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Warbird Down: Some Additional Thoughts on Kyle Schwarber

On June 22 the Chicago Cubs sent a struggling Very Large Human, Kyle Schwarber, to the minors. The Warbird earned it, with the 20th worst fWAR and 6th worst bWAR among qualifying hitters. His OPS is just two points shy of Albert Pujols‘, a goal that you kids at home should no longer aspire to. Schwarber’s inoffensive offense has led to much discussion, most of which revolves around two competing theories:

  1. This is just a slump, and Scwharber will come out of it. He’s way better than he’s shown in 2017. Craig Edwards said as much in these pages a couple of weeks ago.
  2. Schwarber’s fallen and he can’t get up. There is something fundamentally wrong with him that is going to take considerable time to correct, if it is correctable at all. The demon that possessed Jason Heyward in 2016 has found a new human host.

The Cubs, predictably, are publicly sticking with Theory 1, and not without reason. As Edwards pointed out, there is plenty of statistical evidence suggesting Schwarber is basically the same hitter he was during his torrid 2015 campaign. The walk rate is about the same. The K rate is about the same. The power is still there — how many guys with an ISO over .200 get sent down? And that most basic of slump detectors, BABIP, is flashing red: Schwarber’s BABIP is a minuscule .193, last among qualifiers.

Or is this all whistling past the graveyard? A deeper look at Schwarber’s numbers reveals some seemingly alarming trends. Specifically, he’s been virtually helpless against the slider this year, “slugging” it at an .042 clip. In 2015 he murdilated sliders, slugging .593 against them. For those of you not near a calculator, that means between 2015 and 2017 Schwarber lost 551 points of slugging against one of baseball’s more common pitches — losing more than most hitters will ever attain.

There were specific sliders that Schwarber found particularly tasty in 2015 — those down and over the plate. This year, not so much. As his FanGraphs pitch value tables indicate, the slider has become garlic to Schwarber’s vampire. (Not that I am in any way suggesting that Schwarber is an undead being of any sort.) Other teams, aware of this newly opened hole in his swing, have accordingly started feeding Schwarber a steady diet of sliders.

Except that they haven’t. Schwarber is actually seeing slightly fewer sliders this year than he did in 2015. Maybe major-league front offices would benefit by reading more brilliantly researched blog posts like this one.

Or maybe there really isn’t anything there after all. One good way to evaluate a hitter is to watch how other teams are treating him, and Schwarber’s opponents haven’t pitched him much differently than they did in 2015, at least as far as pitch selection is concerned. This doesn’t seem to be a Heyward situation, where a gaping hole did open in his swing, and pitchers began attacking him mercilessly with high fastballs.

Another good way to evaluate a hitter is to watch how his own team treats him, and the Cubs have been almost painfully patient with Schwarber. He was bad in April before getting much, much worse in May. A power spurt in early June was not enough to save him from Iowa.

Last year, the Cubs had good reason to be patient with Heyward, even though he was producing about as much reliable power as Pakistan’s grid. There were two reasons for this: (1) he was making substantial contributions with his glove; and (2) from about April 15 on, the Cubs had a divisional lead of at least 75.5 games. No, really. Look it up.

The Cubs patience with Schwarber is less obviously explicable. Replacements for his limp bat were at hand in the minors, including Ian Happ and (more recently) Mark Zagunis. Schwarber adds nothing to the team’s defense, and the Cubs this year are in a remorseless fight to the death in the NL Central.

So the Cubs and their opponents have been behaving (for most of the season, anyway) as though Schwarber is in a slump, rather than suffering from some more fundamental problem. The Cubs might be looking at his track record — in his brief minor-league career Schwarber’s OPS is 1.042, and, you know, that 2015 season was so awesome!

But Schwarber didn’t have a season in 2015, he had less than half a season: 273 plate appearances to be exact. He’s had 261 PAs this year. So to this point, Schwarber’s entire career does not yet amount to the equivalent of even one full major-league season. His career has been strange in that his PAs have been so highly segregated: 273 fantastic PAs followed by 261 awful ones, with some World Series heroics in between that would melt the hardest of non-Cleveland hearts. Put it all together though, and you have one short, not-all-that-impressive career thus far. His career OPS+ is 102, and his career wRC+ is 104. Those numbers simply aren’t good enough for an essentially postionless player. Here’s a list of left fielders with a career OPS+ of 102. For those of you who can’t click through, trust me, it’s short. The Cubs didn’t plan to use the 4th pick of the 2014 draft because they wanted the next Garret Anderson.

Past performance does not fully predict future results, and there are some reasons to think that the real Warbird is closer to the 2015 version than the 2017 one. As noted above, his minor-league stats were through the roof, and a very competent front office used a very high draft pick to get him. His trouble with the slider looks more like a reframed BABIP slump — that is, a run of bad luck during a small sample size — than a genuinely exploitable hole. He’s still only 24.

And yet, the Cubs did send him down. This probably has more to do with the pennant race than with Schwarber; the Cubs simply can no longer afford to give away outs. The move takes some pressure off of Schwarber himself (though he may well not see it that way), and takes the pressure off of Joe Maddon to either write Schwarber into the lineup every day and answer a bunch of annoying questions about it, or not write Schwarber into the lineup and answer a bunch of annoying questions about it. But if Schwarber’s last 261 PAs are simply down to bad luck, why couldn’t the first 273 PAs be down to good luck?

I don’t really believe Schwarber is the next Garret Anderson, but I’m less certain than some Cubs fans that we know who the real Schwarber is yet. Schwarber’s demotion will help the Iowa Cubs sell tickets. Whether it helps the Chicago Cubs sell playoff tickets remains to be seen.