Kyle Schwarber may not be allowed to squat behind the plate any longer, but he’s not about to let that stop him from squatting in the batter’s box. And no, I don’t care that it sounds weird when you read that last part aloud. A breakout rookie season that saw him set the team’s postseason home run record was followed by a mythical sophomore campaign in which Schwarber rehabbed like a demon to return for the World Series after shredding his knee in the third game of the season.
He was a folk hero before he’d accumulated 300 regular-season plate appearance, a beefy Icarus who people were encouraging to fly before he’d really even learned to run. But rather than getting too close to the sun, Schwarber only took to the air in halting bounds and could never quite escape the gravity of expectation.
So in an effort to really take off in 2019, the slugger — who looks to have bulked back up after last season’s ballyhooed weight loss — is looking to stay closer to the ground. He’s gone back to batting stance reminiscent of his days at Indiana University and coming up through the Cubs system.
“I finally said, ‘screw this,’” Schwarber told the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales of his decision to make like Lil Jon and get low. “I’m going to go back to being simple. Squat, put the foot down and go hit.”
At the risk of sounding like neanderthal anti-stats honks like Aubrey Huff, there’s a point at which too much attention can be paid to concepts like launch angle and spin rate. That isn’t to say such things aren’t important analytical tools, since they very much are, only that a hitter can’t allow them to cloud his brain at the plate. You can train with launch angle as a guideline, but shouldn’t use it as a goal when hitting.
As Mike Bryant, father of Kris and one of the leading practitioners of advanced training methods, explained to Cubs Insider last year, it’s all about getting the right feel. If you train a hitter to have a feel for proper mechanics, the results will come naturally.
Even if it wasn’t anything as specific as the loft with which he was trying to send baseballs into the bleachers, it’s obvious Schwarber was making conscious changes to his plate approach. A trial run in the leadoff spot had him looking to be more table-setter than run-producer, which resulted in him being too patient at times.
The effort to see more pitches often had him falling behind and protecting rather than attacking. He’d trust his eye so much, and for good reason, that he’d take an inordinate number of called strikes. An umpire’s call made up 29.2 percent of Schwarber’s strikes last year, nearly three points higher than in 2017 and similarly inflated over league average for 2018. He went down looking on 32.1 percent of his strikeouts, nine points higher than league average.
His thought process doesn’t bear all the blame, either, as Schwarber’s stance evolved to become more and more upright over time. It’s almost as though a more passive mental approach was being manifested in a less aggressive physical approach. Like he wasn’t quite prepared to attack when he most needed to.
“I’ve just got to get back to being myself and go out there and hit,” Schwarber explained. “I’ve just got to stop worrying about the different kinds of pitches and just try to get there. I couldn’t get to that pitch [with a more upright stance]. So I’m going back to doing what I used to do.”
I don’t know about you, but I dig everything about this. Some might hear a masher talking about trying to get less cerebral at the plate and think he’s just going to sacrifice contact for power. With Schwarber, however, we could see a guy who’s not going to be content to watch as many hittable pitches go by early in counts.
If he’s able to get those looking-strike numbers more in line with the league average, it means more swings and probably more contact. And that means more dingers. Please excuse me while I wipe the drool from my keyboard.