Chicago Cubs: Kyle Schwarber needs to step it up this season

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Repeatedly, we’ve heard if the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber can just double up on his 2017 second half, he’ll be extremely valuable. But is that good enough?

I always prefer separating fact from spin. Thus I never thought Coke Zero Sugar contained real sugar. I don’t vote based on memes or Facebook news feeds. And when it comes to the  , please don’t repeat that paper-thin team line that we should all feel buoyed by Kyle Schwarber’s quality second half last year.

We all want the best for Kid Carb-less, but here’s my surprising conclusion. Based solely on second halves, it’s quite a coin toss who’ll be more valuable in 2018 – Schwarber or Jason Heyward.

I know, I know. I hear the shrieks already, especially from fans with dogs already named Schwarber. You idiot! Don’t you know Schwarber rocks the baddest chin beard since King Tut?! The dude cool-sculpted 20 pounds off his body! And Heyward’s $164 million contract makes him deader weight than concrete shoes fitted by the Mob!

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Regarding Heyward’s salary, let me be clear. By value, I don’t mean contract value. I mirror Theo Epstein’s attitude on guaranteed contracts: once signed, they are a sunk costs best ignored until over or moved. Thus here, I focus solely on on-the-field value.

I also throw out Heyward and Schwarber’s 2017 WARs, which Baseball Reference lists as 2.3 and 0.0, respectively.

Why? First, too many aberrations haunt the stat to make definitive single-year comparisons shaky. (See the 3.0 WAR posted by 1990 AL Cy Young winner Bob Welch and the 1.2 by near 1995 Triple Crown winner Dante Bichette.)

Second, Schwarber’s first-half slash line was so awful (.178/.300/.394) to skew any full-season comparison of his real ability and value. Fortunately, both players had superior second halves. So it seems far fairer to compare those stats side-by-side:

Player            PA        R      H     2B   3B   HR   RBI    SO     BA      OBP     SLG     OPS
Schwarber   209     34    47     4      1     17    30     72    .253    .335    .559    .894
Heyward      247     35    58      9      2     5      28     32    .265    .339    .393    .731

Clearly, Schwarber’s main advantage was homers, but their value was diluted by two-thirds coming solo. This explains why his second-half run creation (RBIs + Runs – HRs) lagged behind Heyward’s (47 to 58), even after adjusting for Heyward’s plate appearance advantage (56 to 58).

Then once Heyward’s Gold Glove contributions are factored in, it’s a hard case to make Schwarber provided more second-half value than Heyward. But to be kind to Schwarber fans, let’s call it a coin flip at best.

So what about 2017 playoff performances? Unfortunately, neither player hit well. In 20 plate appearances, Schwarber reached base one more time (6) than Heyward. This included a solo homer. However, Schwarber’s two errors in left field in Game 3 against the Nationals balance this out by nearly giving them the series lead.

Let’s call that a push as well.

Our last comparative is quite unorthodox but equally interesting: playoff playing time. Though admittedly very un-sabermetric, playoff playing time can provide an interesting rubber-meets-the-road value tie-breaker. After all come playoffs, most managers throw every other criteria out – veteran status, sensitive egos, player development goals – except what gives the best chance for victory.

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Now managers can and do err in their strategic deployment of playoff personnel. (See Maddon’s playoff handling of starting pitchers.) But when it comes to optimizing lineups and defensive combinations, Maddon is the acknowledged master. So his estimation of a position player’s value via playoff playing time is hardly an arbitrary measure.

But here again, we find a near dead heat between Heyward and Schwarber. Both started six of the Cubs’ 10 playoff games, with Schwarber appearing once more as a pinch hitter and Heyward twice more as a defensive replacement. This gave Heyward a slight edge in innings played (55 to 49) and one more plate appearance (21 to 20).

Bottomline: In no way was Schwarber’s second half more valuable than Heyward’s. Wait, how could that be? Didn’t we hear all winter how well Schwarber rebounded in the second half? How if only he could put together two such halves in 2018, would he justify all of our optimism?

Well, this examination suggests Schwarber will need to significantly improve on his 2017 second half. Because if he merely doubles up on last year’s second-half stats, he’ll be no more valuable than the 2017 version of Heyward.

Right now, many Schwarber fans are saying his great spring training (1.129 OPS) surely augurs well for the regular season. But such tea leaf reading overlooks Schwarber also thrilled with a .997 OPS last spring.

So what is Schwarber destined to be this year? We all hope the “real Schwarber” is closer to his 2015 and 2016 playoff versions. We also hope Schwarber’s smaller waist line shrinks his strike zone and lowers that 35% second-half K rate.

Next: Baez not hurt

But I’m a WYSIWYG guy and prefer proof over hope. Not until the games start for real will we get our first real hints. Until then, let’s all hedge our bets by not naming any more Wrigleyville puppies after him.