Schwarber and Baez are mashing, but their approaches are more impressive than their numbers
Sure, the April numbers from the Cubs' young bats look good, but a look behind the stats is better
The Cubs beat the Indians, 10-3, on Tuesday night in Cleveland behind a pretty balanced offensive attack. They were without Kris Bryant after he was hit in the head on Sunday, but still pounded out 15 hits, including four doubles and four home runs. Two of those doubles came from still-fresh No. 2 hitter Javier Baez. Two of the homers came from Kyle Schwarber. Neither were cheap:
The Cubs have now won four of five, and it might not be a coincidence that this stretch started with manager Joe Maddon going with Albert Almora leadoff (even against righties) and Baez second. They've now hit 1-2 in five games and the team is, as noted, 4-1. Schwarber has been a big part of it as well.
Here are the lines for Baez and Schwarber as things stand.
Baez: .299/.365/.740, 7 2B, 3 3B, 7 HR, 24 RBI, 19 R
Schwarber: .302/.413/.635, 3 2B, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 14 R
It's very good to see those, but it's also April 24. We've seen players get off to hot starts before.
The good news for the Cubs is there are reasons to believe these two guys are en route to big step-forward seasons. It's not results-driven, though the results have been amazing, but it's in the approach.
No, I don't expect him to lead the league in slugging or RBI. He's probably not going to take a lot of walks. Knowing the latter makes slotting him in front of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras a pretty good idea. Pitchers aren't going to want to walk him and if he can lay off bad pitches, he's a tough out. In previous years, that's been the problem. Baez could be easily had on pitches outside the zone, especially breaking pitches low and away, and everyone knew it.
What's happening now is he's often laying off bad ones outside the zone and also fighting off pitchers' pitches on two strikes within the zone at times.
For example, in the first inning Tuesday, he fell behind 1-2, took a ball out of the zone, fouled off two pitches, took another ball and then shot a liner to opposite field for a double.
Later in the game, he fought off two more two-strike offerings before grounding out to second with runners on second and third. A productive out for an RBI instead of striking out.
He still swings at more pitches outside than zone than is comfortable, but he's cut down on it while making more contact on pitches outside the zone.
In all, Baez has struck out in 21.2 percent of the time this year, down from 28.3 last year. The league average, by the way, was 22.9 percent heading into the season. Yes, Baez has been above average at making contact this season. It's only April, but that's remarkable.
He's going the other way more, too, with over 25 percent of his balls in play being hit to right, up from 21.9 percent last season.
For those curious, Baez's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .308 against a career mark of .330. His batting average hasn't been driven at all by good fortune with finding the holes. In fact, he's hitting it harder than ever. His hard contact percentage before his two line-drive doubles on Tuesday was 40 percent. His previous career high in a season was 32.7.
More line drives. Fewer strikeouts. Chasing fewer bad pitches while making more contact when he does chase? The talent is evident. The approach has long been lacking. It hasn't been in 2018.
The concerns with Schwarber last year were too many strikeouts, getting too pull happy and trying to hit too many home runs. He did look a lot better after coming back from the minors, but there was reason for concern heading to this season, even with Schwarber's transformed body.
One word of caution is that the .333 BABIP doesn't bode well for Schwarber keeping that average around .300, however, I would say that some of that has been driven by hitting the other way against the shift. He's had several ground-ball singles to left field. If teams stay in the shift and he maintains the approach, it's entirely possible he can hit something like .290 on balls in play. After all, he pulled it 44.5 percent of the time last year and he was at 35 percent this season before pulling two bombs on Tuesday.
Still, bump Schwarber down to a .265-.270 average if you'd like. With his power and ability to draw walks (note the separation between his average and OBP right now), that'll more than play here.
As for that swing-and-miss problem, he's still below average, but it's workable. Especially for a slugger with his power. He's at 24 percent, down from 30.9 last season, and not too far below average. Like Baez, he's doing a much better job overall of laying off pitches outside the zone with two strikes. On the whole, he was swinging at pitches outside the strike zone 24.5 percent of the time entering Tuesday, down from 28.4 last year.
Use the eye test, too. Just watch 'em! On a regular basis, that is, if you want to have an informed opinion. Both of these players are approaching things at the plate different than the boom-or-bust mentality that seemed to infect them too often in the past, particularly Schwarber for the first half of last season. They are laying off far more pitchers' pitches with two strikes and spraying the field when the situation calls for it. If you didn't know their numbers, you'd assume by watching them day in and day out that they're showing massive improvement. And they are.
Yeah, it's early, but through 20 games -- roughly one-eighth of the season -- the Cubs might well have breakouts coming from Baez and Schwarber. Add that to the three sure things in the middle along with a possible Almora breakout (solving the leadoff problem), and the aforementioned boom-or-bust issue that was nearly team-wide last season would be left in the rearview mirror.
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