I don’t court controversy. I don’t even flirt with it when I see it at the bar. Controversy is single for a reason, and bad news for anyone trying to build a positive reputation as an analyst in baseball or any other field. And yet, despite all my safeguards and precautions, controversy found me at Wrigley late last week, mere moments after I hit ‘send’ on this tweet:
The national media is going to be all over Schwarber for his defense for a while now, because of this series. Fact is he's been pretty good.
— Rian Watt (@rianwatt) October 22, 2015
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t said that Schwarber’s defense has been “pretty good.” “Pretty good” implies something that’s at least above average, and Schwarber wasn’t that in 2015, according to publicly available defensive metrics. As evaluated by BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), Schwarber’s defensive efforts this year—both behind the plate and in the outfield—graded out at -2.1 runs, meaning that FRAA saw his performance as just a hair below league average. Baseball Reference, using a slightly different system, put his total contribution in the outfield at -2 runs. And Fangraphs, using yet another system (UZR/150) graded his total outfield contributions in 2015 at (wait for it) -2 runs.
Don’t be fooled by the consistency you see there. Defensive statistics are notoriously unreliable (although fast-improving), and it is more honest to regard their unanimity, with respect to Schwarber, as the chance resultant of highly disparate and often conflicting processes, rather than a true reflection of Schwarber’s defensive ability in 2015. That said, if you are willing to accept that each individual score recorded above falls somewhere on a distribution that also includes Schwarber’s actual defensive ability, it’s equally honest to say that the scores’ unanimity of outcome constitutes suggestive but hardly conclusive evidence that Kyle Schwarber, defender, performed at slightly below average levels in 2015.
That’s a conclusion, moreover, that finds ready support in the scouting community. Through my editor, Sahadev Sharma, I reached out to pro scouts around the game to ask them what they thought of Schwarber’s performance in left field in 2015. There was a pretty clear trend: while their evaluations focused more on Schwarber’s elite bat than his glove, not a single scout spoken to said that Schwarber was a butcher in left field, and more than a few mentioned that he’s already better than some left fielders who’ve had long careers in the major leagues.
BP Wrigleyville’s resident scout, Mauricio Rubio, also chimed in:
I don’t think [Schwarber’s outfield defense is] very good right now, but I do think it can improve in coming years with some repetition and familiarity with the outfield. He does have some athleticism—he played football in [high school]. Those guys aren’t typically slow, and while he’s not a burner, Schwarber’s speed and range aren’t [Dan] Vogelbach-level bad. The foot speed will decrease some as he ages, and that process will accelerate if he keeps catching, but even then he’s still playable (range-wise) in left.
In this case, then, the numbers and the scouts agree: Schwarber is below average, but hardly terrible, in left field. That’s as close to the truth (if such a thing exists) as we can get in baseball analysis today. And yet, Schwarber was terrible in the NLCS. He was so bad, in fact, that talented and respected national commentators like Jay Jaffe retweeted things like this during the playoffs:
— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) October 22, 2015
Schwarber is a hard-working, honest-faced young man. He’s well liked by his teammates, and he was willing to play along with my silly questions about batting right-handed. Yeah, he’s not “pretty good” in left field. I shouldn’t have said that, because it isn’t true. But being compared to a “canned ham with a glove attached” by a national sportswriter is, presumably, not how he envisioned his first season in the big leagues going, at least defensively.
And you know what? It shouldn’t have happened. Jaffe is a wonderful sportswriter. I’ve read and loved his work for years, and I’ll continue reading and loving it tomorrow. But Jaffe hasn’t been watching the Cubs closely all season, and so he hasn’t seen Schwarber take the field defensively enough times to get a good sense of his true talent level. If he had, he might have been less quick to lend support to Dan’s porcine comparison. Back to Rubio:
One of the classic overreactions to postseason play is to take what occurs in that small sample and try to apply it to a broader sample size. Being a “max effort” guy [as Schwarber is] can manifest itself in a few different ways. The most common is to try and do too much when the situation instead dictates control over max effort. We saw that in the postseason. Schwarber was trying too hard to make the spectacular play and instead spectacularly messed it up. That’s feel for the position and at this point he lacks it.
That evaluation—which was roundly echoed by the pro scouts spoken with—rings true to me. What’s been a strength for Schwarber all year—his willingness to go all out for his team—turned into a liability in the NLCS. But given time this offseason, that same makeup will propel him forward. When the Cubs drafted Schwarber fourth overall last year, they believed they’d found a guy who would always be willing to put in all the work necessary to help his team win. So far, they’ve been right. This is a guy who won’t accept average from himself at the plate or in the field. In Rubio’s words, he has an “aptitude for the game and a willingness to learn.” It would be unwise to bet against him now. Theo Epstein knows that.
“[He will] get a lot of at-bats in the outfield [in 2016], with an emphasis on keeping his potent bat in the lineup. This game takes a lot of turns and we’re not good enough to forecast exactly how his career is going to go in terms of what position he’s going to play,” Epstein said last Thursday. “I think keeping all the options open [including catcher] for as long as possible makes sense, as long as we’re not doing anything that gets in the way of his development and his ability to stay in the lineup and his long-term health.”
Those are not the words of a general manager who believes Schwarber’s ceiling in the outfield is mere mediocrity. Why else would he also start him at catcher, which is (by far) the more difficult position, and take away reps from his outfield development? The front office clearly believes in Schwarber’s ability to learn, and they’ll test it this offseason.
But is playing Schwarber at two different positions next year actually such a good idea? The verdict from the scouts can be summarized like this: sure, if it works. If not, it may actually harm Schwarber’s development. Most of the scouts argued that Schwarber needs to be put in just one spot (whether it’s the outfield or catcher, though most supported the former option) and then kept there long enough that he’s able to put in the work at the position, get the reps, and get to average. At that point, it should be possible for him to ride his potent bat all the way to stardom.
For now, though, the Cubs will continue to try Schwarber at two positions, and they’ll give him all the help they can along the way. This is no longer a franchise that lets its players struggle with defense on their own, as they did with Alfonso Soriano from 2008-2011. “[Coaching is] something we can attack with a vengeance this offseason. That process has already started with a lot the work that we’ve already put in,” said Epstein. “And a lot of it is just points of emphasis … and work, it’s just work. We can improve our defense with work.”
If it’s work the Cubs are looking for, they’ll get that from Kyle Schwarber this winter.
Before we wrap this up, let me leave you with one last data point. Among players with at least 250 innings played in left field last season (Schwarber had 295), here are the ten worst by UZR/150:
Sure enough, there’s Schwarber, right at the … oh.
He’s not in the top 10. In fact, he doesn’t show up at all until you get to number 26. That makes it possible to say this: in 2015, there were 25 left fielders who—at least by UZR/150, which of course has all sorts of flaws—were worse with the glove than Kyle Schwarber. 25. That’s exactly five fewer players than there are major-league teams. I’m putting this out there not to suggest that Schwarber is a top-five big-league left fielder. He is manifestly not. But the Chicago Cubs could do a lot worse in left field. And last year, many teams did. Schwarber’s performance in the NLCS does not change that one bit.
And yet, controversy.
I’m not here to defend Schwarber’s defensive game on the whole. There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Schwarber’s glove behind the plate, and I’m one of the guys who believes that he’ll never really be able to stick there and should be put in the outfield full time. And there’s no doubt that Schwarber’s defensive performance in the NLCS—particularly his decision-making—was rightly maligned. But don’t let small sample size or recency bias cloud your judgment about his skill in left field overall. Kyle Schwarber, left fielder, was better than many others in 2015, and he’s ready and willing to put in whatever work is necessary this offseason to become even better in 2016. That shouldn’t be controversial at all.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.