What — or who — is Kyle Schwarber at this point in his career?

Tony Andracki
NBC Sports Chicago

As Kyle Schwarber closes in on 1,500 career at-bats, who - or what - is he as a baseball player?

That question is very complex and has more layers than Shrek.

We discussed the very topic on the latest CubsTalk Podcast:

There's the Legend of Schwarber - a series of stories that have become larger than life.

His 11th career big-league contest will forever be known as "The Schwarber Game" when he played the hero in a 13-inning win over the Reds in Cincinnati. Then there's the 2015 postseason, when he became the new franchise leader in postseason dingers when he hit 5 against the Pirates, Cardinals and Mets after playing in only 69 regular season MLB games prior to that October. No Cubs fan will ever forget Schwarber's epic, Hollywood-esque return from a devastating knee injury to DH in the World Series and give his team a lift to help end a 108-year championship drought. 

Between all that plus the mammoth homers - including smashing car windshields in spring training - and his likeable and fiery personality, "America's Large Adult Son" has become one of the more recognizable names in the game, despite the fact he hasn't quite put it all together yet in the big leagues.

Sure, Schwarber became a member of the 30-homer club in 2017 and looks to be on track for the same again this season. But most people would've expected a higher career batting average (.229) and OPS (.810) as he approaches 1,750 career plate appearances.

Theo Epstein always says progress isn't linear when it comes to player development and Schwarber may be the poster boy for that statement. 

He's in his fifth big-league season and is 26 now, but between of the lost year of development (2016), the position change from part-time catcher to full-time outfielder, platoons and a couple attempts to turn him into the team's long-term answer at leadoff, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Schwarber. The brief demotion back to Triple-A in the middle of 2017 underscores that fact.

The left-handed slugger came into this season as a huge wild-card for this team, with many predicting he'd finally put it all together and take that step forward.

Yet his 2019 stat line is almost identical to his career line:

2019: .229/.324/.487 (.812 OPS)
Career: .229/.335/.474 (.810 OPS)

So is this who Schwarber is as a player? Is this what we should expect from him each year moving forward?

In short: Probably not. 

The numbers don't lie, but there is plenty of room for optimism.

Schwarber's strikeout rate is down to a career-best mark (25.3 percent) while his walks remain solid. He's going to the opposite field more than ever, pulling it less often and hitting the ball as hard as he ever has (his soft-contact rate is down to just 13 percent, his hard-hit percentage has soared to 50.5 and his average exit velocity is a career high 92.6 mph). 

There's also a degree of bad luck to Schwarber's game this season. As NBC Sports Chicago stat guru Chris Kamka has noted, he is squaring up a lot of balls without the level of production expected:

Of players with at least 100 batted balls of 95+ mph, Schwarber's .475 batting average on those ranks 123rd out of 133. The MLB average on such batted balls is .541.

Based on his batted ball profile, his expected batting average is .254 and he ranks 8th in MLB this season in average exit velocity.

Here's more context on Schwarber's big-league career to date (courtesy of Kamka):

-From 2015-present, he ranks 14th in MLB in walk rate (13.2 percent) among players with at least 1,500 plate appearances.

-If he hits a home run over his next 34 games, he will have the fewest career games to 100 homers among all players to debut with the Cubs. (Kris Bryant currently leads that list and it took him 487 games to hit 100 dingers.)

-Schwarber already ranks No. 10 in homers among all MLB players drafted No. 4 overall.

As Kamka said on the podcast: "The expectations of Kyle Schwarber outweigh what he is as a player."

To this point in his career, it's fair to classify Schwarber as a guy with untapped potential. 

That potential hasn't gone anywhere and there are plenty of signs to point to indicating Schwarber can still emerge as that dangerous hitter. But that will depend on his consistency and cutting down on the roller coaster production (hot streaks followed by prolonged cold streaks, etc.) like any young player.

Schwarber also has to continue to improve with situational/opportunity hitting. Over the last three seasons, he's mashed 83 homers and driven in 181 runs, but 69 percent of his RBI have come off the longball. Since the start of 2017, he is hitting just .181 with a .716 OPS with runners in scoring position.

So as the Cubs continue to find a way to draw the most production out of this roster, is it still possible the team would cut ties with Schwarber and trade him over the winter?

That seems awfully unlikely, as NBC's Doug Glanville shared a great story of a conversation he had with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts earlier this year:

"Let me just tell you something - it's more likely Theo Epstein would adopt Kyle Schwarber than he would trade him."

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