Kyle Schwarber: Has he peaked or is the best yet to come?
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
Kyle Schwarber had a great second half of 2019. The question is, was that just a hot streak or are we seeing the real Kyle Schwarber?
I've had a love-hate relationship with Kyle Schwarber. When drafted, I was thrilled the Cubs were getting a bopper at catcher. I always was a huge fan of Mike Piazza, and I had dreams that Schwarber could be that kind of dangerous hitter. As he developed, I learned more about his willing, can-do attitude and was a huge fan. He had a solid debut in 2015, and I had high hopes for 2016. Unfortunately, the high hopes that he could fit into the middle of the Cubs batting order got smashed pretty early, as a collision with Dexter Fowler knocked him out for the year with a torn ACL.
Then, against all odds, he became a World Series legend by coming back to hit .412 in 20 plate appearances. He wasn't cleared to play the field, but had 7 hits and 4 runs created in 5 games, helping shape that series. He looked fresh despite not seeing big league pitching for 6 months. I had huge hopes for his 2017 knowing that he missed out on a year of development, but that he still raked.
2017 was rough for my fandom. He was plugged into the leadoff spot, a good idea in theory with his OBP. Then he slumped. For months. He had a lousy .190 batting average in the leadoff spot and wasn't drawing nearly enough walks to supplement it. More concerning was his batting average in hitters counts, as it floated in the .150-.190 range. Eventually, he got sent down to the minors to retool. It was a necessary move as he looked lost. He came back and played better, eventually getting his wRC+ back to a respectable 103, or slightly above average, by eclipsing his 83 wRC+ in the first half with a 130 in the second.
Then came an uneven 2018. Good start, bad finish. 130 wRC+ in the first half, then a brutal 89 for the second half as his OPS went from .873 in the first to .740 in the second. All aspects of his game dropped as walked less, hit less, had less power, and his strikeout percentage ticked up 1%. He did have a solid September (OPS of .884) so it wasn't a complete bust of a half. Still concerning.
Finally, 2019 feels like a solid step in the right direction with a 120 overall wRC+ and career highs in home runs, 38 (+8 from his previous career-high), slugging percentage (.532, previously .487 in 2015), batting average (.250, career average .235), and doubles (29, almost double from his previous high of 16). Forgotten was his 97 wRC+ in the first half, as a huge second half 152 wRC+ gave him respectable overall numbers. He had a rough April, May, and July, with wRC+'s of 92, 92, and 94, but a solid June of 115 helped keep the entire first half from being a slump.
So what does all of this mean for 2020? Or even his future? He's still only 26. Theoretically, his prime could be a .260 hitter, with a .350-.375 on-base percentage, who also drops 40 home runs a year, a traditional middle of the order hitter. I'm not sure he ever becomes the monster I dreamed of, but that's fine. If he can supplement Rizzo, Baez, and Bryant, that's a meaty middle of the order.
Unfortunately, I have concerns. Schwarber has been basically a 3 outcome hitter for his career so far. He doesn't make contact 40% of the time, walking 13% and striking out 27.8%. I worry about low contact guys because if they can't make solid contact, they can be prone to slumps. I will add that his K% has dropped every single year, and is now flirting with league average. We've seen extended slumps, where basically 2-3 months out of the year he's a below-average hitter. He had struggled against left-handed pitching in his career and unfortunately was a little bit less than league average in 2019. Not bad enough to be a platoon player by any means, but it's still a gap in his game.
What should we expect for 2020? If he keeps up his marginal annual improvement, we could be looking at a 130 wRC+ player, with an OPS around .900. In all of major league baseball in 2019, that would be 13th overall, just a touch behind Kris Bryant. Nobody would ever say no that kind of production. Maybe he is closer to being the wonderful bat I had hoped for when he first was acquired. We'll see!