Kyle Schwarber's Comeback from Batting .171 to Lethal Cubs Slugger

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 20, 2017

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 12:   Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the 5th inning against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field on September 12, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

How, exactly, Kyle Schwarber fits into the Chicago Cubs' many schemes remains a good question. But as they gear up for another World Series run, they can take comfort in at least one thing.

At least he's hitting like himself again.

It's been about three months since the Cubs banished the 24-year-old slugger to the minors, and it's hard to blame them for having done so. As if weighed down by the tremendous hype surrounding him coming into the year, he had produced just a .171/.295/.378 slash line and 12 home runs prior to his demotion.

But thus began Schwarber's reawakening.

He tore the cover off the ball in 11 games for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs and hasn't skipped many beats since reemerging at Wrigley Field on July 6. In 56 games, he boasts a .253/.338/.567 slash line with 16 homers.

His latest long ball was his 28th of the year, pushing him past Kris Bryant for second on the Cubs. And, boy, was it a doozy.

This, certainly, is more like what the Cubs had in mind.

Schwarber was in The Show just a year after Chicago took him with the No. 4 pick in 2014, and he immediately began generating hype with an .842 OPS and 16 homers as a rookie. A torn ACL seemed to wreck his sophomore season, but then came his miraculous return in the World Series. His .971 OPS in five games was one of many killing blows to the Cubs' 108-year curse.

All this seemed like an empty tease when the Cubs sent Schwarber packing for Iowa in June. But now, it's back to looking more like a prophecy.

Of course, no bit of good news is complete without a catch.

In this case, it's that Schwarber has started only 12 of 21 games since August 28. The unreliability of his left field defense isn't helping his cause. To boot, Chicago manager Joe Maddon has been mixing and matching starters—namely Ian Happ, Jon Jay and Albert Almora Jr.—largely because he can.

"It's not just about Kyle; it's about everybody," Maddon said, according to Paul Skrbina of the Chicago Tribune.

And yet, Maddon's use of Schwarber isn't slowing him down. He has a 1.036 OPS and six homers during his stretch of up-and-down playing time.

Selective use of his bat is, evidently, the right use of his bat. And if nothing else, it sure beats Maddon's initial misfire with Schwarber's role.

Although he was an obvious fit for the role of middle-of-the-order slugger, Maddon instead cast him as Dexter Fowler's replacement in the role of leadoff man. It was an interesting move in light of the on-base ability that comes paired with Schwarber's slugging, but he subsequently proved it is possible to overemphasize getting on base.

While seeing 4.5 pitches per plate appearance, Schwarber skipped right past "patient" and went to "passive." Although a 13.8 BB% was the bright side, he was often on the defensive and not hitting the ball with his usual authority. 

When the Cubs informed Schwarber they were sending him down, he knew what the score was. More importantly, he knew what he had to do.

"I'm not here to try to change everything. I want to stay myself. I want to get back to myself and be confident while doing it," he said from Des Moines in late June, per ESPN.com. "It's an opportunity to relax and get back to being myself and try and get back up there."

Lo and behold, the passivity that plagued Schwarber earlier in 2017 has been toned down. Since his return, he's seeing 4.2 pitches per plate appearance, and he's been more aggressive in areas where he can get his arms extended.

In that regard, his swings have gone from being overly picky before his demotion:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

To basically equal-opportunity since his promotion:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Schwarber's slugging profile is reddest in the areas where he's now swinging the most, so he has the right idea in theory. There's also been plenty of talk of "mechanical tweaks." That's aways a mysterious topic, but the naked eye does notice less pre-swing hand movement and better timing with his leg kick.

He isn't benefiting across the board. His BB% has fallen from 13.8 to 10.4, and his K% has risen from 28.7 to 33.8.

But that's still a pretty good walk rate. And you can live with that many strikeouts when a guy's swing is packing as much loft and punch as Schwarber's is now:

SpanLaunch Angle (º)Exit Velocity (MPH)
2015-201615.592.0
Pre-Demotion, 201716.987.3
Post-Promotion, 201719.390.7

Even without his exit velocity at its peak, Schwarber has never enjoyed the best of both these worlds like he is now. And it's paying off.

Since his return to the majors on July 6, exactly 25 percent of his batted balls have qualified as "barreled" or "solid" for Statcast. That's good for ninth among qualified hitters, putting him in the midst of notables like Josh Donaldson, Khris Davis and J.D. Martinez.

Again, the catch is that various forces are conspiring against Schwarber being an everyday slugging threat. That'll remain true for the immediate future, and perhaps true enough for the long-term future to force the Cubs into trade talks at some point.

The priority for now, however, is getting back to the World Series. The Cubs are in a position to do that largely because of how their offense has driven their rise from the ashes since the All-Star break. The degree to which Schwarber has helped can't be understated.

All he can do for now is keep hitting. Based on the last few months, that shouldn't be much trouble.

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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