It may not have been ordained by God, but Kyle Schwarber is reportedly “on a mission this offseason to ‘transform’ his body and get back to being a hitter.” That report comes via ESPN’s Jesse Rogers, who included the savory tidbit in a column about why the Cubs shouldn’t make a splashy trade for a starting pitcher.
Rogers posits that Schwarber alone is not nearly enough to land a top-tier starter in return, neither are Ian Happ or Albert Almora Jr. What’s more, the Cubs’ noted affinity for Schwarber almost certainly creates a disparity in the way they value him versus how another team would. I agree wholeheartedly on both of these, and not just because of my own man-crush on Theo Epstein’s large adult son.
Regardless of which direction you want to point the fat finger of blame — be it Joe Maddon’s decision to bat him leadoff or the developmental backslide of a lost 2016 season — it’s clear that Schwarber was not the hitter the Cubs wanted him to be last season. Sure, he slugged like a mickeyfickey, but that’s when he managed to make good contact.
Somewhat diluted in all the talk of launch angle and getting the ball in the air is the idea that you’ve still got to square the sphere up. So while Schwarber’s fly-ball percentage was up four ticks and grounders were down two points from 2015, it’s how he was hitting the balls in the air that hurt him. A nearly 40 percent increase in soft contact (15.4 to 21.3 percent) resulted in an infield fly-ball rate more than double what he’d posted as a rookie (7.6 to 16 percent).
Hit it high and watch it fly…to second base.
Schwarber’s OBP and slugging were way down as he struggled through a prolonged slump to open the season. Things began to turn around in the second half thanks to some mechanical changes he implemented during his demotion with the help of hitting instructor Andy Haines, who is now the Cubs’ assistant hitting coach. Still, it never really felt like everything quite clicked at the plate.
While Rogers doesn’t expound upon exactly how Schwarber is looking to transform himself, it’s not much of a stretch to assume the left fielder is looking to alter his body composition a bit. A very simple way to view that is to say that he’s trying to lose weight, but dropping his body fat percentage is perhaps a more specific target. Along with some baseball-specific training, being more lean could allow Schwarber to better turn on the ball and hit through the shift.
He did a better job of hitting to all fields in 2017 than he did as a rookie, though really only nominally so and without as much authority. Centerfield wasn’t in play as often, either, which isn’t great. You can still hit well by pulling the ball into the shift, but you’ve got to either pound through it or put it over the wall. I’m not sure whether being in better shape will necessarily help with that, but it can’t hurt.
Improved physical fitness will no doubt aid Schwarber in the field, an area of his game that has received more than a little criticism. Even though he’s not as bad as the popular narrative holds, with much of the assessment disproportionately based on a few really bad plays, increased range and greater athleticism will help to round off some of those sharp edges.
The Cubs may have moved off of the idea that Schwarber is an untouchable asset, but you know darn well they would love nothing more than to see him become the hitter they were hoping for when they drafted him. Fans would probably dig it too. I mean, just imagine Kyle Schwarber with improved bat and foot speed. That’s a dude with easy 40-home run power and excellent on-base skills who’s not a liability in the field.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to take a cold shower.