Is Kyle Schwarber Really That Bad Defensively? (Hint: No…Well, at Least Not Awful)

We all knew what was going to follow Kyle Schwarber muffing and then fumbling that fly ball in Game 3 of the NLDS. Right on cue, cameras panned straight to the dejected left fielder’s eyes. And for the rest of the game, War Bear’s defensive (in)ability was a focal point for the TBS broadcast because, well, of course.

It hasn’t helped that Schwarber’s biggest defensive blunders have come on the national stage. In the 2015 NLCS against the Mets, he made two other mishaps. Just like in this year’s NLDS, the announcers pounced on the opportunity to dramatize the slugger’s defensive woes.

Putting aside sensationalized broadcasts, how does Schwarber’s defense actually grade?

Defensive metrics, though useful, are fraught with limitations. The biggest problem canonical defensive scores share is that the numbers don’t account for team shifts and batted-ball type. Important data is missing in the algorithms, which is why Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) — FanGraph’s core defensive value input for WAR — takes roughly a season and a half for 50 percent of randomness to be ruled out.

Other commonly cited defensive scores, such as defensive runs saved (DRS), share the same limitations. And players improve consistently in the field, too, making it even harder to accurately quantify their worth.

Schwarber illustrates these limitations too perfectly. For instance, the outfielder had a UZR/150 (which is UZR scaled to 150 games played) of 7.5 this season, but also had a -9 DRS. Gold Glovers typically sport UZR/150 scores of 15, while the league’s worst defenders typically have DRS scores of -10 or so. See how weird defensive numbers are?

To overcome the shortcomings of traditional metrics, the fine folks at MLBAM created a new stat using Statcast data called “Outs Above Average.” This modern metric correlates exit velocity, launch angle, and batted location to outs recorded. This way, we can calculate catch probability of every single batted-ball event and quantify how many outs a fielder records. While Outs Above Average (OAA) is still imperfect, it theoretically captures a defender’s skill with greater sensitivity.

As a point of reference, Byron Buxton led MLB with an OAA of 25 and Jason Heyward was eighth-best with 11 outs above average. Schwarber’s OAA of -8 ranked sixth-worst among qualified outfielders last year.

Every single batted ball that had a 91-95 percent catch probability were caught by Schwarber, while all other chances were only caught 22 percent of the time.

Lack of range is the primary reason Schwarber graded poorly, but it doesn’t mean he’s hopeless as an outfielder. Though the former catcher has a harder time getting to well-struck balls, he will catch the balls hit within close vicinity. For instance, Schwarber caught every batted ball with a 91-95 percent catch probability, while all other chances were only caught 22 percent of the time. And so, in one sense, we could argue that Schwarber is fundamentally sound as an outfielder.

I get that his OAA score doesn’t look pretty, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Schwarber improves defensively. While he might never be able to get to those low-chance outs, improving awareness could help him get to more balls with a catch probability of 76-90 percent. Just that growth alone could boost Schwarber’s OAA to acceptable (though still probably below-average) ranges.

…any marginal defensive improvement puts Schwarber into Mike Trout and Bryce Harper’s defensive territory, at least according to OAA.

This is where it’s important to consider that War Bear doesn’t have to be a good or even average defender. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper shared the same -4 OAA in 2017. Even Andrew Benintendi, who has been lauded as an athletic phenom, had a -7 score last season.

You’re right that Schwarber isn’t the best defender. But he’s going to catch the balls hit close to him, which is probably why he has that decent UZR/150 mentioned earlier. Keep in mind, too, that even marginal defensive improvement puts Schwarber into Trout/Harper defensive territory, at least according to OAA. And if the hulking slugger’s post-Iowa numbers continue for a full season, defensive value will be an afterthought.

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