The Kid Who Only Hit Homers: Kyle Schwarber Becoming a Different Kind of Folk Legend

Paul Bunyan. Pecos Bill. Babe Ruth.

Kyle Schwarber has literally been compared to the latter of that trio of legends and had been granted probationary membership into an assemblage that includes the former pair. His postseason performances — from the Schwarboard to raking in the World Series after six months off following knee reconstruction — truly were the stuff of storybooks.

Lately, however, War Bear’s performances have shifted from something out of the annals of mythical demigod figures to those of a Matt Christopher story. Over the last month, Schwarber has become the kid who only hit homers. That’s really cool in the moment, but hasn’t provided much of a foundation for sustainable success. Yet.

Through his first 170 plate appearances this season, Schwarber had logged 27 hits, six of which had left the yard. His .228 BABIP suggested that perhaps he was the victim of a little bad luck, though some of that stemmed from a 44.3 percent ground ball rate that was a bit higher than you’d like to see. There were signs that perhaps he was coming around and putting it together. He just needed to elevate a little more.

Then he started hitting more flies and things got really weird.

Since May 19 (64 PAs), Schwarber has a 66.7 fly ball rate and has been pulling the ball slightly more than before. At the same time, though, he’s hitting for far less hard contact (26.7 percent from 36.7) than in the previous sample and his line drives have virtually disappeared (3.3 percent from 14.4). All of that feeds a .080 BABIP that is indicative of more than just bad luck, and the box score results have been what you’d expect from such numbers.

Schwarber has only seven hits in his last 64 plate appearances, five of which have left the yard and the other two of which were doubles (both came in a three-hit game on June 7). He’s continuing to fight himself at the plate, though there are times — like that game I just mentioned or his pinch-hit homer Sunday afternoon — when he just lets it rip. And that’s something he needs to do more often.

We’ve praised Schwarber for seeing a lot of pitches — his 4.49 pitches per plate appearance ranks second in MLB to Anthony Rendon (4.50) — and Joe Maddon has praised the young hitter’s ability to work counts. That’s great in theory, seeing those pitches and wearing a pitcher down while maybe giving your teammates more looks at a guy should be good. In reality, though, long at-bats are killing Schwarber.

Consider that he’s hitting around .300 when he puts one of the first couple pitches in an at-bat in play, and that includes a .267 average in 0-2 counts (granted, only 15 at-bats there). As the overall .171 average tells us, then, things get appreciably worse as Schwarber gets deeper into the count and sees more pitches. His MO for much of the season has been to take and take, but that ends up putting him in situations that require him to guess and protect.

I’ve mentioned it before but it bears repeating that while Schwarber has taken more strikes (162) than he’s swung at and missed (125), he’s gone down swinging three times more often than he has looking (54 to 17). What makes this even more crazy is that Schwarber’s overall swinging-strike percentage (10.9 percent) is significantly lower than in his rookie season. This is a case in which “look before you leap” may not be such a good strategy.

I don’t know if being hyper-aggressive is the way to go either, as pitchers are only giving him first pitch strikes in 48.3 percent of his plate appearances, well below the league average of 60.3 percent. Turning his season around may be a simple matter of staying wary of that first pitch and then jumping on subsequent offerings without trying to simply work deep counts.

All the good peripherals in the world don’t mean anything if the actual results continue to provide information to the contrary. Kyle Schwarber should be better than he’s been and he absolutely can go on a tear that elevates his numbers significantly, but I don’t think he’ll get there with the same approach he’s displayed heretofore. As that P/PA number drops, the other stats will rise.

Then maybe we can start talking about Schwarber in the same breath as those other tall tales once more.

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