Valuing Kyle Schwarber
Baseball can be such a buzz kill sometimes. Look, injuries happen, we get it. But still, knowing that “it’s part of the game” doesn’t help when guys go down. It’s especially tough when a budding star suffers an injury during their ascent to the upper echelon of the league. Suddenly the questions shift from in-game adjustments, prime potential, and maximizing tools to whether the player can come back and get to be a facsimile of his former self. It’s depressing sometimes. Such is the case with Chicago Cubs power monster Kyle Schwarber. In dynasty leagues, owners will have to pick up the pieces and answer tough questions themselves. In addition to questioning what Schwarber’s production will look like upon return, they will also need to think about where Schwarber will play and how he will stack up compared to those at his position. Seriously, baseball can be such a buzz kill.
Schwarber was taken fourth overall by the Cubs in the 2014 draft, out of Indiana University (this detail has no bearing on the rest of the story, except to shout out the Hoosiers). The pick was immediately met with raised eyebrows, and yep, you guessed it, more questions. Schwarber donned the gear in college, but most scouts had reservations about his ability to stay behind the plate in the big leagues. In his first stint as a pro, he laid many of these concerns to rest. Well to be fair, there were still doubts about his defensive position, but he hit the bejeezus out of the ball, so those doubts seemed less important. While Kris Bryant received most of the accolades as the golden boy of the Cubs’ organization (and for good reason, have you seen those eyes?), Schwarber dropped a line of .344/.428/.634 across three levels in 2014, chipping in 18 homers in 311 plate appearances for good measure.
After a stellar start to the 2015 season, where Schwarber hit .323 with a 1.021 OPS in Double and Triple A, he made his big league debut on June 16, only six days after the one year anniversary of his signing. He was impressive in his big league debut, hitting 16 bombs in his first 273 plate appearances. There is some swing and miss in his game, as he struck out nearly 30 percent of the time, but he also walked at a 13.2 percent clip, which is well above average. The strikeouts contributed to a mediocre .249 batting average, but the walk rate carried Schwarber to a .355 OBP, and in turn he picked up 52 runs in about half a season’s work. His .241 ISO, .364 wOBA, and 131 wRC+ were not only impressive for a rookie, but were well above average for the entire league. Schwarber’s meteoric rise through the North Siders’ system was capped by a breathtaking postseason performance where his mammoth long balls (five in total) helped the Cubs get to the NLCS.
For us fantasy degenerates, he tallied 21 games at catcher, meaning that he would be eligible behind the dish in most league formats for 2016. Further, to keep his bat in the lineup as much as possible, the Cubs maintained that Schwarber would continue to make spot starts behind the plate, in addition to spending time in left field. This was music to fantasy owners’ ears. Schwarber in the outfield is good. Schwarber with catching eligibility is better.
Entering the 2016 season, our dynasty overlord had Schwarber ranked as the number two dynasty catcher in all of the land. Things were good. Then, it happened. It looked like two cartoon characters fighting, where you can only see a cloud of smoke and arms and legs. Schwarber collided with Dexter Fowler, resulting in a torn ACL and LCL. He is expected to miss the rest of the 2016 campaign. So what’s next? How should Schwarber be viewed moving forward? He made both of his 2016 starts in left field, so it’s unlikely (depending on your league’s rules) that he will carry catcher eligibility in 2017. Even then, extensive knee surgery could whittle down his innings behind the plate even more.
Schwarber just turned 23 years old, so it’s obviously way too early to write him off. Guys come back from ACL injuries all the time now thanks to the wonders of modern medicine (see: Stroman, Marcus). It would, however make sense to value him moving forward as an outfield only guy. It would be icing on the cake if he reclaims catcher eligibility at some point down the road, but at this point, it would be hard to bank on that happening.
Before the 2016 campaign, PECOTA projected only a modest batting average improvement for Schwarber (.253), but also foresaw massive jumps in counting stats, 31 homers, 81 runs, and 91 RBI. Now, many of these numbers are connected to the Cubs’ insane offense, but PECOTA believed that Schwarber was about to break out. Again. In addition, according to NFBC average draft position data, he was the twelfth outfielder off the board, the 37th player overall. Now, these numbers are definitely skewed a little, since most likely he was being taken as a catcher and would have more value in such a shallow position.
Moving forward, presuming health (as much as it’s possible), Schwarber will still be super valuable. A 24-year-old with power and, barring any unforeseen trades, a great lineup surrounding him, should produce enough to be considered in the upper echelon of fantasy assets. A spot in the back half of the top 20 isn’t out of the question, slotting him in with names like Jason Heyward, Lorenzo Cain, Adam Jones, Christian Yelich and Gregory Polanco.
There’s even some room for upside with that ranking. Thus far in 2016 (yes, super super small sample, but interesting to look at), Schwarber had made improvements in his plate discipline, swinging at fewer pitches. Not only did he swing at fewer pitches in total, his numbers on pitches outside the zone dropped by six percent, which could help with strikeout rates, and in turn batting average. If these small adjustments are actual improvements in his swing profile, his numbers, along with the prodigious power could improve enough to bump him up a few spots in dynasty rankings to that Chris Davis, Jose Bautista, Byron Buxton level.
There’s inherent risk in all dynasty acquisitions. So many factors can come into play that can swing the balance of a deal on a year-to-year basis. Trading injured starts presents a whole other problem in itself. On one hand, if you’re selling, you’re selling low. On the other, if you’re buying, it’s possible to make a bet on the bounceback and enjoy a tidy profit. With Schwarber, it’s a bet that I would probably make, especially if your team is in rebuilding mode. This season could be the last time to get Schwarber at a decent price. If you do, I’d pounce.