Cubs Inbox: How clutch is Kyle Schwarber?

May 13th, 2019

The "clutch" part of Kyle Schwarber's game has been under the microscope since last season, and for a very understandable reason. In 2018, he had a -64 wRC+ in high-leverage situations, which was last in the Majors among qualified hitters. Good news: Schwarber has a 151 wRC+ in high-leverage moments so far in '19.

Alas, that last number I gave you features a sample size of 11 plate appearances. Yes, we're into the season's second full month, but we're still in volatile sample-size territory, so it's hard to dig too deep into what a hitter is doing in specific situations right now. That's easy enough to spot with a glance at Schwarber's splits, which are a mixed bag in "clutch" scenarios right now.

RISP: .593 OPS (36 plate appearances)

Two outs, RISP: .775 OPS (17 PA)

Two outs: .855 OPS (39 PA)

Runners on: .804 OPS (52 PA)

Late and close: .866 OPS (21 PA)

Back on April 24, Schwarber was hitting .191 with a .595 OPS overall. The Cubs have seen a tick up in production over the past couple of weeks, though. Heading into Monday's off-day, he was batting .293 with a .903 OPS in his last 15 games, with a lot of the on-base percentage (.464) driven by walks (13), as you noted. But that's also a sign of better command of the zone and avoiding chasing pitches.

That has been an underlying theme to Schwarber's season to date. He has cut down on his swings against pitches outside the zone some (23.4% vs. 25.2% in 2018) and upped his swing rate on in-zone offerings (69% vs. 64.9% in '18). Schwarber's contact rate outside the zone has jumped to 62.7 percent (up from 54.1 percent in '18) and his swinging-strike rate has dropped to 9.9% (down from 11.3% in '18).

One of the things that has been working against Schwarber is shifts. Teams are still shifting on him at a similar rate this year (62.7%) compared to last year (64.5%). But according to Statcast, Schwarber has a .306 wOBA against the shift this year vs. a .380 wOBA against the shift in '18. That may help explain why his actual results overall are below his expected rates at the moment.

Schwarber is hitting .229 with a .376 slugging percentage and .311 wOBA overall, but his expected numbers are higher (.263 AVG, .465 SLG and .356 wOBA) based on the quality of contact. If you look underneath the hood, the biggest gaps between results and expected production are against fastballs (.400 SLG vs. .524 xSLG) and offspeed pitches (.579 SLG vs. .703 xSLG). Schwarber has struggled against breaking balls, and the peripherals back that up (.229 SLG and .243 xSLG).

So what's my take on Schwarber's current game? I think there are underlying numbers that show hope for positive regression. There's been some bad luck (outs into the shift) and pitchers are feeding him fewer fastballs and more breaking and offspeed stuff. If Schwarber can keep his command of the zone -- as shown via the recent walks -- that should lend itself to getting into more hitter's counts and the numbers should climb. That's the hope for the Cubs anyway.

This question comes on the heels of a botched play by Schwarber in Sunday's game. Christian Yelich sent a fly ball to left field, where Schwarber broke back toward the wall before needing to correct his route. The left fielder was unable to recover quickly enough to avoid an error that allowed Yelich to reach third base and later score.

The play in question came with a catch probability of 99%. That, on the surface, looks awful. And let's be honest, the play itself looked awful. That said, one thing that catch probability doesn't take into account is that the wind inside Wrigley Field was stiff and blowing in, creating that swirling effect in certain parts of the outfield. So was it a poor play? Yes. Were there other factors involved? Definitely.

Schwarber made great strides in left last year, and I think he's much better that the above play looks in isolation. Statistically, he's been about average. Per Fangraphs, Schwarber has 0 Defensive Runs Saved, 0.9 Fielding Runs (that arm helps) and a 25.0 UZR/150. Per Statcast, he's at -1 Outs Above Average with a 90% catch percentage (compared to a 92% expected catch percentage).

That's a tough question, but you're right that errors have been a problem. Entering Monday, the Cubs led the National League in errors (34) and were second in the Majors. Looking at more advanced numbers, Chicago has basically been in the middle of the pack with 1 Defensive Run Saved as a team and 2.4 Fielding Runs overall, per Fangraphs.

You don't want to take away the aggressiveness of guys like Javier Baez or Willson Contreras (five errors apiece), but the decision-making might need to be tightened up overall. David Bote is also responsible for six errors, which seems more fluky than anything, given his skills as a defender. This is one of those areas you hope gets ironed out over time as the players keep putting in work, the team tweaks its positioning plans and sample size gets larger.

There have been no details given as to the reasoning for Zobrist's leave of absense, other than to say that he is tending to a personal matter. That said, there has been no indication that Zobrist will not return to the Cubs at some point. By going on MLB's restricted list, though, Chicago was able to give the veteran as much time as he needs to handle whatever is going on off the field.

Why did the Cubs bring Addison Russell up from Triple-A Iowa instead of Ian Happ?
-- Greg K., Wisconsin

With Zobrist going on the restricted list and Daniel Descalso banged up at the time with a left ankle issue, the Cubs needed a middle infielder. Russell was in the plans for this upcoming week as it was and he had been getting reps at second base with Iowa. So defensively speaking, he was better positioned to step in and help the infield. Happ has mostly played the outfield while with Iowa this season.

I noticed a Cardinals fan threw the home run ball that Taylor Davis hit for a grand slam back onto the field last week. Since it was his first Cubs home run, not to mention a grand slam, did anyone retrieve the ball and give it to Taylor as a keepsake? Just wondering.
-- Mike W., Columbia, Mo.

Yes! What a moment that was for Davis. And as fate would have it, the ball did indeed land in the hands of a St. Louis fan, who high-fived another Cardinals loyalist after chucking the ball back into left field. The Cubs got the baseball and it made its way back to Davis.