Was Saturday’s Lineup a Sign That Schwarber Is Done Leading Off?

Kyle Schwarber has only made seven plate appearances this season from anywhere other than the top spot in the order, and three of those came when he batted eighth after entering the game as a pinch hitter. The rest were logged in place of Anthony Rizzo, who sat out May 10 in Denver. In other words, Schwarber has hit leadoff in all but one game he’s started.

Until today. Sort of.

Though the game was rained out, Schwarber was set to bat second between Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant. Maybe it’s not a full about-face from Joe Maddon, but it is a departure from what has heretofore been a staunchly defended position. The manager had previously held that he felt the leadoff spot was best for his struggling slugger. A continued lack of results — even when they’re largely fueled by bad luck — may have eroded the skipper’s resolve.

“We’ve talked a lot about Kyle hitting balls into the shift,” Maddon explained. “If in fact Zo can get on a little bit more often, it might move that second baseman out of that spot. I don’t know.”

So that’s cool and all, but the shift in and of itself isn’t really Schwarber’s problem. Though he’s only batting .182 overall, his average against the shift this season is .250 (20-for-80). Not great by any stretch, but not really a sign that an extra fielder on the right side is responsible for the depressed numbers. In order to find the real culprit, we need to look at how Schwarber is hitting it, not where.

An elevated strikeout rate would normally signify that a player isn’t making contact, but that’s not the case with Schwarber and the 28.2 percent K-rate that equals his rookie-year mark. His 10.3 percent swinging-strike rate is identical to the league average and his 72.2 percent contact rate is only about 5 percent below. Both numbers are significantly better than during his rookie year, which hardly screams “Regression ahead!”

Where we start to get some alarm bells, however, is in the batted-ball stats, namely grounders and line drives. Though he’s more athletic than people give him credit for, Schwarber isn’t a guy who should be hitting the ball on the ground and beating it out. Especially not against the shift. And you can’t remove Joey Votto’s glove with a grounder every time. So that 43.9 percent groundball rate isn’t going to fly, literally.

The secret to beating the shift is to hit over it and the best way to do that is with line drives. Or, you know, with home runs. A mere 14.3 percent of Schwarber’s batted balls are liners, a trend that has to rise if he’s going to turn his hard-luck season around. You don’t have to be a math genius to understand that making more use of a 1.571 OPS on line drives will yield some pretty solid numbers. Even though that will naturally come down, it’s going to have a positive impact on a .226 BABIP that ranks 170th in baseball.

Coincidentally, the player just above Schwarber on that list is Anthony Rizzo with his .228 average. Woof. Man, I don’t know if I like putting those guys so close together in the order. Then again, it’s only a matter of time before they both bust out. So if that happens with Schwarber hitting second, are we looking at the end of the “experiment” or whatever other thinly-veiled derogatory label we’re slapping on the idea of him batting leadoff?

Given the marginal difference in the number of at-bats accumulated by the first and second hitters, it’s not as though dropping Schwarber in the order will completely mitigate continued bad luck/poor performance. Rather, this seems to be a way for Maddon to prime the pump on the offense by moving the hot-hitting Ben Zobrist up for a while. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.

Either way, I do believe the manager is intent on having Schwarber leading off and will return him to the top of the lineup in short order. And by that I mean soon, not just when the regulars are all getting a break.

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