Does Kyle Schwarber’s Improved Fitness Mean Improved Defense?

Kyle Schwarber has been a popular topic during Cubs’ spring camp to date, primarily due to his astounding transformation from a burly outfielder/hopeful catcher to a slim & sleek only-outfielder. Coming off of the year that he had, in which he slugged 30 homers but ran into some unbelievably bad luck (.214 BABIP), Schwarber’s production will likely be under even more of a microscope, given that he largely failed to live up to expectations in 2017.

With Schwarber’s improved fitness, many are wondering what he might be capable of. He’s already showcased more speed than we’ve become accustomed to, with a pair of steals in a spring exhibition last week. And while it’ll be interesting to see how he pans out at the plate this season, his defense will be just as fascinating a thing to watch in the new season.

I’m of the belief that Kyle Schwarber’s defensive shortcomings have always been overblown. He’s always moved better than his size would’ve indicated, both on the basepaths and in the field. And while there have been some instances of some glaring mishaps in the field, he’s generally been a solid left fielder for the Cubs.

Schwarber’s FRAA ranked 19th among left fielders in 2017, as he finished the year with a 2.8 mark. According to FanGraphs, his Revised Zone Rating (RZR), which essentially converts the number of balls hit into his zone that he converts into outs, came in at .893, which ranked 16th among that same group. Defensive Runs Saved didn’t paint too favorable a picture for him, as his -9 mark ranked 20th out of 23 left fielders who logged at least 500 innings at the position. It’s important to note, though, that FanGraphs did slap him with a UZR on the positive side and a Def rating of -0.8. Of course, defensive metrics aren’t perfect and vary according to position, but these figures largely fail to label Kyle Schwarber as the huge defensive liability that he’s rumored to be.

So with him now looking fit as ever and much more like an outfielder than the brawny Schwarber of yesteryear, should we expect him to put those defensive criticisms to bed? It’s likely not going to make too much of a difference, with perhaps the exception of one area in particular: his range.

Schwarber made only 41 Out of Zone plays in left, according to FanGraphs. The only player who made fewer plays outside of his “zone” at that position, having logged as many innings as Schwarber, was Matt Kemp. Not exactly company you want to keep in this day and age. The leader at the position was Justin Upton, who made 96. If his movement on the basepaths this spring is any indication, Schwarber should experience an increased mobility not only due to his new stature, but also the fact that he’s another year removed from knee surgery. This is especially notable given that he’s no longer wearing the brace that could have also provided some limitations for him last season. Increased mobility alone could be a boon for Schwarber as a defensive entity.

In terms of the other elements of the position (his reads, his routes, his throws etc.), these will remain a work in progress for Schwarber. And while he lacks some of the instincts that you’d like a prototypical outfielder to feature, Schwarber has proven that he’s more-than-capable of handling a full-time role at the position without being the liability that the narrative would have many believe. The really important thing here is that we’ve seen Schwarber work as hard as any player in Major League Baseball. He returned from major surgery to appear in the 2016 World Series. He’s showcased a complete transformation of his body in 2017 into 2018. This is a guy who is completely committed to his craft, and there’s no reason to think that he can’t take his defensive game to new heights in the year to come.

It’s somewhat difficult to truly quantify the defensive game of an outfielder, defensive metrics being as inconsistent as they are as you move from position to position. But it comes down to this: Kyle Schwarber’s defense has never been downright bad. Imperfect? Probably. In need of development? Certainly. But he’s been far better than advertised and has made strides toward improvement throughout his transition from wanna-be catcher to full-time outfielder. With this new physique, we could see increased range from Schwarber in the outfield and, subsequently, something of an end to a narrative that we’ve suffered through for far too long.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports

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