keyboard_arrow_uptop

I don’t want to spend a long time walking through Kyle Schwarber‘s story with you. Rob Neyer did good work recounting it Monday. The bullet points, to establish the topic at hand:

  • The Cubs took Schwarber fourth overall last June, surprising many. Pre-draft rankings had pegged him as a mid–first round talent.

  • Schwarber was a catcher at Indiana, and has been a catcher/DH this spring in the Cubs’ system, but in between, he split his time between catcher and left field in his pro debut. Few believe he’s a long-term big-league catcher.

  • A left-handed hitter, Schwarber has not only power and a terrific approach, but a shorter and quicker swing than fellow Cubs über-prospects Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Jorge Soler.

  • Before this season, we ranked Schwarber 77th on our Top 101 prospects list. MLB.com had him 49th. Baseball America bullishly placed him 19th. Keith Law ranked him lowest, at 90th.

  • Through 46 games at Double-A Tennessee, Schwarber was hitting .322/.450/.618. That’s better than Kris Bryant hit through his first 46 games there (.333/.427/.620), and what’s more, Schwarber’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (42:36, removing his one intentional walk) puts Bryant’s ratio at the same point (55:26, with unintentional walks removed and times hit by pitch added in) to shame.

Late last week, I began beating the drum for Schwarber to be moved to left field and promoted to Triple-A Iowa, in preparation for the quickest possible ascent to the Majors. That would be a bold move, if the Cubs did it (there is, so far, no evidence that they will), but Schwarber’s performance opens up a legitimate debate on the issue.

The Neyer piece to which I linked above touched off some tiresome exchanges on Twitter, which is a shame, because as Rob correctly pointed out in the article, Schwarber is genuinely, honestly interesting. If he can stick at catcher, he has the best offensive upside of any catching prospect in baseball, and it’s not especially close. It feels like his bat is going to be big-league-ready long before his catcher’s mitt, though, and anyway, there are two and a half years of Miguel Montero between Schwarber and a clear starting role behind the plate in Chicago. Neyer’s original piece mentioned the possibility that Schwarber would land at first base, with Anthony Rizzo being traded to make room. (Rob had to write a second one shouting down the Twitter police who felt that narrow possibility was, in fact, too preposterous to explore.) For me, left field looks like his future home, even though the consensus evaluation of his defensive future there is roughly equal to that of his future at catcher.

I’m telling you all of this, though, because I think there are a few other conversations worth having, buried deep in the balking and squawking that seems to surround every opinion anyone offers on Schwarber right now. They start with Schwarber, or at least they do in this case, but they’re really only tangentially related to him. Maybe talking through them will help cleanse my palate, clearing away the unpleasant taste of idle, gear-grinding debate that the reaction to Neyer’s piece left in my mouth.

Conversation #1: What’s up with catchers’ bats?
Did you know that, for the last four or five years, we have been living in The Golden Age of catcher offense? You might have, actually, since it was hard to miss the MVP-level performances we’ve seen from the likes of Yadier Molina, Jonathan Lucroy, and Buster Posey, but if you didn’t, now you do. Check this out:

True Average (TAv) by Catchers, NL and AL, 1985–2015

Year

TAv, AL C

TAv, NL C

1998

.241

.250

1999

.246

.253

2000

.251

.255

2001

.238

.246

2002

.237

.247

2003

.245

.253

2004

.248

.247

2005

.249

.244

2006

.250

.255

2007

.248

.242

2008

.249

.252

2009

.246

.251

2010

.238

.262

2011

.247

.256

2012

.255

.260

2013

.262

.248

2014

.250

.261

2015

.248

.249

You look as far back as the 1970s before you see a stretch of consecutive seasons in which catchers delivered the kind of offensive value they have returned over the last few years.

That’s peculiar, isn’t it? One of the most important shifts in player evaluation over the last half-decade has been the popularization and refinement of catcher-framing statistics. We now have a way of quantifying the pitch-framing aspect of a catcher’s defensive value, and it turns out that that value can be enormous. One might reasonably expect that, since we now have a new and elevated estimation of the defensive value of backstops, catchers would be selected for their defense to a greater extent than ever. Instead, their bats are becoming more potent.

Of course, several of the players the new numbers have revealed to be excellent framers are also very good hitters. Jose Molina made framing famous, but Yadier Molina, Lucroy, and Posey all do it almost as well as Jose did, and they all hit. So do Russell Martin, Brian McCann, and Miguel Montero. Teams are proactively moving players off of the position seemingly all the time: Mike Napoli, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, Evan Gattis, Victor Martinez, and John Jaso all have caught their last games over the last two or three years. Some of these moves are dictated by health concerns, of course, but some are certainly because of their dreadful framing numbers. One way or another, they are being moved, and that’s shielding the brotherhood of backstops from the inevitable decline of those members.

Notice that, despite the encouraging recent numbers, catchers aren’t mashing in 2015. A lot of that is the fact that Lucroy, Devin Mesoraco, Yan Gomes, and Matt Wieters are or have been hurt, and that Yadier Molina’s bat is beginning to slow down. Maybe, however, the fact that those things have so influenced the numbers is telling. One interpretation of the recent trend (an interpretation to which I might subscribe, but this spring has dented my confidence in it) could be that framing and hitting are skills with considerable overlap, such that someone who is good at one of them might be expected to be good at the other, after enough work. That’s sort of intuitive: Framing takes an ability to read a pitch quickly, determine its final location, and move to it with excellent muscle control. It requires forearm strength and great vision. These are things good hitters need, too. If true, that would have all kinds of repercussions:

  1. It would make us all much more confident in the ability of players like Kyle Schwarber, where receiving skills are the big question marks, to stay and thrive at catcher.

  2. It would immediately make framing less valuable, since there would be some level of documented learnedness to it, instead of raw talent, and teams would simply start building good framers from the ground up.

  3. Instead of every good player once having been a shortstop, we would find in 10 years that every good player had once been a catcher. The positional replacement value of a catcher’s bat would plunge.

Again, though, the fact that catchers’ production has sagged so badly this season refutes that (tenuous) hypothesis. It seems more likely, now, that we simply witnessed an exceptional set of catchers with two-way talent, and that the future of the position will look more or less like the past. That’s probably neither good news nor bad news for Schwarber: He’s not more likely to remain a catcher than we might have thought he was five years ago, but he’s also not in danger of losing the prospective value he can provide by staying there. It’s just interesting.

Conversation #2: On left-field defense and big bats
Let’s say Schwarber doesn’t make it behind the plate. Where does he land, defensively? As I mentioned above, Neyer posited that he could be a future first baseman. That’s certainly a possibility. The other possibility is probably left field, where Schwarber is considered a below-average (but not disastrous) potential fielder.

Obviously, it’s not a good thing to be a below-average defensive left fielder. If Schwarber can stick at catcher, that provides the Cubs (or whomever he plays for, in the long term) with huge non-batting value. If he’s a subpar defender at the second-least difficult, second-least important position on the diamond, that provides his team with negative non-batting value.

Just how difficult is it to be a good player while being a poor fielder in left field, though? To answer that, I went back to 1988 and searched for players who cost their teams at least 10 runs as defensive left fielders, while playing at least 60 percent of their games at the position. Over that span, 105 player seasons have met those criteria (in 27 seasons; it’s hard to stay in the lineup if you’re that bad a glove man at that unimportant a position). Take a minute, mull this over, and try to estimate the number of those guys who were worth 2.0 Wins Above Replacement or more.

Don’t peek.

Really. Try to guess before you read on.

Got a number?

Good.

Forty-four of the guys we’re talking about were below replacement level in those seasons. Seventeen were worth between zero wins and one win. Twenty-three were worth between 1.0 and 2.0 bWAR. That leaves only 21 seasons in which terrible defensive left fielders were also valuable overall assets—precisely 20 percent of the overall sample.

Of those 21 seasons, four belong to Manny Ramirez. Two belong to each of Albert Belle, Gary Sheffield, and Brian Giles. Twelve of the 21 belong to players who were 31 or older at the time. The players who did it at 27 or younger: Belle (the first time), Matt Holliday, Bobby Higginson, Adam Dunn, and Juan Gonzalez.

To be honest, that all surprises me. I wouldn’t have thought it would be so difficult to overcome even relatively miserable defensive performance, with a strong stick. Gonzalez was barely above my (admittedly arbitrary) cut line here, with a 2.1 bWAR in 1991, and that was with a 121 OPS+. To be even an average regular while fielding poorly in left field, you have to hit the way Kyle Seager has since the start of 2013. To be a star (not a superstar, not an MVP candidate, just a legitimate star), you have to hit the way Hanley Ramirez has over the same span. To be a superstar, you have to hit like Miguel Cabrera. It really is excruciatingly hard to be an elite player with a bad defensive profile like the one Schwarber might have, if he’s forced to move to left. (I tried moving the threshold for defensive ineptitude up to -5 runs or worse, but that changed only the number of players in the sample, not the distribution of quality among them.)

Of course, the Cubs’ goal need not be to maximize Schwarber’s asset value in a vacuum. He might have more value to them as a bad left fielder and occasional/emergency catcher with a .300 TAv for the next two years than as a full-time catcher in Iowa. It might also be that Schwarber will make this discussion moot (insofar as it relates to him) by being a decent left fielder. Since 1988, a total of 123 guys have played left field most of the time while playing 100 or more total games at or under the age of 25. Only 13 were so bad as to fall into the range described above. By the time he was 23, Juan Gonzalez had figured out left field enough to not give back his tremendous offensive value. Delmon and Dmitri Young, Carlos Quentin and Carlos Lee, Pete Incaviglia and Pat Burrell: All of these players had perfectly ordinary seasons in left field as young men, playing average (or only slightly below-average) defense and doing plenty with their bats to make that defense worth leaving alone. If anything, the data here say that Schwarber is likely to find great success as a young player if he moves to left field. He’ll just have to stomach either a position change or a rapid decline as he enters his late 20s and crosses into his 30s.

Conversation #3: The one good change the 2011 CBA made
I will never not dislike the second Wild Card, at least conceptually. (I do enjoy the games when they come each autumn; that doesn’t mean I don’t feel the difference in the competitive integrity of the regular season all the way from Opening Day until Labor Day.) I will never understand why the players permitted the owners to institute the qualifying-offer system for free-agent compensation. I’ll never not loathe the caps on spending in both the Draft and the international amateur market that the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement put into place. The whole thing sucked.

Well, not quite the whole thing. There is one provision the new CBA makes that seems to have been a resounding success, and an unmitigated, universal good for everyone involved. The change I’m talking about is the one that brought the deadline for signing draft picks forward a month, in conjunction with the implementation of the bonus-pool system for capping spending. Teams now have to sign players by July 15th, and given the fixed ceiling on earnings for those players, many are signing even earlier. That’s how Kyle Schwarber came to rack up 311 plate appearances as a professional in the summer after he was drafted. Five collegiate hitters were taken within the first 10 picks of the 2008 draft, but they combined for only 295 plate appearances that year.

Here are all of the college bats drafted within the top 10 since 2005, plotted according to the number of PA they had during their draft year. The vertical blue lines set off the period during which the signing deadline was August 15.

There were 13 players taken in that range from 2007 to 2011. Only Buster Posey has turned into a star, and only Anthony Rendon really offers any remaining hope of doing so. At least four of the 13 (Matt LaPorta, Tony Sanchez, Christian Colon, and Michael Choice) are irretrievable busts, with no hope of being more than a modestly valuable role player at any point in their careers. The other seven of them are Dustin Ackley, Yonder Alonso, Pedro Alvarez, Gordon Beckham, Jason Castro, Cory Spangenberg, and Matt Wieters. That’s a whole lot of unrealized potential, though most of them were (or might yet be) first-division regulars for at least one season.

In the five drafts shown surrounding that period, 13 other guys have been taken among the top 10. Five of them (Ryan Braun, Alex Gordon, Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, and Ryan Zimmerman) are Hall of Very Good locks, and at least one of them will probably end up in the Hall of Fame. The only definite bust is Jeff Clement. Drew Stubbs belongs among the group of seven above, and Mike Zunino is showing some signs of heading there, but Bryant is well on his way to stardom, and Schwarber’s star is rising toward Bryant’s level.

I don’t want to make too much of that. We have a serious sample-size problem here, and only Wieters, Alvarez, Ackley, Posey, and Beckham ever really carried the prospect panache of several of the guys in the more successful group. Some of this is just the cyclical, inconsistent reality of the draft.

Still, I think this bears mentioning. I don’t believe much in momentum, in hot and cold streaks or teams carrying a good month forward into the next, but it’s clear to me that there is such a thing as developmental momentum. A high-school athlete needs nothing more than an incubatory, instructional environment during his draft year. There’s a ton to work on. For collegiate guys, though, and especially for hitters, the best way to spend the time immediately after they’re drafted is in a competitive pro league, adjusting to better stuff than they’ve ever seen before, learning and establishing the preparatory routine of an everyday professional ballplayer. An interruption in what has often been a successful season is a drag on development. Guys who can get into pro games almost the moment they walk off their college field for the last time have a chance to ride that momentum toward MLB in a hurry.

I’m not an expert in this area. I’m open to the idea that this matters hardly at all. It feels, though, like Schwarber is on the doorstep of the majors less than a year after being drafted, and when you compare that to where similar players found themselves a year after being drafted in the recent past, it doesn’t feel like a small thing.

***

With Jorge Soler’s health a very real question mark, the Cubs might be calling upon Schwarber even sooner than many thought. Once he comes up, we’re going to be having a lot of conversations that exist within the moment:

  • Should Schwarber play left field exclusively, or should he also be part of a restored three-catcher rotation?

  • How does the Cubs’ lineup best align itself with Schwarber in the mix?

  • What degree of Schwarber’s success can follow him directly from Double-A to MLB, and how confident should we all be that he can adjust quickly to big-league pitching?

In the meantime (however long the meantime lasts), these are evergreen topics that deserve some digging, some thinking, and some back-and-forth, within the context of Schwarber, and beyond it.