Chicago Cubs: Kyle Schwarber’s exit should signal change in direction

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 1: Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs throws off his bating helmet after striking out in the first inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 1, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Cubs won 7-1. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 1: Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs throws off his bating helmet after striking out in the first inning during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on September 1, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Cubs won 7-1. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images) /
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Kyle Schwarber gave the Chicago Cubs too little contact, so he needed to go

Here’s hoping Chicago Cubs president Jed Hoyer’s decision not to tender an arbitration offer to Kyle Schwarber is a sign of the new Cubs leadership’s determination to recast the team’s approach to offense.

Schwarber was in many ways the personification of the team’s approach to offense, which relied on the value of the “Three True Outcomes” school of team-building. Since 2018, 44.8 percent of Schwarber’s plate appearances have ended in one of the True Outcomes, 26 percent by strikeout, 13.2 percent by base on balls, and 5.6 percent by home run.

The Cubs have tacitly, and maybe overtly, favored that sort of approach, although possibly not to the extreme Schwarber carried it out. Over the same time span, 35.6 percent of Cub plate appearances ended in one of the True Outcomes, 23 percent by whiff, 9.4 percent by walk, and 3.4 percent by home run.

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MLB averages over the same period are uniformly lower: 22.7 percent by strikeout, 8.1 percent by base on balls, and 3.3 percent by home run. The Cubs, in other words, have consistently been a True Outcomes-based team, and Schwarber has been decidedly a True Outcomes player.

But as front offices have begun to question the value of the True Outcomes approach to offense, Schwarber’s skill set has been assessed less favorably. Both esoterically and as a matter of functionality, there are both esoteric and functional reasons for questioning the True Outcomes approach.

The esoteric reasons were expressed succinctly by that eminent baseball philosopher, Crash Davis, in Bull Durham. Strikeouts, he famously noted, are both fascist and boring. Strikeouts happen to be the cornerstone of the True Outcomes, amounting to nearly two-thirds of all such events. That makes them a big deal.

Beyond the esoterics of making the game more interesting, there is also a functional reason why clubs are looking askance at players such as Schwarber whose offensive game sacrifices science for power.

Over the past three seasons, the Chicago Cubs offense required about 1.77 base hits to produce a run. By the standards of successful teams, that’s inefficient. Since 2017, the eight teams that played in the Fall Classic averaged about 1.69 hits per run. Apply that seemingly small difference to the Chicago offense and you generate an additional dozen runs, potentially a huge difference in run-scoring ability. In a post-season contest between closely matched teams, that run-production flexibility can be pivotal.

For proof, the Cubs need to look no farther back than their 2020 post-season series with the Miami Marlins. In that two-game Miami sweep, the Cubs were the definition of a Three True Outcomes team, producing just one run, that on a solo homer. The Marlins generated seven runs, four growing out of singles.

GMs may also be questioning the validity of the Three True Outcomes approach, founded as it is on the premise that the outcomes of balls put into play are, to some significant degree, accidents. If accepted at face value, that premise would reduce the consistency with which low-power but high-contact guys such as Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, and Rod Carew generated hits year after year to something approaching amazingly good luck.

For the record, all three of those Hall of Famers had Three True Outcomes rates between 10 and 20 percent, astonishingly low by present standards.

The Chicago Cubs’ offense was going no place with a mid-order slugger striking out more than a quarter of the time. That’s why they released Schwarber. But that only represents the start of a solution to Hoyer’s no-contact problem.

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Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Ian Happ all had strikeout rates in excess of Schwarber in 2020. That doesn’t mean those players need to go as well. But it does mean that the team’s offense approach requires a significant shift in the direction of putting the ball in play. That, in turn, requires that trio to make the adaptation.