June 14, 2017
Swing Away, My Large Adult Son
Most people figure out what they're good at when other people tell them what they're good at.
Some of us have high school English teachers praise our papers, say our writing is promising, encourage us to use that frustrating but addictively cathartic skill to … make almost no money. Others have the whole wide world tell them that they're great at baseball. Sigh.
You can quibble with the superlative based on your preference for feats of strength vs. feats of wit, but at the time Miller was treating the hitters of baseball’s best teams like extras in an ultra-dramatic trailer for his upcoming thriller Strikeout: The Movie.
Anyway, it doesn’t actually matter whether it was Schwarber's most impressive moment. What matters—maybe—is that the world commended Schwarber with a loud, resonating clap on the back commensurate with such a moment. It overshadowed even the earlier triumph from that same game, when he smoked a first-pitch double off noted baseball-thrower Corey Kluber.
Deep down—probably subconsciously, but perhaps significantly—the things we all said about his walk and his double might have shaded Schwarber’s visualization of his best baseball-hitting self with overtones of patience. Still, mindful, chess-mastering his way through each plate appearance. Hell, the things we all said about his walk and his double might have drawn Joe Maddon’s visualization of Schwarber as a patient Schwarber. And both Schwarber and Maddon might have acted in ways designed to bring those visions to fruition.
Before spring training even began, the Cubs manager had allowed the idea of Kyle Schwarber, leadoff hitter to slip out into the world. When the actual lineups were written, he was there—a supposed proto-Carlos Santana or something. He was perfect for it. That’s what we said, at least.
We also like to talk about leadoff hitters. What they’re supposed to do. How they’re supposed to be. And players, whether they even want to or not, often oblige us to act in those ways.
That, among other things, means taking pitches. Leadoff hitters are supposed to take pitches.
Schwarber has swung at only 28 percent of the four-seam fastballs he’s seen with no strikes against him this year. He’s whiffed on 26 percent of those swings, which he’s going to do, but he’s hit .455 and slugged 1.182 on the others (that’s two homers and two doubles, plus a single). Yes, that’s a small sample. But the smallness of that sample could be Schwarber’s problem, or part of it.
The Indiana University product, who so thoroughly captured the hearts and minds of the Cubs' front office and later the Cubs' fan base, is working the count like a good leadoff hitter should. And it might be killing him. More than 60 percent of his plate appearances have concluded with two strikes in 2017, and he’s slashed a cringe-inducing .105/.218/.234 in those 142 trips to the plate.
That proclivity for two-strike counts is the 15th-most prominent among big-league hitters with at least 150 plate appearances this year, virtually identical to Miguel Sano and Michael Conforto. They have hit considerably better than Schwarber in those counts, though, despite swinging and missing on more of their swings. At the most basic level, it’s not hard to pick out the differences. Conforto is considerably less likely to swing at a ball. Sano is considerably more likely to have contact turn into a hit.
Schwarber, whose fly-ball profile and lack of foot speed will always limit his BABIP potential, might be costing himself precious chances to make contact.
“Man who catch fly with chopsticks accomplish anything.”
In The Karate Kid, Daniel finds Mr. Miyagi attempting one of the few hand-eye coordination challenges more difficult than hitting major-league pitching. It might seem that the movie’s, um, lessons (?) would encourage hitters to lie in wait. But even the most absurd of Hollywood scripts doesn’t pretend Daniel could pick up some chopsticks, wait for the fly to come to him, and then grab it on the first try. He and Mr. Miyagi whiff multiple times before Daniel makes it happen (however unrealistically).
There are lots of hitters who can make contact at will. They’re not going after flies with chopsticks, though. And they can’t accomplish this.
Amid the hubbub over the fly-ball revolution, or whatever you’d prefer to call it, a different mini-revolution—possibly overshadowed because its poster boy is missing a chunk of his second straight level-up season with an injury—is sprouting around the idea of hitters giving themselves more chances to succeed.
Freddie Freeman, a Braves star who’s turned himself into one of baseball’s best hitters, ramped up his aggression in 2016 and swung at more strikes than all but three hitters who played a full season. Those other hitters (Jonathan Schoop, Yasmany Tomas, and Adam Jones) don’t possess even a modicum of discipline on out-of-the-zone pitches, much less the above-average discipline of Freeman (or Schwarber). Since this approach change started to become apparent, Freeman has actually made less contact on strikes, perhaps choosing to unleash an optimal swing more often instead of shortening up or flattening out for the purpose of contact.
He’s not alone, either. The thinking man’s slugger himself, Joey Votto, has adopted a version of this in 2017, and several other hitters with less god-like discipline histories—including Jay Bruce, Scott Schebler, and Jedd Gyorko—have also made similar-looking adjustments: boosting their zone-swing rate while keeping their chase rate right around reasonable career norms.
Freeman, Sano, Schebler, and a maybe-reinvigorated Matt Kemp are all within the top 15 in the zone-swing rate metric among hitters who’ve seen at least 500 pitches. They are among the most likely to swing at any given strike. Schwarber is 180th out of 267 hitters, with only the Mike Napolis and Byron Buxtons of the world swinging at fewer strikes and making contact less often on them (Cody Bellinger also falls in this camp, if you’re looking for another promising chopstick-using fly-catcher).
Schwarber, I’ll posit, might find the Freeman strategy particularly fruitful because of the particulars of his pitch preferences. The middle-outside pitch is a slugging wheelhouse, while the high-outside pitch is both a decent slugging zone and an extreme swing-and-miss zone. While his career sample is still exceedingly small (2017 will soon represent more than half of his career plate appearances), pitchers often tempt him outside, but in the zone, early in the count before straying further afield as the count deepens.
Taking those early pitches, on which he has better odds of connecting, robs him of opportunities to swing for the fences and gives pitchers a distinct strategic leg up. If or when he adapts and begins offering at those initial pitches, the league will surely adapt back, but the beauty of a hitter like Schwarber attempting this adjustment is this: The only real adjustment pitchers can make is to come into the zone less early and less often—which theoretically plays back into Schwarber’s patient hands if he can keep everything else about his approach reasonably stable.
What role the leadoff spot plays in shaping Schwarber’s approach is impossible to say. However, Maddon’s handling of the slumping star seems bound to the idea that Schwarber needs to be placed in a spot where the pitcher is desperately trying to keep him off the bases. Maybe Schwarber is just doing what comes naturally to him, but it is difficult to believe that his team’s expectations for him don’t factor into his decisions on the field.
In wondering whether the Freeman-esque approach might be of benefit to Schwarber, I also wondered how the club might go about encouraging it. They could just tell him, of course, but if he’s simultaneously left in the leadoff spot, or dropped to ninth, there might still be some mixed messaging there.
One situation in which Schwarber has been notably productive this year (again, sound the small-sample-size alarm) is in high-leverage spots. It could be nothing, I’ll reiterate, but it could also be a sign that urgency is somehow beneficial to him right now. If he were placed at the end of the meat of the Cubs’ order, might he find that urgency more often? (Maddon moved him to the sixth spot in the order last night, with Anthony Rizzo of all people leading off, although who knows how long that will last.)
It’s all amateur psychology. Lark after lark that, by chance, might reveal something to someone. This is but one of them. It is a suggestion. It might pave the path toward a happy, productive mission. Or, if nothing else, toward someone with a better idea.