiling to future Hall of Famer David Ortiz, to say nothing of the comps to Babe Ruth. But since the Cubs set those expectations, which Schwarber reinforced with his postseason performances in 2015 and ’16, everyone has waited for the slugger to make that one adjustment.
Now it appears as though Schwarber may have finally made that adjustment.
In a change from his previous approach, the would-be linebacker has begun blitzing fastballs back up the middle and to the opposite field. Earlier in the season, Schwarber was hitting most fastballs to the pull side, as illustrated by the predictive zone chart below (more green means more oppo batted balls). But since the start of August, Schwarber is hitting inside pitches more up the middle and outside pitches more to the opposite field.
Schwarber’s ability to pound fastballs to left and center has made him the most valuable Cubs hitter since the trade deadline not named Nicholas Castellanos. This adjustment is a HUGE deal. So is this just a matter of approach or are there any noticeable mechanical adjustments that prompted this newfound ability to go oppo?
Castellanos has a 1.081 OPS since joining the Cubs on Aug 1. Since July 28, Schwarber has a 1.096 OPS. They get to it in different ways — Castellanos is more average driven while Schwarber will work an at-bat and take walks — but both have been highly productive the last month.
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) September 4, 2019
Schwarber has frequently tinkered with his swing since making his MLB debut, never quite finding that sweet spot. After being sent down to Triple-A in 2017, he adopted a more upright batting stance with less pre-pitch hand movement. He gradually decreased that movement throughout the 2018 season and has gone back and forth with a deeper crouch and hand placement this season. Clearly, he has been searching for comfort.
As you may be able to see in the GIFs below, Schwarber appears to have made another adjustment to that pre-pitch hand movement. In the first half of the season, his hands started close to his “ready position” just before he initiated his swing. In other words, Schwarber had minimal hand movement. Look at the hands below from a May homer. See how the bat doesn’t move much before the swing?
Recently, however, Schwarber changed his hand placement back to his shoulder and actually increased the pre-pitch movement of his bat. There’s a point at which that can be detrimental, but his hands just look looser and the bat is flying through the strike zone with a lightning-quick whip motion.
It’s not immediately obvious if you’re not looking for it, but pay close attention to those hands.
Schwarber has consistently hit pitches harder than 95% of his colleagues this season, but his overall offensive production prior August were essentially league average. That’s probably because he was pulling the ball more and getting eaten alive by defensive shifts. But now that he’s blasting pitches to the opposite field with more whip-like hand action, his numbers have never been better (.432 wOBA last 102 PA).
I know we have to wait to see how Schwarber’s numbers look in a larger sample size, but I have a good feeling that this might be the adjustment that gets him to the next level. It couldn’t have come at a better time.