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Kyle Schwarber: Investigating the Sabermetric Enigma

Phillies' Outfielder Kyle Schwarber: licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Baseball is a funny sport. It has simple statistics that sometimes tell you the whole story, then other times tell you absolutely nothing. What happens when the simple stats, in fact, tell you nothing? In that case, you dig deeper into the advanced stats, which could start to tell you the whole story, but could leave you wanting more. So what if neither simple nor advanced stats give you the answer you are looking for? Then you have an opportunity to build your own narrative about said player. There is an MLB player in the 2023 season who has more or less transcended statistics, analytics, metrics, and any other quantifiable piece of data. The average baseball fan has heard of him, but probably hasn’t given him much thought. The baseball purists and baseball nerds alike have a love-hate relationship with the player. It all depends on the aspect of his game you are analyzing. The question is, is Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber an above-average player?

To answer this broad, slightly provocative question, we must first quantify what it means to be above-average at baseball. Baseball Savant and Baseball Reference are two of the most well-respected baseball websites on the internet, so all statistics will be from one or both of these sources. Baseball Savant offers up four main categories, each with various stats and a players’ respective percentile ranking among qualified Major League Baseball players. Also present on Savant is Statcast data, which is particularly pertinent to the subject of this case study, as he began his career after the implication of Statcast. Baseball Reference adds more simple, surface value stats, as well as boiled down value and defensive metrics. All possible metrics will be taken into account to assess the talent of Schwarber as accurately as possible.

Coming off of a monster power-hitting season in which he led the National League in home runs with 46, many casual baseball fans would easily call Kyle Schwarber an above-average player and move on. On the surface, this may seem fair, as Schwarber is currently on pace to best his 2022 career high home run total in 2023, but a quick look at his batting average and strikeout numbers will make a casual fan begin to rethink their praise. Schwarber is currently leading the majors in total strikeouts after he did it in 2022 as well. Schwarber is an excellent example of a three true outcome hitter, the three true outcomes being a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. Since his MLB debut in 2015, Schwarber has compiled 753 hits, 242 of them being home runs. This means that 32% of Schwarber’s hits have been home runs, an absurd percentage. For comparison, Barry Bonds had 26% of his hits leave the yard, and Adam Dunn, the ultimate three true outcome hitter, saw 28% of his hits be home runs.

In terms of hitting home runs, Schwarber is in elite company. Baseball Savant data supports this claim, with Schwarber ranking in the 92nd percentile for average exit velocity, the 95th percentile for barrel percentage, and the 89th percentile for hard-hit percentage. Statcast shows Schwarber’s 2023 average exit velocity as 92.4 mph, almost 4 mph higher than the MLB average. Schwarber has been an exit velocity king over the past five years, ranking in the top 10% of MLB in average exit velocity in every season. Maximum exit velocity tells the same story, as Schwarber has been a consistent name in the top 8% for seven years in a row, including his career high of 117.6 mph off the bat in 2019.

However, while it appears as though Schwarber is having a career year, his expected numbers say that he should be even better. Schwarber is significantly undercutting his expected batting average (xBA), xSLG, and expected weighted on-base average (xWOBA). According to Statcast, Schwarber’s slashline should look closer to .224/.369/.489 than his actual slashline of .199/.348/.478. While the differences are not wildly significant, the expected numbers definitely show that Schwarber could be having a better season at the plate.

One of Schwarber’s more glaring weaknesses are his unbelievably high swing-and-miss and strikeout numbers. Schwarber’s 29.1 strikeout percentage is the ninth highest in all of baseball, and his previously stated 190 total K’s have him slotted in to lead the MLB for a second season in a row. Schwarber also ranks in the bottom fifth of qualified hitters in both whiff percentage and K percentage, and effectively refuses to stop striking out. It is worth pointing out, however, that neither Schwarber’s zone swing and miss % nor his out of zone swing and miss % are absurdly high compared to the rest of the league. When combined with his top 5 ranking in walk percentage and top 2 ranking in walk totals (behind only Juan Soto), it is reasonable to say that many of Schwarber’s strikeouts can be attributed to a tendency to be a little too patient at the plate.

Baseball Savant credits Schwarber with an 89th percentile ranking in batting run value, which is significantly above league average. Schwarber also totes a 123 OPS+ in 2023, as well as a 121 WRC+. Clearly, despite the low batting average and high strikeout tendencies, Schwarber is a very talented hitter. The question, however, is whether he is an above-average baseball player. This means a study of all five tools: hitting for contact, hitting for power, fielding, throwing and running. Schwarber has the power at the expense of his contact, but what about the other three tools?

Schwarber has never been known as a speed threat on the bases, and that is reflected in his stolen base numbers outside of 2022. In 2022, Schwarber was actually quite effective on the basepaths, taking 10 bags and only getting caught once in the regular season. This continued into the postseason, as Schwarber swiped two more bags in the NLCS and one in the World Series without getting caught. The rest of his career shows that this was an outlier, however. Excluding 2022, Schwarber has stolen just 12 bases, while getting caught 13 times. Overall, Schwarber’s baserunning is essentially a non-factor, and therefore is not a tool that he has to lean on.

In the field, Schwarber is objectively one of the worst defenders in the game. For starters, the eye test makes it pretty clear that he is not who you want in the outfield. Digging into the numbers, Schwarber ranks in the first percentile in fielding run value, which is measured using ultimate zone rating. He also ranks out in the first percentile for outs above average, which measures range in the outfield on a consistent scale. Fangraphs slates him dead last in terms of UZR, and gives him a defensive rating of -24.5. This rating is so bad that you can essentially cancel out his entire offensive production rating (16.5) and he would still rank worse than perennial bad defenders Alec Bohm, Rafael Devers, and Christian Yelich. In 2023, Schwarber amassed an astounding -21 defensive runs saved (easily the worst in baseball), and added -19 OAA, also dead last as of the writing of this piece. While he has shown a decent arm in the past, Statcast shows an 11th percentile arm value, as well as arm strength in the 25th percentile. Some outfielders can somewhat make up for bad defense with a good arm or good speed (ex. Ronald Acuna, Jr.), but Schwarber does not have either to lean on.

Ultimately, Kyle Schwarber is baseball’s sabermetric enigma. Baseball Reference gives him just a 0.5 bWAR, but it is broken down in such a way that it can be hard to fathom. Schwarber has amassed 2.7 bWAR at the plate, but his defense lacks so far behind that it has brought him down to just above 0. Overall, if your team needs a designated hitter in the lineup to hit home runs and get on base at a high clip, Kyle Schwarber is a great fit. Unfortunately, the way the Philadelphia Phillies have used him in the 2023 season have made him look less than stellar. So is Kyle Schwarber an above average baseball player? In a vacuum, no. He is less than capable in four of the five basic skills required to play baseball, and the one tool he does have simply does not cancel out the negatives in his game. With the context of the DH position and the evolution of the game however, it could be said that Schwarber is clearly an above-average MLB player. Hence the enigma of Phillies’ outfielder Kyle Schwarber.

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