Kyle Schwarber's About to Get a Lot Scarier in First Full MLB Season

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 3, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs singles in the 10th inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The following statement is a holdover from this time last year: Kyle Schwarber is going to be a beast in his first full major league season.

This should be no more controversial than it was last year, at which time Schwarber was mere months removed from a star-making rookie season.

He posted an .842 OPS and clubbed 16 homers in only 69 regular-season games with the Chicago Cubs in 2015. He then posted a 1.308 OPS with five more homers in the postseason. One of those dingers came to rest on top of a Wrigley Field scoreboard, which seemed to say it all.

It all conjured excitement for what Schwarber could do in his first full season in 2016. But then that idea went out the window when he tore his ACL in an outfield collision in just his second game. "Nuts," said everyone.

But no matter. It's a new season now. Schwarber is healthy and ready to go. And since he's only going to be 24 on Opening Day, it's not like he missed his window for a big breakout.

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 07:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the MLB game at Chase Field on April 7, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For the sake of getting the not-so-fun stuff out of the way, Schwarber's big breakout is likely to happen in the batter's box only.

Slotting him at designated hitter would be ideal, but the National League has yet to see the light on that. That narrows Cubs skipper Joe Maddon's options to the outfield, where Schwarber looked out of place even before he got hurt, or catcher, where his defensive issues helped necessitate the move to the outfield in the first place.

"We'll see," Schwarber said recently, per Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago. "It's a daily process and whatever they want me to do, I'll do. I want to catch, obviously, but given the circumstances, you gotta be able to be flexible and work with some things."

But rest assured, Schwarber will be in the lineup a lot more often than not. When you have a bat like his, you accommodate the hell out of it.

That bat was the reason the Cubs took Schwarber out of Indiana with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft. It had put up a 1.044 OPS, hit 40 bombs in 180 collegiate games and was praised as the real deal by MLB.com:

He offers lots of strength and bat speed from the left side of the plate, and he's not a one-dimensional hitter either. Schwarber controls the strike zone well and repeatedly barrels balls, so he should hit for a high average as well.

When he's been healthy, Schwarber has done nothing but live up to these kind words as a professional.

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting a double during the fourth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game One of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Ph
Elsa/Getty Images

He hit .333 with a 1.042 OPS and 34 home runs in 147 minor league games. And while he's only hit .261 in 85 total major league games, that comes with an .886 OPS with 21 dingers.

Schwarber demonstrated his strong eye by drawing a 14.2 walk percentage in the minors. He hasn't wandered far from that in the majors, drawing walks in 13.3 percent of his plate appearances.

His swing has also been as advertised. It's made for power hitting in its capacity to elevate the ball and hit it hard. On the balls he's put in play as a major leaguer, he's averaged a 17.6-degree launch angle and 93.2 mph in exit velocity.

The average hitter in 2016 had an 11.5-degree launch angle and 89.1 mph in exit velocity. In other words: John Q. Hitter's swing was significantly flatter and less powerful than Schwarber's.

And while Schwarber is a pull hitter first and foremost, he doesn't need to lean on his pull side for power. Observe:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Schwarber's big flaw? That would be his tendency to swing and miss.

He's whiffed in 27.7 percent of his major league plate appearances and has been particularly prone to fastballs up and away. Fixing that could require flattening his swing path, a la what Kris Bryant did last year before he went on to hit 39 jacks and win the National League MVP.

But just because that didn't cost Bryant any power doesn't mean it's not a possible tradeoff for a similar adjustment made by Schwarber. And since his usefulness hinges on his bat, and his power is a big part of his bat's appeal, less power for more contact wouldn't be worth it.

The best thing Schwarber can do is keep his whiff habit from getting worse. That's going to require his eye for the strike zone either staying the same or getting even better, lest he find himself chasing outside the zone, where whiffs are more common.

There are positive signs in this direction. When Schwarber was a rookie in 2015, he was more selective at the end of the year than he was at the beginning:

Kyle Schwarber's Plate Discipline in 2015
SpanOverall Swing%In-Zone Swing%Out-of-Zone Swing%
First 185 PA46.166.332.8
Last 88 PA41.166.724.7
FanGraphs

Schwarber's early injury in 2016 nixed the next step in the development of his discipline. But as FanGraphs' Craig Edwards pointed out, one thing that stood out from Schwarber's improbable return in the World Series was how being off for over six months didn't put any rust on his discipline. 

If you prefer an illustration, these are the pitches he swung at in the World Series:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Not too many offerings outside the strike zone. And some of the balls he did offer at were barely out of the zone. That's a good eye, right there.

Schwarber's swing was also in fine shape despite the long layoff. He hit .412 with a .971 OPS in five games, doing so with a 13.8-degree launch angle and 93.4 mph in exit velocity.

"Doing what he did last year, it's freak of nature stuff," Cubs vice president of player development and scouting Jason McLeod told Andracki. "You can't be away for six months and step into the World Series against Cy Young caliber pitching and do what he did."

Evidently you can. But only if you're Kyle Schwarber.

For Schwarber's next trick, Steamer and ZiPS project roughly the same performance in 2017. Steamer sees an .843 OPS and 27 homers. ZiPS sees an .841 OPS and 28 homers. Either outcome would make Schwarber one of the top hitters in the National League, which would sure be good enough.

And yet, yours truly would actually put them on the conservative side of things. Although Schwarber's not without his flaws as a hitter, the quality of his patience and power looms much larger. A season with better than a .900 OPS and upwards of 30 bombs is within reach.

That would do even better for a big breakout. If it happens, the only thing to lament will be that it couldn't have happened a year sooner.

                                             

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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