A couple of weeks ago, I examined the 2021 home run environment and concluded that despite the slightly deadened ball, this season’s home run rates are still among the highest we have on record. As part of that piece, I looked at the number of players who were on pace to hit 40-plus home runs, of which there were seven. One name that wasn’t on that list, though, was Kyle Schwarber, who has hit 16 home runs since June 12 and is now at 25 on the year. I want to take a closer look at his historic power surge and the adjustments he made to get to this spot.
Schwarber’s potential as a hitter has long been evident. You saw his plus hit tool in action when he improbably returned to the Cubs’ lineup during the 2016 World Series after having missed all of the regular season with a torn ACL — he reportedly prepared for his return by watching thousands of breaking pitches in the batting cages — and slashed .412/.500/.471. But while he was solidly above-average over the next three seasons, each year putting up a wOBA of .340 or better (and topping out at .372 in 2019), he crashed in 2020, putting up an anemic .188/.308/.393 triple slash and career-worst 91 wRC+ across 59 games. That got him non-tendered last winter, with the Nationals picking him up on a one-year, $10 million deal with a $10 million mutual option for 2022.
The results have been eye-popping. In D.C., he’s worked with Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long, who notably guided Daniel Murphy during his offensive breakthrough with the Mets, to change his swing mechanics into something tighter and better at capitalizing on Schwarber’s leg strength. Those changes were in the works well before the 2021 season started according to The Athletic’s Maria Torres, when Long visited Schwarber shortly after he signed with Washington. Mark DeRosa had an excellent breakdown of Schwarber’s swing and power on MLB Central a few days ago; you can see the swing comparison from last year beginning at 4:18:
The result is the best streak of Schwarber’s career:
It’s also an historic power surge. With another home run on Tuesday night against the Rays (and before he was held hitless on Wednesday), Schwarber hit 16 home runs in 18 games between June 12-29, tying a mark reached only four other times in MLB history:
Most Home Runs – 18 Game Stretch
|Name||Games||Span Start||Span End||HR||PA||H||BA||OBP||SLG||IBB||SO|
Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Kyle Schwarber; that’s the list.
Schwarber’s streak started on June 12, when Nationals manager Dave Martinez moved him to the leadoff spot. You will forgive me for not believing this move would work; I’ve seen this movie at least twice before. Schwarber hit leadoff for the Cubs to open the 2017 season but fell back down the batting order after hitting .182/.305/.351 in his first 38 games and was briefly demoted to Triple-A in late June. He also had a long stint at leadoff from May 16 to July 24 in 2019 but posted a rough .297 OBP (albeit with a .507 slugging percentage and 17 homers) in 259 plate appearances and spent the rest of the year hitting third or lower.
Schwarber’s third stint atop the lineup has been wildly different, and not just in terms of power. Let’s take a closer look at that 18-game stretch compared to his career and other leadoff stints to see if we can identify the key changes.
To start, he has seen more pitches in the zone leading off for the Nationals than he ever saw with the Cubs:
Kyle Schwarber Leadoff Zone %
|Dates||Pitch Info Zone %||Baseball Info Zone %|
There are multiple possible explanations for this. We know that pitchers are throwing more pitches in the zone, so it’s possible he is just reaping the benefits of that. It is also possible that batting ahead of hitters with good contact numbers has helped. In Chicago, Schwarber was followed in the lineup by Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Báez; of that trio, only Rizzo struck out less than 20% of his plate appearances, with both Bryant and Báez whiffing over 24% of the time. In Washington, Schwarber is batting ahead of Trea Turner (a 19.6% rate in 2021) and Juan Soto (15.6%). Cleanup hitter Josh Bell has been more Báez-esque in his plate discipline with a 24.6% strikeout rate, but at the very least, pitchers know that they can’t easily pitch around Schwarber and count on a strikeout if he reaches base.
Schwarber is also seeing a different mix of pitches this time around at the leadoff spot. I looked at the pitch mix Schwarber has seen both during his career and each of his extended periods at leadoff. He’s seeing fewer four-seam fastballs (more on that in a second) and curveballs during this stretch, with pitchers opting to throw the lefty more sliders and cutters this time around:
Kyle Schwarber Pitch Mix Career & Leadoff
He may be seeing fewer four-seamers during this stint, but he is absolutely demolishing the ones he is seeing. Eight of the 16 home runs he hit during that streak came off four-seamers, despite seeing 10% fewer of them during this run. The spike in sliders Schwarber is seeing is by design, as both his average and slugging this season are weakest against the pitch:
Kyle Schwarber Batting Average & Slugging by Pitch Type
|Pitch||2019 BA||2019 SLG||2021 BA||2021 SLG|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
On its face, it may look like Schwarber saw a less favorable pitch mix during this stretch. However, he’s also lowered his chase rate considerably over the last few weeks compared to both his previous time in the leadoff spot and his career. That increased patience has allowed him to lay off the pitches he struggles against and wait for a pitch he can do damage on instead:
Kyle Schwarber Chase & Zone Rates
One way to view the magnitude of these changes is in Schwarber’s Statcast data. I expected an increase in Schwarber’s average exit velocity, hard hit and barrel rates during this streak, but I was still a bit shocked to see a a 36% barrel rate between June 12-29. That number is likely unsustainable, but it’s still impressive at more than 2.5 times his career mark of 13.8%:
Kyle Schwarber’s Statcast Data Career & Leadoff
|Time Frame||Events||EV||Barrel %||Hard Hit %|
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
There is obviously a bit of small sample size magic in these numbers. After all, there is a reason only four 18-game stretches in the history of baseball have netted a slugger 16 home runs. The likeliest outcome is that this is just Schwarber riding a historic hot streak, like Stephen Strasburg’s second half in 2017 or the time Zach Britton was unhittable for a year. Schwarber has been a streaky player in the past, and we may just be witnessing a few weeks that will prove to be the peak of his career. But the reason this particular streak is so intriguing to me can be found in a 2017 Sports Illustrated piece where Theo Epstein compared him to a legendary Red Sox hitter: David Ortiz. Maybe like Ortiz, it took a non-tender for Schwarber to level up.