Coming into this season, Kyle Schwarber was a polarizing player. Some saw him as a potential MVP—an elite left-handed slugger with plenty of pure hit tool and the ability to make up for any defensive deficiencies with all of that offensive value. Others saw a missed opportunity, and said the Cubs should have traded Schwarber while his value was highest—either after his sensational rookie showing, or while he nursed his devastating knee injury over the summer of 2016, or last winter, in the afterglow of his heroic showing in a World Series for which he was supposed to be sidelined.
The thinking in the latter group was that Schwarber would never cut it as a left fielder, or indeed, as anything but a designated hitter, and that the Cubs were trying to make a very shiny square peg fit into a round hole, and squandering much of Schwarber’s value in so doing I think it would be unfair to say, flatly and without additional detail, that the doubters were right. They weren’t entirely right, and (obviously) the Schwarber believers weren’t entirely wrong.
Still, as Schwarber makes his way back to the majors after a sojourn in Iowa, a key question remains unanswered. He seems to have his confidence, his approach, and his optimal swing mechanics back, so Schwarber should be a valuable offensive asset the rest of the way. On the other side of the ledger, though, there’s no particular reason to think Schwarber will be anything but what he was during the first half: a genuine liability in left field.
I confess to having been one of those who felt sure Schwarber (recruited, briefly, to play linebacker at the collegiate level) would figure out how to be something just shy of an average defender. That might be coloring my perception of the way the experiment has actually unfolded. It surprises me to see that Schwarber has terrible range, on top of instincts and routes that are just average. It surprises me to see that, at least so far this year, he’s taken some very conservative approaches to plays where it seemed like he had a chance to get an out, either by running down a fly ball or by charging and making a strong throw. He also doesn’t seem good at cutting balls off in the gap or down the line.
I don’t think these things surprise others, and maybe they were right all along. Casting my memory back to 2015, I remember Schwarber as a more confident, faster player, seemingly limited mostly by inexperience. I can specifically recall a single to left on which Schwarber charged hard, made a clean pickup, planted his foot, and fired a strike to home plate for an out. (It came in August of that year, against the Tigers.) I also remember thinking, as I watched the ugly replays of the play on which Schwarber wrecked his knee last April, that an outfielder as limited as many believed Schwarber to be never would have gotten close to that ball, never would have been in position to collide with Dexter Fowler at all.
When Statcast’s Sprint Speed leaderboard went up at Baseball Savant last week, I checked on Schwarber. It turns out that my memories might carry some real weight, but might also have been rendered irrelevant, at least for the foreseeable future, by that catastrophic play in Arizona. Schwarber’s average Sprint Speed in 2015 was 26.9 feet per second—below average for a big-league outfielder, but just a hair below the overall league average, and almost step-for-step with the likes of then-teammate Starlin Castro. In 2017, Adam Duvall is averaging 26.9 feet per second.
That version of Schwarber, with more experience, probably would have eventually left his miserable defensive reputation behind. However, in 2017, Schwarber is averaging 26.0 feet per second at full speed. That’s more like Anthony Rizzo than Castro, and puts him on par with Melky Cabrera in average speed this year, a hair behind Khris Davis. This version of Schwarber really is, more or less, a miscast DH.
Anyone who’s considered Schwarber as a physical specimen is probably thinking, “Well, sure, but who knows whether the injury is really the issue?” That’s fair. He could simply be slowing down because it’s what players built like he’s built tend to do. The data argues against that expectation, though. In 2015, 93 players age 25 or younger took at least 200 plate appearances in the big leagues. Of those, 79 have played enough in 2017 to appear on the Sprint Speed leaderboards. Twenty-one of those 79 players have seen their Sprint Speed change by 0.1 feet per second or less.
Though the conventional wisdom that speed only fades mostly holds up, 27 of the 79 have either held their exact Sprint Speed or improved upon it since 2015. Only five other players have lost at least 0.9 feet per second, as Schwarber has. They are Maikel Franco, Manny Machado, Joc Pederson, Stephen Piscotty, and George Springer. Five players (Nick Castellanos, Billy Hamilton, Wil Myers, Jonathan Schoop, and Andrelton Simmons) have gained 0.6 feet per second or more over these two years.
Let’s talk about these cases, because they’re important things to understand, for reasons that go well beyond Schwarber.
Slower: Maikel Franco
It seems like Franco’s body just peaked way too soon. He was athletic when he broke into the league, a guy with power and average-plus speed, a player whose skills hadn’t caught up to his tools but in whom it was possible to see a potential superstar. He’s done nothing but regress over the last two years, though, and that’s been despite an apparent (and sometimes, maybe, even a detrimental) effort to keep himself ready to compete at his best all the time. He dropped weight this winter, rising early to make extra trips to the field. He’s just not the explosive player he used to be, which is a really weird way to talk about someone who won’t turn 25 until August.
It might not be that simple. Franco works hard in the batting cages before games, too, but remains an undisciplined hitter. It might be that he’s working hard enough, but not smart enough. He might need to reevaluate the way he works, in all facets, perhaps to move from focusing on overall conditioning to functional strength and specific muscle groups. Still, the fact that a player no one would accuse of being lazy or disinterested appears to be losing athleticism before our eyes is a hard phenomenon to explain.
Slower: Manny Machado
This one is neither surprising, nor inherently problematic. Machado was always a guy evaluators expected to grow from big to gigantic, from wiry strong to slugger strong, and that’s what he’s done. He’s dropped from 27.7 feet per second in 2015 to 26.6 feet per second in each season since. His severe knee injuries all pre-date the 2015 season, so they’re only a long-term, secondary sort of explanation for this dropoff. It’s mostly about Machado’s body growing, and about him allowing that in order to facilitate his development into one of the league’s elite power hitters. (We’ll ignore, for the purposes of this piece, the fact that he’s not seeing the benefits of that tradeoff so far this year. Insofar as his goal in adding weight and strength was to hit the ball harder than the rest of the league, he’s basically succeeding.)
Slower: Joc Pederson
I remember hearing about Pederson as a prospect, before he broke into the big leagues, and being told he was strictly a left fielder. Then, when he actually graduated to the (always, it seems) center field-challenged Dodgers, Pederson ended up taking over as the regular center fielder, and for one year, he held his own out there. After averaging 27.9 feet per second and fielding his position credibly in 2015, though, Pederson has gotten thicker and slower. His average of 26.8 feet per second in 2017 is actually an uptick from last year, when he was baseball’s slowest regular center fielder, but it’s not going to be good enough to allow him to stick in center field for very long. Soon, the people who foresaw a well-rounded left fielder who would need to be protected from left-handed pitchers will look very smart.
Slower: Stephen Piscotty
There’s been no calamity, but Piscotty seems to be forever dinged up, and seems to just miss being seriously hurt all the time. He seems to get hit by the ball all the time, sometimes in unusual ways. He had an ugly collision in the outfield back in 2015. This year, he’s also fighting the mental battle of knowing that his mother is suffering from ALS.
Maybe due to the accretion of all of these issues, Piscotty’s Sprint Speed has steadily fallen since he came into the league. He was at 27.9 feet per second in 2015, then 27.3 last year, and now he’s down to 26.8 feet per second. It will be worth watching him over the rest of the season, however, and especially after the All-Star break. He missed three games in four days after tweaking his knee on a slide at second base during the first week of the season. It’s possible he’s been slowed by a lingering issue ever since, or that he was for long enough to color this data in a misleading way.
Slower: George Springer
This one is easy to explain, too. Springer is a tall, strapping guy, the kind of broad-shouldered dude you knew would slow down somewhat as he filled out. He once had near-elite speed (it was 28.7 feet per second in 2015), but has traded some of that in for tremendous power, and the magnitude of that change has been exaggerated by a hamstring issue he had in late April. He’s still an above-average runner, at 27.6 feet per second.
Faster: Nick Castellanos
Extraordinarily, Castellanos has gotten much faster this year, and he says it’s basically just because he’s been thinking about it and caring about it more. He was a below-average runner in 2015 and 2016, averaging 26.5 feet per second. This year, he’s up to 27.9 feet per second, trailing only Kris Bryant and Jose Ramirez among regular third basemen. It’s unbelievable that he could be doing this just by trying harder. He admitted he did focus on it over the winter. It’s fascinating that it worked so well, and suggests that either his functional strength and flexibility or his technique as a runner left plenty of room for improvement.
Faster: Billy Hamilton
No need to search for reasons why Hamilton is displaying elite speed all over the diamond. He’s simply matured as a player, figuring out better ways to use his speed as he grows. Hamilton always had the jump from 29.3 feet per second to 30.2 in him; he just needed to have enough feel for the basepaths and the angles of the outfield to find that extra gear.
Faster: Wil Myers
Myers saw his Sprint Speed tick up as he moved from center field to first base. He also stole 28 bases last year after being a non-threat to steal in 2015, but that was really about Myers’ changing role in the Padres' offense, and about his own goals. I doubt his speed has really improved much, except insofar as his legs feel fresher from day to day as a first baseman. If anything, his Sprint Speed in 2015 was probably artificially deflated by his inexperience and discomfort in center.
Faster: Jonathan Schoop
If you’ve been waiting for this conversation to turn back toward Schwarber, thanks for waiting. During the winter of 2014-2015, Schoop dropped about 15 pounds, trying to be more safety and less linebacker at second base. It did seem to make him more mobile … for the two weeks before he suffered a torn PCL and sprained MCL in his right knee. When he came back later that year, he wasn’t at full strength or full speed. His Sprint Speed for 2015 was 26.4 feet per second. In each season since, he’s been at 27.1 feet per second. It seems that there’s a period after a major knee injury during which a player is ready to return to action, but not yet fully recovered from that injury—and that a point at which that player is fully himself again can eventually come. That doesn’t mean it will do so for Schwarber, but Schoop (whose body is no less prohibitive of fluid movement than is Schwarber’s) provides some reason for optimism.
Faster: Andrelton Simmons
Simmons’ combination of a weird body type and a number of minor injury issues makes it pretty easy to see why it’s taken him until his age-27 season to find his top gear. He’s also another guy who has committed himself more to running the bases and playing the game fast, which has aided in his move up the scale, from 27.1 feet per second (a bit slow, for a shortstop, especially the best defensive one in the game) to 27.9. As long as he’s healthy (or as long as his injuries are confined to his upper extremities), the 2017 number seems to be the fair representation of his ability.
Speed is so fickle. As the first wave of sabermetric analysis made clear, it doesn’t translate into on-field value as cleanly as it seems like it should. It also seems to vary more widely than we might have thought, not from one player to another, but for a single player, from one week or month to another. We don’t have granular search capabilities for Sprint Speed yet, but hopefully we’ll get it someday. I suspect that if we do, we’ll find out that confidence in what one is doing, health, and fatigue heavily influence a player’s ability to play the game at his top speed over a given period.
To close with a bit more on Schwarber, the Cubs probably know (or can guess better than we can) to what extent the knee injury is still slowing him down. The fact that they have made no move, even while he’s been down in the minors, to get him reacquainted with catching suggests that they either have zero faith in him at that position (which runs counter to everything they’ve said publicly) or believe he’ll get enough of his speed back to acquit himself better in left field. In the meantime, this data suggests that there really will need to be some kind of change, and it also helps us wrap our heads around the value and variability of speed for many players.