Ever since Theo Epstein took the podium the Wednesday following the Cubs’ Wild Card game loss to Colorado, there’s been speculation about which players he had in mind when saying the club needed to “stop evaluating this in terms of talent and start evaluating in terms of production.” Even before those comments, I posited that the team bet too heavily on their own young hitters to come into form this season while ignoring a great opportunity to add a bat and solidify an amorphous outfield situation. I focused on Albert Almora, Ian Happ, and Kyle Schwarber as the trio of hitters in which the front office invested, and the consensus on Epstein’s comments seems to be that these three are whom he was talking about—with a specific focus on Schwarber.
This is interesting for a few reasons. The first is that Schwarber has now submitted a full major-league season of above-average offensive output, following a sterling-but-brief debut, a season lost to injury, and a trying comeback campaign. His career OPS is a solid .809, and he’s hit 72 homers in 1274 plate appearances. The man can hit pretty well, and he’s now shown that over a rocky, but large sample.
The second is that Schwarber has actually improved his game, at least defensively. We know he is a tireless worker, like many of the young Cubs, and Schwarber has consistently put in the work to improve specific things about his game that can make him a better full-time player. When he came into 2018 looking svelte, quickly establishing himself as a presence in left field via his strong arm, there were as many sighs of relief as there were expressions of disbelief. That defensive improvement allowed Joe Maddon to slot Schwarber into left field without worry most days, where he received 115 starts this season.
Schwarber is probably the best player in the above trio for these reasons, at least for now. Almora still can’t hit righties at all, and Happ’s middling defense at multiple positions does only so much to cover what was a disappointing sophomore season at the plate. So why do people think Epstein was talking about Schwarber?
The answer is in that “rocky, but large” sample. Or, rather, it is that “rocky, but large” sample. Schwarber has the most plate appearances out of that trio (although not by as much as you might think), and there is a lingering sense that the player Schwarber was in 2018 is the player Schwarber will be going forward. The production doesn’t meet the talent—it rarely does, even for first-round picks, and Schwarber’s legendary World Series exploits combined with front office gloating about his impeccable hit tool perhaps inflated that talent level in the eyes of Cubs fans. So the question is, what does the production tell us?
In as many words, it tells us that Schwarber is an incredibly good platoon player.
Don’t sound so disappointed! Many good left-handed hitters become platoon players, especially as the march toward absolute pitching specialization means more hard-throwing lefties trotting out of the bullpen late in games. With the right personnel, good teams can employ platoons to make the most of their role players and cover some of the risk inherent in those players’ profiles. The Cubs do it, the Red Sox do it, the Dodgers do it a lot.
So, to the numbers. Here are Schwarber’s career splits by handedness.
There’s not much to say about this table, honestly. It’s clear that Schwarber hits righties very well and lefties very poorly. He strikes out quite a bit more versus lefties, and his ability to work walks is his only saving grace when facing same-handed pitchers. Schwarber makes more contact and drives the ball much more often when facing righties. Breaking down the numbers for 2018 alone just tells the same story.
So, Schwarber is, ideally, a platoon player on a very good team. And, generally, the Cubs have used him like one. But “generally” does a lot of work in that sentence: Schwarber started 10 games in 2018 versus lefties, and 26 in his career. Doesn’t sound like much, right? Well, yeah, you’re right. It’s not like Maddon is running Schwarber out there versus lefties once a week, just to see the slugger fail.
However, the Cubs could still improve on their usage of Schwarber, for their benefit and for his. For comparison, let’s look at a very similar player: Joc Pederson.
Pederson is 26—one year older than Schwarber—and he has similar splits versus righties and lefties, while logging time exclusively in the outfield. Pederson’s ability to cover center field makes him a more attractive defensive option, but the difference is small enough to not matter in this case. Here are Pederson’s career splits versus righties compared to Schwarber’s, followed by their splits versus lefties.
The two hitters are eerily similar. Their batting averages across both splits are all but identical. Schwarber has hit for a little more power versus righties, but their strikeout and walk rates have been pretty damn close for their careers.
What is interesting, though, is how the two have been deployed versus lefties in their careers. In almost no situation will Pederson or Schwarber facing a lefty give you a better chance to win than picking a right-handed pinch hitter for that spot, but it’s impossible to guarantee they never face lefties. Take a look at the percentage of total plate appearances in which these two hitters have faced lefties across a few different splits.
|Career||2018||Med. and High Leverage, 2018|
While the two have faced a similar enough percentage of left-handed pitchers in their careers, 2018 was quite a bit different, and I think indicative of how these two players’ managers and front offices have handled them. Schwarber saw lefties more in 2018 by five percentage points, and in nine percent of his plate appearances this past season, he faced a lefty in a medium- or high-leverage situation. For comparison, Pederson was put in that situation in only four percent of his total plate appearances.
Simply, Dave Roberts has put Pederson in a better spot to succeed, at least regarding the platoon advantage, than Maddon has with Schwarber. The two managers, and their respective bosses, should be seeking opportunities to limit these two hitters’ exposure to lefties, especially in tense situations or versus hard-throwing relievers.
This is where the “talent/production” gap has manifested most readily. Pederson and Schwarber are both skilled players with impressive hitting pedigrees. The Cubs thought highly enough of Schwarber to take him earlier than expected in the 2014 draft, while Pederson was drafted out of high school in the 11th round. Schwarber was a blue-chip college hitter with a great hit tool and power; Pederson, a high school hitter given a significantly over-slot bonus, and whose power and plate discipline really showed up in the minors. But, after a good sample of data versus major-league pitching, the two hitters have arrived in similar spots in terms of production. Schwarber may have had a leg up on Pederson in 2014, but, as of 2018, they are more alike than different.
The Cubs believe in Schwarber, as they have believed in all of their young players. It’s doubtful that Schwarber would have returned to star in the 2016 World Series had the Cubs not thrown their weight behind him completely and given him the resources to prepare himself for that test. But the Cubs do make mistakes. They appear to have overplayed their hand in terms of young hitters, and their unwavering belief at the cost of acquiring another hitter hurt them in 2017 and 2018.
On the other hand, the Dodgers have been willing to supplement their young hitters with role players (and a star or two) who not only immediately make the team better, but who allow more flexibility in how the young hitters are used. While Pederson appeared in the most games as an outfielder for the 2018 Dodgers, eight total players made double-digit appearances in the outfield. The Cubs totaled six players hitting that mark this season. Acquiring Manny Machado mid-season allowed for even more selective playing time for those outfielders, as it pushed Kiké Hernández and Chris Taylor into the outfield more often.
It’s partially because of this boldness that the Dodgers have been able to turn Pederson and Hernández into two- to three-win players, revive Matt Kemp’s career, and still play Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger, and Chris Taylor in the outfield. While the Cubs have played matchups with their outfield corps of Almora, Happ, Jason Heyward, Schwarber, and Ben Zobrist, the team might just not have the personnel at the moment to maximize production from those players. Maddon did well to keep Zobrist fresh on the way to a great comeback campaign, but Almora played versus righties much too often, Schwarber received too many key at-bats versus lefties, and Happ often found himself on the outside looking in.
With an abundant crop of free agents available to improve the Cubs offense, there’s a solid likelihood that one of Almora, Happ, or Schwarber will be wearing a different uniform come April. Whatever the Cubs’ decision, it won’t be an easy one to make; however, adding a player who allows Maddon to better deploy Schwarber could significantly improve the team in multiple ways. It’s what great teams do to extend their greatness: constant improvement and re-evaluation.
The Cubs’ belief that Schwarber himself would become that all-purpose impact bat was probably over-optimistic, but there remains an opportunity for Schwarber to become the best version of what he actually is. Not every player is Kris Bryant or Javy Báez; some are Kyle Schwarber, and that’s okay.
Lead photo courtesy @Cubs on Twitter