Kyle Schwarber is back playing baseball this year after missing nearly all of 2016. The last thing you probably remember about Schwarber is his superhero performance in the 2016 World Series. You may have forgotten about the strikeouts, though. Strikeouts have been a bit of a problem for Schwarber during his time with the Cubs. He struck out in 28.2% of his plate appearances in his rookie season. He's striking out in 33.9% of his plate appearances this year. That K% ranks 12th highest in the majors of qualified hitters. Granted, he's still been a very good hitter, due to his power and ability to get on base. But, he's really taken his Three True Outcome profile to the extremes in the early going this season. Despite his high strikeout rate, he's still posted a 130 wRC+, largely thanks to his 17.9% BB%. Though it's rather jarring to see a leadoff hitter striking out this often, Schwarber's .393 OBP is second-highest of 20 players with at least 40 PA while hitting lead-off.
If there's one thing you want from your leadoff hitter, it's probably for him to get on base. Schwarber's filling his duties as a leadoff hitter, even if he's doing it extremely unconventionally. But, I'm here to tell you that things are actually going even better than they may seem. While his strikeout rate is way up, Schwarber's actually making a lot more contact. The one major red flag with Schwarber in 2015 was his contact rate, particularly his contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone. As Dave Cameron pointed out at Fangraphs:
Dating back to 2008, there have been 620 player-seasons in which an age-25-or-younger hitter has come to the plate at least 250 times. Of those 620 player-seasons, Schwarber’s 2015 in-zone contact rate ranked 614th
That is certainly disconcerting. There are some good hitters that rank near the bottom of that list -- mostly power hitters, like Schwarber. And a lot of those guys got better as they gained more experience. Cubs fans will be familiar with one of those names: Kris Bryant. Again from Cameron:
Now, it’s easy to just look at Bryant and say “hey, we’ll take a left-handed Bryant, no problem.” And certainly, if Schwarber could do anything close to what Bryant can do at the plate, he’d be a franchise cornerstone, even with the defensive question marks.
Cameron goes on to point out that Schwarber is a lefty pull hitter that can be shifted against. Bryant isn't. That will help Bryant maintain a higher BABIP. (Also, Bryant is very fast and is continually among the league leaders in infield hits. Schwarber won't be able to match him there, either.) So Bryant already has a leg up as a hitter, when looking just at what happens when the two put the ball in play. But, I want to stick with this comparison, because there are parallels that fit with regard to their contact ability. Bryant was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 after slashing .275/.369/.488. Schwarber came up at mid-season the same year and slashed .246/.355/.487. Bryant did so while striking out in 30.6% of his PA. Schwarber was just below him, with a 28.2% K%.
Bryant was obviously quite successful in his rookie campaign, but there were some concerns about him as a hitter entering his 2016 MVP season. I addressed these concerns in an article about Bryant last year. Bryant might have had a little luck on his side in 2015, and, moreover, his inability to make contact loomed as a potential issue going forward. Like Schwarber, Bryant's most glaring issue was that he swung through too many pitches in the zone.
(A quick note: We're going to be combing through plate discipline numbers from Fangraphs for much of this article. Fangraphs has two sets of data on plate discipline: their in-house data, provided by Baseball Info Solutions, and PITCHf/x data. Assume I am using the Baseball Info Solutions data, unless I state otherwise.)
Bryant answered nearly all of the questions about his contact ability in 2016. He raised his Contact% from 66.3% to 73.3%. His Z-Contact% (Contact% on pitches in the zone) went up from 75.8% to 81.1%. He also upped his power output. But, his improved contact ability was probably the biggest reason we saw such a leap in his production last year. What was a major issue was one no more. By the way... psst... he's up to a 78.1% Contact% and 87.2% Z-Contact% this year.
Schwarber's contact numbers were eerily similar to Bryant's in 2015. Schwarber had a Contact% of 67.8% and a Z-Contact% of 74.8%. And, guess what? They've both went way up so far this year. He's up to a 75.8% Contact% and a Z-Contact% of 84.8%. Remember that stat from earlier about Schwarber posting one of the worst in-zone contact seasons in history? He's almost league average this year, which is at 85.7%. The league average Contact% is 77.5% right now, so he's nearing league average there, too. Schwarber's making the leap that Bryant did last year, and then some.
There's other differences between the two, besides the stuff I mentioned earlier about their handedness and Bryant's speed. Bryant's always walked a good amount, but Schwarber's shown a little more patience. Bryant's Swing% his rookie year was 49.0%; Schwarber's was 44.6%. Bryant walked 11.8% of the time he came up to bat; Schwarber walked 13.2% of the time. Bryant's numbers stayed approximately the same in 2016, though he's been even more patient this year. Schwarber's taken another huge leap in this regard, walking in 17.9% of his PA this year. His Swing% is down to 39.3%. So, not only has Schwarber taken the Bryant Leap in contact ability, but he's also been more discerning than his already discerning self in 2015.
Clearly, the two are a lot alike, but there are differences. So don't take this article to be a rejoinder that "No, Kyle Schwarber actually is Kris Bryant." I focus on the comparison because of the leaps in contact ability. This is important, because, believe it or not, a player's ability to make contact correlates strongly with how often they strike out. And, also, these plate discipline numbers stabilize quickly -- much more so than any other stat you'll look at. Swing% stabilizes after around 50 PA; contact rate after about 100 PA. Schwarber's already had 56 PA. This doesn't mean that this is who he is now, or that his plate discipline numbers can't be a little fluky. It just means that, given a random person's plate discipline numbers, we can be more certain than not that what we are seeing is because of a true talent level and not just noise. Guys will still go up and down, and they might change their approach as a hitter throughout the course of a season. But at these stabilization points, we know we are working with a reliable sample.
One of my favorite statistics when looking at plate discipline is Swinging Strike% (swings and misses / total pitches). I love this stat, because a swinging strike is always going to be bad. It's always a strike, after all. With anything else, something good could happen. You could swing and make contact with the ball and put it in play. Once in play, it could fall in for a hit or fly over the fence. You could make contact and foul off a ball with two strikes to keep an AB alive. You could take a pitch and it could be called for a ball. Bad things can also happen, but there's always a chance of something good happening if you don't swing and miss. This stat somewhat combines the two things we've been discussing, too -- contact ability and plate discipline.
Schwarber's SwStr% is 9.5% right now. The league average is 10.4%. Kyle Schwarber is swinging and missing at a lower percent of pitches than the average hitter in the league. And yet, he's struck out at a rate higher than all but 11 qualified hitters in baseball. There's a few reasons for this. But the main one is this: Kyle Schwarber's K% is fluky high right now. It's way above where it should be. If he'd had normal luck on sequencing his swings and misses, he'd be striking out way less than he has so far. If he keeps making contact as he's done, his K% is going to drop... a lot.
It's pretty easy to explain. Schwarber is patient and works deep counts. He's going to see Strike 2 a lot, because he is so patient. Also, it's still really early. That's why, early on, it's better to pay attention to things like Contact% that stabilize more quickly than other peripheral stats. Say you get in a few deep counts and just so happen to swing and miss three times once you have two strikes, that's three K's, It doesn't matter that you made contact on 8 other swings; the K% really only cares about what happened on strike 2. Or maybe you draw a full count and take a pitch off the plate that the umpire incorrectly calls a strike. The K's can pile up quickly -- inordinately so -- when you are that patient and we have but a small sample.
Still, there is a strong correlation between Swinging Strike% and K%. I took the data from every qualified hitter from the last five years to make the following scatter plot. The correlation between SwStr% and K% was .8042, which is quite strong.
You can probably see it in the above image, but a decent rule of thumb is to double a hitter's Swinging Strike% to see where his K% should reasonably be at. Schwarber's K% is almost four times his Swinging Strike%. You'll run into some problems when dealing with extremely unusual players, though. Schwarber qualifies as that. Pitchers are afraid to pitch to him, and he won't bite on the junk they throw to him. He's seen the 15th-lowest percent of pitches thrown in the zone. He's swung at a smaller percent of pitches than all but 21 batters. He's unusual. And he's going to see more deep counts because of it, which will lead to more strikeouts, in and of itself. So, while it gives us a good idea, Swinging Strike% isn't the best stat to look at to determine where his K% should be.
Perhaps a better stat for us is Contact%. I took the same data from the above scatter plot and created one for Contact%, as well. The correlation between Contact% and K% was -.90044. Again, that's a very strong negative correlation.
The higher your Contact%, the less you'll strike out. This is a basic concept. But, I think it's one worth mentioning when saying, "No, seriously, Kyle Schwarber's K% is way higher than it should be." Looking at last year's K% leaders, the highest on the list with a SwStr% below 10.5% was Eugenio Suarez with a 24.7% K%. Schwarber's SwStr% is at 9.5% right now. The highest with a Contact% over 73.0% was Adam Duvall with a 27.0% K%. Schwarber's Contact% is at 75.8%. Duvall was also the highest of all batters with a Z-Contact% as high as Schwarber's 84.8%. Duvall is another unusual player, but for very different reasons than Schwarber. Duvall is among the league leaders in both highest O-Swing% and lowest O-Contact%. He swings at a ton of stuff out of the zone and misses a lot when he does. Even still, while basically begging pitchers to strike him out with junk pitches, Duvall kept his K% to 27.0% despite making less contact than Schwarber is right now.
So where exactly should we expect Schwarber's K% to be at with his current plate discipline peripherals? Luckily, we have something we can turn to for an answer. Mike Podhorzer developed an expected K% formula over at Fangraphs. This looks at, not only contact ability, but also some of the things I've mentioned that make Schwarber unique, such as how often he's seeing pitches in the zone and how often he's swinging at them. This formula essentially takes the strong correlation from Contact% that I showed earlier, adds a few new components, and spits out an even stronger correlation:
It also gives us an easily quantifiable number to point at -- his xK%, of course. According to Podhorzer's formula, Schwarber's xK% is 23.8%. His actual K% is at 33.9%. Just for context, if we lop off about 10% from his K%, that takes away about 6 strikeouts. Give Schwarber 13 K's instead of 19, and it would put his K% at 23.2%. If we assume those 6 PA now end up with balls put in play (at the same level of production as his other balls in play), then his slash would look like this: .301/.438/.547. This is based entirely on his other peripherals remaining the same. They aren't going to do so. His BABIP is rather high right now, and his ISO might be a little too low. But, it puts into context just how much his overall production has suffered from his K% being (probably) around 10% too high.
The thing with Schwarber that I've mentioned but haven't really gone into detail about is with his BB%. It's really high right now -- at 17.9%. He ranks 16th in MLB in BB%. Some of the guys above him are definitely fluky high. Ryan Schimpf isn't going to walk in 27.1% of his PA this year. Schwarber's walk-rate looks legit, though. He's always walked a lot, so 17.9% isn't really that abnormal anyway. But, as I mentioned in passing, Schwarber's shown an even more discerning eye than he has in the past. According to PITCHf/x, his O-Swing% (Swing% on pitches out of the zone) is down from 31.3% in 2015 to 23.7% this year. And pitchers are still afraid to throw the ball in the zone to him. He's going to walk a lot this year if he maintains this level of discipline.
Joey Votto is a paragon of plate discipline in sabermetric circles. We'll compare Schwarber's plate discipline to Votto's, in his prime, just to see how Schwarber measures up. In 2012, Votto walked in 19.8% of his PA. According to PITCHf/x, his O-Swing% was 21.1% and his Z-Swing% was 56.9% in 2012. According to PITCHf/x, Schwarber has an O-Swing% of 23.7% and a Z-Swing% of 59.5% in 2017. Like with Bryant, they aren't exactly the same players. Votto's always had a Contact% right around league average. Schwarber's below that and, in his short history, has been well below it. Votto also hits more line drives than just about anyone, and he sprays the ball to all fields. His BABIP is always really high. And Votto's not really a prolific power hitter. He hits for a lot of power, but his power output is augmented by a lot of doubles. Schwarber seems like a decent bet to hit more home runs and be a more prototypical lefty pull-power hitter. But, it's worth noting that Schwarber, right now, is showing the same type of plate discipline that Joey Votto's displayed throughout his career.
Just to give an idea of how much we might expect him to walk, I've compiled a list of players with similar contact ability and plate discipline. Fangraphs has data going back to 2007 for PITCHf/x plate discipline. I've also sorted by the lowest amount of pitches seen in the zone. We should probably expect Schwarber to continue seeing a low amount of pitches in the zone, if he keep hitting balls in rivers and on top of scoreboards. You'll see several distinct breeds of hitters at the top of this list. Guys that don't see many pitches in the zone usually do one or more of these things: swing at everything, hit the ball really hard, or have trouble making contact.
Vlad Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval make multiple appearances near the top. Why throw them pitches in the zone, if they'll swing at anything? Giancarlo Stanton's on there. Don't give him something in the zone to hammer 500 feet, especially when he has such trouble making contact. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rizzo are on there. They are terrifying and do seemingly everything well. So what are you going to do when you face them? Your best bet is to stay away from the zone and hope you luck out. If they walk, then they walk.
To give us an idea of what players are most similar to Schwarber, here are the players over these last ten years who've posted a Contact% over 70.0%, an O-Swing% below 26%, and have seen less than 45% of their pitches in the strike zone during a season: Bryce Harper, Chipper Jones (twice), Adam Dunn, Mark Teixeira, Jose Bautista, and Josh Donaldson. I should mention that these were during some of the best years of these guys' careers, too. Adam Dunn's season was from 2008, when he hit 40 homers and walked on 18.7% of his PA. When you start drifting down around that 70% threshold, you'll notice you cross over what's basically a line of demarcation between what would be described as "excellent" hitters and Three True Outcome guys. If you remove the 70% Contact% threshold, you'll find guys like Carlos Pena, who hit for power and walked a ton, but also posted huge strikeout numbers. What these guys all have in common is an ability to hit the ball hard and to draw walks. But contact ability is what separates the Bryce Harpers from the Adam Dunns (that is, non-prime Dunn).
If Kyle Schwarber can maintain a Contact% well over 70%, like it is now, he's bound to be described more as an "excellent" hitter than as a Three True Outcome guy. While he may not be Kris Bryant or Joey Votto, Schwarber is going to be a very good hitter. He's made huge strides in a lot of different areas. And if he keeps making contact like this and showing the same keen eye, his numbers at the plate this year will be eye-popping.