If you've been paying attention, you've probably seen Kyle Schwarber's name come up a lot recently. It's that time of the year; the trade deadline is near. The Cubs would like to strengthen their bullpen. The Yankees are overflowing with excellent pitchers in their bullpen. It seems like a logical fit as far as trade partners go. We've also found out that Brian Cashman is infatuated with Schwarber. He apparently thinks Schwarber can hit 50 home runs in Yankee Stadium. He thinks it's only fair to have Schwarber included in any deal involving the two teams. This might help explain why Brian Cashman is in a position where he is contemplating selling off some of his superfluous, elite relief pitching. He believes the going rate for a relief pitcher with two more years of control is a player that can hit 50 home runs and has five more years of control.
You have to give Cashman credit for one thing. He's built a hell of a bullpen. But, in his haste to keep the Yankees competitive, he's been late to adjust to this era where teams covet young players and understand concepts like years of control and surplus value in pre-free agency years. In this post-PED era, players are better at a young age and decline earlier. As such, young players are becoming more valuable. Cashman's team is filled with old and deteriorating players and Theo Epstein's team is filled with young, blossoming players. I'm sure Cashman would love to skim one of those players off the Cubs' roster.
Let's be clear, though: By just about every measurement, Andrew Miller is one of the best relief pitchers in all of baseball. Me referring to him as just a relief pitcher is being disingenuous. He's probably the best left-handed relief pitcher out there, if it's not his teammate, Aroldis Chapman, who also happens to be on the trading block. But is Miller worth young, injured Kyle Schwarber, masher of
Dave Cameron at Fangraphs wrote an article yesterday in which he suggested that the Cubs -- and their fans -- overvalue Schwarber. Cameron is a really smart guy and he's put out a lot of great writing for a long time now. He was at the forefront of writing on the internet about baseball from an analytical perspective. When you read something written by Dave Cameron, you can expect it to be insightful. He knows baseball and is quite astute at measuring player value. This article is one he's meant to write.
It's a bad article, though. Cameron's not necessarily wrong in his critique of Schwarber. Schwarber is injured and his inability to play defense and make contact will suppress his value. And he could very well be correct about his view of Schwarber as a player going forward. But I believe Cameron had a vendetta when he wrote this article. He got a little testy in a chat at Fangraphs the day before.
In that chat, he said:
Well, that's just outrageous. He's not even the most overrated young player on the Cubs in the last few years. May I introduce you to Junior Lake, Jorge Soler, and Starlin Castro? I think Mr. Cameron was a little agitated from seeing a deluge of comments about Schwarber from silly Cubs fans. I think a commenter in the chat named Jerry was spot on:
Jerry: When you make a ridiculous statement like “(Schwarber) is the most overrated young player the game has seen in years”, what are you basing that on, exactly? From my perspective seems like a complete overreaction to some trade rumors, and perhaps a lot of crazy chat questions. Can’t possibly be based on anything substantial.
Dave Cameron: Right, the interactions that Cubs fans have been having with me regarding Schwarber over the last year aren’t substantial. It’s just a few crazy chat questions. That’s all. Nothing else.
Are Cubs fans, en masse, suggesting to Cameron that Schwarber is the best hitter in baseball or something? Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen a lot of that. Most of what I've seen has been Cubs fans stating that they don't want to trade Schwarber for a relief pitcher, however good that relief pitcher is. If you are suggesting to Mr. Cameron that Schwarber is the best hitter in baseball, then please stop. You are making yourself and, by extension, all Cubs fans look silly. From this Cubs fan's perspective, Schwarber is a good but not great player. I think he's a safe bet to hit, thanks to his astonishing power. But I also realize his ceiling is limited because of the concerns about his defense. I don't think it's unreasonable to view him as an above average player when looking at the whole picture -- somewhere around a 3-win player.
I think most Cubs fans are in agreement on this -- at least most of the ones that would be visiting Cameron's site. Maybe we are too high on his bat, though? It's possible. In the chat I referenced earlier, a fan -- who, granted, was a blind homer --- asked this:
Is it really delusional, though? I proffer that it is not. It might be a tad too optimistic. But calling such a notion delusional seems a bit much. In Cameron's article yesterday he said:
That's really good. Last year, that 143 wRC+ would have slotted in right behind Anthony Rizzo for 13th in the majors among qualified hitters. Is it really delusional to think that a guy might hit a little better than he did as a 22-year-old rookie, one year removed from playing college baseball? Sure, it's only 300 PA and we don't have much other data on him to reliably say that 143 wRC+ is the real deal. But, are we really concerned about Kyle Schwarber's ability to hit? He's hit everywhere he's been. His bat's never been much of a question.
His bat is why the Cubs drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2014 Draft. Many scouts viewed his bat as the best in the Draft. After being drafted, Schwarber slashed .333/.429/.613 in 147 minor league games. His bat is what earned him a sixth-place ranking on Baseball America's 2015 mid-season prospect list. After that list came out, his bat carried him to 1.9 fWAR in 273 PA after being called up to the big leagues. His bat helped carry the Cubs to a victory over the Pirates in the Wild Card Game last year. It helped send the Cardinals home in the next round, leaving indelible visions of dongs flying over scoreboards in Cards fans' minds along the way.
The questions about Schwarber's defense have surrounded him his whole career, though. That's why you've probably read a plethora of articles wondering what position Schwarber will play long-term. It's why the idea of trading Schwarber even exists. It's why some people believe it is incumbent on the Cubs to trade him to an American League team. If he were better suited to play defense in the major leagues, none of this would be worth mentioning. So if you were to suggest that Schwarber's poor defense should temper expectations, then I would acquiesce.
But, when you question his bat, I am going to need you to submit evidence that contradicts my line of thinking. Cameron decided to question Schwarber's bat. To his credit, Cameron does present evidence in his article. The problem is that this evidence isn't very credible. This is where my problem with the article arises.
It's as if Cameron said to himself, "You know what? You guys are pissing me off. I'll show you." He basically admitted as much in his chat the day prior:
Jeff Sullivan, who also writes at Fangraphs, is probably my favorite baseball writer around. He'll often notice something strange that piques his interest and will then try to get to the bottom of the issue. These articles are often silly or campy. The subject matter isn't as meaningful as a potential trade involving multi-million dollar assets. But I enjoy how he discovers a subject and then unpeels it before coming to his conclusion.
That's not what Cameron did. When he decided to write this article, his intent was luminous. He was out to prove that Kyle Schwarber was overrated.
There's not really a problem with him doing this. Hell, I'm doing the exact same thing right now. I won't cast aspersions at him for that. It's probably best to remain completely objective and let your research lead you to a conclusion, but sometimes you have to argue your case. The problem is that he omitted a lot of things that don't align with what he presented. He was also careless with presenting information and trying to make it prove something it couldn't. And some of the stuff that he mentioned provided no value to his article.
I'm going to try to tackle most of the issues I have with this article individually, by posting what Cameron wrote and then giving my retort.
That's not a good thing. For sure. I'll concede that. Schwarber swung and missed at pitches a lot last season, startlingly so on pitches in the zone. This "614th out of 620" simplification isn't really fair to Schwarber, though. It seems more damning than it really is. Yes, Kyle Schwarber did a poor job of making contact last year. He also hit for a lot of power, though. If we include his post-season stats, he had an ISO of .274 last year. If we look at those same 620 player-seasons, a .274 ISO is where Mike Trout and Kris Bryant are at, sitting 13th and 14th. Why does this matter? Well, for a number of different reasons, there is a negative relationship between contact and isolated slugging. Power correlates significantly with contact rate. Power hitters swing and miss.
If we look at the other end of that list of 620 player-seasons, you'll see some uninspiring names. Ben Revere, Jose Iglesias, and Steve Lombardozzi populate the top of the list. That's probably not company that you want to keep as a hitter, either. Granted, Schwarber is still seventh-worst on the list. There's no way for me to spin that. But, stating that he is 614th out of 620 is pulling the wool over the reader's eyes. Cameron states that it's not "just your run-of-the-mill low-contact rate for a young power hitter." Well, he isn't comparing him to other power hitters. He is comparing him to all hitters. Kyle Schwarber isn't like Ben Revere, so we shouldn't be comparing them in any way. There aren't many contemporaries that you should compare to Kyle Schwarber as a hitter.
This isn't a great list. Most of those guys are high-strikeout guys with a little pop that hang around the league for a while without being very valuable. There's a couple of players that developed into pretty good hitters, though, in George Springer and Chris Davis. These guys also finished lower in Z-Contact% than Schwarber, but I digress.
My other main issue with this list of 620 player-seasons is that it includes all seasons since 2008 when a player started the season at age 25 or less. Schwarber wasn't just 25 or younger. He was a 22-year-old rookie, one year removed from being drafted. There's a big difference between being a 22-year-old rookie and being 25. Generally, a 22-year-old can be expected to improve his contact rate -- sometimes by a significant amount. A 25-year-old is pretty much tapped out in this regard.
While he is losing a year of development, Schwarber could reasonably be expected to improve this area of his game. If we look at some of those names below him, they were pretty much destined to forever be miserable hackers. Mark Reynolds had two seasons on that list in which his Z-Contact% was lower than Schwarber's, one in which he turned 25 during the season and the other in which he turned 26 during the season. He also already had 414 PA in the season he turned 24. Chris Carter's season that is a few tenths of a percentage point ahead of Schwarber's came in a season during which he turned 25. He also had two seasons prior where he spent time in the majors. Even the one player that is actually really good on that list, George Springer, turned 25 during the season that appears below Schwarber.
And it's not just a problem that these guys are featured on the same list. We're looking at every single age-24 and age-25 season during this time period, including every slap-hitting extraordinaire known to man. So a lot of those 620 player-seasons are going to be from guys that were at or near their peak in terms of contact ability.
Sure, but Junior Lake sucks at baseball. Junior Lake sucked before he came up to the majors and posted a 77% Z-Contact%. He sucked when he did put up that 77% Z-Contact% as a 24-year-old. And he sucked after he put up that 77% Z-Contact%. Kyle Schwarber doesn't suck, though. If Junior Lake had 40 home run-power like Kyle Schwarber, he wouldn't suck so much.
Well, yeah, like I said above about Junior Lake: Those guys suck. They've always sucked. Of the 20 hitters on that list, only Bryant and Chris Carter had a season on that list in which they had a wRC+ higher than Schwarber's 131. And Carter had his when he was already 25.
In those snap shots of time, Bryant is practically the only one on that list that is in the realm of Schwarber as a hitter. Most of those other guys -- like I said -- sucked. They are nearly all on the list because they are bad hitters. Most of them were much older than Schwarber was last year, too. Maybe comparing him to Bryant is a little unfair, but the other hitters on that list are really only similar to Schwarber in terms of this one specific thing.
Indeed. Who cares? If his BABIP wasn't fluky last year, then why did we need all of those paragraphs to explain that it wasn't fluky?
This is true. Including the playoffs, 75% of his extra-base hits were home runs. I agree that won't continue. We need to correct for that. I'm on board. So Dave suggests that we take some home runs away and make them doubles.
In theory, this makes sense. Let's look a little deeper and see if this idea works out.
Exit velocity on batted balls is very important. If you don't hit the ball hard, it is difficult to hit for power. There is a correlation between average exit velocity and wOBA. It looks like this:
Of the 342 hitters with as many batted ball events as him last year, Schwarber ranked 12th in average exit velocity. He hits the ball as hard as nearly any hitter in the league. Another stat that is important for players looking to hit for power is average batted ball distance on fly balls and home runs. There is a correlation between average home run plus fly ball distance and HR/FB. It looks like this:
There is a leaderboard at Baseball Heat Maps that tracks average fly ball plus home run distance. Kyle Schwarber came in 5th out of 284 hitters in 2015. He hits the ball far when he connects. If you look at the top six guys on that list, outside of Schwarber, you'll notice that they've carried large HR/FB rates throughout their careers. Nelson Cruz's career HR/FB is 19.1%. Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Abreu, Pedro Alvarez, Chris Davis, and Giancarlo Stanton are all over 20%. Schwarber had a HR/FB rate of 24.2% last year, which ranked 11th in the league. Including the playoffs, Schwarber's HR/FB was 28.0%. This is definitely a little high.
Stanton's career HR/FB of 25.7% is the highest of all active players. Stanton is the King of Hard Contact. Schwarber's not going to keep pace with him in HR/FB. Where he settles in is up for debate. We don't have a very large sample size. But, we've seen him hit some balls very hard and very far. We've seen that he ranked among the league leaders in terms of average fly ball plus home run distance. We've seen that he ranked among the league leaders in average exit velocity. It's a safe bet that he's going to carry a large HR/FB rate. I couldn't tell you with any certainty exactly where that number ends up.
Cameron compares Schwarber to Mike Napoli. This is a solid baseline comp for Schwarber. Let's give Schwarber a 20.0% HR/FB. That puts him at 15 home runs last year -- right where Cameron had him. Napoli's career HR/FB rate is 19.5%, which is 14th on that list of active players I previously linked. But, what if Schwarber's able to live a little above that, in rarified air? He was hanging out with the elite power hitters in home run plus fly ball distance and average exit velocity. And did you watch those videos I posted at the beginning of this article? There was one video that showed Schwarber sending a Gerrit Cole pitch to its watery grave. And there was another video of a ball Schwarber hit off of Kevin Siegrist that might still be in orbit if it hadn't smashed into the top of the scoreboard at Wrigley. Is it really that crazy to think this guy might have a touch more pop in his bat than Mike Napoli?
Let's say Schwarber falls in around where Pedro Alvarez is at with 22.6% HR/FB. This bumps him up to 17 home runs, based off of his batted ball profile last year. And who is to say that the home runs were the only anomalous thing going on with his HR/XBH rate? Maybe the 6 doubles are glaring because he had a fluky year as it pertains to doubles, as well. His line drive % was below league average at 17.3%. The league average was 20.9%. Line drive % doesn't correlate well from year to year. His 17.3% could have been fluky low. There is a positive relationship between line drive % and doubles and triples. It's slight, but we're talking about a rather small sample size here, anyway. Maybe Schwarber's line drive rate was abnormally low and he bumps it up a notch to league average and one or two extra balls that were hard-hit grounders become hard-hit doubles. Or maybe we can expect him to sneak one more hard-hit ball down the line, past a diving infielder, for a double. Or maybe he can expect an extra bloop double to fall in.
You might see what I'm getting at here. Schwarber had 304 PA, including the playoffs last year. That's not a huge sample size. It's definitely not enough to make any sweeping generalizations about him as a hitter. I'm not comfortable with taking away home runs from Schwarber and turning them into doubles, just because he didn't hit many doubles. Sure, the home run rate is bound to drop. He's not going to surpass Giancarlo Stanton in HR/FB. But, maybe it only drops by 4 instead of 6, like I suggest is possible. Maybe those 4 lost home runs turn into doubles and he also gets another 2 extra doubles to fall in. Do you see why this is an issue? We are talking about a handful of batted ball outcomes and trying to use them to project what kind of a hitter Kyle Schwarber will be three or four years down the line.
Anyway, I don't really have a problem with the Mike Napoli comparison. It's a fine comparison. I might be overzealous in suggesting that Schwarber has more pop than Napoli. Napoli is a fine player. And that comp is realistic, based off of what we saw last year. If Cameron's extra-base hit distribution were to come to fruition, Schwarber would have slashed .255/.362/.483, including the playoffs. That's Mike Napoli territory. Schwarber slashed .246/.355/.487 in the regular season last year and was worth 1.9 fWAR in 273 PA. Mike Napoli territory... it's not so bad. We might want to dock him some defensive and base running value, thanks to the injury. But, even still, he's a safe bet to be a 2-3 win player, just as Cameron states. I have no qualms with that.
I think there is a good chance we could see him improve his contact, though. Remember, he was a 22-year-old last year. And we have but half of a season's data on him in the big leagues. His minor league K% was only 20.8%. Young players often improve their contact ability, even the shitty hitters Cameron compared Schwarber to earlier. Schwarber's also a really good hitter and, like Cameron mentioned, the Cubs love his work ethic. He's not a bad bet as a guy that might fix some holes in his swing.
Regardless, let's say he doesn't improve. Let's say he is just an average player -- good for 2 wins a season or so. Is adding Andrew Miller worth giving that up?
So we did all of that. We tempered our expectations. We're saying Schwarber is just an average player, one that doesn't improve with the bat. And then we discounted future WAR. This is the correct thing to do. Everything is better if you can have it now. You never want to wait to enjoy something, save for maybe a nice Vintage Port. And, if Schwarber is only average, then you can probably replace that WAR rather easily by the time we get four years into the future. We don't care too much about that right now. We have no idea what the future will even hold. (I know that a lot of Cubs fans are dreaming of what the future may hold with all of this young talent that is under control for a long time, but you just never know...)
And, yet, we still can't get to even value. There's still a sizeable gap. Even Cameron's suggestion of adding Chapman into the deal doesn't get us all the way there.
I do have a slight quibble with discounting future WAR for present WAR so much in this situation. Actually, it's not such a slight quibble. It's my largest complaint with the article. Of contending teams, the Cubs are probably the one with the least reason to seek present value in a trade at the expense of long-term value. As I said above, a lot of people feel the Cubs are set up to contend for a while. The window is ajar now, yes. You don't want to pass that opportunity up. They are as win-now as any team in baseball. Arrieta may walk after next year and Jon Lester will soon have his age creep up on him.
But, there is a lot of exciting, young positional talent littering this roster. As long as Bryzzo is intact, the Cubs are set up pretty well. There are going to be some rough waters to navigate, concerning the pitching staff. There's a really competent front office in place to navigate those waters, though. Things might go to shit. But more likely, they can re-tool and remain competitive.
And not only that, but the Cubs are also 6.5 games up on their division. Fangraphs has the Cubs at 98.0% likely to make the playoffs and 92.4% likely to win the division. The Cubs aren't in a position where they need to scurry around, scavenging for wins. So, while the Cubs might value future wins more than any other team, they also might value current wins less than any contending team. If the Cubs were in a scramble for a playoff spot, that 1 win coming along with Andrew Miller would look really enticing. As it stands right now... not so much. Sure, it would be nice to add a win, but a win for the Cubs is not as substantial as it is for other teams.
What's Miller add to the Cubs' playoff odds? Probably less than 1%. So now we are looking at adding a relief pitcher nearly wholly to help in the playoffs. Here's a newsflash: The playoffs are a crap shoot. There's so much randomness that I'm not sure you could even calculate how much Miller helps the Cubs in their quest to make the playoffs less random. Look at it this way: If the Cubs were to follow the same script as last year in the playoffs, what the hell good does Andrew Miller do? They made quick work of the Cardinals and then got their asses handed to them by the Mets. That could happen again. Or they could get swept in the first round. Or maybe they run roughshod through everyone on their way to a title -- with or without Miller.
There's too much randomness. If adding Miller doesn't really help you get in the playoffs, then you are adding him solely for the playoffs. For him to be worth the cost, he then needs to do something in the playoffs to help you win the World Series. He's going to have to come into a game or two that just maybe are close late, in a series or two that are just maybe tight, and he'll need to just maybe not give up a run, that another reliever just maybe would give up. That's a lot of maybes. And, well, he's not infallible. He could come into Game 7 and blow it. Randomness strikes again. Then, after the randomness, you are left with a stupid relief pitcher that is already worth less than Schwarber when the next season starts. I'll pass.
Cameron also mentions several times that the Cubs haven't won a World Series in over a century. He suggests that this should make the Cubs more willing to sacrifice the future in order to win now. He asks, "Are the Cubs wisely protecting their future, or passing up an opportunity to increase the odds of bringing Cubs fans their first World Series title since 1908?" Is it really increasing their odds of bringing Cubs fans a coveted World Series title, though? If we are making the addition solely for this year's post-season and then losing value immediately after the season is over, then I suggest that it is not increasing the Cubs' odds of breaking the streak. If you look at teams that have won a lot of World Series titles -- say, our dreaded divisional rival Cardinals -- you might notice something. They win a lot of World Series because they are in the playoffs a lot.
Maybe the best way to increase their odds of winning a World Series is by keeping this core of young players together and giving themselves as many chances as possible to get into the post-season. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't ever think of trading one of the young guys on the roster. But, trading them for a short-term bullpen Band-Aid might not be the best idea. You can balance the present and the future simultaneously. They did so this off-season, by augmenting the young core with Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, and John Lackey. It's not impossible to be in win-now mode, while also keeping an eye on the future. That's what premier organizations do.
And here's the really confusing thing about all of this. The Cubs don't have to trade for Andrew Miller to improve the bullpen. They just showed that by adding an off-brand Andrew Miller in Mike Montgomery. Sure, he's not Miller, but he helps. And Theo and company definitely aren't done yet. They could add a Will Smith, or a Tyler Thornburg, or maybe they get crazy and are able to pry away someone like Alex Colome. They could even still trade for Miller or Chapman. Whatever they do, though, I plead: Don't trade Kyle Schwarber for a relief pitcher. I have no problem trading Kyle Schwarber. I'm under no illusion of what he is. I just know that he is worth more than a relief pitcher.