By pretty much any measure either traditional or newfangled, there was nothing at all spectacular about Kyle Schwarber’s single in the 4th inning of Sunday’s 7-1 Cubs win. Of course, we don’t have any metrics like exit velocity or expected batting average on it because the Little League Classic was absent such accoutrements. Had we been able to assign stats, the base knock might have looked even less impressive.
Of course, the most important measurement of the hit was the two RBI it generated, pushing the Cubs out to a 4-0 lead. What’s more, it was punched through the hole on the left side and came in a full count. While none of that is of particular interest in a vacuum, there’s some very legitimate significance when you consider the context of Schwarber’s career and season to this point.
Before we get into that, let me first touch on the genesis of this post. I had initially intended to write about Schwarber’s decreased strikeout rate after seeing a tweet from Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus, but then something else in his thread caught my eye. I’ve included the tweeted images below for the sake of ease, since social media doesn’t always translate well for everyone.
As you can see from the chart above, Schwarber’s improved offensive numbers coincide with a marked decrease in the frequency with which he pulls the ball. Now, before we go any further, we should acknowledge that this is clearly not the first time we’ve seen such a change in Schwarber’s batted-ball profile. In fact, he had two similar — maybe even greater — drops last season.
So with full understanding that the last three-plus seasons have spawned enough “Has Schwarber figured it out?” pieces to embarrass even the Boy Who Cried Wolf, it seems as though this time might be legit. Consider first how Schwarber underwent a pretty significant approach change a couple weeks into his tenure as the Cubs’ leadoff hitter this season.
Long known for his discerning eye, the slugger appeared to have tweaked his more patient manner in order to combat poor production in two-strike counts. Schwarber had been overly passive in those situations, far from a new issue for him, and was falling prey to an inordinate number of called third strikes. But that led to its own problems, namely making too much contact with undesirable pitches.
Changes to mechanics and/or approach don’t happen overnight and they’re not always permanent, which is why we’re typically viewing this stuff in hindsight if we spot it at all. A change implemented one game might be gone the next, or might have been nothing more than a fluke. As such, we should take any of the information that follows with a grain of salt.
There’s also the reality that dividing a player’s performance into arbitrary chunks leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to legitimate analysis. Though we frequently use months or a number of plate appearances to chop stats into bite-sized chunks, it’s not as though turning a page on the calendar has an affect on player performance.
It does, however, allow us to track progress over time, which is the real key here. With that in mind, here’s a brief snapshot of Schwarber’s performance by month this season, with the pull percentage highlighted to go along with the graph above.
Because any individual stat can be plucked and used to tell a story, it’s always best to layer a few different numbers in order to give more details and depth. I mean, it would be easy to simply tell you that Schwarber’s 29% pull rate in 51 August plate appearances is the lowest he’s posted in any individual month in his career and leave it at that.
But you’re smart enough to know that August is far from over, which means that number is subject to a great deal of potential change. The same could be said for the other stats I chose, though when taken together, Schwarber’s strikeout, walk, and pull results indicate an approach change that could yield much better production for a prolonged period.
Remember the part about Schwarber being more aggressive shortly after moving into the leadoff role in mid-May? You can see how his offensive numbers spiked in June, but that was mainly due to a rash of homers. Schwarber swatted 10 of them from May 28 through the end of the following month, which seems good until you realize that he did it while reaching base at an unacceptable .288 clip.
Just look at that anemic 6.1% walk rate above, a mark that was easily less than half his career average. The OPS and wRC+ may have looked better than in previous months, but they were built on a shoddy foundation and were due to crater unless Schwarber made changes. That appears to have happened in July, though the adjustment process yielded some obvious pain points.
As he was going about rebuilding his approach, Schwarber swapped patience for power and had a .351 OBP more than double his .172 batting average, which included no homers through the first two weeks of July. Then things shifted back the other way and he hit three times as many homers (6) as he drew walks (2) through the rest of the month.
Now nearly three weeks into August, those disparate results appear to be coalescing as the result of an approach that better blends patience with a willingness to go the other way deep in counts. Schwarber started out taking every pitch that wasn’t perfect and striking out as a result. Then he just started swinging early at any pitches close to the zone, trying to pull everything over the wall.
But what he displayed Sunday night in Williamsport was nothing like either of those strategies. With the count full and two men in scoring position, Schwarber stayed on an outside offering from Pirates starter Mitch Keller to bounce it through a wider-than-normal hole near short. Not only did he eliminate the possibility of a backwards K, but his utilization of a quieter B-hack showed a more mature understanding of the situation.
As for the staying power of this shift in approach, well, that may depend upon the shift. By that I mean the way defenses set up against Schwarber, not the changes he himself has made. Among 202 left-handed batters with at least 10 plate appearances this season, only 32 have faced a shift more frequently than Schwarber (65.1%). Which is to say going oppo, especially in those deep counts that will see pitchers working him away, is a very good idea.
Again, this stuff could all be just a mirage that’ll fade by the time September rolls around. Or maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to see Schwarber really putting together sustainable production after tinkering with things and perhaps being a little too stubborn in the past. Even if you’re skeptical, this is something to monitor.