Nationals' Rejuvenated Kyle Schwarber Has Slugged His Way into NL MVP Race

Zachary D. RymerJuly 1, 2021

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Washington Nationals rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on June 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Will Newton/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Kyle Schwarber was having a decent yet unspectacular season for a Washington Nationals club that was deep underwater in the National League East. 

Now the Nats can't stop winning, precisely because their burly left fielder just can't stop hitting home runs.

With this 112.1 mph, 434-foot blast off Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Rich Hill at Nationals Park on Tuesday, Schwarber notched his 12th homer in his last 10 games: 

Washington Nationals @Nationals

Here's your daily Kyle Schwarber June HR tally update:<br><br>6/12 - SCHWAR💣<br>6/13 - 2 SCHWAR💣s<br>6/14 - SCHWAR💣<br>6/19 - 2 SCHWAR💣s<br>6/20 - 3 SCHWAR💣s<br>6/23 - SCHWAR💣<br>6/24 - 2 SCHWAR💣s<br>6/25 - SCHWAR💣<br>6/28 - 2 SCHWAR💣s<br>6/29 - SCHWAR💣<a href="https://twitter.com/kschwarb12?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@kschwarb12</a> // <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NATITUDE?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NATITUDE</a> <a href="https://t.co/8MzZMA7UVO">pic.twitter.com/8MzZMA7UVO</a>

Now, a hitter cranking out 12 homers in a span of 10 games has happened before. But literally only once, as Schwarber is the first to accomplish the feat since Albert Belle set the bar back in 1995.      

Factoring in the four homers that Schwarber also hit in a four-game stretch between June 12 and June 14, he likewise had a collection of 16 long balls in 18 games before coming up empty on Wednesday. This too is a historic feat that he shares with only Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds.

Accordingly, what had been a decent yet unspectacular season has shifted firmly to the latter side of the aisle. Schwarber, 28, is now second in the National League with 25 home runs, with a 155 OPS+ that's tied for fifth among qualified NL hitters.

Oh, and the Nats? They're 15-4 since Schwarber's home run binge began, thereby elevating themselves from a last-place team in an 8.5-game hole to a second-place team in a mere 2.0-game hole.

What we have here, then, is a legitimate contender being driven by a rising MVP candidate. And for Schwarber, it all has the feeling of an overdue payoff.

The Schwarber That Was

Back when the Chicago Cubs drafted Schwarber out of Indiana with the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft, there was some uncertainty as to whether he would remain behind the plate as his professional career progressed. Sure enough, he hasn't.

There was virtually no uncertainty at that time, however, as to whether he would hit. To quote the book on him at 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."

It took no time at all for Schwarber to live up to his offensive billing, as he immediately took to the low minors with a .344/.428/.634 line and 18 home runs in 72 games down the stretch of 2014. He then hit .323/.430/.591 with 16 blasts in 75 games at Double-A and Triple-A to begin the 2015 campaign, prompting the Cubs to promote him on June 16.

Rather than let the experience humble him, Schwarber just kept right on hitting. He slashed .246/.355/.487 with 16 homers in 69 regular-season games and subsequently marked his first postseason with a titanic blast in the National League Division Series:

Even after he tore his ACL just two games into the season, Schwarber eventually did add to his legend in 2016. He was healthy enough to serve as a designated and pinch hitter in the World Series, and he did his part to lead the Cubs to a victory 108 years in the making with seven hits in 17 at-bats.

Perhaps even more so than what he did in 2015, it might have been that performance that underscored Schwarber's massive offensive potential. Starting in 2017, he would surely cement himself as one of baseball's great hitters.

But he just...didn't.

He showed off plenty of power in slamming 94 home runs between 2017 and 2019, yet he slashed only .234/.337/.492 in the process. That resulted in a 114 OPS+ that had him rubbing shoulders with everymen like Marwin Gonzalez, Eddie Rosario and Domingo Santana.

In those years, nothing held Schwarber back as much as a swing-and-miss habit highlighted by a 27.8 strikeout percentage. Come 2020, he was striking out at a 29.5 percent clip and compounding his issues with a ground-ball rate over 50 percent. His production cratered to a .188/.308/.393 slash line, prompting the Cubs to cut him loose via a non-tender.

So when the Nationals signed Schwarber to a one-year, $10 million deal in January of this year, he was equal parts reclamation project and lottery ticket.

The Schwarber That Is

Cut to now, and the Nats' gamble on Schwarber is obviously paying dividends. But it's been a process, the first portion of which involved the slugger going back to the basics.

Shortly after he signed, Schwarber met up with Nats hitting coach Kevin Long in Tampa Bay, and they got to work on changing his hitting stance. Whereas Schwarber had been hitting out of an upright position in 2020, the idea was to get him back down into the more crouched position he'd had earlier in his career.

As Schwarber explained during spring training: "Hitting is kind of an evolution. The game started adjusting, going up, up, up [in the zone]. So I started going up, up, up and I lost some things down [in the zone]."

Even in spite of mismatched camera angles, the difference between Schwarber then and Schwarber now is clear:

Screenshots courtesy of Baseball Savant

To the extent that Schwarber's average against pitches at and beyond the bottom third of the strike zone has improved from .129 in 2020 to .213 this year, this change has had the desired effect.

It's also easy to credit Schwarber's new/old stance for his improved ground-ball rate, which is down to 40.1 percent. This is ensuring that his talent for generating exit velocity—his average of 92.2 mph is in the 89th percentile for 2021—isn't going to waste as often as it did in 2020.

Meanwhile, the former Hoosier has also settled into an approach befitting of a proper slugger. In that, he's letting breaking and off-speed pitches outside of the strike zone go more often while increasing his swings at fastballs within the zone: 

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Schwarber has also taken a counterintuitive yet effective approach to hitting leadoff since settling into that spot June 12. Though leadoff hitters are typically expected to work counts, he's actually upped his swing rate:

Nationals manager Dave Martinez has noticed, and he likes it: “He’s getting up there and he’s attacking the strike zone, he really is. He’s not waiting around.”

Indeed, Schwarber's aggressiveness has had a hand in reducing his strikeout rate from 29.3 to a more reasonable 26.0 percent. And of his 16 long balls since June 12, seven have been on either the first or second pitch of the at-bat. He had five such homers in all of 2020.

To be sure, these things don't necessarily paint a picture of a hitter who's drastically different than the one who used to work on the North Side of Chicago. They do, however, paint one of a guy who's the best possible version of that particular hitter. 

Schwarber's MVP Odds Are Long...But Maybe Not That Long

If you're going to be an MVP candidate in today's MLB, you've got to have WAR. And in spite of all his offensive excellence in recent weeks, that's where Schwarber falls short.

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs both put his wins above replacement at 2.1. In either case, he's been only about half as valuable as dynamic San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., who has 4.3 rWAR and 4.0 fWAR.

Even though he's about an average sprinter, Schwarber just isn't much of a baserunner. He's also accounted for minus-five outs above average in left field, putting him just one ahead of Toronto Blue Jays slugger Lourdes Gurriel Jr. for last among the qualifiers at that position.

On the plus side, things naturally look a lot better for Schwarber if the focus is narrowed to just the last few weeks. Per FanGraphs, he's accrued 1.8 of his 2.2 overall WAR just since June 12. The list of players with more fWAR since then is...well, empty.

Even though Schwarber will almost certainly cool down eventually, that works as a decent proof of concept for the notion that he can hit his way to the NL MVP award. He figures to have an especially strong case if:

  • He tops a 1.000 OPS and 50 home runs
  • The Nationals keep winning
  • Tatis tails off or is unable to stay healthy

By virtue of what's happening right now, those first two possibilities aren't that outlandish. And while Tatis' talent is undeniable, it was just last year that he hurt his MVP candidacy with a season-ending slump, and it's no secret that his left shoulder isn't entirely stable.

For the time being, consider Schwarber's at-bats to be appointment viewing. Because when he swings, chances are the ball is going to go far.