In a sport known for its protracted regular season and voluminous historical records – playing for a franchise that had been without a championship crown for over a century – Kyle Schwarber established his legacy over a seven-game stretch of the 2016 playoffs. Though he only appeared in five games of the World Series, physical perseverance, inspired play and a confident batting eye turned Schwarber into a Chicago legend at the tender age of 23. His presence as a designated hitter for road contests at Progressive Field played no small part in turning the tide on a 3-1 series deficit (though starting Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks in consecutive games didn’t hurt either). Schwarber reached base in half of his 20 plate appearances, and the Cubs won three of four games in Cleveland to take the crown.
While the baseball community largely recognizes that playoff performance is not predictive – nor repeatable – Schwarber is living proof that small samples, at times, do prove enduring. Schwarber will be memorialized for generations in Chicago for his appearance against the Cleveland Indians in 2016.
His myth-making return from season-ending injury is also a warning against our tendency to muddle the narrative of heroes. In that World Series, Schwarber did lengthen the lineup and provide a fear factor that was easier to see in real-time than in box scores after the fact, but it’s fair to wonder if his impact in Cleveland didn’t unwittingly get conflated with his status as a top prospect and his gargantuan output in the 2015 playoffs, when he hit .333/.419/.889 with five home runs in nine playoff games. The years since have only further complicated our ability to manufacture a compact narrative for Schwarber as a ballplayer. For starters, even a .136/.321/.273 line with just one home run, one RBI, two runs scored, and a negative championship win probability over 10 playoff games since 2016 hasn’t totally erased his reputation as a “championship proven” bat.
Further, his stat line in any given year is like an optical illusion (is he black and blue or white and gold?). His production hasn’t matched his reputation, and the advanced metrics don’t match the on-field production. In 2018, Schwarber hit a high-water mark by measure of 3.2 fWAR despite a .238 batting average and career-low 41.5 hard hit percentage. In 2019, he actualizes his “slugger” persona with a .531 slugging percentage, 29 doubles, and 38 home runs. He posted new highs with a 120 wRC+, .282 ISO, and 50.9 hard hit percentage – the third-highest mark in the Majors. The total package still amounted to just 2.1 bWAR/2.6 fWAR – solid numbers, but shy of the line for a presumed All-Star.
Then 2020 happened. His launch angle plummeted, and his .219 BABIP, .204 ISO, .188/.308/.393 line, and 90 wRC+ were all career-worst numbers. When the Cubs non-tendered him rather than pay the projected $7MM to $9MM in arbitration, few were surprised.
But the Nationals paid him $10MM for the 2021 season anyway – and that wasn’t shocking either. After all, Schwarber’s batted ball numbers have made him a popular bounce-back candidate among the Statcast crowd, and it’s not hard to see why: His resume includes finishing in the 95th percentile by exit velocity in 2019 and 2020, the 92nd percentile by barrel percentage in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and that 99th percentile mark by hard hit percentage in 2019.
At the same time, it’s worth considering how much of a role his subpar speed and 28 percent career strikeout rate play in his “under-performance.” He’s not the worst defender in the world, but negative three defensive runs saved in each of the last two seasons doesn’t inspire confidence that he’ll become a plus on that end of the field. Of course, with Victor Robles beside him in the outfield and Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, and Stephen Strasburg (hopefully) missing bats on a regular basis, the Nats seem to believe he doesn’t have to be a gold glove candidate. Besides, should the designated hitter make its way permanently to the National League, he may not have to spend every day in the grass.
The Nationals hope a reunion with Dave Martinez will provide Schwarber a comfortable environment to reset after a disappointing final season in Chicago. Beyond his relationship with Martinez – his bench coach for the first three years of his career – Schwarber will have a new social circle with whom to yuk it up about the ins-and-outs of hitting. That group will include hitting coach Kevin Long, his collegiate buddy Trea Turner, fellow new kid Josh Bell, and phenom Juan Soto. MLB.com’s Jessica Camerato provides video of Schwarber himself breaking down his new team (via Twitter).
Still very much in his prime entering his age-28 season, Schwarber may yet fulfill the legendary potential he established in the 2016 World Series. Given the new faces in the division and the now-rote proficiency of the three-time defending division champion Braves, the Nationals are counting on a big season from Schwarber to help the franchise rebound from a difficult 2020.
All that said, let’s keep this simple. Will Dave Martinez and the Nationals be able to unlock Schwarber’s potential and see him become a devastating middle-of-the-order presence? Or will Schwarber’s Statcast profile continue to betray him as he hits the ball hard but not often enough to truly classify as an elite bat?
Of course, there are many different ways to skin this cat, so let me offer this final framework as one way to simplify. Schwarber’s value proposition is his bat. By wRC+, which attempts to measure offensive contribution, adjusted for park and league, Schwarber has created 13 more runs than the average player over his career. As noted above, his career-high over a full season is 120 wRC+. But he also produced a 131 wRC+ over 273 plate appearances as a rookie in 2015. For context, 35 players posted a wRC+ higher than 130 in 2019, 24 managed that mark in 2018. Can Schwarber be one of those guys in 2021?poll link for app users) poll link for app users)