Ignore Kyle Schwarber’s batting average for a second. Is his season really all that different from what you expected?
13 percent walk rate. 29 percent strikeout rate. On pace for about 30 homers. All of that is pretty much in line with what you probably thought on April 1. But it’s just that pesky batting average — currently sitting at .174 — that’s dragging things down. There’s an easy explanation for that though. Schwarber’s sub-.200 BABIP is bringing that down. As soon as that progresses to the mean he’ll be the monster we all expected, right?
Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. Here’s what I mean: Yes, Schwarber’s ugly BABIP has been a problem, and — at least in part — an explanation for his problems in 2017. But the fact of the matter is that while Schwarber has been unlucky in that sense, he’s still far away from the type of performance we would have expected on Opening Day.
You may be familiar with the xBA (short for expected batting average) statistic on Baseball Savant. In short, that stat lays out what a player’s batting average should be based on things like launch angle and exit velocity. Schwarber’s xBA for this season, according to Baseball Savant, is .210. The difference between his xBA and his actual batting average is the 10th-largest in baseball thus far.
So like I said, he has been unlucky. There’s not really any disputing that. But that is not to say that’s he’s been so unlucky that his terrible BABIP is masking an actually good season. An alternate universe in which Schwarber is actually batting .210 is better — it’s at least above replacement level, unlike here in reality — but it’s still a disappointment.
It’s particularly strange that Schwarber’s expected performance is still so dire. He’s obviously not a speedster by any stretch, but he hit’s the ball so damn hard that you would think that he would be an xBA superstar.
That’s his reputation, certainly, but it hasn’t really been reality this year. Schwarber’s average exit velocity is 87.7 MPH. That’s only marginally better than the league average. Yes, when he gets a hold of one, he hits the ball as hard and as far as anyone in the league, but he’s missing a crucial characteristic: consistency.
That, more than poor BABIP luck or a high strikeout rate, is what has sunk Schwarber’s season. He just has not been able to hit the ball hard with any regularity.
Of course, Schwarber is a guy who wants to — and should want to — hit the ball in the air. That’s where he’s going to do the most damage. And while he’s been able to do that regularly — his fly ball rate is tied with teammate Kris Bryant for eighth in the majors — too often that approach has resulted in pop-ups, the least productive way of putting the ball in play.
Schwarber’s infield fly ball rate is currently one of the highest in baseball (by the way, holy crap Byron Buxton). He’s often taking swings like this, where he’s bailing out in an attempt to lift the ball in the air:
I’m not a swing coach, so it’s difficult for me to say how he can fix that problem, or if he can. I’m just not qualified to know. If there is a silver lining here, it’s that whatever is ailing Schwarber hasn’t appeared to affect his approach all that much. He’s still ultra-selective, and we mentioned earlier that his walk-rate remains excellent. That is allowing him to tread water, as much as one can tread water with a 50-pound weight on their back.
We have to presume that Schwarber will find his way out of this prolonged slump at some point. His track record is too strong to suggest that this is just who he is going forward. Unfortunately, who he is right now is not a major league player, and bad luck is not fully to blame.
Playing in what has turned out to be a terrible NL Central allows the Cubs to be patient with him. They’ve been disappointing, no doubt, but they’re still just a few games behind Milwaukee for the lead in the division. If they’re going to have a chance to defend their title, they are going to need Kyle Schwarber. The question now is whether Schwarber is going to figure things out before they need him most.
Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @Joe_Clarkin.