Before this season began, Kyle Schwarber was still something of a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Because he still had yet to play a full season’s worth of major league games, our sense of him as a player was made up of a small sample of snapshots from the past two years.
We knew that he’s capable of crushing a 95 MPH fastball with a launch angle comparable to that of a cow from the castle of a French Taunter.
We also knew that his arch-nemesis was anyone with a functioning left hand, making him the only first round draft pick in baseball history to lie awake at night muttering “Damn you, Paul McCartney, Barack Obama, and Carol Burnett!”
He was a World Series hero and the greatest DH in Cubs history (Sorry, Dioner Navarro). He was also a below average defender who was actually not as bad as you thought but still capable of some brutal misplays.
In short, since we didn’t have a big enough sample size, our image of Schwarber was some bizarre Dr. Moreau-esque hybrid of Hack Wilson, Dave Kingman, and the cast of Glee. Only less likely to get wasted and ditch his own t-shirt day.
Now that we’ve made it through most of the 2017 season, we’ve discovered a bit more about Schwarber. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what we wanted to learn but it’s instructive nonetheless. And that lesson was:
At his lowest point, Kyle Schwarber is a down year from Adam Dunn.
I know that sounds like a depressing comp, especially considering the expectations we had for him coming into this year. But at the bare minimum, it’s important to remember this: Adam Dunn is one of the few players in history to piss off both White Sox fans and Marty Brennaman.
I’m petitioning Rob Manfred to retire number 44 throughout MLB as we speak.
You could get a sense how much Schwarber embraced the three true outcomes just from watching several Cubs games this year. And his slashline prior to Thursday’s 3-for-5 effort shows just how much of his value has come from walks and home runs: .197/.316/.429. If you were to look at those numbers by themselves with no name attached, you’d assume they came from a Random Big Donkey Generator.
They certainly would fit in well with any of these:
There are only two noticeable differences between them: Dunn’s Captain Caveman-esque .253 career ISO gives him a slight slugging edge over Schwarber’s .234. And Schwarber doesn’t celebrate every homer by turning to the WGN camera and declaring “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
The comp goes deeper than that. Schwarber’s 30.7 K% from this season fits nicely among Dunn’s 34.2 percent from 2012 and 31.1 percent in 2013. And as you know, Schwarber just emerged from a horrific slump where he struck out in eight consecutive plate appearances. Dunn spread his K streak out a bit–setting a record by striking out in 36 consecutive games over two seasons.
That’s the bad news. But there is some good to be found in this comp. You’ve probably seen Schwarber’s stats since being recalled from Iowa: .278/.381/.588. Even with the strikeout streak factored in, that reads like All Star-level Adam Dunn.
And here’s the thing—because of the value provided by his numerous walks and prodigious power, every one of those random Adam Dunn seasons cited above resulted in a positive WARP. Lo and behold, even in the middle of a season-long nightmare, Kyle Schwarber has still produced 0.9 WARP as well. Obviously, it’s not anything like the Cubs expected from him. But he’s still managed to contribute value even in the midst of his considerable struggles.
With that in mind, the Cubs still project Schwarber to be much more than a Dunn clone. It’s why they sent him down to Iowa at the low point of his struggles. As Theo Epstein said at the time:
“These days he looks more like a slugger than a hitter. I think that’s what our fans who watch him on a nightly basis would say. And Kyle’s a hitter first. If you go back and look, he had 600 plate appearances in the minor leagues and he’s a career .333 hitter in the minor leagues. He’s not just some all or nothing slugger. He’s a hitter first who has power.”
Essentially, the Cubs sent Schwarber to Iowa because they couldn’t figure out a way to make Theo’s face appear in the clouds above Wrigley to say “Remember who you are.”
To his credit, Schwarber focused on exactly that during his time in Des Moines. Being “a hitter first” became such a mantra that his quotes about his approach made it sound like he had become Theo’s Carlos Mencia. And while his power was certainly evident in AAA, he was most concerned with re-learning how to use the middle of the field to try to become the hitter the team expects him to be.
Perhaps the most revealing change in his approach came during Tuesday night’s brilliant pinch hit at bat against Reds closer Raisel Iglesias. After Schwarber worked the count to 3-2 and fouled off pitch after pitch, he finally lined a sharp single and kickstarted that night’s #FakeRally. After the game, Joe Maddon made sure to praise his newfound mindset:
“Really good at bat. He was choking up pretty fiercely right there. Much shorter approach to the ball. He looked really good.”
We’ve seen a lot from Schwarber this year. But this is the first time that anyone has noted him deliberately shortening his swing in order to increase the chances of making contact. One of the keys to him busting out of his yearlong slump and becoming the .300 hitter with power that the Cubs expect has become evident:
The key to escape being Adam Dunn is to become Anthony Rizzo.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports