When the Chicago Cubs made the announcement that they were optioning Kyle Schwarber to Triple-A Iowa on Thursday, there were mixed reviews and perspectives, but ultimately not a ton of surprise. When you’re off to a start that features a .171 batting average and an on-base percentage under .300, it’s reasonable to have the expectation of at least a short stint in the minor leagues.
The Cubs have made it clear that they don’t intend on this being a long stay in Iowa. There’s a mental element to all of this, as a short stint would be primarily to clear his head and get him right in that regard, but there are likely mechanical pieces that will be refined during his time seeing Triple-A pitching. Regardless of the overall purpose and reasoning behind the move, it’s important to look at it in the most objective sense. Which isn’t the easiest of tasks when you’re talking about a World Series hero surrounded in as much lore as Kyle Schwarber has been in the past eight or nine months.
When discussing Kyle Schwarber’s demotion, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind. For one, there’s an extensive history of players being sent to the minor leagues after a rough start to their Major League career, only to evolve into high quality players upon their return to the big league level. His own teammate, Anthony Rizzo, is an example of that. For another, there’s a lot to like about Kyle Schwarber’s season before this demotion even took place. The numbers don’t look terrific, but they also aren’t as bad as the simplest and most general of explanations might have you believe.
As alluded to above, Schwarber’s numbers thus far in 2017 don’t paint the prettiest of pictures for a player with as much offensive upside as he possesses. His slash features that .171 AVG and .295 OBP to go along with a .378 slugging percentage and .673 OPS. Those are all a far cry from where Schwarber was expected to be in his first full season. And it’s largely those numbers that have been cited when trying to garner a statistical explanation as to why Schwarber will be taking his at-bats in Iowa for the time being.
But there are other things to consider here in relation to Kyle Schwarber’s 2017 performance, and many of them tend to lend themselves to a positive outlook for the burly left fielder upon his arrival back in the bigs, whenever that may be.
First, it’s important to discuss the incredible lack of luck that Schwarber has experienced this season. His batting average on balls in play is a meager .193. That is, by far, the lowest figure among 162 qualifying position players, 10 points behind Jose Reyes’ .203 BABIP. Even with a respectable hard hit rate of 32.0%, Schwarber had a difficult time finding grass with any sort of consistency. That’s something that likely will even out over the course of time upon his return.
And it’s not like his approach, which was advanced enough for Joe Maddon to place him in the leadoff spot right out of the gate, suddenly diminished when the season began. The 4.45 pitches per plate appearance that Schwarber was seeing was tied for second in all of baseball behind only Anthony Rendon (4.51). His 43.7% swing rate ranked well into the second half of qualifying outfielders. So the elements of his patience and approach are there. Which is certainly encouraging. You’d like to see his contact rate, which comes in at 72.9 overall, improve. Although he covers the zone relatively well, he’s been susceptible to pitches up and outside. But between the plate coverage that’s already there and the advanced approach, there isn’t a lot of reason for concern there, at least longer term.
That patience manifested itself in a walk rate that was over 16% for the month of June. That 16.4% mark ranked sixth among 81 qualifying outfielders during the month. His 13.8% figure for the year ranks in the top 10 among qualifying outfielders for the season overall. So there isn’t really the type of concern that you might typically see from a hitter with so few Major League plate appearances before this season, despite a punchout rate that’s a touch higher than you’d like, at 28.7% (although you could probably make something of an argument somewhere that it’s at least partially the result of working deep counts constantly).
Perhaps the biggest reason to remain optimistic about Kyle Schwarber is the simply the skill set that’s still there. And by that, of course, I mean overwhelming power that he possesses. That’s what his skill set is. It’s the approach and it’s the power. He’s still hitting the ball hard and did so about eight percent harder in May than in April before some June struggles presented themselves. His ISO for the season was at .207 prior to the demotion, including a .217 mark in May and a figure of .326 in June. Even with the struggles, FanGraphs still had him at a 119 wRC+ in June, painting him as an above average hitter. That, along with the fact that he still came in just about average in the TAv department for the year, really speaks to his overall offensive competence.
The approach is there. The power is there. The insane lack of luck is there, likely playing a larger part than we care to admit in holding him back. There may be some small mechanical tweaks that will benefit him long-term, especially in regard to some of those high, outside pitches. But Schwarber, like so many throughout this Cubs roster (and perhaps even more so), has shown a tireless work ethic and a willingness to make those adjustments. For a guy who flew through the minor league system so quickly upon his initial arrival at the big league level, it’s tough to see this being a long stay in Iowa.
And at the end of the day, if this truly is a minor league stint for mental purposes, it’s incredibly difficult to quantify, but extremely simple to rationalize. The value and importance of the right mindset, at any level, cannot be overstated. If that’s what it is, we should look forward to seeing him back sooner rather than later. Regardless, though, this demotion is no real reason to change our perspective of not only what Kyle Schwarber can be, but what he already is.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports