Lately, everyone has been telling you that Kyle Schwarber is hot and that he is a great leadoff hitter for the Cubs. He’s en fuego right now — even hit another bomb Monday night — and he’s maybe the best he’s ever looked. Well, except when he looked at strike three from old pal Wade Davis to end the game.
Despite that backwards K, Schwarber has been locked in for a while. It’s actually been most of the season, it just may not have seemed like it if you were just following stats. The box score is still the source of truth for most, but you can’t always look at numbers because they lie.
You look at a guy who sports a .238 average and you say, “He’s not a very good hitter.” Don’t look at the average or the strikeouts, or even the “clutch” stats when trying to decipher just exactly who Schwarber is as a hitter. The numbers you should be looking at are these: 34 walks, 34 runs, 40.4% hard-contact rate, 31.5% opposite-field rate, and 95 mph average exit velocity (higher than Christian Yelich now).
Does Schwarber sometimes strike out a little too much? Sure. Does he sometimes pass up good pitches early in the count and get himself in two-strike holes? Absolutely. Has he watched too many called third strikes without looking to put them in play? Unfortunately, he did this to end the game last night and the Twitterverse was sending him back to Triple-A in the middle of the hottest hitting of his career.
But what he has also been doing this year is hitting balls very hard and approaching the art and science of hitting as a master painter with his paint palette fully stocked. Fans just have to realize you can’t always appreciate the art superficially. Sometimes you get Claude Monet and sometimes you get Jackson Pollock.
What I mean is that Schwarber can’t be judged by normal counting stats or even advanced stats on their own. He is at his very best when he’s being patient and using the power he has in spades to spray balls all over the field. He gets crippled by the shift as a power-hitting lefty, so his ability to rake the other way and find holes in a defense designed to make him fail is paramount.
Sometimes this works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but the best way to swing the odds in your favor against the big bad shift is to hit the ball with authority where guys aren’t, including into the seats. Schwarber has done this, posting a career-high opposite-field hitting rate with the help of a more squatty stance that allows him to be short to the ball and go the other way with more gusto.
His approach has also enabled him to flip the narrative that he can’t hit lefties, something many believed would be more likely to happen when/if he got regular at bats against them. Forcing Joe Maddon to leave him in the lineup on a daily basis regardless of pitcher (and the move to the leadoff spot) has allowed Schwarber to settle into a comfortable spot for, quite literally, the first time since he occupied the two-hole behind Dexter Fowler during his rookie year. This has allowed him to better balance his approach to weather a few scuffles along the way, ultimately rewarding Maddon and the Cubs with his monster performance thus far in June.
Maddon said after Sunday’s game that this is the best he’s ever seen Schwarber, which is saying something because even the biggest naysayer curmudgeons have to admit he looked pretty darn good in the 2015 and ’16 playoffs. Schwarber has actually looked this good most of the season, but many scoffed at the notion of him leading off or even being in the lineup on the regular due to his low batting average and strikeout rate (he’s at 27.3% vs. the team average of 23.4%, while his walk rate is 13.7% compared to the team’s 10.6% average).
While Schwarber may not be your prototypical speedster at the top of the lineup, he does patiently grind out at-bats and he’s getting on base at a .417 clip to start the game as a leadoff hitter. In fact, since being inserted into the leadoff slot on May 16, Schwarber has slashed .255/.342/.574 with 21 runs and 17 RBI. In addition to that aforementioned slash line that just about any fan would take for the year from the leadoff spot (or Schwarber individually), he is also murdering balls even when he doesn’t get hits.
More importantly, and more to my point that he’s been better than even those numbers indicate, he has put 66 balls in play (he also has 32 strikeouts and 14 walks) in those 24 games. Of those balls in play, three were sac flies and three had no data from Statcast, leaving us with exit velocity data for 60 total. Of those, 35 had an exit velocity over 100 mph (I picked a cool random number, but I’ll add the actual hard-hit threshold later), though only 18 were hits.
That means only half of the balls he bludgeoned over that stretch landed safely. While you can say that things even out over the course of a year in terms of hard/soft contact and hits, that’s not necessarily true here, as he had only three hits on balls hit less than 80 mph.
In addition to the balls hit over 100 mph, Schwarber added three more balls in that 95-99 mph range, 95 mph being the Statcast threshold for “hard-hit.” If we look at the numbers again with three more balls that are defined as “hard hit,” the numbers jump to 38 of 60 hit hard. He also hit the three sac flies at a hard contact rate, so you could even push that to 41 of 63, which would equate to a ridiculously absurd 65% hard contact rate.
FanGraphs lists a 40% hard-contact rate as “excellent,” and Schwarber has actually surpassed that for the entire season. And in the past three weeks, he has been scalding the ball at a rate that’s not even on the chart, a harbinger of what you’ve finally seen come to fruition this past week. If, as Maddon says, he’s as locked in and as good as he’s ever seen him, you can expect more of the same from a guy who has been getting on base and hitting the ball hard for the better part of the season.
As long as Schwarber maintains a similar balance of aggressiveness and patience, and doesn’t sit there looking at strike three or let the umpire ring him up on questionable calls, the Cubs and their fans may have found a suitable leadoff man. Maybe Maddon knew it all along?